Yom Kippur Morning 2021: Sermon Lev Chadash Milano

In “the Mirror and the Light”, the finale to Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, she has him say while contemplating his own diminished future “We are all dying, just at different speeds”

Yom Kippur is a day that reminds us not only to consider how we are living our lives in the light of our values and hopes, but it speaks to us of our own mortality – it is a day out of time, a day we travel through as if dead, with no food or water, no ordinary business to transact etc. Yom Kippur is a dress rehearsal for death.

To be clear. We are not supposed to feel dead in the sense that we might feel nothing, or no longer care for the things of this world; rather we can take twenty five hours where we subsume the wants or desires of the body into the perspectives and expression of the soul.

As close as we can be, we become disembodied. We pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that are usually drowned out in the busy-ness of everyday living. The tradition is that we wear white – the colour of purity. Many of us wear a kittel – quite literally the shrouds that will wrap our bodies in the coffin. We are practising a death of the body in order to free the life of the mind or the soul.

Judaism is famously a religion of life. We toast each other “Le’chaim” – to Life! We focus on our actions in this world, and leave unexamined what may happen beyond this world. But we build into our practise this one extraordinary day when we rehearse our dying, in order to understand our world a little differently.

The point of Yom Kippur is not to remind us that we are mortal, that, as Mantel says we are all dying, just at different speeds. It is to remind us to think about how we are living our lives – specifically how are we living them in relation to the teachings and expectations of our traditions.

Rabbi Eliezer famously taught that one should: “Repent one day before your death.” So his disciples asked him: “Does a person know which day he will die?” Rabbi Eliezer responded: “Certainly, then, a person should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die—so that all his days he is repenting.” (Talmud, Shabbat 153a)

In my work as a hospice chaplain I recently had a long conversation with a patient, a strict Catholic woman, who was terrified that she might not die in a state of grace, and that if she was not entirely absolved of her sins she would not be allowed to enter heaven. I was so perturbed by her distress and her certainty that the gates of heaven might be still closed against her even though she had made her final confession, received full absolution from her priest, and had had no obvious opportunity for further sinning given the frailty of her health, that I rang her priest to see what else could be done. There was nothing more to do, he told me, it was all in the hands of God.

It got me thinking back to Rabbi Eliezer. He is not talking about dying in a state of grace, not suggesting that we need to get our timing right so that we die shortly after repenting our sins. He is talking of being in a continuing state of teshuvah, not so much its colloquial meaning of “repentance” as its real meaning – “returning” or “turning towards God”. Eliezer is not terribly interested in the purity of our souls at any given moment, but in the fact of our being engaged in some kind of understanding of our purpose in this world, some kind of intention and action towards making ourselves and our worlds a better place.

Taking a day away from our routine, blocking it off in our diaries and using it for introspection and for the evaluation of our lives in the light of the values and teachings and the expectations of our tradition is a valuable and important activity. Doing it from within our community with a liturgy that provides a map for our journey of return is a supportive and sustaining factor in the day. Knowing that across the world Jews are coming together in real meetings and these days in virtual communities too, gives us the strength to keep going during the times when the prayers seem endless or pointless or inappropriate or trivial.  A day set aside in order to consciously attempt teshuvah, turning ourselves and our lives around in search of meaning, in search of God, is a gift to ourselves, the gift of time and of space to hear the needs of our souls which have so often been ignored or silenced in our quest for material success or even just to get through the daily routines we must complete.

When Rabbi Eliezer tells us to repent one day before the day of our death this is not a rhetorical flourish, but a reminder of the value of our lives. He is not suggesting that we live each day as if it were our last, cramming in all the things we might like to have done as we tick off as much as we can from our bucket list,  or fearful of a coming darkness and doom. He is saying we should live each day as well as we can, maybe not procrastinate so much, maybe say the words that need to be communicated to others, maybe enjoy the moment of sunshine playing on our skin or watch the clouds scooting across a beautiful sky. He is reminding us that each day we live we should strive for the understanding that this day is unique, it is providing us with an opportunity that may not return on another day to do the things that this day makes possible. How do we turn towards God today? How will we demonstrate our love for the Divine in our behaviour towards other human beings? And how will the choices I make today shape me and my relationships in the world? Am I making sure to appreciate what each day offers, to acknowledge the blessings in my life, to show that appreciation in my actions?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said that “if you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need do you have for a tomorrow?”

Each day we try to work on ourselves, try – in the words of the prayer – to bend our will to do God’s will.

The work of the day of Yom Kippur can be done on any day, it is simply helpful for us to block out the time to do it together with our community. And the day of Yom Kippur is not just one of prayer and of teshuvah, not only about atonement and about considering our lives from the outside as if we are dead.  It is a day that signifies the endless possibility of rebirth. The sound of the shofar at the end of the service is the cry of the reborn, it is our signal to go back into the world refreshed and renewed to do the work we are here to do.

