Sermon: Erev Yom Kippur – Making Space in Our Lives

Erev Yom Kippur 5774
Temple B’nai Chaim
September 14, 2013

Making space in our lives

The sun has set as we gathered in this prayerful place. We ready ourselves for a “marathon” of sorts, sprinting through the liturgy, drinking from the waters of our own salvation and readying to cross the finish line through the gates of a renewed year, unencumbered by the past and free to confront our future. This time is priceless. I am reminded of a neighbor of mine when I lived in Jerusalem who refused weekly to accompany me to Shul on Shabbat. He was not religious. But, there he stood with his 2-year-old son on his shoulders at the door to the synagogue in our neighborhood on Kol Nidre … to hear the words that charge our souls.

Sweet is this gathering of friends and family. Sweeter is the beauty of the music, the tenor of the prayers, the feeling of faith and fate, which we bring with us. Even sweeter still is the gathering in this sacred space, our sanctuary so filled with people. I don’t know about you but I was a bit farklempt when all the Torah’s came out of the Ark. That image should be played in our minds over and over again.

But this is also a difficult time for people in our community. It is hard for those who take the Holy Days seriously, whose souls are caught up in the race to the gates of repentance. The clock ticks by each hour and there is nothing we can do but change our lives and the longer we wait, the less time remains for change. It is difficult to fill the holes in our lives created by loss. The memories of family fill our hearts with longing. Yom Kippur, a time of remembrance, is one of those moments in the year when our memory seem sharper. It is also hard because of the vulnerabilities we face. We are blemished. The prayers we say expose our individual flaws. Yom Kippur brings all of this to the surface. There is no hiding now. This is the season of renewal. We speak of change and turning but speaking is easier than doing. The redundancy of rehearsing the liturgy each year stretches the limits of our patience. We try again to do the things that will make the vows different. But it is hard. We want to think well of others, and ourselves, but it is hard.

It was William Blake who wrote that, ‘great things happen when men and mountains meet.” If that mountain is a mountain in time, then our encounter has the potential of uplifting us, transforming us, and bringing something great and wonderful into our lives.

I was recently flipping through the channels on my TV and I came across what I think was the Discovery Channel, or the Animal Channel, or some such nature channel. They were showing a program on tigers, and I tuned to see a magnificent Bengal tiger running, leaping through empty space, desire propelling her beautiful musculature. The tiger’s overpowering strength crushed her prey to the ground. While the unlucky goat was still alive and struggling, the tiger began to feast, gorging on the warm, bloody flesh. She ate and ate. Long after her hunger had been satiated, long after there seemed no more empty space left inside her, she stuffed more and more into her stomach. Finally, she slowly stood up, shook herself, and began to stagger away, her belly full and grossly distended, almost dragging in the dust. What a change had come over that animal. The speed and agility that had propelled her through empty space was now gone, her own being weighed down, heavy, slow, and listless as she carried the weight of the undigested goat.

Haven’t we all done that? Gorged ourselves well past the point of being full? (Isn’t that what summer picnics, birthday parties, Thanksgiving and holiday dinners are for?) After these meals, we look a lot like that Bengal Tiger, dragging ourselves along, weighed down, heavy, listless—so very, very full.

Being full of food passes after an hour or two. Soon the tiger is up and leaping; soon I am walking briskly along the beach. The fullness from food passes, but not so the fullness and weight of our undigested lives.

We live lives that are very full—lives we stuff with lots of appointments and projects and deadlines and emails and phone calls and faxes and schedules and obligations. We’ve been handed lives that are very full—full of family and children and grand children, aging parents, aging spouses, aging selves, bills and budgets and visits to the doctor and mortgage payments and pension checks and credit cards and shopping trips to Home Depot. We are battered by lives that are very full—full of headlines screaming ‘Earthquake!’ and sound bites shouting “Terror!” and political reports heralding ‘scandal!’ We are burdened with lives that are very full—full of unmet needs, depression and loneliness. We live lives that are very full—full of lost confidence, regret, shame . . full of the fear of death.

There is so much in us and around us that we cannot begin to digest it all. Is it any wonder we sometimes feel like we simply drag ourselves along, weighed down, so heavy.

