Journey from Oz

OzKol Nidre Sermon 2010

In a recent book on Jewish healing, rabbinic pastor, Estelle Frankel tells the story of a girl who suffers a sudden blow to the head. Laying in a coma for untold days, she is entirely out of the reach of her family, gathered frightened at her bedside. Though she appears motionless, deep inside the child struggles mightily to return to her loved ones. In the story, her ordeal becomes a metaphoric quest for the lost parts of herself and the restoration of the primary relationships in her life. Traveling through an alien landscape, her path is fraught with vulnerability and exposure. She is lead to do scary things to succeed, indeed to survive. However long her journey or terrible the risks, there is certain power to the narrative which increases when we realize that the name of that alien country, OZ, is also the Hebrew word for strength. Oz.
Ostensibly a mere children’s story, The Wizard of Oz is iconic in American culture and many of our own childhoods. I think perhaps there is good reason for this, beyond Judy Garland’s charm and some great show tunes. Perhaps that reason can inform our path now, this powerful night of Kol Nidre, release from our vows, and the beginning of our Day of Teshuvah, of Return.
Let us begin basic questions: What is Teshuvah, anyway, and to where and when are we returning?
It’s a good question.
For example, although Dorothy fights to return to her life in Kansas, frankly speaking, that life does not look that good. She lives with her Aunt and Uncle on an impoverished pig farm in the middle of the Dust Bowl with twisters around the corner and an old witch that wants to kill her dog. At the beginning of the story, she is in fact running away from home. And yet, Dorothy, having finally escaped her terrible life through the cataclysm of the tornado, immediately wants to return. Throughout the book, that return is her sole objective.
A closer look at the story reveals that Dorothy is in fact not pinning away to return to Kansas. It is the people in her life, her relationships that she strives to restore. The Wizard of Oz, then, can be seen, in an odd and delightful way, as a Yom Kippur legend, such as might be told by Jewish master story tellers such as Nachman of Brazlav or the Besht himself. For what is Yom Kippur but a 26 hour struggle to restore our relationships, between each other, ourselves, and our God. Like Dorothy, at the end of the day, we hopefully will learn that the power of Return, of Teshuvah, has been ours all along. Dorothy, however, just has to click her heels together three times and say, “there’s no place like home.” While the sentiment is nice, our process of teshuvah, our yellow brick road of return is much more complicated. Tonight I am going to offer a road map of Teshuvah, complete with an overview of the alien terrain and some of the unfamiliar practices found there in.
There are two beginning steps toward teshuvah ideally begun before we gather here in the Temple for the sacred prayer of Kol Nidre. One step is mandated by the Rabbis in antiquity, the other inspired by the 20th Century Jewish theologian Martin Buber.
To begin, the first step we have heard about again and again, we are to apologize and make amends with the people in our lives. Lots of us don’t bother or don’t remember. Many don’t see the purpose. Apologies can be embarrassing and uncomfortable. They can lead to hearing things you don’t want to hear, and having conversations you really don’t want to have. For some of us—for many men in particular–the business of apology is a new country altogether. Some of us just were not brought up with the words, “I’m sorry,” in our vocabulary.
However, acknowledging our wrongs, the ways we hurt each other and apologizing is essential to functioning relationships. Aaron Lazare, a Professor of Psychiatry and the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worchester, in his book On Apology identifies seven distinct reasons why apologies are necessary to the healing and continuance of relationships.
1.) Apologies offer the restoration of self-respect and dignity—note, then that the lack of an apology is a continuing damage to self-respect and dignity of the offended;
2.) Apologies offer the assurance that both parties have shared values—for example, if I am rude to you and I apologize, then you know that I share with you the belief that people should behave with courtesy to one another. If I do not apologize, you do not know I that value respect and courtesy, neither do you know then, how I will behave towards you in the future;
3.) Apologies also offer the assurance that the offence was not their fault—If I am rude to you and I do not apologize you might think you somehow disservice my rudeness and contempt. This is especially true in relationships with power differentials. The offense is internalize and turned against the offended.
