Wisdom from our spiritual brothers and sisters
By Reverend Paula Norbert
This past week, our Jewish brothers and sisters observed the holy day of Yom Kippur. Along with Rosh Hashanah, the two days mark the high holy days for those in the Jewish community. Rosh Hashanah marks the New Year and Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement. As Christians, we are part of a Judeo-Christian tradition that dates back to before the time of Moses and many of our traditions have evolved from the spirituality and practices of the Jewish people, for we know that Jesus was Jewish and practiced that faith along with his followers. For us, the period of Lent into Easter marks the time within the Christian community when we are meant to observe a time of prayer, fasting and repentance. Each of the major religions includes similar practices as a way to remind each of us of how God wants us to live personally and communally according to God’s teachings. Let us pray this morning, O Holy One of many names, we call upon you to help us to deepen our spiritual ways, to return to you and to one another in a spirit of reconciliation and lasting peace. This we ask in the name of the One who came to teach us your hopes for us and for all humanity. Amen.
There’s an old Hasidic story, attributed to the great master, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk. It’s the day before Yom Kippur, and the hassidim come to rabbi Elimelech and ask him how he prepares for the most holy of days. “Tell you the truth,” says the old rabbi, “I don’t know how to do it. But Moishele? The shoemaker? He knows how to do it. Go ask him.” So the hassidim walk over to Moishele’s house, and they peek in through the window, and they see this simple man sitting around his simple wooden table eating dinner. And when he’s done he calls out to his children “the great moment is here! Bring out the books.” And the children return with two books, one very small and the other very large and bound in expensive leather. Moishele, looking up, begins to speak. “Dear God, master of the world,” he says, “it’s me, Moishele, the shoemaker. God, I want to read you something.” And Moishele takes the small book and opens it up. “God,” he continues, “I want to read you a list of my sins.” And he reads on from the book: “I’ve yelled at my wife. I’ve been impatient with my children. I’ve charged a bit too much for shoes sometimes. I kept a scrap of material for myself instead of giving it to the customer who paid for it. I think you’ll agree, God, these are all pretty petty sins.” Moishele closes the small book and picks up the large one. “And now, God,” he says, “now, let me read to you a list of your sins: a mother of nine dies and leaves all of her small children orphans? A famine forces entire families to forage for their food like animals? A war takes thousands of innocent lives? These are major crimes, God, very major crimes.” And with that, Moishele looks solemnly to the heavens. “But I’ll tell you what, God,” he says, “this year, if you forgive me my sins, I’ll forgive you yours.” The hassidim are elated! They run back to reb Elimelech and they tell him all about Moishele’s wisdom. But hearing the story, Elimelech starts to cry. “What’s the matter?” the hassidim ask, and the rebbe looks at them with his eyes all swollen. “Don’t you get it?” he says. “Moishele had God in the palm of his hand! He should’ve said, ‘No, God, I won’t forgive you! I won’t forgive you until you redeem the entire world.’”
In light of the Jewish High Holy Days, I thought it would be helpful for us to enrich our spirituality by hearing more about some of the ways in which our neighbors and friends understand this time in the Jewish calendar. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld writes, “Yom Kippur is meant to convey a sense of urgency, to communicate to us, unambiguously, the opportunity that each of us has, during our brief lives, to carry out the terms of God’s contract with humankind as laid out in the Torah. Every contract has a purpose. The central purpose of our contract with God is to create a just and caring society.”
Yom Kippur is marked each year with a time of reflection on one’s sins, fasting and prayer. It signals the end of the 10 days of repentance, which begins after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Each year, those observing the holiday are invited to reflect on their sins and transgressions of the past year and to ask for forgiveness. It is not customary to wish someone a “happy Yom Kippur.” For those who have friends observing the holiday and who want to acknowledge the holy day, it’s better to wish them a good, easy or meaningful fast, which is done from sundown to sundown on Yom Kippur.
Some of you may know that this holiday is connected to the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. After God freed them from the slavery that they had endured in Egypt, the community sinned by worshipping a golden calf. We remember that Moses, who on Mount Sinai learned the law from God, the Ten Commandments, returned to his people with the tablets they were carved on. When Moses saw the golden calf, he became enraged and burned the idol his people had turned to in his absence. He then returned to the top of the mountain to ask forgiveness from God.
