Sermon delivered on Yom Kippur Eve 5767 – October 1, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block
Early in the summer, Toni and I were trying to decide which movie to see on a Saturday night. We were debating between United 93 and The Break Up. Two movies could not be more different. That evening, we opted for the film that we knew would be difficult, rather than the comedy.
Later, we were asked if we enjoyed it. Watching United 93 is an intense and often unpleasant experience. As we knew, the film ends as the plane crashes into a field in Pennsylvania, and all aboard perish. Yet, in the process of watching, we learned, separating myth from fact, and putting ourselves in the place of doomed men and women. No, we did not enjoy United 93. We had much more fun when we saw The Devil Wears Prada. Nevertheless, we feel enriched by having seen United 93, more in touch with the harsh realities of the world around us.
Relatively few Americans saw United 93, even though it received excellent reviews. The makers of The Break Up undoubtedly made far more money, as our fellow citizens flocked to the cinema for escapist entertainment.
No criticism is intended for those who bought tickets to see Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn duke it out. To everything there is a season . . . A few hours of pure entertainment has its place in all of our lives.
And yet, too many of us choose to live passively, ignoring the troubles around us. We prefer not to think about people without adequate food, shelter, or medical care, across town or around the globe. We deny the suffering within our own souls, even as we skip seeing United 93.
But now, we have come to Temple for Yom Kippur.
The best interest of the congregation, I am often reminded, is served when members leave the Wulfe Sanctuary feeling good about the Temple. Unfortunately, none of us can possibly feel good about anybody or anything else, unless we feel good about ourselves. And how can we possibly feel good about ourselves when our prayerbook relentlessly reminds us of sin? How can we feel good about the Temple, how can be happy, if we read a prayer or hear a sermon or even pray a silent meditation that castigates us, emphasizing the negative, highlighting the problems in this world, and calling upon us to change our ways?
Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps the greatest Rabbi of the twentieth century, rejected the whole idea that we should leave the synagogue feeling good. As Rabbi Michael Marmur has taught, Heschel said that the saddest words he ever heard spoken by a congregant were, “The service was charming.” Replied the Rabbi: “God is not charming.”
To understand what he meant, we need to know a bit about Rabbi Heschel. He wrote some of the most important books of Jewish teaching and spirituality in the 20th Century. He trained both Conservative and Reform Rabbis, for decades. He was widely revered, as a teacher and an author, and as an activist. He marched with Dr. King, and was a luminary of the Civil Rights Movement. Nevertheless, as Rabbi Marmur has taught, Heschel would say, Ger anochi ba’aretz; I am a stranger on the Earth. He did not feel good. He saw himself as unpopular, always in the minority, and he liked it that way.
Rabbi Heschel would hope that we would leave the Wulfe Sanctuary tonight, not feeling happy, not fully cleansed, and surely not charmed. We came to Kol Nidre services, not to see Over the Hedge. We should experience the discomfort that Toni and I felt, as did many of you, when we saw United 93: We should feel raw, burdened, and unsettled.
The point is magnificently illustrated by Rabbi Stahl, in his book, Boundaries, Not Barriers. Rabbi Stahl recounts a story told by Rabbi Stephen Wise, who was deeply disturbed by an experience in China, before World War II. “The only means of transportation was by rickshaw. The problem was that the rickshaws were pulled by old, weak, frail men, who would cough constantly . . . At first, Rabbi Wise was horrified. . . . He told his hosts how agonized and troubled he was by the coughs of the rickshaw pullers, but they reassured him: ‘Don’t worry, Rabbi Wise. In two more weeks, you will get used to it. In a month, you won’t even hear it.’ And so it was. And that, he said afterwards, was the saddest day of his life.”
The ancient prophet was the antithesis of the indifference into which Rabbi Wise fell, despite himself. Heschel wrote: “The prophet . . . feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, . . . Frightful is [the world’s] agony; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profound riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and [humanity]. God is raging in the prophet’s words.”
Rabbi Marmur approaches Heschel’s teaching by insisting that Heschel applied the principles of prophecy not only to biblical times, but to modern days as well. Dr. Marmur is the dean of the Jerusalem Campus of Hebrew Union College and an authority on Heschel’s work. He teaches that any of us can bear the divine burden of prophecy. Perhaps the very purpose of Yom Kippur is to turn us all into prophets. Let our fast focus us on the ills of the world, putting us in a state of radical discomfort with the way that we live, and with the way that the rest of the world lives. Let this day arouse our productive anger. Let us become like prophets, that God may speak through us, and that God may act through us.
