Yom Kippur 5783

Yom Kippur and the journey of the heart
By Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins

A prayer of Moshe, the man of God.  “Adonai, you have been our refuge in every generation.  Before the mountains came into being, and before You brought forth the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity, you are everlasting God.  You turn humans to dust, You decreed, ‘Return, you mortals.’  For in Your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has past, like a watch in the night.  You engulf humans in sleep; at daybreak they are like grass that renews itself; at daybreak it flourishes anew; by dark it withers and dries up.…So teach us to number our days, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.”  (Psalm 90:1-6, 12)  Teach us to count our days…“Our destiny is mysterious in its details, but death is our destiny, the fate of every person we know and love.”  It is our fate as well.  (Leonard Gordon, as quoted in Lev Shalem, p. 315).That is the resounding message of Yom Kippur.  No food, no water, no sexual relations, robed in white like our funeral shrouds.  Death awaits, so make each day worth living, make each day count.  And the other resounding message of Yom Kippur? Acquire a heart of wisdom.  That heart of wisdom is acquired through the process of teshuvah – recognition, remorse, restitution and resolve.  Teach us to count our days that we may acquire a heart of wisdom, a heart of forgiveness and love.

Yom Kippur, with teshuvah at its core,  invites us on a journey from being hard-hearted, to broken hearted to living with a heart of wisdom.  We have seen many hard-hearted tyrants throughout the generations, beginning with Pharaoh.  And in these days, we suffer Putin, Khameni and Xi Jinping, among others.  Hard-heartedness seems to be a sign of our times, certainly evoked by our leaders, but do they not just reflect the values of society? One does not have to be a world leader to be hard-hearted.  How else can one explain domestic violence, sexual abuse and bullying? Or racism and antisemitism? And on this night, when all our prayers and confessionals are said in the plural, we acknowledge that we may not be the perpetrators, but standing idly by, putting all these problems in the “too hard basket” or blithely dismissing them as “woke” is hard-hearted as well.  It is our Australia that has locked up refugees in indefinite detention, both here and offshore, for the best years of their lives, unbelievably cruel and inhuman punishment.  In our name and on our watch.  Hard-hearted.  The First Nations of this land suffer structural racism as do many people of colour in our world. The First Nations of Australia are the most incarcerated people by proportion on the planet.  Do we really think they are an innately criminal people? Their children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates.  Do we really think that they don’t love their children? Like the Palestinians don’t? How often have we heard that said in our community? Hard-hearted.  The problems of the world are extremely complex, but to be hard-hearted is a choice, a decision we make to not recognise the other.  And sometimes that other is right within your family or has been one of your dearest friends. Yom Kippur is all about recognising our responsibility for the suffering in this world, for the pain of the other and with remorse, moving forward with forgiveness and love.

The following teaching about Teshuvah has been attributed to the late, great first chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, Harav Avraham Yitzchak Kook.  He writes: “Every sin, even the least egregious, plants within a person a dislike or hatred for some aspect of existence. When a person sins, he or she enters the world of separation; reality is comprehended as a series of isolated moments.  In that vision, evil is a thing in itself; it has a negative, destructive value.  But when one does teshuvah out of love, then immediately there sparks within that person the light of the world of unity, in which everything is seen as a single organism.” In other words, Kook teaches, as we do teshuvah we understand how our actions impact on existence itself; they are not separate from it.  We can continue on our hard-hearted ways of othering, or allow love to shine again through recognising another and connecting with them – and the only way to do that is through deep introspection, understanding the impact of our actions or inactions upon others. It is only as we do true teshuvah, when we recognise our wrongdoings and have remorse for them that we can truly transform our lives, our relationships and our society.  The Vidui, or confession, is the beginning of this process.  Note the tradition of tapping, or beating, one’s heart as the words of the vidui are recited.  Slowly, gradually, we can make little cracks in our hardened hearts, and we let the light of healing and the love through connecting flow in.  

