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Signed, Sealed… September 29, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.
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(“Shana Tovah U’Metukah!” to anyone who is observing the High Holidays. May your name be written and sealed in the Book of Life.)

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be born?
Who will live and who will die?”

– quoted from the poem “Unetaneh Tokef” (“Let Us Speak of the Awesomeness”)

It occurred to me today (Monday) that each of the Abrahamic religions has a day on their calendars that is described as “one of the holiest days” or “the holiest day” of the year. Each of these days is observed with solemnity and yet each is also described as joyous. There is at least one final element (although you could call it two) that these three days have in common. But, before we reach that final element, consider the dichotomy of the first two elements: solemnity and joyous. From the outside looking in, it seems strange: how can these two things go together? From the outside looking in there is a clear disconnect; however, when you go deeper the connection becomes very clearer.

Last night (Sunday) at sunset marked the beginning of Yom Kippur, “the Day of Atonement,” which is the last of the “Ten Days of Awe” or “Ten Days of Atonement” that make up the High Holidays. The ten days are considered the holiest of days, but it is this final day that is considered the holiest. It is a day when people within the Jewish community fast, refrain from bathing and using oils or lotions, and also avoid wearing leather shoes. People will spend the day praying, reflecting, and repenting. As Teshuvah (or Tchuvah) is still the focal point, it makes sense that the ritual of the Yom Kippur service is serious. After all, who has fun admitting they did something wrong and asking for forgiveness? The service includes a communal opportunity to confess (and take responsibility for one’s actions); identify the cause of inflictions (in order to plan a way to stop making the mistake); and an absolution or forgiveness of sins/transgressions.

“‘When you make a vow to the Lord, your G-d, you shall not delay in paying it, for the Lord, your G-d, will demand it of you, and it will be [counted as] a sin for you.

But if you shall refrain from making vows, you will have no sin.

Observe and do what is emitted from your lips just as you have pledged to the Lord, your G-d, as a donation, which you have spoken with your mouth.’”

Devarim – Deuteronomy (23:22 – 24)

In Judaism, a vow is restriction, a limitation. We don’t always look at vows that way in a secular sense, but it is also true (outside of Judaism) that any oath, precept, or vow someone takes curtails or inhibits their behavior. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Consider how marriage vows and taking an oath for a government office establish certain expectations. Consider how the yamās in the yoga philosophy are “external restraints” as well as universal commandments and how they establish a code of conduct. Consider also, however, that similar to legal prohibitions, we may find ourselves breaking the restraints under the guise of wanting more freedom. The only problem is that sometimes, in the process of “living without limits,” we hurt ourselves or others. We break trust and then we need a way to heal.

Kol Nidrei is a prayer chanted by the hazzan (“cantor”) three times. It essentially states, “Every vow and bond (or self-imposed prohibition), every oath, every promise, every obligation or every renunciation” made between the current Yom Kippur and the next will be cancelled, absolved, considered null and void – as if they never existed. Each time is a little louder than the previous times. So that what begins as a whisper ends in almost a shout. Think about a child or someone who is deeply ashamed of something they have done; there is a hesitancy the first time they speak and ask for forgiveness and then, eventually, there is a confidence in the rightness of their action (related to repentance).

Another part of the service is Al Chet (“for the sin”). While it is only recited during Yom Kippur; it is recited nine to ten times (depending on tradition) during the Yom Kippur service. Al Chet is a list of all the different ways in which one can/might/will sin throughout the year, starting with “For the sin which we have committed before You under duress or willingly” and ending with a summary that covers everything one may have been forgotten (or not even have known). Each grouping of transgressions is divided by the words, “For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.” And, finally, it states that no one else can forgive and pardon [everything].

No, these prayers are not a “Get out of jail free” card that allows people to run around all year lying and breaking promises. Neither are they the spiritual equivalent of crossing your fingers behind your back. There’s no glee that you’re going to be able to get away with something. And, no, if you’re wondering, none of this is chanted or sung in a way that makes you want to jump out of your seat and dance. Yet, Yom Kippur is considered a joyous occasion. Why?

