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In the Holy of Holies: a Teaching for Yom Kippur, 5775

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Following is the teaching I offered under the tent on Kol Nidre Eve, October 3, 2014 at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation:

I wrestled this year with all of the subjects I have wanted to discuss with you. Over the past months my attention has been relentlessly drawn outward, primarily to the Middle East: the complete collapse of society in Syria, the brutal depravity of ISIS, and most of all of course the tragic escalation to war in Israel and Gaza that began with the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish young men last June. I listen and read about the frightening exploits of Vladimir Putin, the rising anti-Semitism in Europe and on college campuses around the world, the dysfunction of our own government, the diminishing water supply in the American West while sea levels begin to rise. I can go on and on.

Now, notice what hearing that litany of disasters does to your body: is your breathing relaxed, or shallow? Did your teeth clench? Did your chest and shoulders tighten? Did you contract, or open?

And I didn’t even broach all of the tsuris that each of us might be facing close to home: the indignities and challenges of aging, children struggling, relationship woes, financial stresses, serious illness.

Pause again. Notice the constriction, the inner collapse, the turning away.

I will speak of all of these matters with you in the course of the year. In my new role as Senior Scholar (my kids still insist that sounds pretty pretentious!) I plan to have time to write and teach more extensively, and we will wrestle together with the challenges of our time. In particular I will be sharing my perspectives on our relationship to Israel and the difficulties that Israel faces during these very challenging times. I will also be sharing via the Internet some amazing sermons about Israel that rabbinic colleagues of mine around the country have been offering – thoughtful, humane, sensible voices responding to the incredibly dangerous and complex reality that Israel and we confront today.

But first, tonight, I most of all want us to help each other summon our courage as we face the coming year. Courage comes from the Latin cor, heart. And I want to help us give each other encouragement, which means to “give heart”. Our congregation’s name, Kehillat Lev Shalem, the Congregation of a Full Heart, that name is meant to remind us that we can, together, confront the pull to contract from each other and the world, and day by day fill our beings with breath and life and grace, with tears and with joy and with open faces and hands and hearts – and never more so than on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Before we turn outward to face the world once again, on Yom Kippur we turn inward, summoning once again our courage, and we turn towards one another, offering our full hearts, and that is how we begin a New Year.

So tonight I want to share with you some powerful teachings from our tradition that will help us to open, and let love and life flow freely once again.

In the Torah we learn that on Yom Kippur the Cohen Hagadol, the High Priest, representing the entire people of Israel, would enter the Holy of Holies in order to pray for our forgiveness. This was the single time in the year when the Holy of Holies was entered, and the only time of the year when the Cohen Hagadol would utter the ineffable name of God. This moment is understood as the most precious moment of holy intimacy possible, a moment to reconnect with universal, unconditional love and forgiveness. This is the moment of Yom Kippur. In the long evolution of Jewish tradition, after the Temple was destroyed and the physical Holy of Holies was no more, Yom Kippur became the Holy of Holies for the Jewish People, a sanctuary in time, rather than space, and every one of us is now the High Priest, tip-toeing into this holiest of holy times, this moment of encounter with the Great Mystery.

That’s the image.

Now, what did the Cohen Hagadol – what do we – encounter as we enter the Holy of Holies? In front of us is the Ark of the Covenant, and perched at each end of the ark are two cherubim, protecting it. These aren’t babies with wings – that image only takes root in Renaissance art. These are fearsome angelic beings, described as having the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and a human face. They must be related to the sphinx in ancient cosmology. Their wings spread out over the ark, framing the precise, empty place where we might encounter the Divine Presence. What do we do now? The Midrash teaches that we must open our hearts in love. How do we know if we are succeeding? The Midrash teaches that if our hearts are closed, the cherubim’s faces are turned away from each other. If we refuse to forgive, the cherubim even turn their backs on each other. But if we can open our hearts, the cherubim face each other. If we humbly, openly embrace the Mystery before us, the cherubim even embrace.