A metaphor.  A story is told of Rabbi Akiva’s beginnings.  Rabbi Akiva – one of the greatest teachers in the milennia of Jewish history, one of the ten martyrs we recall as part of our Yom Kippur service.  “It is said: Up to the age of forty, he had not yet studied a thing. One time, while standing by the mouth of a well in Lydda, he inquired, ‘Who hollowed out this stone?’ and was told, ‘Akiva, haven’t you read that “water wears away stone” (Job 14:19)? – it was water falling upon it constantly, day after day.’ At that, Rabbi Akiva asked himself: Is my mind harder than this stone? I will go and study at least one section of Torah.”  (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 6:2).   Beginning at the age of 40, day by day, section by section, he went from no knowledge to becoming one of our greatest sages.  Are our hearts harder than that stone?  Water falling on it day after day.  Repentance raining upon our hearts, breaking our hearts open.  

Our Talmudic sages teach: We learned in a mishna (Pirkei Avot 2:10) that Rabbi Eliezer says: Repent one day before your death. Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance.  (Shabbat 153a) Every day we should be doing this practice of teshuvah (it’s in our daily prayers) – but we don’t, and so our hearts harden.  Just as Rosh HaShanah comes to remind us of the Shofar of Sinai and our commitment to the covenant, so too does Yom Kippur come to remind us of our death, our destiny, and the power of teshuvah.  Teshuvah – along with tefillah and tzedakah – makes our lives meaningful and significant; it shapes our destiny. Hard-hearted? Whole hearted?  As we number our days, as we confess our responsibility for the state of affairs in which we live, we break open hearts hardened by apathy, greed and fear.  Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu – let your heart break; broken-hearted, we allow ourselves to feel remorse, to hear the cry of those in pain, to know their suffering.  We enable ourselves to see life from the perspective of the other.   As our tradition teaches, “true sacrifices to God are a broken spirit, a contrite and broken heart.” (Psalm 51:19). 

These ten days of teshuva have been guiding us, through scripture and prayer, to break open our hardened-hearts and walk a path of forgiveness and love. If the first steps of teshuvah are recognition and remorse, as practiced in the vidui, the next steps are restitution and resolve.  The teaching in Psalms, “God heals our broken hearts and binds up our wounds”  (Psalm 147:3) is not through grace, but through the process of teshuvah.  The next steps of teshuvah, restitution and resolve, heal our hearts and make them whole again.  Restitution – to make right by others; resolve – to do right by others.  That is the true heart of wisdom.  

Every faith tradition has guidance as to what it means to live with a heart of wisdom.  Our tradition has thousands of years of collective insight.  The first teaching comes from the story of the covenant between God and Avraham, whom we call our father and recognise as the founder of our faith, who is told to “walk before God and be blameless.”  To walk before God means to have one’s conscience always fully present, to recognise that we are all connected within the one, each life sacred and vested with human dignity.  To be blameless means to be whole hearted and not to strip that dignity away from the other. As the Psalmist teaches: “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech; keep away from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:14-15).  Word and deed.  From prophets to sages, rabbis to exemplars, we know what is required of us.  Justice and loving-kindness, humility and generosity of spirit. 

A refrain from the great 12th century philosopher poet, Yehuda HaLevi, encapsulates our path of heart: If I could see God’s face within my heart …and if we could actually imagine God’s face within our heart, our machzor continues, then: “I’d see the human face in a thousand acts of mercy – the one who gives bread to the hungry and shelters the lost, who hears the voice of grief and makes room for the stranger; who brings relief to the blind, the bent, the unjustly imprisoned; and is true to the essence of holy work: resisting evil, healing brokenness, easing pain; and, in the end, forgiving ourselves and others as God forgives us.  

Yom Kippur is the ultimate day of forgiveness and love, of learning what it means to live with a heart of wisdom.  So may our hardened-hearts break open and may our broken hearts bring healing.  We resolve to walk a path of goodness and kindness, humility and generosity. We must repent the day before we die, and with that day being the greatest of mysteries, then: we practice teshuvah this Yom Kippur, and then tomorrow, and the day after and the day after again. Let us learn to number our days to live with a heart of wisdom. Then it may be said of us when we die: “mark the whole-hearted and regard the person of integrity; for their legacy shall be wholeness and peace, shalom”.  (Psalm 37:37)


Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio

Willow turned to me and said, “what’s in a MacDonalds Big Mac?” Quick as a wink I recited: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun” the ingredients of a MacDonalds Big Mac. How do I know this? It was the late 1970s and my brother and I were competing to see who could recite the ingredients of the Big Mac the fastest and in so doing complete what today would have been called the #bigmacchallenge. I am not sure why we did it, there were no prizes, no rewards, just the challenge issued by MacDonalds to recite the formula as fast as possible. How many people here, like me, have that formula embedded in their brain, taking up valuable space that could be used for other things? What about the Louis the fly song? Mortein’s most famous jingle. Or the Nike slogan, voted as one of the best advertising campaigns in history, three words, “Just Do It.” The incredible power of advertising to make something desired, trendy, to help us know that we need something in our lives, that we should seek it out, buy it, have it, own it. It will bring happiness, satisfaction, it will change our lives for the better. All the things I would argue Judaism and religion can bring into our lives, but the second I suggest it, I hear everyone switching off. We are spiritual, not religious. We have a spiritual yearning but will not seek a home in our religious traditions because they are staid, stuck, have nothing to say in our modern world, they are tied to strict rules and traditions and conformity with things we can’t abide. Religion peddles in miracles and stories which counter science and beggar belief. And really, what do what a bunch of people in the desert, who probably did not even exist, have to teach us in our world today? I believe that there is a deep need for religion, for Judaism and its values and teachings but we have a PR problem.

As a result, I see communities and congregations bending over backwards to attract people, to show religion as relevant for today by speaking in hashtags, trying to talk the language of the trendy: tying ourselves into pretzel shaped knots to try and connect with a modern sensibility. Kanye West has his Sunday Service, he insists it’s not church. He has a range of religious service clothing, marketed to the young and trendy, he even has Jesus sneakers with a little water in the soles so that everyone can feel like Jesus, walking on water. I kid you not, and they are available for the mere price of 7 instalments of $316US. And you thought synagogue membership was expensive! Maybe it’s time for a Saturday Service at the Synagogue, with Shabbat sandals, complete with emergency chicken soup and keneidlach built in. We are trying to compete in a world of marketing and merchandise and what happens is we end up looking ridiculous. Like when I used the term “slay” in front of my daughter the other day, she rolled her eyes and told me I must never, ever under any circumstances use that word again. I believe we are doing ourselves a disservice when we try and make Judaism cool, to try and join the PR machine and sell it to our people. Instead, we need to return to the heart of what it is, what it means for us and for our world. To strip away all the extraneous dressing, the trendy sneakers and clothes, the hastags and cool words and touch a little eternity, to link and connect with the deep teachings, the guidance and comfort, the nurturing, inspiring beauty of the timeless truths of what it is to live a religious life, because our world needs it, we need it, now more than ever. We have in our hands the most precious of jewels, but we cannot see its beauty because it is in the depths of the baggage that we carry when it comes to faith, religion and dare I say it, God. These words have become laden with meanings which are not true to their essence, they have been hijacked by others and it is time for us to reclaim them, to understand how they can guide us and help us with the challenges of our world and our lives which are difficult and complicated and where we need Judaism more than ever.

There is an epidemic of loneliness. We are siloing ourselves into small compartments and separating from one another and when we do, our society has become so polarised that there are less and less opportunities for us to meet and connect with people who disagree with us. The Pew Report said that in 2020 80% of Americans did not have any friends who held different political views. Where we used to discuss and debate opinions with our families, friends and others around the shabbat table, that is happening less and less. Our internet feeds are bursting with articles and opinions that the algorithm feeds us, which align with our own. Even our Netflix and streaming services feed us material which is the same as what we are already watching. The opportunity for hearing and listening to others is becoming less and less.

But our Jewish community gives us a place where we come together with people across the spectrum of politics and religious practice. We hear the uncomfortable, we are challenged to work out what we believe, where we fit. We are called upon to engage in respectful dialogue with others, to listen and hear, to ask the big and important questions about who we are, why we are here our meaning and purpose. We are called upon to sit and dwell in the uncertainty, the discomfort, to meet and interact with others in all the messiness that entails.