Moses received that forgiveness on the 10th day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, and then he descended from the mountain. From then on, the 10th day of Tishrei has been known as Yom Kippur. For nearly 26 hours from sundown until sundown the following day, Jews observing the holiday abstain from food and drink, as a means of self-deprivation and compassion. Yom Kippur is largely spent in synagogue, where there are five prayer services,
Although Yom Kippur is a sacred holy day, it’s also spent enjoying the company of family and friends. After services—which is often a happy time because a meal is imminent—people return home or venture to a friend’s or family’s home to break the fast together. While this is a somber feast day, it also is an important reminder that God grants redemption to those who seek it. (Jenni Fink, Newsweek, October 2019)
Rabbi Paul Kipnes shared some reflections on Yom Kippur and its meaning for his community. There is a haunting prayer that is recited during the High Holy Days called the Unetaneh Tokef, which opens with these lines: “On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is Sealed… Who shall live and who shall die. “ He understood these words to serve as what he calls “a cosmic wakeup call: God reminds us that “stuff” happens. The words of this prayer force us to face this reality and to decide: how are we going to respond? The prayer offers three responses to the severity of life’s decree of misfortune, pain and death. We may reach around (teshuva- or through repentance – by fixing our relationships with those around us), reach inward (t’filah- or through prayer – by finding our center and the truth within), and reach up (tzedakah- or through charitable giving – by lifting up others we lift ourselves). This holy day, the text of this prayer, serves as a Divine wake-up call, he says. “Like a sledgehammer, this High Holy Day comes to break down the walls of naivety and denial that keep us from accepting a simple truth: that between this year and next, so many will live but many will die. Some will experience success: others failure. So many will encounter the unpredictability and pain of life. We are left to discover how we keep ourselves from becoming angry, embittered, and crotchety, from giving up?” (Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Sept 2013)
As I read his words, and the understanding of those days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, they reminded me of this period of the past year and more in which we have all found ourselves. Like a sledgehammer, life changed suddenly and it has been a wake up call. We had to quickly change so much about our individual and communal lives and during this time, so much has happened. In the Jewish faith, they believe that the in the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashana, the words are written as to the fate of each person, the fate of life and death for the coming year, and thus during the days of atonement and reflection, each person of faith is invited to make amends and to ask forgiveness…to seek reconciliation with God, with others and ourselves. I love the language he uses to reach around, reach inward and reach up. It is on the day of Yom Kippur that each person’s fate is sealed and so it is important to make amends and seek reconciliation so that each person will be in right relationship with others and with the One who created us.
They teach that the time has come, now, immediately; there should be no delay, like a sledgehammer, as he says, this reality comes crashing down into our lives. It is an important and unavoidable reminder. The time is now. This idea of the suddenness of transitions may resonate with those whose lives have been changed in an instant through a diagnosis, through a sudden death, a breakup, a sudden job loss…whatever it is. I’m sure we have each experienced some moment like this in our lives. And, we consider how many have been lost in such stunning numbers from this pandemic over the past year, so many who never expected life would change in an instant. We go from life as we knew it to a new and unwelcome reality in a matter of moments.
The question is how we make sense of what life throws at us. How do we not become ‘angry, embittered and crotchety,’ in his words? The antidote, of course, for all people of faith, is to seek meaning and purpose in such times, to do what we can to invite God into these unbearable moments to accompany us. For Rabbi Kipnes, the prescription is to reach around and mend relationships, reach inward through prayer and reach up by extending compassion and care to others.
Perhaps you have been following these practices in your life over these many months, seeking to deepen your spirituality, connect or re-connect to others and to offer hope to those in need? Or perhaps someone has reached out to you, knowing that you need support or a lift? We are all on a journey and there is great wisdom to be had for those who seek ways to move forward in the healthiest, holiest way possible.
As I close, I’d like to invite us to join our brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith in a prayer for Yom Kippur that may serve to inspire us in the days ahead. The writer invites the community to change ourselves and our world, writing, On Yom Kippur, as we slowly name the list of our regrets and misdeeds, let us designate our bodies as vehicles
for change. Upright, alert, and physically engaged, with each
gentle beat upon our breast we charge every fiber of our being
to do its work to enable us to build a more just world for the
year to come. “ We pray that…
Our hearts will open to the suffering we see around the world
Our minds will expand to learn about the causes of poverty
and seek solutions
Our mouths will speak out against inequity and educate others
Our hands will embrace others, creating a human bond and
lifting up the oppressed
Our arms will labor to build community and pursue change
Our feet will run to take action, refusing to remain still in the
face of injustice.
Let our prayers this High Holiday season be an accounting
of our potential. Let our chanting be a catalyst for the
transformation that we hope to achieve in the year to come.
With each prayer we commit our bodies to teshuvah—a
personal and global pursuit of justice”””