4.) Also having to do with power, apologies offer the assurance of safety in the relationship—If I am rude to you and do not apologize you may never again feel entirely safe in my presence, but rather always be expecting more rudeness;
5.) The opportunity to see the offender suffer—If I apologize and show my pain and remorse, you receive that small recompense, my pain for your pain;
6.) Reparation for harm caused by the offence;
7.) The opportunity for meaningful dialogues with the offenders. Perhaps we would discuss dynamics in our interactions or the stressors in our lives that led to inadvertent rudeness, and maybe we would even figure out how to avoid such happenings in the future. Without an apology, that conversation and problem solving would probably never happen.

It is also very important to realize that each time an offense is made and apology withheld, the hurt and fear and humiliation piles higher with the resultant distance between parties becoming greater and greater, even or especially if they are intimate partners. A first step of the Yom Kippur process is to apologize, restoring mutual respect, dignity, safety, insight and understanding to our relationships in all facets of our lives: familial, congregational, business and otherwise. It is not empty ritual, but a process designed to heal what is broken and help bring us home within ourselves and in the presence of one another.
Another necessary first step has been suggested by a Christian theologian and colleague of mine, Carter Heyward through her work on Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Her theological concern is relationship between people and her standpoint, the point from which she theologizes is that of a lesbian. What this means is, just as being a Jew in a predominantly Christian country provides a certain set of insights, so also, says Carter, does being a lesbian in a predominantly heterosexual world. Some of these insights, if articulated, might be of worth to everyone, especially, I think, us Jews tonight on the eve of Yom Kippur.
Heyward looks specifically at relationships in which one person is gay or lesbian and, as the expression goes, in the closet., She finds that this kind of relationship, in which a profound secret a part of one’s self is kept hidden, has many of the same disruptive and un-equal power dynamics as enumerated above with the lack of a needed apology:
1.) There is a lessening of self-respect and dignity;
2.) No assurance of shared values, and no way to find out;
3.) There is no way for the closeted person to read social signs without continually imagining a subtext;
4.) And there is a constant lack of safety, fear of discovery, a constant need for subterfuge;
5.) Finally, there is no opening for meaningful dialogue.
Coming out, then, for Heyward, is a move toward what she and Buber might call “coming into right, or just relation,” a relationship in which there is a much greater chance of mutuality, equality, openness, growth, and yes, even forgiveness. As such, moving into “right relation” is appropriate as a Yom Kippur redemptive project.
Am I suggesting that Yom Kippur become a national coming out day for Jews? Maybe not. What I do know, is that Yom Kippur has been successfully used for exactly this project: coming to honesty in relationships, moving from lies, secrets and silences to sharing, tears, and reconciliation. And I’m not just speaking of homosexuals. So many couples and families and communities have their relational capacity impaired and the power dynamics skewed to devastating degrees because of information that has not been shared. If sin is to be defined as that which keeps us from loving and experiencing love, then this is sin. If sin is power, manipulation, and intimidation, then enforcing silence and inequality is a sin and another sin again.
Apologies and disclosure, processing and reconciliation, all this falls under the traditional category of bein adom v’havro, between person and person. It is a necessary part of Yom Kippur, but only a part. Like the friends Dorothy meets and develops during her journey as if she is gathering the lost parts of herself: heart, mind, and courage, so also are our relational gatherings necessary to the Yom Kippur journey ahead. We need our wits, our family and our friend around us, for the first place we have to go is ‘down under.’
By the time her house crashes in Oz—in Hebrew, the land of power, also slang for Australia, Dorothy has lost everything but her little dog and her country charm. The violent storm destroyed her identity, and taken her away from everything that is known and familiar. Frankel notes that it is this kind of cataclysmic loss, such as death, divorce, disease, hitting bottom that lands us in alien terrain. This new land requires movement for the most basic survival, forcing change because where you are and who you have become is simply too painful to endure.
Great religions around the world recognize that those cataclysmic events can lead to profound spiritual breakthroughs. For example, the founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov lost his mother at birth and his father at age five. Overcome with loneliness and longing, as a young boy he wandered days and days alone in the forest, where he learned to bond deeply with his only remaining Parent, God. From all his suffering came one of the most profound mystical practices in all of Judaism, devecut or cleaving with the Divine.
