Monday, September 24, 2007

The Rabbi's Sermon and Blessing OR The Most Beautiful Yom Kippur Ever

Our Yom Kippur was a beautiful day. It was a warm and sunny fall day. The leaves are just beginning to turn in Albuquerque, although the Bosque is still green, but we can sense the season to come in the turning of the first leaves.

One of the highlights of the day for me, is the morning service. There are so many memories bound up in that service for me. We sing "Shachar Avacheshka," which is "Early will I seek You..." and it is one the few congregational hymns still done in the old Reform, Germanic style. Even the English words reflect the heritage of Classical Reform:

"Early will I seek You, G-d, my refuge strong.
Late prepare to meet You, with my evening song.
Though unto Your greatness, I with trembling soar,
Yet in my inmost thinking, lies Your eyes before.

What this frail heart's dreaming, and my tongue's poor speech,
Can they even distant to Your greatness reach?
Being great in mercy, You will not despise,
Praises which 'til death's hour, from my soul shall rise."

The theme of the morning service is that of the Day of Decision. Yom Kippur is the day when the metaphorical gates of heaven are open to all who seek to enter with a humble heart. The normal morning prayers, the Shema (Hear, O Israel!) and her blessings, the Amidah (standing prayer) and the K'dusha (G-d's Holiness), are supplemented with reminders that the House of Israel is called to holiness, and that we are unable to do this awesome work alone. We read the Viddui--the confession--silently and then together, as a congregation. We ask earnestly for G-d's great help in our desire to come nearer to holiness. The Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning is Nitzavim--You Stand--taken from D'varim (Deuteronomy):

"You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai, your G-d--the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, every one in Israel, men, women, and children, and the strangers in your your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water--to enter into the sworn covenant which Adonai your G-d makes with you this day...And it is not with you alone that I make this covenant: I make it with those who are standing here with us today before Adonai your G-d, and with all who are not here with us this day...For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor far away. It is not in heaven that you should say: 'Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it down for us, that we may do it?'...No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and on your heart, that you may do it...I call upon heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse..."

The emphasis of the Torah reading is the idea that we are standing before the Eternal, but that whether we will have life or death, blessing or curse, is our own choice.
After the Torah, reading, I had the honor of chanting the Haftarah (Prophetic Reading) in Hebrew for the 11th year. The Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning is taken from Isaiah: K'rah b' Garon--Cry Aloud:

Cry aloud, lift up your voice like a shofar and declare to my people their transgression, to the House of Jacob, their sin...Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing like a reed and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes?...Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house?...Then shall your light blaze forth like the dawn...You shall renew your body's strength,; you shall be like a watered gardern, like an unfailing stream. Your people shall rebuild the ancient ruins and lay the foundation for ages to come..."

All of this ritual and beautiful and moving. It was made even more beautiful this year, because the congregation has gotten a sound system for the choir. When we designed the sanctuary, we did not make allowance for the accoustics from where the choir stands, and the sound went up into the nichos in the ceiling. I know the music of the High Holy Days, and I know it is beautiful. I know what it should sound like. But since N. has been too old for babysitting and children's services, I have been sitting out in the congregation in order to help him manage his prayers, and have not been with the choir. Therefore, I have been unable to really hear the harmonies and counterpoint, and I had forgotten how beautiful the music really is.

And when I think about it, my vow to be there and to be one with the prayer instead of standing outside the service with my perfectionist hat on and with the critical voice in my head, also made the beauty of the service far more apparent than it has been in many years. I don't know what it was, exactly, perhaps all of it--the sound system, staying in the "good reality," hearing the words as if they were addressed to me and not some "they" out there--but not only did the service appear beautiful to me, but the holy congregation that I stood among glowed with love and beauty. I was getting it: This is what it means to choose life and blessing. It is to be life and blessing, love and beauty, and thus see it in everything.

I have no doubt that I will still wrestle with this all of my life. This is, perhaps, one of the challenges that I was born with; a challenge that the One will use to draw me closer to holiness. But the high vistas are nice to reach occasionally, if only to remind us of what is possible.

