Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5772/2011
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we participate in a very dramatic prayer called the “Al Chet.” Often, in our service, I lead by proclaiming “Al Chet She Hatanu Lefanecha,” and we all come in together, “For the sin that we have committed against You…” and we name a sin and pound our chests. Or at least I do.
It’s important to know that the actual translation of “Chet” isn’t sin—it’s “missing the mark.” The original meaning of the word “chet” was to miss the bull’s eye, or the center of the target, as with a bow and arrow.
Using “chet” as a word for sin during Yom Kippur speaks volumes about what sin is and is not in Judaism. The word “chet” implies that sin isn’t an aberrant, evil act totally divorced from a decent life. It isn’t a bad deed for which we are going to burn in hell.
According to Judaism, none of us are intrinsically “bad.” Furthermore, in Judaism, no one is really expected to be “bad.” In Judaism, we are created in the image of God and therefore basically and intrinsically Good. When we enter the sanctuary on Yom Kippur, the presumption on the part of God and this rabbi and this prayer book is that we all have pretty much tried to live good lives. Being human, however, it is understood we have not been entirely successful. We have missed the mark, or overshot the target altogether. Occasionally some of us have even—accidentally—shot our neighbor in the… shall we say, lower posterior region.
Frankly, I don’t know much about archery beyond the fact that I am not good at it though I have never—to my knowledge—shot anyone anywhere. While I embrace “chet” as an important teaching about sin, I do not find it a fully adequate metaphor for what sin might be in my life.
Most specifically, I do not see how there can be a single target—called, shall we say, “Good”—that we try again and again to hit precisely and keep missing. I cannot identify that target clearly in my own life, and I don’t like shooting things anyway. Therefore, this metaphor doesn’t fully work for me. I can only assume that it doesn’t entirely work for most of you here today as well. You can correct me later if I am wrong (and I know you will).
While I do not know much about archery, I do know a little about boat navigation and have occasionally considered it as a metaphor for my attempts at leading a moral and ethical life. When I was young, my dad taught me that the basic technique for navigating a motorboat on a lake is to simply line up the bow of the boat with a specific point on the distant shore and head right for it. On the way, you have to keep adjusting the rudder for the winds and currents that throw you off course and you watch for submerged rocks and trees. This, then, could be my moral and ethical life: a goal towards which I head, ever wary of and responding to those vicissitudes of life that could throw me off course, or try to sink me altogether.
Sometimes, however, life isn’t as clear and neat as all that. For those times my motorboat becomes a sailboat. In a sailboat, you have the place where you would like to go, but between the winds and currents, you might have to tack back and forth, ostensibly going in every direction but toward that goal in order to finally obtain it. There have been times that I thought sailing could thus be a metaphor for someone trying to live a good life in this modern world as well.
However, lately I have become impatient with all the above models or metaphors: arrow hitting its mark or boat reaching safe harbor. Basically I do not know what that far off target is or where that harbor.
Frankly, I don’t think lives are lived that way at all—directed the entire time toward a single goal or destination. I doubt if there are very many people here who can name one goal or destination towards which they have directed themselves unceasingly all their lives to the exclusion of all others. Most of us have a myriad of goals and ambitions, some of them changing—being completed or falling away—many in competition with each other: get the kids through high school and college, lose a few pounds, take the dog to obedience school, be kinder to our spouse. This is the real stuff of daily living, all of which involving an ongoing effort to be a good person—spouse, parent, dog owner—all of which entail an overall commitment as well as daily dedication and decision making.
In this effort and sometimes struggle, the image of a point or a target on the far shore towards which we are navigating is not very helpful. Besides which, I still do not know what that point is.
If it represents “Good,” capital “G” or the “Good Life”, capital “G” capital “L,” then it is too distant and nebulous to inform our process. The ideal or destination of Good way over there does not help me in the moment to moment moral struggle that is my life in this world. It lends me no tools and provides me no concrete guidance in raising children, being a good spouse, a responsible rabbi, or effective dog trainer.