Similarly, Rumi, the great Sufi mystic and poet, was only a pretty good poet before the death of his lifelong friend Sham. According to legend, at Sham’s murder, Rumi’s heart broke open, after which he knew love without boundaries, producing poetry of ethereal splendor and mystical insight.
As the Maggid of Mezerich taught: “Before [a person can be] transformed…[he] must [first] come to a level of Nothingness.” I understand him to be saying that the necessary first stage of the process of changing ourselves, becoming empty. This reminds me of another kind of prophet from my younger days, who sang, “Freedom is another word for nothing left to lose.” When you have nothing left to lose, you still have two things: You have the rest of your life, and you have a choice. The choice is to continue down that path until you lose your life, or to change.
This is the journey of Yom Kippur.
The first step of that journey is becoming nothing. The Hebrew word the Rabbis use is bittule, which means to negate or nullify. Some of us recognize the concept of bittule from Passover. Just before the holiday we perform bittule chametz, or the nullification of chametz. Chametz is all the puffed up grain products representing our ego that we are forbidden to own or eat during the eight days of Passover. We clean our homes of chametz, burn the last crumbs, and just before the holiday begins, and say a prayer that nullifies any tiny bits we may have missed. On Yom Kippur we are taught to treat ourselves as if we were chametz and be swept up, burned, and made nothing.
The fact that the Rabbis use this term from Passover to describe a Yom Kippur process is multiply instructive. They want us to connect the dynamic of the greatest change—the Exodus—to our process of change on Yom Kippur. In the Exodus narrative, despite the fact they don’t really belong there, the Israelites live happily in Egypt for generations. They had to become slaves and sorely oppressed before they cried out to our God and understood they needed to leave fleshpots of Egypt. Similarly, Pharaoh has to be brought to his knees, witnessing the destruction of his empire before he lets our people go. Moses himself requires a visitation from God to be moved from his domestic complacency. Great changes only happen when overwhelming even devastating circumstances force it upon us.
In our lives, this obliteration happens in many ways, mostly terrible, always hard. Part of my job as a rabbi is to meet the person or family or even community in that rock bottom place and help shape the hope, the vision, and the decisions that provide for recovery, healing, and change. As sure as spring follows winter, I have witnessed, again and again, the phoenix rise from the ashes. I am reminded of the California spruce whose seed only opens for growth after searing in a fire.
As a rabbi, as your Rabbi, it is also my job to take each one of you and all of us together on that same path of annulation and rebirth on this most awesome day of Yom Kippur. The place where catastrophe can catapult any of us on any day, there we travel together. But the Rabbis are clear: You don’t have to lose all your money, your family, your home, your health. On this day, you only have to bittule your chamatz, so to speak, to flatten and exorcise your ego, your pride, our self-satisfied complacency. It is a necessary first step in teshuvah. But the Rabbis don’t intend that our lives should be destroyed each Yom Kippur. It is our ego within each one of us that must become as nothing. The first step in return.

Specifically, the Law requires that, beginning at sundown, we refrained from eating, drinking, washing, and adorning ourselves. To begin, we are commanded to become as if the lowest of the low worldwide: hungry, thirsty, unwashed and unadorned. We are commanded to afflict ourselves as others might be afflicted, to dislodge ourselves from the world we know, from habit and ready comfort.
The shock of this sudden poverty is designed to help carry us into a foreign country where the norms and rules of our usual existence are turned on their head. How we care for ourselves, how we show respect for ourselves, each other, and our God, is to not feed or hydrate our physical bodies, not allow ourselves the comfort and relaxation of a hot shower, to not beautify our faces with makeup or our wrists and necks with jewelry. It seems absurd perhaps medieval, but that very absurdity is the point. Here, in this time frame of sundown to dusk these 25 hours, we are entered into a different country, an upside-down under powerful space through which we journey. And the beginning of that journey is to be brought low.
The self-affliction are just part of that process. For me, the real emptying out, nothing-making of the self occurs over the long course of the hungry twenty something hours and hours and hours of services, with the recitation again and again of all these sins that I have potentially done, purposefully and by accident, by myself and in a group, sins against others, sins against myself, infractions against God herself. All this complete with the standing and sitting and beating of the breast. Genug already, dyainu. Maspik. Enough! You go through it all once it should be enough.
