Words of Torah and Poetry from our Tefilah
Rabbi’s divre Torah:
Rosh Hashanah 5770 (link)
Yom Kippur 5770 (link)
Heart-Shaped Stones (link)
The Gift of Time (link)
The Swan (link)
Past Steering Committee Chair Leslie Dolin’s Yom Kippur d’var Torah:
When a Jewish holiday comes around, a story often comes with it, usually stories of imperfect people overcoming obstacles. Sometimes these stories tell us why we are celebrating the holiday — think about Passover and the Exodus story, Purim and Esther, Hanukkah and the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil. We like a story with our holiday rituals, telling us why we do what we do.
Sometimes, though, these stories have a more obscure relationship to the holiday, one that we may not see at first. Rosh Hashana has it’s stories in the Torah portions we read: The expulsion of Hagar from Abraham’s house, or the binding of Isaac. We even get a bonus in the Haftarah on Rosh Hashanah’s first day: the story of Hannah praying for a child. This year our Rabbi spoke about why we read one of those stories – the akeda – about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac – as we began this period of introspection. It is a gripping story, even if it is hard to see why we read it as a new year begins.
But now we come to Yom Kippur morning, a time when we could use a good story to keep us going. And what do we have? Endless details about how the high priests do the Yom Kippur sacrifices, followed by an extra portion describing the the holiday and what sacrifices we are to bring to the temple. Then a haftarah from Isaiah, beautiful and hopeful, yes, but a bit of a harangue about how we should be acting. And though we will read the alternate Torah reading this afternoon, you might want to check out the traditional reading (in our machzor) for something possibly even more difficult to deal with. Not until afternoon, many hours from now, do we finally get a story – in the haftarah for the afternoon service – the story of Jonah – to focus our minds. What is this, another way to afflict us?
The rabbis must have chosen these Torah and haftarah selections to be our holiday readings for a reason, and like the akeda, those reasons may not be obvious. Last year was the first time we read this traditional Torah reading about the Yom Kippur sacrifices, instead of the one the Reform movement substituted for the sacrifices. Last year I spoke about how we moderns, who most likely don’t like the idea of animal sacrifice or want reinstitute it in a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, can deal with this reading, and why our tradition (except for the Reform movement) might keep it as our Yom Kippur morning reading.
This year let’s take a closer look at the haftarah for this morning, which is from the book of Isaiah. You are probably familiar with part of it — the most famous section is on the on the bags for our food drive … and the rest is in your machzor – but no page turning while I am speaking, please. Here are a few lines to help you remember:
5 Is such the fast I desire,
A day for people to starve their bodies?…
6 No, this is the fast I desire:…
7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
This ties in nicely with Shir Tikvah’s education theme for this year of mitzvot, what we are commanded to do, doesn’t it? Isaiah tells us that ritual is important, but righteous action is even more so. Both are commanded, both are mitzvot, and we need and must do both. That’s why we read them.
There, that was easy. I can sit down now.
Well, of course those of you Torah and Talmud study regulars know nothing is ever quite so straightforward.
Each of us comes to Jewish ritual in different ways, and we want varying amounts of ritual in our lives. Some of us are new to it, some of us are learning and taking on more, some of us back away from it for a while. But we are all here today in this room. We are not the ones Isaiah mentions that “on your fast day see to your business.” (I know some of those who always fast on Yom Kippur, but other than that it is a regular day) Why are you here?
We each also take on mitzvot in different ways. We all try, I think, to be “good people” and to feed the poor and not oppress others. And we take on other Jewish mitzvot such as keeping Kosher and doing Torah study to varying degrees, as time and inclination allow. Where are you in the doing of mitzvot?
And yet even in those mitzvot that we want to do, those things we consider part of being a good, moral, person, we repeatedly fail. And when we succeed in fixing one thing, something else pops up that needs work. Are you perfect yet?
As a people too, both in our Tanach stories and in later history, we see ourselves failing repeatedly in doing what God wants, but then the remnants dust themselves off and try again. Our haftarah expresses this, as Isaiah cheers the possibility of returning (both to our own land, and metaphorically to God’s ways).
14 [Adonai] says:
Build up, build up a highway!
Clear the road!
Remove all obstacles
From the road of My people!….
16 For I will not always contend,
I will not be angry forever:
But all is not perfect, as the Israelite people are not following all of God’s mitzvot. We’ve made a start, but there is more that we must do. We follow the rituals – and we think those connect us to God – but we neglect those that connect us to others in our community.
1 Cry with full throat, without restraint;
Raise your voice like a ram’s horn!
Declare to My people their transgression,
To the House of Jacob their sin.
2 To be sure, they seek Me daily,
Eager to learn My ways.
Like a nation that does what is right,
That has not abandoned the laws of its God,
They ask Me for the right way,
They are eager for the nearness of God:
3 “Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
4 Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
We may not feel comfortable with the way Isaiah tells us to do better. We don’t like being harangued and nagged. But we all are here today, year after year, struggling to do better, to stop saying the wrong thing, to do more to help others. What brings us back? One might think we’d give up, having failed for too many years, for example, to control our anger. One might think we’d just say, accept me for who I am for I cannot change.
Recently the New York Times magazine had some articles about educating children for success. For many years, the “self-esteem movement” has tried to give children the tools to succeed by making sure each child knew they were wonderful and capable. I think this type of thinking spread to families, who began to fear that struggling with something might hurt their child’s self-esteem, and who complain to teachers if their children didn’t get as good a grade as they thought they should. And the idea of always assuming your child was right and the teacher was wrong did not make sense. It is natural not to want your child to be hurt, and to want them to do well, but it always seemed to me that it was difficult to tell where self-esteem would stop and vanity and arrogance begin. How do you balance self-esteem with concern for others?
Today we are seeing that these overprotected kids, as they move into the world, often don’t have the internal resources to come back easily from any sort of failure or difficulties. They collapse when things go wrong and wait for parents to bail them out.
On the other hand, children who have to figure things out for themselves, to struggle a bit to solve a problem, usually end up stronger, and with better tools to have a meaningful and productive life. It is beginning to look like children need to fail sometimes in order to succeed. There is great worth in the struggle.
This also fits in with recent research that if you ask most American children (and probably adults too) why someone gets good grades, they will answer, “They are smart.” If you ask students in other countries, especially in Asia, they will say, “they work very hard.” American students think abilities are innate, and there is not much one can do to change that. In other countries, they feel that if you work hard and struggle, you can do better.
Maybe we Jews have always been on the cutting edge with our yearly struggle to better ourselves. Research seems to be showing we’ve had the right idea for thousands of years. We’ve don’t tell ourselves, “we are the best!”. We’ve never asked God, “Accept me as I am, for I cannot change.” We don’t (or shouldn’t) think, “It’s OK to do this now. I can atone on Yom Kippur.”
We come once a year and examine our failures. Perhaps in our hearts we know that it is better to do this than to give up.
We also don’t say, “I can do this on my own.” We come to shul and with the support of our community, we do our final work. The ritual helps also, though we may not understand why or how. There is a place for individual struggle, but support from others helps so much, so I am glad this room is full this morning.