And if that final destination over there towards which I am aiming my arrow or pointing by bow is, indeed, the Final Destination, Death, I simply cannot conceive of myself directing my life towards Death as a goal. As a Jew, death holds no punishment or reward that informs my path or influences my decisions. This is not to say that in Judaism we have no ideas of reward or punishment after death, but rather that it is not our religious path as Jews to live our lives by the promise of heaven or the punishment of hell. It’s simply not in our moral/ethical equation.
So, as much as “chet” as a term can teach us about our intrinsic goodness and how Judaism views sin, and as much as I love all manner of boats and boating, I am ready to announce that these metaphors need to be replaced with images closer to our lives and more helpful to our daily path.
Now, autumn in New England affords us some lovely metaphorical possibilities. I personally love the fields of sunflowers, growing towards the sky, ever turning their bright and dark faces toward the light. They offer singular beauty and actual food to bird, bee and human alike. Unfortunately, while I find it inspiring, I can’t use the image of the sunflower to make ethical decisions. Inspiration and beauty are important, but they aren’t enough.
Similarly, the corn maze up in Hollis that occasioned my girls a solid hour of fear and fun, may physically manifest how we feel about life sometimes, but it does not offer guidance either.
Considering all of this, it should come as no surprise to any of you, I went back to the Torah to see what wisdom might be offered there. And suddenly a question that I am always pondering appeared in a new light, offering an entirely new kind of answer.
I often wonder why at least 2/3s of the Torah is about the Israelites wandering in the desert. There is Genesis, or Bereshit, which has all the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs. Then there is Exodus, or Shmot, which is about slavery in Egypt and the exodus from it. That is the first twenty or so chapters. After that, the rest of Exodus, all of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, are all set chronologically and geographically during the 40 years of wandering.
During this time, the Israelites are ostensibly going to the Promised Land and, if we are returning to our original metaphors, either they keep missing their mark hugely, or getting blown way off course, because a migration from Egypt to Canaan which should have taken at most a year, takes them 40.
In frontier America, early settlers with their ox-drawn wagons and livestock in tow, traveled from America’s East coast to the West Coast in about a year. That distance is several times further and over much higher mountain ranges than anything the Israelites had to face with basically the same equipment. And yet the Israelites took 40 years.
We cannot say that, through all these years, reaching the Holy Land was their central goal. For 40 years, geographic arrival at that distant point was not the object of their struggle.
Palestine, then, was where they were going to end up, and on the way they must have been doing something else. And whatever that Something Else was is so important that it comprises over 2/3s of the Torah.
Of course I am not the first person to wonder about this. The Torah itself announces and the rabbis elaborated that the generation of Israelites who escaped Egypt were far too damaged by the experience of slavery to achieve the maturity needed for sovereignty over the Holy Land. It was necessary for that generation to die off and another born and grown in order for the Israelite people to enter the Holy Land.
That’s certainly one way to describe what was happening those forty years.
I have another. I think during those forty years, they were learning how to live. Migrating, very slowly, yes. But mainly they were getting born and growing up and growing old, getting married and finding jobs, and raising children and sheep and goats probably training children and dogs, building up and taking down. The Promised Land was way over there, kind of like Olam Haba, ‘the world to come’ is for us. Their lives were like our lives, in the here and now. Their questions were like our questions, their moral dilemmas, just like our dilemmas.
The 40 years wandering is more than 2/3s of the Torah because this is where we Jews, we human beings, find ourselves all the time. America is good, but it ain’t no Promised Land. We are wandering through this life. Forty years, god-willing maybe twice that.
So what was the 40 years like?
We know from the Torah there was a lot of fighting, struggling for food and water and shelter and power—along with a lot of infighting, and wagonloads of complaining. We know certain leaders had anger management issues. Some young upstarts had problems with authority.
All in all, they were struggling to become mature individuals forming families, neighborhoods, tribes, a people—a functional society in which they could live in safety and in peace.
I think this is a pretty good description of most of us. They were not and would never be a perfect bunch of people. They were trying. So are we.
Their goal or goals were learning how to live with each other in the Presence of One God. One might say their goal was becoming good enough, mature, wise, and compassionate enough to enter the Promised Land. This process is a lot more complicated than can be described as an arrow whizzing toward a target, or keeping a boat on course.