Unfortunately, it isn’t. The length of the day, the endless confession, is like a wearing down and emptying out, until, in the middle of the forth confession and the forty seventh time you beat your breast, and suddenly a word or phrase ambushes your exhausted and unguarded brain and you realize—I REALLY DID THAT.
They’ve described it to a T.
It’s like they absolutely know me and my life, I DID THAT. And suddenly with newly humbled eyes you read through the confession again, and realize you did that, and that, and that as well. It’s humiliating and painful. In fact, with any luck, it’s totally devastating.
We realize, like civilians in a combat zone, we keep our head down and our doors closed. As refugees in a food line, we experience our own hunger and ignore that of anyone else’s. Similar to a Jew escaping Nazis during the Holocaust, we dissemble, lie, sneak, and do anything we have to do to get by. And while in the extreme circumstances of combat, starvation, and genocide, all these actions and non-actions might be understandable, we are, for the most part, facing none of these challenges. Rather, we are just and only stranded in the colorless Kansas of our own lives, the years like sun and wind wearing and chipping away at our better selves. Day after day inured in our private prairies, we fail to notice the parts of better selves that have fallen away. Living as ‘less than’ becomes habit, the norm, what we think life is all about. And so it takes either a tornado or a day of fasting and praying in synagogue to shift the perspective, revealing our true lives and our real selves.
Fully grasping the extent of our failure in the wilderness of down under, we are ready to repent, to say we are sorry, to disclose to become open, The apology is not for God who never changes but for us, for the restoration of our self-respect, our courage, our vision of who we can truly be, apology restores us to God in, call it forgiveness, call it reconciliation, call it teshuvah, return to our Parent, the One who made us, watches over us, who will welcome our return.
You might want to say, Rabbi I was right with all the way until you brought in this God and God as Parent stuff. I just don’t believe it, it just doesn’t work for me.
I want you to know I honor and respect that question. I know many times there is history behind that perspective, of pain, disappointment, disillusionment. And sometimes it is just a conclusion made after thought and observation. Whichever way, I ask simply for what you give good books and movies automatically, tonight and tomorrow for a suspension of your disbelief. For 26 hours we enter a liminal universe, an alternative space where washing is bad and hunger pains a sign of progress. In this temporal span in this alternate universe there is a God who made you, loves you, who more than anything wants you Back. It’s our eternal story, repeated year after year. Come with me. Pretend it’s true. I promise you, when you finally reach out and pull aside the curtain, you will not be disappointed.

Return, Geography
Kol Nidre Sermon 2010

In a recent book on Jewish healing, rabbinic pastor, Estelle Frankel tells the story of a girl who suffers a sudden blow to the head. Laying in a coma for untold days, she is entirely out of the reach of her family, gathered frightened at her bedside. Though she appears motionless, deep inside the child struggles mightily to return to her loved ones. In the story, her ordeal becomes a metaphoric quest for the lost parts of herself and the restoration of the primary relationships in her life. Traveling through an alien landscape, her path is fraught with vulnerability and exposure. She is lead to do scary things to succeed, indeed to survive. However long her journey or terrible the risks, there is certain power to the narrative which increases when we realize that the name of that alien country, OZ, is also the Hebrew word for strength. Oz.
Ostensibly a mere children’s story, The Wizard of Oz is iconic in American culture and many of our own childhoods. I think perhaps there is good reason for this, beyond Judy Garland’s charm and some great show tunes. Perhaps that reason can inform our path now, this powerful night of Kol Nidre, release from our vows, and the beginning of our Day of Teshuvah, of Return.
Let us begin basic questions: What is Teshuvah, anyway, and to where and when are we returning?
It’s a good question.
For example, although Dorothy fights to return to her life in Kansas, frankly speaking, that life does not look that good. She lives with her Aunt and Uncle on an impoverished pig farm in the middle of the Dust Bowl with twisters around the corner and an old witch that wants to kill her dog. At the beginning of the story, she is in fact running away from home. And yet, Dorothy, having finally escaped her terrible life through the cataclysm of the tornado, immediately wants to return. Throughout the book, that return is her sole objective.