We have forgotten how to debate, argue and discuss in ways which honour the other and not demonise them. In a brilliant essay entitled: “Uncivil Wars: How Contempt is Corroding Democracy” Walid Aly and Scott Stephens demonstrate how we are losing the ability to argue with one another on the plane of ideas and instead are treating each other with contempt. We demonise the person making the argument, we cancel them. They say: “instead of our opponents being … mistaken, unwise, naïve…animated by a different hierarchy of values…distinct from but nonetheless commensurate with our own… we tell ourselves and anyone who will listen that our opponents are… bigoted, toxic, dangerous… fundamentally dishonest- in a word, inferior in every way that matters…they are reduced to tribal avatars.” This, they suggest is destroying the very foundation of democracy which relies not on just differences of opinion but also the openness and willingness to listen to the other, to be open to having your mind changed by an argument, or at least to have an exchange of ideas, and not merely be shouted at by statements made without any nuance.

Yet, this is a fundamental teaching in Judaism. We have always dwelled in the place of debate and discussion, interaction and engagement. We are taught that every passage of Torah has 70 different interpretations and it is for us to uncover them by turning it and turning it like a jewel to see and discover all the possible understandings. There is no one truth, no single path. Two of the greatest rabbis of our tradition, Hillel and Shammai were in constant opposition. Of the two, Hillel was lauded because he always gave preference to the arguments of others, he listened and heard, and even though he often disagreed, he did so with respect and honour for the human being in opposition.

Even God in our tradition is open to hearing the argument of others and models graciousness in defeat. In the well-known debate about the kashrut of an oven, Rabbi Eliezer disagrees with all of his colleagues. He calls on signs from God to prove that he is correct. Three miracles and even the voice of God and Eliezer’s detractors will not be swayed. They counter with God’s own words “The Torah is not in the heavens” You God, have given us the Torah, it is now for us to interpret it and this is what we have decided. In response God laughed saying “my children have defeated me!” These debates and arguments according to our tradition, are arguments for the sake of heaven. They are a model for discourse and disagreement. We do not need to “other” the person with whom we disagree, we do not need to label them, to attack their integrity or their person, rather we debate ideas and we find room and space to listen and hear, removing the polarisation.

But this can only happen when we hear the voice of our tradition which calls on us to see the human being, to argue for the sake of heaven, to understand and know one another. Part of our feelings of isolation and loneliness stem from the fact that we do not feel valued, seen or heard. Our voice is lost in the vast cacophony of sound, Judaism reminds us that we are important, each one of us is significant and needed, we are unique individuals but also part of a greater unity and one-ness.

These last years of Covid have reminded us of our lack of control over the vicissitudes of life, it has laid into stark relief what we all know in our hearts but refuse to believe. We want to control our world, to have everything be neat and ordered. We santise our lives, we are told we should be happy all the time that we can manipulate our environment to be whatever we want it to be. I have recently heard that we are even turning away from watching the news bulletins because it is upsetting and makes us feel out of control, so we put our head in the sand and avoid anything which makes us feel bad.

But then life happens, we recognise most things are out of our control and we are pushed off centre. We want answers but believe that religion with its certainty, dogma and pat responses cannot possibly provide what we need. But faith is actually the opposite of strict rules and simple answers. It calls on us to dwell in the uncertainty, to understand that we don’t have the answers but it reminds us to ask the questions, to grapple together with finding meaning, a reason for being, hope in the future. It challenges our assumptions, calls on us to feel discomfort, something we don’t like to do.

And the Torah is a radical document, at the forefront of change. It introduced the idea of all people being created equal and free. Unlike the prevailing wisdom of the time, that some are slaves, others are kings, you are born into a life of privilege or degradation, that we should surrender to fate. Judaism spoke loudly and challenged, it said all people are equally worthy, all people have the spark of holiness, none is more privileged than another by reason of birth. And the prophets were iconoclasts, agitating for change, calling for justice, speaking truth to power. Today, when we feel life is so out of our control, when it seems there is nothing we can do, we are called to lift our eyes, to look and see, to listen and make change. We are reminded that we are powerful and together we can make a difference. And we do not have to do it all and we don’t have to do it alone. Lo aleicha hamlacha ligmor, you do not have to complete the task, ve lo ata bein chorin lehibatel mimena, but neither are we free to walk away from it. But the burden is not carried alone, and that is the power of community, of being part of something greater than ourselves.

So why are we not turning to religion for the answers? Why, when presented with the question: “are you a person of faith?” “What is your religion?” More and more people answer, “I am not religious, I am spiritual.” We know there is a deep human need for connection to spirit, but we don’t know where and how to find it.