Should we not bear this burden? What right have we to be happy tonight?
Each of us could say, as I did, when I stood before the Ark at the outset of the service: “I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” We are responsible for every word of gossip, for every impatient and unkind word, uttered in the last year, not just by ourselves but by others.
Each of us must experience the burden of sin, when we say, again and again, al heit sh’hatanu l’fanecha, “for the sin that we have sinned against You.” All are responsible. Hundreds of thousands have died in Darfur, with many more living in hellish refugee camps. Our own people, in the State of Israel, live under the constant threat of missile strikes and suicide bombings, while their neighbors under the thumb of the Palestinian Authority struggle to subsist in penury. Children who live in our own Temple’s neighborhood are robbed of the American dream, as their public schools are deprived of the ability to provide a decent education.
No, we can’t be happy tonight. In the face of such human suffering, leaving the Temple feeling good would be heresy. Heschel teaches that we should experience life as God does: with compassion for those in need, furor at the injustices of the world. These are the words of our High Holy Day liturgy. Yom Kippur is not a romantic comedy.
Not only may we be unhappy; we may also be unpopular. Few people like to be around those who proclaim the world’s problems. We see it in our own country today. If we question the conduct of the Iraq war, we may be called unpatriotic. When we point out improper entanglements of church and state, we are called godless. When we bring up hunger at a social gathering, we are killjoys. When we speak what we know to be right, even the will of God, we may be disliked, and few among us embrace rejection.
So it was for the biblical prophets. Ahab and Jezebel sought to kill Elijah, when he proved the powerlessness of their idol, Ba’al. Jeremiah languished in prison, when he dared to criticize the treachery of kings and priests. Isaiah was distrusted, when he correctly prophesied that apostasy and immorality would lead to exile.
Heschel described the widespread unpopularity of the Biblical prophets, when he wrote: “The striking surprise is that prophets of Israel were tolerated at all by their people. To the patriots, they seemed pernicious; to the pious multitude, blasphemous; to the men in authority, seditious.”
What a lonely lot, for the prophets of old, and for us, would we speak and act as prophets today. At times, like Heschel, we perceive ourselves as strangers on this Earth.
Perhaps the hardest part of making the transition to the role of prophet is that we must sublimate our own priorities to God’s. When many of us think of Yom Kippur, we concentrate on coming here to confess our own sins, personally and individually. Yes, we are commanded to do that. And yet, our prayers consistently utilize the first person plural, “we,” to express our wrongdoing. Yom Kippur does not provide a narcissistic purge. Instead, we have come, together, to turn our concerns outside ourselves. In Heschel’s words: “Prophetic religion may be defined, not as what [we do] with [our individual] concern[s], but rather what [we do] with God’s concern.”
Tonight, we are commanded to walk a mile in prophetic sandals. We must let God’s concerns live through us. Let us see the world as God does, and then we shall acknowledge: “It’s not so good tonight.” Let us commit ourselves to the purpose for which God created us: not only to enjoy the pleasures of this world, but also to be God’s partners in completing the work of creation. Our very existence is for the purpose of tikkun olam, repairing the world, making whole what God has left unfinished, making right what we and all humanity have made wrong: Feeding the hungry and insisting that the hungry are fed; providing shelter to the homeless and demanding that homelessness end; making peace where there is strife and insisting on an end to senseless war.
To do that work, we cannot feel happy tonight. We must be very frustrated, even angry, at the state of the world.
Our own beloved Wulfe Sanctuary offers us a place to start, a good place, a safe place, eventually perhaps even a happy place. In words of Torah emblazoned above our Holy Ark, God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we love all humanity, as God loves us all, we will get to work. We will become prophets. Our voices will call out like a shofar, piercing and unpleasant to some ears, a clarion call to others. Our actions will disrupt the way the world works. We may be unpopular. Life is not a popularity contest. We seek only the favor of God.
Being a prophet may not be fun. We may not feel great when we leave here tonight. But as we take up the prophets’ mantle, let us experience God’s blessing, confident that we are now God’s partners. Then, may we merit the prophecy pronounced by Isaiah: “For the mountains may depart and the hills be shaken, but My loyalty shall never leave you, nor my covenant of friendship be broken, said the Lord, who bestows mercy upon you.”