A closer look at the story reveals that Dorothy is in fact not pinning away to return to Kansas. It is the people in her life, her relationships that she strives to restore. The Wizard of Oz, then, can be seen, in an odd and delightful way, as a Yom Kippur legend, such as might be told by Jewish master story tellers such as Nachman of Brazlav or the Besht himself. For what is Yom Kippur but a 26 hour struggle to restore our relationships, between each other, ourselves, and our God. Like Dorothy, at the end of the day, we hopefully will learn that the power of Return, of Teshuvah, has been ours all along. Dorothy, however, just has to click her heels together three times and say, “there’s no place like home.” While the sentiment is nice, our process of teshuvah, our yellow brick road of return is much more complicated. Tonight I am going to offer a road map of Teshuvah, complete with an overview of the alien terrain and some of the unfamiliar practices found there in.
There are two beginning steps toward teshuvah ideally begun before we gather here in the Temple for the sacred prayer of Kol Nidre. One step is mandated by the Rabbis in antiquity, the other inspired by the 20th Century Jewish theologian Martin Buber.
To begin, the first step we have heard about again and again, we are to apologize and make amends with the people in our lives. Lots of us don’t bother or don’t remember. Many don’t see the purpose. Apologies can be embarrassing and uncomfortable. They can lead to hearing things you don’t want to hear, and having conversations you really don’t want to have. For some of us—for many men in particular–the business of apology is a new country altogether. Some of us just were not brought up with the words, “I’m sorry,” in our vocabulary.
However, acknowledging our wrongs, the ways we hurt each other and apologizing is essential to functioning relationships. Aaron Lazare, a Professor of Psychiatry and the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worchester, in his book On Apology identifies seven distinct reasons why apologies are necessary to the healing and continuance of relationships.
1.) Apologies offer the restoration of self-respect and dignity—note, then that the lack of an apology is a continuing damage to self-respect and dignity of the offended;
2.) Apologies offer the assurance that both parties have shared values—for example, if I am rude to you and I apologize, then you know that I share with you the belief that people should behave with courtesy to one another. If I do not apologize, you do not know I that value respect and courtesy, neither do you know then, how I will behave towards you in the future;
3.) Apologies also offer the assurance that the offence was not their fault—If I am rude to you and I do not apologize you might think you somehow disservice my rudeness and contempt. This is especially true in relationships with power differentials. The offense is internalize and turned against the offended.
4.) Also having to do with power, apologies offer the assurance of safety in the relationship—If I am rude to you and do not apologize you may never again feel entirely safe in my presence, but rather always be expecting more rudeness;
5.) The opportunity to see the offender suffer—If I apologize and show my pain and remorse, you receive that small recompense, my pain for your pain;
6.) Reparation for harm caused by the offence;
7.) The opportunity for meaningful dialogues with the offenders. Perhaps we would discuss dynamics in our interactions or the stressors in our lives that led to inadvertent rudeness, and maybe we would even figure out how to avoid such happenings in the future. Without an apology, that conversation and problem solving would probably never happen.

It is also very important to realize that each time an offense is made and apology withheld, the hurt and fear and humiliation piles higher with the resultant distance between parties becoming greater and greater, even or especially if they are intimate partners. A first step of the Yom Kippur process is to apologize, restoring mutual respect, dignity, safety, insight and understanding to our relationships in all facets of our lives: familial, congregational, business and otherwise. It is not empty ritual, but a process designed to heal what is broken and help bring us home within ourselves and in the presence of one another.
Another necessary first step has been suggested by a Christian theologian and colleague of mine, Carter Heyward through her work on Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Her theological concern is relationship between people and her standpoint, the point from which she theologizes is that of a lesbian. What this means is, just as being a Jew in a predominantly Christian country provides a certain set of insights, so also, says Carter, does being a lesbian in a predominantly heterosexual world. Some of these insights, if articulated, might be of worth to everyone, especially, I think, us Jews tonight on the eve of Yom Kippur.
Heyward looks specifically at relationships in which one person is gay or lesbian and, as the expression goes, in the closet., She finds that this kind of relationship, in which a profound secret a part of one’s self is kept hidden, has many of the same disruptive and un-equal power dynamics as enumerated above with the lack of a needed apology:
1.) There is a lessening of self-respect and dignity;
2.) No assurance of shared values, and no way to find out;
3.) There is no way for the closeted person to read social signs without continually imagining a subtext;
4.) And there is a constant lack of safety, fear of discovery, a constant need for subterfuge;
5.) Finally, there is no opening for meaningful dialogue.
