Yom Kippur Day 5775 Sermon — A Moving Tradition

October 5, 2014
By bethmordecai
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Yom Kippur Day 5775 Sermon — A Moving Tradition

A Moving Tradition

Yom Kippur Day 5775 – October 4, 2014*

Rabbi Ari Saks

Congregation Beth Mordecai


A week ago today, on a quiet Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur a small group of Jews gathered at Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy, NJ to schmooze, to learn, and to drink some schnapps. In addition to the laughs and the cajoling needed to convince everyone around the table that it was ok to drink before noon, we had some really interesting conversations about our shul and about Judaism in general. One comment that spurred some interesting discussion was when one of our community members, let’s call him David, said “I think that Judaism or all of religion for that matter is about comfort.” As our mildly inebriated group tried to understand what David meant by comfort, he clarified what he meant with the following story: A friend of his was traveling on business and while he was strolling through a random airport he was approached by a group of Jewish men looking for a tenth person for their minyan, the quorum needed to recite special communal prayers in the service. So they prayed together and as they were praying David’s friend realized that the prayers were the same ones that he learned growing up in a place much different than this airport. How amazing is it that no matter how far Jews live from each other they can come together and pray the same service! David’s friend immediately felt connected to this group of Jewish strangers (or should I say Jewish brothers?). And at the end of the service the shaliach tzibur, the Jew who led his fellow Jews in prayer, said “Shabbat Shalom” even though it was a Thursday evening because he knew they were not going to see each other before sundown on Friday. David’s friend, along with every other Jew in that small, temporary but profoundly holy community, replied “Shabbat Shalom,” as if to say May your Day of Rest be one of peace, be one of the comfort our shared tradition.

When David finished sharing his story one of the other members around the table said she felt chills. Other people agreed that they felt really moved by this story and we started to further understand what David meant by comfort. Comfort is being surrounded by Jews doing Jewish things. Comfort is hearing familiar tunes, even if you don’t understand all of the words. Comfort is knowing that wherever you are, Jewish practices and customs will make you feel at home. In other words comfort is tradition, the set of practices and customs that we pass down from generation to generation and spread to all corners of the earth, because when we engage in those practices or customs we get this warm sensation that makes us feel…comfortable.

None of us around that table on Shabbat morning could deny the emotional power of David’s story. Most of us, if not all of us, in this room have experienced a similar moment in which an experience of Jewish tradition warmed our hearts. Perhaps it was the naming of a child or a grandchild and knowing that the name and memory of a loved one will be passed down; maybe it’s in eating bagels and lox at Kiddush because of course that’s what Moses and the Israelites ate when they left Egypt; perhaps it’s in meeting a fellow Jew thousands of miles away and feeling an instantaneous connection; perhaps it’s in listening to or singing the ancient melodies of our liturgy like we did last night during Kol Nidre; or perhaps it’s one of a million other possible moments. Regardless of what that moment is, we can’t deny that Jewish tradition has a special hold on us. But as I sat listening to David’s story last Shabbat I couldn’t help but wonder, yes the comfort of tradition can be meaningful, but is it inherently meaningful? Or to put it another way, when we’re done with shul today do we want to say…”oh, it was nice,” like the comfort of visiting an old friend, or do we want to say “wow, that was moving” like the thrill of having a memorable experience. If our goal is the former, if what we want is comfort, then tradition will be just fine, but if our goal is the latter, if what we want is a moving experience, then tradition may work, but it may not. We may need something new. And nowhere is this tension between a comforting experience and a moving experience felt more acutely in a Jewish setting than in the same setting David’s friend found himself in at the airport, or that you find yourself in right now; when we pray.

One of my favorite jokes is about a Jewish guy who is driving to an important business meeting. As he gets close to the office he starts looking for a parking space, but he can’t find one. They’re all taken. He searches frantically for a space, realizing that if he doesn’t find one shortly he will be late for the meeting and probably lose the business. So as he is about to give up, he does something he hardly ever does, he prays. “God,” the driver says pleadingly. “I know I haven’t been the best Jew. I know I could go more often to services, or give more tz’dakkah, or keep Shabbos, but I promise that if you help me find a parking space I will go to services, I will donate a third of my income to tzedakkah, I will be Shomer Shabbos, observing all the laws of the Sabbath, even the ones I don’t agree with! Just please, help me find a parking space!” At that exact moment, a driver directly in front of him pulled out of her space. The Jewish driver then turns his face upwards to God and says…”Never mind, God. I found one.”

