Yom Kippur Morning
September 14, 2013
Rabbi David Lipper
There was once a poor man who had not eaten for several days. One Saturday night, after all the stores had closed, he wandered downtown in search of food. Soon he passed a bakery, where he saw an oversized loaf of bread displayed in a window. Overcome by excruciating hunger pangs, he smashed the window, removed the bread, and ran down the street. The police were alerted who soon caught up with him. They arrested him, and he spent the remainder of the weekend behind bars.
On Monday morning, the man stood before the judge. The judge rendered an interesting decision. The man was sentenced to a week in jail for theft. However, the judge fined each member of the town 50 cents. Why? Because they had neglected a needy member of their community. They had shirked their collective responsibilities. True they had done nothing wrong, their apathy and lack of involvement led the judge to penalize them.
Abraham Joshua Heschel once proudly said … “some are guilty, all are responsible.”
A few years ago, I came across this remarkable little book that was on the NY Times list. It was written in 2005 by Elizabeth Lesser, a therapist and founder of a retreat center. The book is entitled “Broken Open”. It is about all the challenges we face in our lives, all the brokenness. Its about divorces and deaths, trouble with children or parents, its about job losses and working where you are unappreciated. Its about all of us and all our issues. And do we have issues….
Let’s begin with a story.
A man gets on a train. It’s crowded and there are very few seats. He spies a seat a few rows back and approached to claim it. As he neared, he saw that there was a suitcase on the seat and a man sitting next to it. He says: Excuse me, can you please move your baggage so I may sit? There was no response. More people are getting on the train, the aisle is getting crowded and all the seats fill up. Again he asks, can you please move your baggage? And again he was ignored. Normally a patient man, he gets very agitated for being ignored. He begins to shout. Baggage, baggage! Can you move it now! And still no answer. So the man in a fit a rage, grabs the baggage and throws it out the window of the moving train. Satisfied and somewhat exhausted, he sits in the now vacant seat and turns to the person sitting in the other seat there and challenges him, “Now what are you going to do!” “Nothing” he replied, “It was not my baggage!”
Now while we might have anticipated the slapstick ending to the story… the baggage has greater meaning for us today. What I learned from this story is that everyone has their baggage and many of us know it … but some of us do not. Everyone here has baggage. Some is light and we carry it well and effortlessly manipulate life so that our baggage doesn’t slow us down. Some of us deny that we even carry baggage. We, like the man on the train don’t own up to the baggage that follows us wherever we go. Still others are weighed down by the baggage they carry. The burden is so great that they are immobilized. Their burdens are heavy and they continue to grow and compound.
I was so taken by this story about the baggage we carry and the impact it has on our life that tonight I want to share with you what I believe is the core teaching from this book. It is called the Phoenix principle. Are you familiar with the mythical story of the Phoenix? The Egyptians called this bird the phoenix and believed that every 500 years; he renewed his quest for his true self. Knowing that a new way could only be found with the death of worn out habits, defenses, and beliefs; the Phoenix built a pyre of cinnamon and myrrh, sat in the flames and was burned to death. Then he rose from the ashes as a new being, a fusion of who he had been before and who he had become.
You and I are the Phoenix. We too can reproduce ourselves from the shattered pieces of a difficult time. Our lives ask us to die and be reborn every time we confront change – change within ourselves and change in our world. When we descend all the way down to the bottom of a loss, and dwell patiently, with an open heart, in the darkness and pain, we can bring back up with us the sweetness of life and the exhilaration of inner growth.
How many of us are struggling because of family loss, our own personal health issues, job struggles, the economic pressures, failures of self or family over the past year? I would venture a guess that no one here is immune from these burdens. We have all seen dreams shattered and goals made more distant. And if not personally, we have witnessed someone else’s world come crashing down as we have stood by not knowing how to respond.
Is there a Jewish answer? Does our tradition speak to the story of the Phoenix? In other words, how far must we fall before we can rise. So much reliance on faith. In the darkest times, we must reach inward to our faith and rise from the ashes which we feel may surround us.
Jewish people have, in the words of our prayer book, “survived oppression and exile, time and again overcoming the forces that would have destroyed us.” The prophets of Israel, who often foretold of impending disasters far worse than anything we have experienced or face, gave repeated assurance that dark days would not last forever. “Comfort, oh comfort my people,” writes Isaiah. “[God] will slake your thirst in drought, and renew your body’s strength; you shall be like a watered garden, like an unfailing spring. Your people shall rebuild the ancient ruins and lay the foundations for ages to come…I will cause you to ride upon the high places of the earth, and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. This is the promise of the Eternal.” And the Psalmist assures us, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” And thus it has proven to be. Despite everything, Am Yisrael chai! The Jewish People lives!