Truly, I have often felt like weeping in recent months, and I feel like weeping now. But let me weep with you tonight, for behind the tears is the capacity to begin again, to keep reaching out to our broken world, to forgive myself for shrinking back, to remember to love every moment.

This is teshuvah, repentance, turning. This is the purpose of Yom Kippur, the Holy of Holies in the Jewish year.

I want to offer some instructions from our tradition as to how we each can facilitate this process of teshuvah right now and in every moment. My beloved friend and teacher Dena Crane shared a great teaching with me. In Jewish mystical imagery, divine sparks are everywhere in creation, but they get covered up and occluded by klipot, that is, husks of negativity and pain. So it is with our hearts: in the course of time, to protect ourselves from pain, we shield our hearts, we cover them over with klipot. As these klipot accumulate, they further deaden and desensitize us. Life is more manageable if we are largely numb. But is that how we want to go through our days? Eventually, to engage another central image of Jewish teaching, our hearts become hardened. What are we to do?

Dena pointed out that during the vidui, the confessional that we just completed, our custom is to rap on our chests with a fist. Rather than think of this action as punishing ourselves, we might instead imagine that we are loosening the klipot, the coverings that have adhered to our hearts in the course of the year, so that we can peel them away, one by one. Forgive us, pardon us, grant us at-one-ment. Let the divine spark shine forth again.

As I practiced pounding, the image also arose of tenderizing meat. Maybe if my heart has gotten hard, I can soften it up with this holy bodywork!

This reminded me of some favorite passages from Torah that also ask us to free our bodies as a means and metaphor for freeing our spirits. In Parshat Ekev, Deuteronomy, chapter 10, Moses says: “Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more! For YHVH your God, the energy of life itself, shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing them with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Torah teaches that to cut away the thickening about our hearts, and to stiffen our necks no more is to open ourselves to the needs of others. And the passage implies that to fulfill our potential as beings made in the divine image, we must remove rigidity and stiffness from our presence. To let the Divine light that is within us shine, we have an ongoing task of enabling it to shine forth, manifesting in compassion for all beings.

Parshat Re’eh, Deuteronomy chapter 15, gives another physical instruction: “If there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against them. Rather, open, open your hand and lend him sufficient for what he needs.” Our tradition teaches that our hands are meant to be the hands of God, caring for God’s creatures.

And this brings me back to my favorite passage in the vidui, the confessional that we just completed: “Our God and God of our Ancestors, hear our plea for forgiveness. For we are not so strong-faced or stiff-necked to stand here and say, ‘we are completely righteous and have not missed the mark!’ For of course we have missed the mark.”

So let’s review that physical inventory: a sheath upon our hearts, a stiff neck, closed hands, a tough face. These are the natural consequences of trying to cope with life. But as a result of these coping mechanisms, these protective coverings, our inner light dims. Our life force is constrained. Our Divine beauty, our generosity, our courage, our compassion, our joy are diminished. Our ability to be God’s hands in the world is lost.

Now, tonight, gathered together with strong intention as we stand in our Holy of Holies, I ask us to practice the physical work of teshuvah:

Soften your face.

Open your hands.

Loosen your neck, so that you can turn and see who and what is around you

Peel the layers of protection from your heart.

Let the inner light shine.

We’re all in this together.

Forgive. Pardon. Grant at-one-ment:

The parent who for whatever sad reason couldn’t give you the love you deserved;

The difficult child;

The person whose political views you despise;

The kvetch, the hypochondriac, the whiner;

All the good people doing their best, but forgetting appointments, forgetting to call, getting preoccupied, overwhelmed by life’s pressures;

Soften your face, open your hands, loosen your neck, let the light shine from your battered heart. We can do this, even if it makes us cry.

And forgive yourself as well, as best you are able.

Now. And now. And now.

When we can do this, we stand with the angels, our armor removed. The cherubim embrace, and we face the world and one another with heart and with courage, and the divine spark glows from within. We are restored to life. Lean on me, and I will lean on you, and we will move forward together. Welcome to a New Year. L’shana tova.