I love this story because I think it poignantly hits on a Jewish neurosis about prayer. We may pray, but we don’t think our prayer is actually going to do anything. We’re not going to convince God to change God’s mind, we’re not going to make what we want come true just by praying for it. Despite what we will say during the prayer known as Unetaneh Tokef later on today, we don’t actually believe our prayer will make a difference as to whether or not we will live or die. So why do we pray? Because that’s what we do! That’s how we connect with other Jews at the airport, that’s how we sense the warmth of a Jewish community – by singing “Ein Keloheinu together.” We pray because even if we don’t understand the words, it’s comforting. As Rabbi Gerald Zelizer of neighboring Neve Shalom wrote in a recent article in the New Jersey Star Ledger critiquing how many national football league fans pray to God “to help their team,”:

“I too will pray a lot this morning before I sit with my son and grandson at Metlife Stadium to excitedly await the beginning of the Jets season. My prayers and ritual, though, are unrelated to my almost 40-year fanaticism for the Jets, which erupts each fall. Rather, they are a daily routine of my religion.” (“Bringing God into the Game,” New Jersey Star Ledger, September 7th, 2014).

The routine of Jewish prayer – its repetition – is part of what makes it so comforting. When we say the same words and sing the same tunes over and over again, whether that’s daily, weekly, or yearly, we eventually get it. We may not get all of it, but we get enough of it that it feels like ours and when we hear that same tune the next day or week or year, we know we can join in and feel right at home. And that feeling is…comforting.

But is that all to Jewish prayer? Is Jewish prayer simply supposed to be that “nice” comforting feeling of repetition, or should it be the spirit that moves you in the moment? When the ancient rabbis talked about prayer, or in Hebrew תפילה, they weren’t talking about prayer in general. They were talking about a specific prayer, what we know of today as the Sh’moneh Esrei, the 18 blessings we know of as the Amidah. It’s the central prayer that we recite once every service and twice on special occasions, like we will in a short while during the additional service for Yom Kippur. The Amidah has a formulaic structure that while adapted to each occasion it is recited, contains a consistent framework that enhances its ability to be repeated and memorized. In other words, it’s the perfect prayer to give you that nice, comforting feeling.

In the section on Blessings in the Mishnah (Berakhot 4:3), one of the earliest compilations we have of rabbinic wisdom, Rabban Gamliel states: בכל יום מתפלל אדם שמונה עשרה – Every day a person should recite the Sh’moneh Esrei, or the Amidah. In other words, Rabban Gamliel was advocating for a specific prayer to be recited regularly –once a day – by all people. Perhaps Rabban Gamliel thought that by standardizing Jewish prayer he was making sure that people wouldn’t forget to pray. Or perhaps he thought that he was expanding rabbinic power at a time when Judaism was still recovering from the destruction of the Temple. Or perhaps he knew that, as so many of us have experienced, there is comfort in reciting the same prayer over and over again.

However, Rabbi Eliezer, who happened to be Rabban Gamliel’s brother in-law, vehemently disagreed with him. העושה תפילתו קבע, אין תפילתו תחנונים – When you make your prayer standardized, repetitious, or comforting, it will no longer be pleading, beseeching, expressing your inner desires (MB 4:4). In other words, even when it comes to the standard Amidah prayer, if we don’t find a way to make it less rigid, to create opportunities for personal extemporaneous prayer in which we entreat God to grant the desires of our hearts, it will lose its ability to move us. Perhaps this is why there are certain spots both in the middle and at the end of the Amidah in which our rigid tradition teaches us that it is possible to add our own personal prayers. Just like bridges, prayers need to bend in unexpected directions in order to withstand the test of time.