There is a famous inspirational quote found on many a social media site “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” – and essentially that is what Yom Kippur is also helping us to understand and enact. But never forget, that if today doesn’t work out, there is also tomorrow, and the day after that.  

But don’t wait too long. Live every day searching for teshuva, for closeness with God, for aligning our will with God’s will, and then when the day of our death finally comes we will be able to say that we tried to live as fully as we could, we have no more need of a tomorrow.

Kol Nidrei Sermon 2021 Lev Chadash Milano

Kol HaNedarim 2021 Milan 

The bible begins with two different accounts of the creation of the world and of its inhabitants. In the first we have the presence of God hovering over a chaotic maelstrom from which carefully and methodically the various elements are separated out – light and dark, heaven and earth, seas and dry land etc. And then through the words and vision of God, emerged the sea creatures, the grasses and  trees,  the animals, and finally God created people.  The sense we have of God is of a majestic and powerful figure, who by the power of words and thought creates our world and then leaves it to get on with growing itself, with some responsibility in the hands of the creatures who have been made in the image of God. 

 In the second story God is much less distant, a more “hands on” and invested figure in the world which is being created. God plants a garden, forms the human being from the dust of the earth “by hand” so to speak, breathes the divine breath into the humans. There is an intimacy and closeness, so much so that God walks in the garden in the cool of the evening in order to speak with its human inhabitants, and God is involved in their behaviour and the consequences that flow from it. 

These two iterations of the divine being, of the transcendent and the immanent, are baked in to our understanding and story-telling of God and our relationship with divinity. And it seems that wherever we go in Jewish texts, in liturgy and in ritual, we meet God in both states of being.  We are constantly juggling the intimacy of a God who is close to us and who is ready to listen to us, with the majesty and awesomeness of the God who is Sovereign of the Universe, who has withdrawn a little in order not to take all the space in our world. 

The great prayer of the Yamim Noraim, the Avinu Malkeinu, is based on the prayer of Rabbi Akiva at a time of terrible drought when it seems that the people, having fasted and prayed, are now at the point of death.  We read in Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) “There was an incident involving Rabbi Eliezer… he recited twenty-four blessings, but he was not answered. Rabbi Akiva descended before the ark after him and said:

רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אַחֲרָיו וְאָמַר אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ אֵין לָנוּ מֶלֶךְ אֶלָּא אָתָּה אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ לְמַעַנְךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ וְיָרְדוּ גְּשָׁמִים

  רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אַחֲרָיו וְאָמַר אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ אֵין לָנוּ מֶלֶךְ אֶלָּא אָתָּה אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ לְמַעַנְךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ וְיָרְדוּ גְּשָׁמִים

Avinu Malkeinu, ein lanu Melech eleh ata, Avinu Malkeinu le’ma’ancha rachem aleinu.

Our Father, our King, we have no king other than You. Our Father, our King, for Your sake, have mercy on us. And rain immediately fell.”

There is so much to understand about our relationship with God from this page of Talmud. But let’s begin with that famous formula – “Avinu, Malkeinu”  – our Father (or parent) our King (or ultimate power”. Rabbi Akiva is joining together the  two ways in which we relate to God – as intimate as a nurturing parent, as distantly powerful as the Ruler of the Universe. He goes on, appealing first to God’s overwhelming sovereignty and alluding to the covenant of the Jewish people to the one and only God, and then shifts into something quite new and extraordinary – saying to God “For Your own sake have mercy on us”. Rabbi Akiva asks for a merciful outcome for the desperate Jewish people not for their own needs but For God’s own sake.   

What can Rabbi Akiva be suggesting? And why are his words so effective when the words of Rabb Eliezer his teacher, who had followed the proper established formulae and rituals, calling the people to fast and adding petitions into the Amidah had so clearly failed?

It is clear from this story that Rabbi Akiva is going outside of the established rituals for petitionary prayer, he is calling on God from the depths of his being, demanding to be heard by every aspect of God we humans can understand, the divinity which is both transcendent and immanent, both creative force and nurturer. And he reminds God of what God says according to Isaiah (48:9)

לְמַ֤עַן שְׁמִי֙ אַאֲרִ֣יךְ אַפִּ֔י וּתְהִלָּתִ֖י אֶחֱטׇם־לָ֑ךְ לְבִלְתִּ֖י הַכְרִיתֶֽךָ׃

Lema’an sh’mi a’areech appee, ut’hilati e’che’tam lach l’viltee hach’ree’teicha

For the sake of My name I control My wrath;  To My own glory, I am patient with you,  And I will not destroy you.