This life, the 40 years in the desert or each of our many decades in America is fraught with moral and ethical complexity, grey areas, purple areas, red and green areas. Daily we enact decisions large and small. Minute by minute we need to identify and utilize closer goals or at least signpost by which to guide our way. We need these closer goals and signposts not only for those decisions we know we need help making but also—perhaps especially—those decisions we don’t even know we are making.
That’s the real kicker—the fact that the vast majority of decisions we enact we are not even conscious we are making, such as:
1.) whether to smile or be rude,
2.) cut off the next driver, or
3.) pollute our body and minds with all kinds of trash.
Truth is, the vast expanses of each individual and our collective moral universe is traveled unconsciously, through habit and routine, propelled by resentment, tiredness, or constant multitasking. For most of us, it is as if we have set our autopilot on some speed and route we want to think of as ‘good’ or ‘menchlich’ and, self-satisfied that is sufficient, gone back to sleep at the wheel. Meanwhile, we run over other people and animals and trees right and left, which, by the way, is a lot worse than shooting an arrow into lower posterior region.
For ‘good’ to be a viable goal in our daily lives, we must know what ‘good’ is, what values define it and which goals drive it. By values and goals I mean those integers of the Good, such as:
1.) Tzedek, Justice,
2.) Rahamim, Kindness,
3.) Mishpaha, Family,
4.) Gemilut Hasadim, Acts of loving kindness.
The principles through which, when enacted, make various kind of Good real and present in the universe. It is these values, when consciously articulated and prioritized that help us decide both our goals and how to achieve them.
For a person to live an awake and moral life, a life with purpose and no one asleep at the wheel or even texting while driving, for anyone to live a conscious and moral life, there must be accessible and available moral clarity.
By accessible and available I mean tools right there in front of us all the time that in fact remind us to use them.
Such accessible and available moral clarity requires two things:
1.) Articulation of values and goals, and
2.) Reiteration of that statement.
Articulation means wrestling and thinking about core values and basic goals deeply enough to identify and state them.
Reiteration teaches that stating these values and goals once is not enough, but that they must themselves be written and repeated everywhere, becoming tools and reminders about themselves and our goals.
Timethoughts.com, a website devoted to empowering individuals in their career paths, both strongly advises each person to create their own mission statement, and also offers the following guidelines for do so:
1.) Keep it simple, clear and brief,
2.) Touch upon what you want to focus on and who you want to become as a person,
3.) Keep it positive,
4.) Create a mission statement that will guide you in your day to actions and decisions,
5.) Infuse it with passion, making it compelling, energizing, and inspiring,
6.) Make your mission statement a part of your everyday life.
A dynamic example of such a mission statement on the communal level is the Shma. It is the watchword of our faith, stating our fundamental idea of One God and our ongoing and unique relationship to that God. We say it at least once every service. We memorize it and chant it. But that isn’t enough. We are commanded to nail it to our doorposts and our gates, teach it to our children, say it lying down and rising up, coming in and going out.
The Shma is the ultimate Mission Statement of our people. It articulates a value, a focus and a mystery. It is reiterated everywhere around us. The Torah was genius in that, making it law that the Oneness of God surround us everywhere, at once opening us up to the Mystery and anchoring us into the Relationship.
If the Shma is the mission statement of our people, what is the mission statement, that articulation of priority values and goals that define us as a congregation? What is it that tells us who we are and why we are here and how to live day by day being here? Years ago one was written and it was strong and meaningful but today is incomplete. According to the URJ, a congregational mission statement can be:
… extremely powerful, reflecting the basic, rock-bottom values of a given congregation and speaking to the hearts and minds of its members. It fortifies the commitment of existing members and encourages others who are unaffiliated to join. It provides a guiding star by which to steer the institution through the present and into the future. It lifts mundane congregational business to the sphere of the holy.
From, “Hear, Oh Israel:
Creating Meaningful Congregational Mission Statements,” URJ
The pamphlet goes on to caution:
…. A mission statement is not magical. To be effective, it must truly represent the congregants’ feeling and must actively be used.