“To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

 

– quoted from “An Essay on Criticism” (line 525) by Alexander Pope

Consider, for a moment, that we all make mistakes. We all stumble, fall, sin, hurt ourselves and others. But, how great is it to get a second chance! How great is it to get up and get moving, to have a fresh start and a new lease on life. In the Jewish community, Yom Kippur is a joyous day, because it is day committed to realigning one’s life and to renewing one’s relationship with G-d. That is the ultimate return/turn (i.e., teshuvah), the turning towards G-d and turning towards one’s true self. It is an opportunity to recognize, “here is where I went wrong and here, right here, is how I get back on track.”

To me, “Good Friday” is a comparable day in the Christian tradition. And, as I’ve mentioned before, it can be considered really weird to think of someone being tried, tortured, and crucified as “good.” Remember, however, that the Old Testament definition of “good” is that something is meaningful and serves its purpose. The purpose of the crucifixion, in Christianity, is the absolution of sin – and Christians who observe the Lenten season and the Easter do so in order to retain or reconnect to G-d.

Have you noticed the common denominators? First there is a desire to be connected to the Divine and then there is the recognition that we (as humans) make mistakes which could keep us separated – except for the fact that these days and the rituals associated with them provide a way restore, reconnect, return to that desired connection.

“Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah [return and prayer and righteous acts]
deflect the evil of the decree.”

– quoted from the poem “Unetaneh Tokef” (“Let Us Speak of the Awesomeness”)

Just as is the case with mundane relationships, maintaining a spiritual or sacred relationship requires sacrifice and compromise (i.e., submitting to another’s will). This is highlighted in the third holiday I referenced: Eid al-Adha, “the Feast of the Sacrifice.”

In Islām, each day of fasting during the month of Ramadān concludes with a communal breaking of the fast. At the end of the month, there is a celebration in the form of Eid al-Fitr, the “Festival of the Breaking of the Fast.” Then, even quicker than Sukkot comes on the heels of Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition, Muslims observe Eid al-Adha, which is the “Feast of the Sacrifice.” Eid al-Adha is observed in recognition of Ibrahim (Abraham) being willing to sacrifice his son Ishmael. While it is easy to see how one would celebrate the end of a month of fasting and how that is considered holy, it is this second Eid that is considered the holiest of the two. Again, from the outside it seems weird to celebrate someone’s willingness to kill their own child. (Spoiler Alert: He doesn’t actually do it.) However, it is his willingness that is the focus here. Ibrahim (Abraham) being willing to submit to G-d’s authority, as well as the Divine intervention that provides an alternative for the sacrifice, is what is celebrated.

Even though there are some differences (and more similarities than what I’ve mentioned), all three holidays focus on Divine mercy and that very real, very human desire to be part of something bigger than our individual selves. People want a deeper connection to their true/best self, to their community, and some people also want a deeper connection to G-d. Again, the desire for connection is a human desire, even felt by people outside of these faiths and traditions.  And whether we are inside or outside of a faith, community, and/or tradition there will be times when we will make mistakes, break trust, and hurt those with whom we desire closeness. It doesn’t feel good to acknowledge we’ve made a mistake and hurt someone (even ourselves). Neither does it feel good to humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness. Consider, however, how great it feels to know that you love and are loved in a way that allows you to move beyond the mistakes, beyond the betrayals, and move towards healing.

“I cannot argue with their concern that this world has a lot of problems. I cannot argue with the reality that children born into this world will face significant challenges, many of which I cannot even imagine. But our Jewish tradition doesn’t give us the option of deciding that we should end this world because it is just too messed up. Our Jewish tradition simply, incessantly, commands us to better it…..

Of course, I could have simply begun this sermon with the terms that are listed in this morning’s Torah reading. Torah teaches this clearly. Its first verse that insists that everyone be included in the covenant even those with no voice and then it concludes by teaching us that choosing to act in accordance with God’s sense of justice and good will is the choice that leads to life. Because we are not truly alive when we act as if there is no hope for our world. Because we are not truly alive when others are limited in their ways of living. Because we are not truly alive when suffering occurs that our very own hands could have prevented. Because we are not truly alive when our hands do not act as though they were linked with the hand of God in partnership and we repair the world together.”

– quoted from an untitled 5765 (2004) Yom Kippur sermon by Rabbi Julie Schwartz (Temple Emanu-El, Georgia)

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