Akiva is referring to God’s own words. The biblical speech continues

הִנֵּ֥ה צְרַפְתִּ֖יךָ וְלֹ֣א בְכָ֑סֶף בְּחַרְתִּ֖יךָ בְּכ֥וּר עֹֽנִי׃

“See, I refine you, but not as silver; I test you in the furnace of affliction.”

לְמַעֲנִ֧י לְמַעֲנִ֛י אֶעֱשֶׂ֖ה כִּ֣י אֵ֣יךְ יֵחָ֑ל וּכְבוֹדִ֖י לְאַחֵ֥ר לֹֽא־אֶתֵּֽן׃ {פ}

For My sake, My own sake, do I act— Lest [My name]e be dishonoured! I will not give My glory to another.  (le’ma’anee, le’ma’anee eh’esseh ki eich yechal uch’vodee l’acher lo etein)

It is an extraordinary thing, this short invocation that Akiva offers. He reminds God – again from this same extended passage (Isaiah 48), that the drought and the rains are both expressions of God’s own power. And that when God withholds the rains so long that the people are in danger of death, even though the prayers of the people may not be as sincere as both they and God would want, even though the people may not merit the rains and the life they will bring, that God’s nurturing aspect must prevail if the Divine Being itself is not to be brought into disrepute.

Akiva’s prayer is a wonderful example of what is called “chutzpadik prayer” – the prayer of someone who knows they have no merit to demand of God and yet they make their demand anyway. The audacious prayer that dares to challenge God’s own judgment using God’s own arguments in that challenge.   It is the spontaneous and emotional prayer that arises from deep distress and yet also from deep Emunah – from the kind of faith that assumes that God must listen to us, must care for us, must pay attention to our needs – or at least assumes that if God is not doing so, we have the right to demand that attention, much as a very small child will assume that their parents will continue to love and support them and keep them from harm.  We learn that chutzpadik prayer is not only legitimate, not only can be heard, but that sometimes it is exactly the kind of prayer we should be doing, sometimes we can engage God by audacious challenge.

The Talmud debates why it is that Akiva’s prayer is heard when the actions and petitions of the great Rabbi Eliezer his teacher are not.

And that debate teaches us a lot too.

What happened immediately before our text is the story of a previous drought, when Rabbi Eliezer had decreed the full quota of 13 separate fasts in order to draw the attention of God to the plight of the community, and after the last one failed to bring the rain, the community were leaving the synagogue and Rabbi Eliezer said to them “Have you prepared your graves? [If the rain does not come we will all die of hunger]. All the people began to cry and then the rain fell.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was an austere and strict figure. Having come to study later in life, he devoted himself so entirely that he sometimes did not eat for days. He was the outstanding scholar of his generation, one who could expound traditional law better than any. His teacher, Yochanan ben Zakkai, said of him “he is a sealed cistern that does not lose a drop” meaning that everything he learned he retained, but more worryingly he said of himself “”I have never taught anything which I had not learned from my masters” (Suk. 28a).  In other words, the entire concept of spontaneous prayer or of new interpretation was foreign to him, and this is possibly best demonstrated in the story of the oven of Achnai, when the disagreement between him and his colleagues reached its peak, with Eliezer continuing to dissent from the majority opinion.  Even the voice of God coming from the heavens to declare that Eliezer was right did not persuade the rabbis from their decision, and subsequently they excommunicated Eliezer from the Sanhedrin – although his teachings continued to be recorded and accepted. They were apparently so afraid of his quick temper and angry persona that they did not excommunicate him in person, and had to send Akiva to explain to him, for fear of Eliezer’s anger destroying a lesser scholar.

Akiva was Eliezer’s student. He was a great scholar in his own right, but his personality was diametrically opposite to that of his teacher. So the scholars of the Talmud debate why Akiva’s spontaneous and chutzpadik prayer was heard when Eliezer’s rituals and petitions were not, and we are told

The Sages were whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not. A Divine Voice emerged and said: It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”

Again a Bat Kol, a voice from the heavens is heard, one might say that again God is defending Rabbi Eliezer and his great scholarship, but this time something else is added into the mix. The personality of Akiva is gentle and forgiving, the personality of Eliezer is domineering and sharp. While Eliezer might be doing all the rituals right and repeating the petitionary prayers exactly as they have been done before, he cannot stop his own judgment on the people who have, most certainly, been insincere and lax in their behaviours.

But Akiva, gentle and sweet Akiva, he is ready to see the humanity in all the people who have most certainly sinned, and he is ready to bring his own humanity to God. And therein lies the difference between them.

