Our Offerings on the Altar - Yom Kippur Drash 5780/2019
The High Holy Day season is the sacred time we set aside to step out of the daily flow of our existence and give ourselves over to life’s big questions, the ones we keep at bay most other days:
Who are we? What is the meaning of our lives? What will be the length of our days? What is it we have come here to do? Is there a God? What if anything will remain after we are gone?
It can be hard to truly surrender to the mystery of this life - to the heartbreak and beauty of what it means to be a human at this moment on earth, to the existential questions that, like an earthquake, could unsettle the very foundation on which our lives are built. At the same time, we have to clean the house, pay the bills, purchase groceries, take out the trash, and complete the other hundred tasks we are responsible for. We must care for our children, our parents, our pets, our plants, and ourselves and these questions - existential and theological - can paralyze us. The High Holy Days make a space for us to confront the terror that these questions evoke. And it is by submitting to this terror that we can begin to bring about our renewal.
The chaggim, these sacred days, offer us an unlikely sequence of metaphors on how this process of renewal works.
On Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, the world begins anew. Known in our liturgy as Hayom Harat Olam - the Day the World is Conceived, on Rosh Hashanah the sparks of something new to flicker. There is newness for each of us as individuals - a new way of looking at the world, or at oneself. A new commitment. A new hope, longing or dream. But this renewal is not just on the level of the individual. Olam means the world - on this day the universe, is conceived anew. On Rosh Hashanah it is as if through the sweetness of honey and the freshness of apples and the roundness of the challah looping back on itself, the entire world spirals forth with new possibility. Amidst our soul-searching and breast-beating and teshuva-seeking, a new paradigm starts to show itself.
“The world can be new!” we declare, “We can be different!” This newness, at first small and tender, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur begins to carve out a space for itself in the darkness. It’s shell starts out hard, coated for protection. It is only over time that its casing begins to break down. In time, we hope, the seed will expand, send down roots, and weave itself into the fabric of our lives. It will only be after more time, still, that tendrils of this new life begin to emerge on the surface, outward signs of that which has been seeded within us. Rosh Hashanah begins the process of germination - seeds we tend to in hopes they will lead to new life, new beginning, fresh possibility.
Then, ten days later, today, all this growth and new potential seems to vanish - in what appears to be a complete reversal of what we might expect - on Yom Kippur, the day on which, we die.
On Yom Kippur we abstain from water and food and sex and adornment, and, traditionally, dress in an all-white burial shroud known as a kittel. We simulate our own death - dying to who we have been, to the beliefs we have held, to the ways we have functioned, to the person we have known ourselves to be.
So why does this reenactment of our death follow after Rosh Hashanah - a holiday in which the world is conceived anew? Are those tiny seeds we planted just 10 days prior now a “flower that fades”? Seeds of hope and possibility, new life just beginning to take root and now...death? The whole slate wiped clean? What meaning did all those seeds hold?
This unlikely sequence of metaphors speaks to me this year. A seed takes root - we awaken to the reality of climate change. In that awakening, we open and suddenly feel the incredible loss of species, ecosystems, human-caused destruction in a way we never have before. A seed takes root - we awaken to the pervasiveness of racism. We are knocked down by waves of pain and grief as we become conscious of all we have contributed to - willingly and unwillingly, knowingly and unknowingly - violence, separation, dehumanization. Or, depending on the color of our skin, we begin to feel our own suffering - what we’ve been holding for decades, centuries, generations, without acknowledgement or even understanding of what we have been enduring. A seed takes root - we awaken to the oppressiveness of patriarchy - living in a society in which women are kept from power, treated as less than, routinely abused. All at once perhaps it seems, every corner of our world is crying out #Metoo and we are knocked down by the realization that what has passed for “acceptable” is a level of misogyny and abuse that we refuse to tolerate. A seed takes root - we awaken, as we more commonly encounter individuals who are deconstructing binaries - gender, sexuality, race - we feel the constriction and limitations of the categories we took for granted as truth.
Each of us right now can feel into the seeds taking root in our own personal lives - awakening us to ways in which we’ve kept ourselves small, have outgrown where we are - a job, a role we’ve played in our family system, a relationship in which our fullest, most alive self has been stifled - and we know that with this new awareness, there is also loss. I feel it in my own life as my kids get older, as their interests and needs begin to subsume my autonomy in how I spend my time and energy. I feel it as our work with Jewish Studio Project grows and the exhilarating energy of start up yields to all that is required at the mezzanine phase: managing more staff, expanding programs, evaluating our impact and correcting course when needed.