An Ancient Wisdom Story:

A blackbird found a large piece of food in the village and lit out into the sky with the food in its beak. The food filled her mouth. A flock of blackbirds chased after her and raucously attacked the food, pulling at it with loud cries and heavy flapping of wings. Weighted down, the blackbird finally let go of the last piece, and the frenzied flock left her alone. The bird swooped and dived and thought, “I have lost the food but I have regained the peaceful sky.”

Letting go of something we’ve been holding, finding the peaceful sky, creating more space in life—these are the gifts within Yom Kippur. During these most solemn moments, we acknowledge and ask forgiveness for the wrongdoings, the unskillful choices, that we have layered on our lives through the past year. We begin this day full of reflection, remembrance, confession, and reconciliation. It is a day to admit to yourself, to others, to the Holy, and most importantly, to those you’ve wronged, that you take responsibility for your actions. It is a day to empty oneself from the fullness of the past.

Fasting — twenty-five hours with no eating and no drinking. Now, the idea of that kind of fast can sound brutal to many people, like a punishment for wrongdoing. But the concept behind fasting is not to deprive a guilty person of something good. Rather, the fast is used to create a sacred space within the otherwise full life of a person. So, what is usually filled with food, snacks, cookies, coffee, soda, is suddenly transformed into an open and empty space. Symbolically—and literally—a space is opened up. The Spirit of Life can enter.

A Jewish fable:

There was a man who wanted to speak with his Rabbi. He phoned and said: “Rabbi Levy, I need to talk with you right away. My heart is so troubled. I need something more in my life. I need to find my purpose, my reason for being here. I’m not getting any younger, you know, I want to know life’s meaning. I want to feel my joy!” “Wonderful, my son,” said Rabbi Levy, “I could meet with you this afternoon.” “I have an appointment with my broker,” said the man. “How about tomorrow morning at 9 AM?” asked Rabbi Levy. The man replied: “No can do, I’ve got a meeting scheduled at the office.” “How about Saturday, after service.” “I’ve got a brunch with my brother.” Said Rabbi Levy: “My son, how can you expect to receive anything if your hands are already full?”


Aren’t we all here because, in some way, we are looking to receive something? Aren’t we all looking, in some way, for something to come into our lives? Perhaps we want to experience a sense of peace, of gentleness, of being content with what we have. Perhaps we want a connection to community, to feel that we belong somewhere. Perhaps we want to make a friend. Perhaps we want to be reminded that hope is still alive in the world. Perhaps we just want to feel better for one day. Perhaps we want some quiet reflection time. Maybe we want our children or grandchildren to learn another way of looking at the world, and secretly wish that we could learn that, too. Perhaps we just want to see our old friends. Perhaps we want to be in a place that will hold us as we grow older, and offer gentle hands as we come to die. Perhaps we want to know there is something bigger, bigger than us, something we can hold onto, maybe something that could hold onto us. Perhaps we want to believe in ourselves again. Perhaps we want to be forgiven. Perhaps what we want is something so deep and personal that we’ve never whispered to another person. Or perhaps we don’t even know what draws us here.

How can we expect to receive anything if our hands are already full?”

On this day of Yom Kippur, I suggest that we must create the spiritual and emotional space our lives so desperately need. Let us use our fast for good, make our own emptying, so we can regain the peaceful sky. What could that space look like in your life? What could you do, symbolically, or literally, to make more space, to open up your life?

—Is there something we’ve been holding onto, something we could let go of?

—Is there a confession we need speak, to ourselves or to another?

—Is there an apology we could make?

—Is there something or someone we need to forgive?

—Is there a closet we could clean out?

—Is there a truth we need to admit?

—Is there a drink we can put down?

—Is there a celebration we can plan?

—Is there an invitation we could give?

—Is there a phone call long past due?

—Is there a word we can speak?

—Is there a decision we can make?

—Is there an appointment we can cancel?

—Is there a walk we can take?

—Is there a nap we could enjoy?

—Is there a bath we can soak in?

—Is there a sky we can gaze into?

—Is there a hand we can hold?

One moment claimed won’t solve our lifetime. But one conscious moment of space can become a beginning. For there is great power in creating space—the space to feel our emotions: our anger, our joy, our impatience, our confusion, our delight. There is great healing in creating space—the space to mourn the loss of our youth, our idealism, our health, our marriage, our child. There is great energy in creating space—the space to dance wildly, to sing loudly, to shout joyfully.

There is great wholeness in creating space—the space to accept the things we cannot change; to change the things we can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

An easy fast to all …