Shanah tovah and gm’ar chatimah tovah. It is wonderful to be here together to celebrate Yom Kippur.
How many of you are feeling a sense of joy at this moment? Maybe a strange question to ask on Yom Kippur when many of us will be in services all day, not eating or drinking, focused on what we did wrong and how to atone.
Before we look at that question more closely, I want to share a story. When I was a kid, I remember Rabbi Stern, our community’s rabbi, telling this story during a sermon one High Holiday season. I have looked all over and cannot find a source for it, nor have my friends and colleagues been able to find one either. So I offer it as a mistaken memory or an Ira original, but one I hope will resonate with you as it did with me.
The story is about a rabbi and his followers who on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, actually even on a regular Shabbat, prayed with such joy and fervor they ended up moving all over the synagogue even though traditionally one stands still. One holiday, a visitor from out of town complained to the leader of the community that while he was saying the Amidah, the silent standing prayer, someone trod on his toes. The next week, the rabbi stood at the bimah and reminded everyone, “Pray with joy and celebration. Also be careful not to step on your neighbors toes.”
I imagine that when most of us think about joy and celebration our first association is a party, dancing, a drink with friends, cake, good food, singing, maybe a trip somewhere. You associations are probably not about prayer. I am guessing that when most of us think of prayer it is in terms of obligation. Something that we don’t understand, that we had enough of us as kids when we were forced to come to synagogue or to memorize for our bar or bat mitzvah. Even for those of us who like services and coming to synagogue, there is probably a large part of that which is about being with and part of a community, the music, socializing. What about when we think of a good Jew. My guess is that for a large percentage of us, the image that comes to mind is of an orthodox Jew who is strictly ritually observant and follows all the rules. Although that is not the kind of Jew we have chosen to be. That kind of Jew is all about rules and strictures, more about what one can’t do. We are modern Jews in contrast, are part of the larger world and want to live in it. The rules don’t speak to us in fact they are alienating. I know that some people find my personal level of ritual observance difficult and that my traditional approach to Judaism does not speak to them at all. My apologies if I have not been the rabbi that you need. Let’s talk and see how I can better be there for you. It has always been my intention to share the richness of our tradition. In that way, to offer opportunities for experimentation- to see what if anything Judaism has to offer might be meaningful and/or a source of joy. What if any elements of Judaism might enriching your life or help celebrate its blessings and get us through the hard times? Being a part of this community has also been a learning experience for me. You have my gratitude for teaching me and enabling my personal growth. I dance with joy for that. I am also aware that how I observe Shabbat has an impact on the community and how it functions. I appreciate most people’s willingness to accommodate and their sense of Progressive Judaism as a big tent that embraces people regardless of how much or which of Judaism’s rituals they choose to observe.
So why share with you a traditional story in which there are presumably mostly men, from a time long ago that is set in a milieu that is utterly foreign to most of us, except as sociological field work when we go to Antwerp, New York and Jerusalem to look at those whose customs & dress are hold overs from early nineteenth century Poland?
Truth told, we modern Jews owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Baal Shem Tov and his successors who created Chassidism. Not what it has become today, but what it was when the movement began in the late 1700s in Poland and the Pale of Settlements. Prior to Chassidism, to be a good Jew meant dedicating yourself wholly to study and strict observance of Jewish ritual practice, the mitzvoth, commandments. Chassidism spoke to the ordinary Jew who was not wealthy enough to be able to afford not to work. They reached out to the average person who was largely ignorant of what the tradition required of them. The message of Chassidism was: see God’s presence in everything around you. Do whatever Judaism you can, with awareness and intention. Most importantly take joy in life and in Judaism however you celebrate it. The rabbi who on Yom Kippur evening leaves the Kol Nidre service, dresses as a woodsman and cuts wood for a widow and her baby who have no one and are freezing in their hut on the outskirts of the village. He was a saint. Not a sinner. Ultimately, being a good Jew was not about ritual but about serving God in joy, celebrating Judaism.
So how do we find joy in this space? In prayer? As we are about to read about the High Priest and other archaic rituals that offend our sensibilities with splashing blood and killing animals as offerings? When our rabbi is going to invite is to bow down on the floor in our good clothes? When we haven’t eaten and can only think about what Mark and our amazing volunteers have put out for the breaking the fast?
We have an unusual opportunity today. As opposed to what is normal in our world, when 24 hours is almost never enough, on Yom, Kippur, our Jewish tradition provides us a chance to reflect and find meaning. Celebrate it. How many of your friends and colleagues feel a sense of emptiness, of going through the motions and don’t know why or what for, beyond paying the bills and perhaps keeping up with the neighbors? Yom Kippur is a gift we give ourselves to make time and look inward and upward. It is a golden opportunity to check in with ourselves and see if we are doing something in our lives that is meaningful to us, that feeds us. We can look around and wonder if there is a corner of the world that will be better because we lived in it and made a difference. If the answer is yes, do a jig. Not enough people can say that. In an age social media, with more connection than ever, more and more people feel intensely lonely. We are all blessed to be part of a warm wonderful supportive community. In prayer, in life, in good times and bad, knowing that is reason to celebrate. Hopefully, in this as in other aspects of your Judaism, you can find or create joy and celebrate the good that is there to find in almost everything.
At the same time, in your introspection, in your joy and celebration, beware of your neighbor’s toes. When we are happy, it can be easy to forget those who are not. One can share their joy in a way that is infectious and inclusive. Joy can be a blessing or not.
This year, may we be blessed with insight and joy. With health and many reasons to celebrate. May we be challenged and grow, stretched and learn. May we embrace family friends and colleagues, open to their caring and share ours with them. Above all, may we have a sense of meaning in our lives, find joy in that and be moved to dance.
G’mar chatimah tovah.