There was much then, that was high and holy, that I experienced on Yom Kippur. However, it was the rabbi's sermon at the morning service that really spoke to me. I cannot reproduce it here. There were too many insights and impressions to ponder, to do it justice. I will, rather, give my understanding of the theme and then post the link when it is available.

The sermon was about two meanings of fear. There are two different words for "fear" in Hebrew, one that has the sense of the fear we have that causes us to avoid danger, and one that expresses the existential fear/awe that we have when we encounter that which is much bigger than ourselves. It is that second fear that we deal with in our encounters with Holiness. On Yom Kippur, we fast and deny ourselves bodily pleasures. We dress in white, the color of the shrouds we will be wrapped in by the Chevrah Kaddishah (Burial Society) when we die. The rabbi pointed out than on Yom Kippur, when we do all of these actions, when we contemplate the emphemeral nature of our lives, we are practicing for our deaths, so that we do not live in fear of it. So far, so good. I could nod in understanding and appreciation of what he was saying. Yes. Yes. That makes sense.

Then came the kicker. The rabbis said something to the effect of this: But what we really live in fear of is life. We hide from ourselves those things about ourselves that scare us, and by doing so, we do not live our lives. We distract ourselves with the foilables and tragedies of the rich and famous, and delight in their sins, in order to avoid living fully. We are not choosing life. We are afraid to know it. We go to our graves not having lived. And the rituals of Yom Kippur are meant to turn us around, to cause us to face those things that we most fear, and enable us to choose life. If we so choose.

And for me, that was the missing piece. What is perfectionism, really, but the attempt avoid failure? And the avoidance of failure comes from this fear the rabbi was talking about. As I said last week about perfectionism: "A perfect heart is non-living. It is a fantasy, an idol we pursue because we are so alien to where we actually live." And where does perfectionism come from? It comes from fear. Fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of not being acceptable as one is. And the need to control comes from that same root. Perfectionism and the need to control both come from fear.

The rabbi completed his sermon by telling this story of the Baal Shem Tov (the Master of the Good Name, who was the founder of the Hassidic mystical tradition):

The Baal Shem Tov was found to be wise enough to be shown the world as it really is, so the angels commanded that he look upon it. He looked upon it and saw a great pit, full of fire. And suspended over the fire was a tightrope. And upon the tightrope was a man walking. He walked unaware of the tightrope he walked upon or of the fiery pit he was suspended over. And then, suddenly, the man walking was made aware of his predicament. And he began to cower, and lose his balance, teetering from side to side, nearly falling into the fiery pit. And the Baal Shem Tov called out to him: "Do not fear! Do not fear at all! You can fly! You can fly!"

This is my rendering of the story. It creates in me a visceral reaction of great joy. I do not wish to deconstruct it. There is a song that comes from this story. It is based on a saying of Rebbe Nachman of Bratislava, he of the empty chair. The choir sang a rendition of it after the sermon. But I am more familiar with the NIFTY campfire version of it:

Chol Ha-Olam Kulo
(The World is Just a Narrow Bridge)
All of the world is just a narrow bridge,
Just a narrow bridge, just a narrow bridge.
All of the world is just a narrow bridge,
Just a narrow bridge.
And the main thing is not to fear,
And the main thing is not to fear at all.
And the main thing is not to fear,
Not to fear at all!
It is really quite extraordinary what being there does for one's soul. I want to be there more often.
The Rest of the Day
The rest of the day went beautifully but not perfectly. In the afternoon service, we remembered the history of our people and the faith of the ten martyrs. We passed around a lemon studded with cloves, sniffing it to help with the faintness of lack of water and food. We listened to the afternoon Torah--"You Shall Be Holy" --from the holiness code in Leviticus, and the Haftarah of Jonah, reminding us that the Eternal does care for "Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!" We sang Ani Ma-Amin--our hope for the making of the messianic age. We remembered our dead and cried for them through the singing of El Malei Rachamim--G-d, Full of Compassion, during Yizkor, the memorial service. And all the while, as we grew more haggard and hungry, the tear-stained faces of the holy congregation, joined by those no longer with us and those yet to be, grew in beauty and goodness and light.
And then the sun got to be low in sky and the Sandias glowed orange the reflected light in the east. And we began the great service of Neilah--the Gates. Our voices sounded thin and raw in the vastness of this service, "as the gates begin to close." Our last pleas brought with great longing and reliance, as the congregation leaned into the last prayers.
"This is the house of G-d, this is the gates of heaven.
Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter and thank Adonai!...
Remember us unto life, O, King who delights in life...
Oh, Source of Blessing, you are with us in death as in life..."
And the mighty El Norah Ahleela--G-d of Awesome Deeds:
"G-d of awesome deeds, G-d of awesome deeds,
Grant us pardon as the gates begin to close!
We who are few in number look up to You, with trembling,
we praise You, as the gates begin to close...
Proclaim a year of favor, return the remnant of Your people to honor and glory,
as the gates begin to close..."
The cantor and choir surprised our rabbi, using a setting he had written, adapted from the Sephardic tradition.
Once more, we stood before the open ark and sang:
"Avinu Malkeinu--Our Father, our King, let the gates of heaven be open to our plea...
Avinu Malkeinu--do not turn us away empty-handed from your presence..."
And, as the sun set, we leaned into the last prayers as the gates began to close. All of us, standing together. And the congregation fairly glowed with beauty:
"Turn back, turn back...for why should you choose to die, O House of Israel?...
Now send forth your hidden light and open to Your servants the gates of help...Open the gates, open them wide! Open the gates, Adonai, and show us the way to enter...
Seu sha'arim...Lift up your heads, O gates! Lift yourselves up, O ancient doors! Let the King of Glory enter. Who is the King of Glory? Adonai of Hosts--G-d is the King of Glory!...
And as the sun set, the final Kaddish:
"We sanctify Your name on earth, as we pray for the coming of Your Kingdom, in our own day, our own lives, and the life of all Israel..."
"Shema, Yisrael..Hear, O Israel, Adonai is G-d, Adonai is One!"
And three times: "Blessed is G-d's glorious kingdom, throughout space and time!"
And seven times: "The Eternal is G-d!"
And then, the long, triumphant blasts of the shofarot, the rams horns, for many in Congregation rose to to the Tekiah (including N., who had practiced for this moment).
And we made Havdalah--the separation between the Holy Day just passed and the work day to come.
And then the second really extraordinary moment of the day for all of us--the rabbi's blessing.
He always gives us a blessing at the end of a service. After Havdalah, he said, "Let's all join hands..." and at that moment he looked up and saw the congregation standing, utterly spent with the day's prayer before him. Did he see the same glow of beauty that I had noticed growing throughout the afternoon? I don't know. But I think he must have.
He faltered, and said, "...but you are already holding hands..." And then he bowed his head, and was overcome with...what?...but, whatever else it was, he cried. I have never seen this before. He gave the blessing from one of the Songs of Ascent: "Blessed are you in coming in and going out..." in a broken voice. Tears of joy. Awesome.
What an incredible day. The most moving, amazing Yom Kippur I have ever experienced.
What a great thing 'being there' does for the soul.
We broke our fast quietly this year, all of us together, and yet it was quiet. Small conversations. Talk turning to the ordinary things of life as we ate bagels and lox, creamed herring and crackers. Lemonade stinging our raw throats. "Yes, this is Sam's last year of college"..."Marilyn is interviewing for jobs"..."It was good, very good this year"...This was a hard year for her, but we had such intimacy. I miss her terribly"..."What are you doing for Sukkot?"...
It is time for life to creep in as we turn to the festival of Sukkot. The season of our joy. The celebration of the Ingathering Harvest.


Magpie Ima said...

Having just tried to write about my Yom Kippur experience this year, I am awestruck by your blog post. Your s=writing is lovely and your ability to share the details is just mind-blowing. Yasher koach! And thank you.

Melora said...

What a beautiful service! Those mountain top moments are good.