In other words, it must be articulated by the congregation, and then reiterated—hammered on our doorpost and on our stationary, recited at meetings, taught and discussed and continually wrestled with.
Is this getting interesting to you, because the prospect of writing a new mission statement with this congregation is enormously exciting to me. Beginning this afternoon, directly after this service, we will gather here in this sanctuary to begin a process of considering both our personal and our congregation mission statements. As a temple and a community together we are gathering steam and forging ahead. It is time to figure out—to articulate and reiterate—where we are going, why we are going there, and what are our priorities along the way.
The founders of the New England colonies sailed across the roiling seas to create a new World; a New Society founded on certain beliefs and clearly articulated values. We are their inheritors, and while we do not share most of their beliefs and many of their values, we do share one fantastic understanding with them: We can create our own society, we can, with our two hands and a few crude tools, build our own temple and foster our own community.
We can define “good,” and “holy,” and what is “most important,” and make it so. We can be the authors of our mission and, at the risk of returning to the boat metaphor, we can be the captains of our own destiny as a community.
We can create our own reality.
These are some of the questions we to consider:
- What is our congregation’s identity as an organization?
- What are the basic social and spiritual needs that this congregation it must fill?
- What is our temple’s philosophy, and what are its core values?
- What makes this congregation distinctive or unique?
- Why does this temple exist?
The issue of why a temple exists or why it should continue to exist is both frightening and central to this discussion. Rabbi Sidney Schwarz in his groundbreaking book, Finding a Spiritual Home, identifies crucial areas that must be addressed for congregations to flourish in the Twenty First Century:
1.) Static religion verses dynamic spirituality
2.) Acceptance and incorporation of alternative spiritual paths
3.) Inclusivity on all levels of synagogue life
4.) Social justice
5.) The need to belong and find personal support
Years ago I had the privilege of serving as a rabbinic assistant to Rabbi Marshall Meyer of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan. At first glance, one would think B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan and Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley have precious little in common. BJ, as it is affectionately called, is Conservative, TEMV (that’s us) Reform. BJ was a dying urban congregation that Marshall Meyer turned into a New York phenomenon with more than a thousand families, spirited worship including a live band and dancing in the isles every Friday night and a reputation for putting social action at the forefront of every agenda.
TEMV, on the other hand, is a small, surviving congregation in a little mill city in Northern Massacusettes. Though we have no drums or electric gitar like BJ, I hope our services are spirited as well as thoughtful. We dance not every week, but once a month after services. Environmental and justice issues remain forefront to our words, deeds, and heart.
Some things we have in common and other things I hope one day we will have in common with BJ, and so I think it pertinent for me to quote my mentor and friend, Marshall Meyer, may his memory be for a blessing, as he expressed his hopes and expectations for his revival synagogue:
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun believes that a community synagogue which responds to the authentic questions of life, death, love, anxiety, longing, and the search for meaning, can, once again, attract Jews, both families and individuals…. We believe, more than ever, in the value of intimacy and loving care to be found within a community structure. (p. 206 Finding a Spiritual Home)
This compelling vision produced the following mission statement which I find resonates as almost our own though yet unspoken:
[Our temple] is a passionate Jewish community that inspires spiritual searching, lifts the soul, challenges the mind, and requires social responsibility and action. We strive to experience and express God’s presence as we study, pray, and serve together. We are unified yet diverse and explore the living tension between tradition and progress. We carry out deeds of loving-kindness, foster a meaningful relationship with Israel, and participate in serious dialogue and collaboration with Jewish people and people of other faiths to heal the world. We welcome you to study, pray, and serve with us.
I welcome each and every one of you, those who are members and those who are not yet members, to join us after this service. At that time we will begin the challenging and holy task of articulating our reason for being, our mission as a Jewish community in this broken world.
May the coming year be one of dynamism, focus, and direction. May we challenge each other and ourselves, drawing closer, stronger, in all of our glorious diversity. May we as individuals and as a community articulate why we are here, and may the love and caring that is between us crackle with the power of our purpose.
May all God’s people say with me, Amen.