We read in Seder Eliyahu Rabbah This is what God said to Israel: My children what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you love one another, and honour one another, and that you have awe for one another” (Chapter 26)

 This period of time – the month of Elul, the festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the days in between, even some say the days till the end of Sukkot – are collectively called the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe. Awe can be defined as the feelings of reverence and wonder tinged with fear that are evoked by a sense of the sublime or divine. We are aware of the idea that these are days of Judgement, of consequences, of seeing our lives without the filters or varnish that may make us look softer, kinder, gentler, more honest…   We tend to think of the Awe of this time as being around our reverence for God or our wonder at the power of the universe, and the smallness of our own presence in it, but the chutzpah of Rabbi Akiva, embedded in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer that punctuates our services at this time, show us a different place to focus – on considering the humanity of others, fighting for their needs along with our own, petitioning God for a better world free of fear and of plague, of hunger and of early deaths….

The Avinu Malkeinu comes from a place of awe – of love for one another, of honour for one another, of awe for one another.  Remember that as we recite our petitions  together and responsively before the open Ark of each service, and when the Ark will finally close and the Shofar blast bring Kippur to an end at the end of the final Avinu Malkeinu in Neilah, remember that the awe continues even while the Yamim Noraim will conclude.

To quote Seder Eliyahu Rabbah one last time

How do we find our Divine Parent who is in Heaven?  How do we find our Parent who is in Heaven?

By good deeds and the study of Torah.

How does the Blessed Holy One find us – through love, through fellowship, through respect, through companionship, through truth, through peace, through bending the knee,

through humility, through more study, through less commerce,

through the personal service to our teachers,

through discussion among the students,

through a good heart, through decency,

through No that is really No,

and through Yes that is really Yes.

(Midrash Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 23)

26th Ellul- learning to forgive ourselves as God forgives

In the Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) we have the origin of the great confessional prayer of the Yamim Noraim, the Avinu Malkeinu.  “Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos, the great teacher and pious scholar descended before the Ark in order to serve as prayer leader on a fast day because of a terrible and prolonged drought.  He recited 24 blessings but was not answered. Then his student, Rabbi Akiva descended before the Ark and simply said “Avinu Malkeinu, Ein lanu melech ele atah, Avinu Malkeinu lema’an’cha rachem Aleinu: (Our Father, our Ruler, we have no sovereign other than You. Our Father, our Ruler, for Your sake, have mercy on us.”

Immediately the rains fell. The Sages began whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not. A Divine Voice emerged and said: It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”

Rabbi Eliezer was known for his fierce temper, and indeed was excommunicated when his colleagues could no longer deal with his domineering and strict viewpoints – though interestingly both he and his learning were always held in great respect and he is one of the most quoted rabbis in Talmud. But he was not a person who found forgiveness easy to do, nor did he find it easy to let go of his anger – indeed the story of his wife Ima Shalom who supervised his prayers after the excommunication in order to prevent his anger overtaking the world is a powerful end to the story of the oven of Achnai, and a reminder that when someone is so certain of the rightness of their view that there is danger for us all.

But Akiva, the one who could forgive others, had a simple prayer answered;  a prayer that did not even mention the desperate need for rain, but asked God for mercy for God’s own sake.

This is the origin of Avinu Malkeinu – and also of the extraordinary – and powerfully resonant – last lines of the prayer.

Over the year many additions have been made to this prayer. Sephardi machzorim generally have 32 petitions, the Ashkenazi ones can go up to 44. Some requests are particular and some are universal, some ask directly for favours, others remind God of the vulnerability of the people. But the last lines are different, they special and are specially loved – so much so that we have changed the longstanding tradition of saying them quietly but instead lustily and happily remind God to be merciful as is God’s nature, because we have no good deeds to bring. All this to a joyful tune, quite different from the solemn and rather serious tune of the rest of the prayer.

The Dubner Maggid tells the story of the person who goes shopping, excitedly adding more and more items to their “buy” list. All the petitions are in effect  us saying “I’ll take that, and that, and give me that too please”  And then when we get to the till, we find we cannot pay for everything we have taken, and in embarrassment have to say to the cashier – can you help me? Can you give me some credit and I will try to pay you in the coming year.  As long as I have a good year – please add a good year to my basket…

The embarrassment referred to in the story of the Dubner Maggid is all but disappeared today. Instead we proudly and clearly stand before an open Ark and list our requests to God. The Avinu Malkeinu is in each of the services; it is one of the last prayers in Neilah, the evening of Yom Kippur. We have spent the day reflecting, we have spent the month before on Heshbon Nefesh, considering our previous behaviour. And on Yom Kippur we may fast and afflict our souls, but we also know that if we are more like Rabbi Akiva, able to forgive others, God will forgive us. Yom Kippur is the white fast for a reason – the colour is both the colour of mourning and the colour of joy. We can have both serious reflection and happy anticipation in our lives – and both are deserved.