David Tacey used to teach a university course in spirituality and it was always over-subscribed with young people, many averse to religion and God. He noticed that many of them had significant challenges in their young lives, were dealing with anxiety, depression, had siblings who had lost their lives to accidents, drugs, parents who were ill, others who had separated. Almost all of the students had a need, a craving, were searching, because, he argues, spirituality is a human instinct and it is just the last 100 years we have tried to live without it. He says that he finds his student body spiritually starved and intellectually ill-equipped to approach the transcendent meaning and questions in their lives. As we have moved away from formal religious communities, he argues, we have lost the language, the ability, to have those bigger conversations about meaning, purpose, life itself.

David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech to Kenyon College argued that there are no atheists, that all humans worship something. He says: “Everybody worships, the only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some kind of god or spiritual type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” For some, it is power, for others it is wealth or beauty or intellect but the trap is that if we worship any of these, we will always end up wanting, we will never be powerful enough or wealthy enough, or beautiful enough or smart enough, but, he argues, our unconscious default setting is to turn to these false idols rather than our religious communities. It is here that we can find something to worship which is bigger than ourselves. Where we can we touch and link with something beyond the rational, beyond the here and now, to realise what is important, and discover where we sit in the vast cosmic universe. That is what can bring us comfort, strength and satisfaction. And there is something incredibly powerful about our voices being joined with those thousands of years before us, that we can have conversations about meaning and life which are not new, but ever evolving.

In our divided world, we need to be reminded of our common humanity. We group ourselves together based on difference, we constantly express the ways that others do not understand us, we have sectionalised society into so many small parts that sometimes we forget that there is more which unites us than divides us. We need to see ourselves in the face of the other in order to bring empathy, compassion and love into our encounters, into our disagreements and our celebrations. Judaism constantly reinforces our oneness, Judaism’s central teaching, shema, states that there is a connection and link between us. God created one human being in the garden of Eden, “male and female God created them” and we all descend from that human. The midrash asks “God is God, why not create a world full of people? Why create one singular human?” they answer that it is to teach us that we all come from the same source, no-one is better than another, no-one is greater, we are all one.

And that sense of the sacredness of all humanity is lost not only in our daily interactions but on the political stage as well. Dr. Rachel Kohn in her incredible book of essays about religion, from her decades of research and writing on this subject, says that when we outsource moral responsibility to third parties and governments, they have proven incapable of enacting the laws to deliver the common good. Our political systems are driven by elections and the voracious 24 hour news cycle and the larger questions get lost in the noise of what declarations, moral posturing and no opportunity for discussion and dialogue. We have created a separation between politics and the big questions of morality and justice, of hope and dreaming, and as a result we have a barrage of policies and statements about the now, divorced from any of the bigger ideas and long term vision for ourselves and our world.

Rachel Kohn argues that a culture of healthy religion is the antidote to the problems of no religion at all. We need to return religion to the public square, to find a way to be in discussion and dialogue with one another and to bring the values and shared vision of our religious and faith traditions back into the conversation.

It is time for us to reverse the last 100 years of pushing religion away and to find its beauty again, to be inspired by its timeless teachings.

It’s time for us to come home to our community.

It’s time for us to see the humanity in others, to be in the messiness of relationships where we disagree, where we feel discomfort.

It is time for us to hear the voices of those around us and learn again to listen deeply.

It’s time for us to be with each other in pain and struggle, happiness and joy.

It’s time to use the strength and courage that comes from knowing we are loved and seen and heard, to go out and do good.

It’s time for us to invite moral questions back into our conversations and find meaning, not just for ourselves but for our society.

It is time to be inspired and find our reason for being, our place in this vast universe.

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we read, “adam yesodo meafar ve sofo le afar” “we humans are mortal, dust is our origin and dust is our end, we are a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, dust on the wind, a dream that flies away” but we are challenged to be more than mere dust on the wind, we are called to make meaning of our time, to elevate our brief journey on earth by listening to the call of our spirits to connect with something greater than ourselves, and then join together in sacred community to dream and hope and shape an everlasting good. May we take that journey of the spirit together with Judaism and its eternal teachings as our guide.

Gamar Chatima Tova

Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio

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