We enjoy greater freedom, security, prosperity, and opportunity than any generations in Jewish history and we should never take those blessings for granted. No matter how much we may have lost, hopefully temporarily, we still have more than most of our ancestors dreamed of possessing.
The things of infinite value are not material; they are personal and spiritual. They are loving relationships, good health, the chance to pursue happiness and experience beauty and meaning, the privilege of being Jews and Americans. Most important of all, we must lift our eyes from our own troubles and devote ourselves to helping others, to light candles rather than curse the darkness. All around us and right near by, there are people who need our love, concern, and assistance. Some of them are exposed to the elements year round and involuntarily, not just briefly and by choice, and need our material support. Others simply need a helping hand or a friendly word. Ironically, when we concentrate on the problems of others, our own are lightened. Maybe that is the key here. The Phoenix doesn’t just rise from the ashes, it must be lifted. That’s what our ancestors learned in the wilderness, Torah could not just rise from the flames of the burning bush, it had to lifted and carried by generations of people willing to bind themselves to its teachings. We need one another to rise from the ashes and become whole again. No one can do it alone.
Can the broken be made whole? Lesser writes these closing words:
Over and over we are broken on the shore of life. Our stubborn egos are knocked around, and our frightened hearts are broken open-not once, and not in predictable patterns, but in surprising ways and for as long as we live. The promise of being broken and the possibility of being opened are written into the contract of human life.
When you feel yourself breaking down, may you break open instead. May every experience in life be a door that opens to your heart, expands your understanding and leads you to freedom.
During our Holy Day liturgy, it is told that Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once mounted the pulpit in his congregation in fear and trembling. He wanted to find a way to convince God to grant his people a year of blessing and happiness. In his minds eye he saw the gates to God’s abode .. The gates of Repentance were closing before his people could enter. His students recorded his prayers …
“Lord of the universe, a simple Jew, if he drops his prayer book, he bends down and picks it is and kisses it. But You, dear God, have let your prayerbook, the Jewish people, fall from your hand into the dirt. Is it too much to ask of You to act like a simple Jew and pick us up and embrace us once again.”
Reb Yitzchak saw his words float heavenward and the very gates to God’s palace began to open, just a little.
What more could Reb Levi do? If pleading opened the gates part way, perhaps repentance would open them up the rest of the way. So, when Reb Levi reached the confessional, he began to weep,
“Woe upon us. We live in a mixed up world. It used to be that, in the streets, people told the truth while only in the synagogue did they speak falsehood. Since people carried on their business affairs in truth and honesty, when they came to the synagogue on High Holidays and said, “We have sinned,” they were really lying. But now, the opposite is the case. Falsehood reigns in the street and truth only in the synagogue. For now when people come to the synagogue and confess that they have sinned, how true it is.”
As he spoke, a bitter cry of remorse and repentance was heard throughout the synagogue. The cry mounted heavenward and opened the gates a little bit wider but not yet completely.
There was only one thing left for Reb Levi Yitzchak to do wage war. In his last desperate attempt to open wide the gates of heaven, Reb Levi Yitzchak lifted his eyes heavenward and declared,
“Let them speak and not I. Remember, God, the two rubles that the widow Sarah paid her son’s teacher, denying herself the dress she longed for. Remember too, the bowl of soup that the Yeshiva student gave his hungry classmate when he was hungry himself. Remember the strip of forest that Reb Hayim lost because he refused to go back on his word.” And on and on, cataloguing, one by one, the simple, kindly deeds of ordinary men and women–deeds of loving kindness and mercy.
And suddenly, as the congregation raised their eyes, they could see not only the gates of heaven open completely, but the Holy One, descended from the seat of judgment and mounted the seat of mercy, even as their prayers became a garland and rested upon God’s head.
Our T’shuvah…our renewal cannot be complete until we acknowledge our sins… our brokenness … our successes and our failures …as we do throughout the liturgy and ask Panim El Panim…face to face…for forgiveness. Only then…after all these conditions are met will our pure and clean selves come face to face with God.
To paraphrase Leo Baeck…”no one can substitute for us in our return. No one can atone for our sins; no one stands between us and God, no mediator or past event, no redeemer and no sacrament.”
Atonement is ours; It is our task and our way.
Dear God –
Break open our souls Cast away our baggage Open our eyes to the Beauty of a life filled with hope Help us stand with You Keep the Gates of Repentance open wide so that we may all enter And bless the work of our hands and hearts We stand before You with contrite hearts and weakened wills Take us into the wings of Your presence and embrace us with the wholeness of Peace and the promise of Eternal love.