Despite these bends, the Amidah would never be confused with an extemporaneous prayer. It is suited for the person who sees prayer as the comfort of joining together as Jews at the airport, not the cry for a parking spot or the urging of the kicker to make a field goal. Now, while we may be fine with God not finding us that parking space, or divining a winning lottery ticket, or even helping the kicker make a field goal to help our team win, there are other moments in which we want to be moved through directly entreating God to help. Think about the m’shebeirakh for the ill we just recited a few moments ago – we were asking God to help heal our loved ones. הוא יברך וירפא את החולה – may God bless and heal the one who is sick. This isn’t about asking God to strengthen the hands of doctors, it’s about wanting God to do whatever God can do to heal them. And in my experience, I think we are very much aware of this supernatural element in the prayer for healing. I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me to ask for their loved ones to be placed on the m’shebeirakh list as if their lives depended on it, or when I suggest to someone that I put their name on the m’shebeirakh list their eyes light up as if now they know they’re going to be taken care of. Just two days ago, a member of our congregation whose illness stops him from making it to services called me to ask me…to offer a prayer for him! Though at times we may be too timid to admit it, I think that a large part of us desires more than simply wanting comfort from these prayers. We want these prayers to move us in a way in which we feel that we are doing something, that our prayers are making an actual difference. We want to believe in the words of the Unetaneh Tokef that our prayers will avert the evil decree. Or to use a phrase from the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we want our prayers to express the unique song we hold deep in our hearts and we want that song to be heard.

In thinking about another prayer that we want to matter, to make a difference, there is one that particularly comes to mind; it’s the one we’re about to recite right now…Yizkor. Look around the room and see how many of us are here not just because it’s Yom Kippur but because it’s Yizkor. I’ve always been amazed at how Yizkor, our opportunity to collectively remember the impact our deceased loved ones had on our lives, is able to draw such a crowd. On one hand, it must be because it is a comforting exercise. As we gather here together, some of us sitting by the plaques of our loved ones, we can sense their spirits or their souls present as we actively remember them in our prayers. We stand side by side, full of tears and heartache, missing our loved ones dearly, with our prayers supporting us by the strength of centuries’ old tradition, reminding us that we’re not alone. If our prayers are meant to be comforting, there is no greater example of a comforting prayer than the Yizkor service we are about to recite.

But I don’t think that comfort is all there is in our Yizkor prayers. Perhaps one of the reasons that many of us feel we can’t miss Yizkor is because the souls of our loved ones need our Yizkor prayers. When we recite specific prayers for our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons, daughters and all of our relatives and friends, we will utter the phrase – אנא תהא מנוחתו כבוד – Please, God, make my loved one’s eternal rest an honorable one. Perhaps this phrase in our prayers indicates that a part of us wants our prayers to uplift or support the souls of our loved ones as they exist…wherever they exist; a part of us wants our prayers to not just be rote recitation; a part of us want our prayers to truly matter, to truly make a difference, if not for us then assuredly for our loved ones.

That’s the funny thing about the m’shebeirakh for the ill or Yizkor, it is a relatively easy leap of faith to think that our prayers can have an impact on our loved ones, but thinking that our prayers can make a difference in our own lives, to not only express our song but help us sing it as well, that’s a much harder leap. It’s easier to simply find meaning in the comfort of common prayer and experiences in which we don’t have to think very hard about what we’re saying. The fact that we’re saying it, or that we’re surrounded by it, may be meaningful enough for us. Or to put it in David’s words, “the purpose of religion is to be comforting.”

Yet, while we must never lose sight of the truth that Judaism is the comfort of tradition, our challenge here at Beth Mordecai is to also hold the other truth at the same time, that Judaism is a deep yearning for a moving experience. We must not only rely on the comforting feeling of being surrounded by fellow Jews doing Jewish things; we must also strive to make the Jewish things we do make a difference to who we are as individuals and as a community. We must not only pray because that’s just what we do as Jews; we must also strive to bear in mind what our prayers mean and how we can beseech God to grant our deepest and most intimate desires. And we must not only pledge to give, as we are about to be asked to do, out of a sense of obligation to making sure our Jewish community continues to function; we must also yearn to give what we can to a place that helps our souls thrive because we are not one of many Jewish homes for any soul out there, we are the Jewish home for your soul. So today, when you’re reciting your Yizkor prayers, or the Unetaneh Tokef, or when you come back tonight to stand before the open ark at neilah or hear the shofar blast just one more, consider how these moments of prayer do not only say “that was nice, I can’t wait till next time,” but also “that was moving, I feel I was heard.” So as we continue to grow as individuals and as a community, may we never stop seeing our tradition as a source for comfort, and may we also never stop yearning for the prayers in our hearts and on our lips to be answered.

*Note: The High Holiday sermon for “Yom Kippur Day 5775” was delivered extemporaneously off of notes. This copy was the written draft used to create those notes. As such, the actual delivery of the sermon did not match word for word with this written draft.

Photo taken by C. Jill Reed on Flickr — http://www.flickr.com/photos/mulmatsherm/


Category : Rabbi Ritual Practice Sermons Yom Kippur
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