In order to move towards growth and new realities, there must be a dying away of what has been, of who we’ve been, of life as we have known it.
New seeds, a dying away, change, loss, fear. It all seems confusing and impossible to hold. We sit in the sadness, the confusion amidst the holy unfolding of consciousness, not quite knowing our place or who we are. Feeling the tension as the seeds germinate, expanding, and the ground begins to break apart.
Hayom Harat Olam - collective consciousness evolves, the world is conceived anew. This means there are ideas, beliefs, privileges, parts of self, parts of society that, inevitably, have to die. Rosh Hashanah entices us with the newness that is possible, Yom Kippur lets us know what’s required for those possibilities to manifest.
It is said that the Book of Life closes at the end of Yom Kippur. Until the final moments, when the gates shut at N’eilah, we do everything we can to merit being written in. All of this has us focusing on the year to come, we seek to be written for health and happiness for this next year.
This year, rather than looking ahead, we might be well-served to linger in the transition point - to celebrate that which needs to be celebrated, to mourn that which needs to be mourned, and to continue to allow that which needs to be shed to be released. As last year’s volume closes, like a sefer kodesh - a holy book - can we bring its tattered cover to our lips, kiss it softly, and place it on the sacred bookshelf of the past with tenderness and care?
So many of the rituals of Yom Kippur focus on death. We recite Yizkor, the memorial service for those who have died. We pray for the souls of our ancestors whose lives were cut short through horrific suffering in the martyrology service. Our morning Torah reading begins with God addressing Aaron after the death of his two sons - Nadav and Avihu. U’netaneh Tokef vividly and poetically reminds us that death awaits us all. All of these relate to death and loss. Though the connection is not explicitly made, perhaps this focus invites us to notice - and to mourn - parts of ourselves that are dying as well.
On Rosh Hashanah we greet the New Year, welcoming her in. On Yom Kippur, we notice all that needs to go and allow ourselves to say goodbye. The twenty-five hours of Yom Kippur are like a mikvah in time - a day in which we plunge down into the depths, open every part of ourselves, and allow the prayers like fresh water to flow through, unsure if, when, or how we will come back up to the water’s surface, unclear on who we will be if and when we do. We withdraw from the life we’ve led and contemplate it from the outside looking in: who have we been? What are our accomplishments? Our joys? Our regrets? We surrender into the haunting words of U’netaneh Tokef - to the truth that we are like “grass that withers, a shadow that passes, the dream that flies away.”
When the Temple once stood, the High Priest made atonement for us all. Today, when there is no longer a Temple, each of us assumes the role of High Priest. Can we imagine ourselves tending the fire of the altar, bringing forth our sacrifices to God? The word sacrifice in Hebrew is korban, from the Hebrew word karov meaning to draw near. As the words of Psalm 145 state “karov Adonai l’chol korav, l’ lechol asher yikrauhu ve'emet” - God is close to all who draw close to God, to all who call out to God in truth. What outdated ideas, past versions of self, old paradigms and ways of relating can we burn upon the altar this year to bring us nearer to God? These ways of being once served us. We have come to realize that they no longer do. Rather than chastise ourselves for ever having had them, can we honor them for the role they served and release them back to the Source from which they came? Can we say goodbye with dignity, with compassion, acknowledging how naked we feel without our familiar titles, roles, or duties? Can we do so with sanctity in order to get closer to the truth that is emerging?
We end back where we began. These sacred days are a time to ask our biggest, most challenging questions: Who am I? What is the meaning of my life? What is it I have come here to do? What if anything will remain after I am gone?
On Rosh Hashanah we plant the seeds. During the ten days we notice what those seeds will need to grow and thrive. On Yom Kippur, together in community, we accompany one another to sit, fasting, uncomfortable, maybe terrified, in the pause, a bit longer, as we sift through all that needs to be released.
As we relinquish all that no longer serves, may we offer it up on the altar, sending it back to the Source. In gratitude, we wait, trusting that what next is required for our renewal, for our tender seeds to flourish, is coming.