Coming out, then, for Heyward, is a move toward what she and Buber might call “coming into right, or just relation,” a relationship in which there is a much greater chance of mutuality, equality, openness, growth, and yes, even forgiveness. As such, moving into “right relation” is appropriate as a Yom Kippur redemptive project.
Am I suggesting that Yom Kippur become a national coming out day for Jews? Maybe not. What I do know, is that Yom Kippur has been successfully used for exactly this project: coming to honesty in relationships, moving from lies, secrets and silences to sharing, tears, and reconciliation. And I’m not just speaking of homosexuals. So many couples and families and communities have their relational capacity impaired and the power dynamics skewed to devastating degrees because of information that has not been shared. If sin is to be defined as that which keeps us from loving and experiencing love, then this is sin. If sin is power, manipulation, and intimidation, then enforcing silence and inequality is a sin and another sin again.
Apologies and disclosure, processing and reconciliation, all this falls under the traditional category of bein adom v’havro, between person and person. It is a necessary part of Yom Kippur, but only a part. Like the friends Dorothy meets and develops during her journey as if she is gathering the lost parts of herself: heart, mind, and courage, so also are our relational gatherings necessary to the Yom Kippur journey ahead. We need our wits, our family and our friend around us, for the first place we have to go is ‘down under.’
By the time her house crashes in Oz—in Hebrew, the land of power, also slang for Australia, Dorothy has lost everything but her little dog and her country charm. The violent storm destroyed her identity, and taken her away from everything that is known and familiar. Frankel notes that it is this kind of cataclysmic loss, such as death, divorce, disease, hitting bottom that lands us in alien terrain. This new land requires movement for the most basic survival, forcing change because where you are and who you have become is simply too painful to endure.
Great religions around the world recognize that those cataclysmic events can lead to profound spiritual breakthroughs. For example, the founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov lost his mother at birth and his father at age five. Overcome with loneliness and longing, as a young boy he wandered days and days alone in the forest, where he learned to bond deeply with his only remaining Parent, God. From all his suffering came one of the most profound mystical practices in all of Judaism, devecut or cleaving with the Divine.
Similarly, Rumi, the great Sufi mystic and poet, was only a pretty good poet before the death of his lifelong friend Sham. According to legend, at Sham’s murder, Rumi’s heart broke open, after which he knew love without boundaries, producing poetry of ethereal splendor and mystical insight.
As the Maggid of Mezerich taught: “Before [a person can be] transformed…[he] must [first] come to a level of Nothingness.” I understand him to be saying that the necessary first stage of the process of changing ourselves, becoming empty. This reminds me of another kind of prophet from my younger days, who sang, “Freedom is another word for nothing left to lose.” When you have nothing left to lose, you still have two things: You have the rest of your life, and you have a choice. The choice is to continue down that path until you lose your life, or to change.
This is the journey of Yom Kippur.
The first step of that journey is becoming nothing. The Hebrew word the Rabbis use is bittule, which means to negate or nullify. Some of us recognize the concept of bittule from Passover. Just before the holiday we perform bittule chametz, or the nullification of chametz. Chametz is all the puffed up grain products representing our ego that we are forbidden to own or eat during the eight days of Passover. We clean our homes of chametz, burn the last crumbs, and just before the holiday begins, and say a prayer that nullifies any tiny bits we may have missed. On Yom Kippur we are taught to treat ourselves as if we were chametz and be swept up, burned, and made nothing.
The fact that the Rabbis use this term from Passover to describe a Yom Kippur process is multiply instructive. They want us to connect the dynamic of the greatest change—the Exodus—to our process of change on Yom Kippur. In the Exodus narrative, despite the fact they don’t really belong there, the Israelites live happily in Egypt for generations. They had to become slaves and sorely oppressed before they cried out to our God and understood they needed to leave fleshpots of Egypt. Similarly, Pharaoh has to be brought to his knees, witnessing the destruction of his empire before he lets our people go. Moses himself requires a visitation from God to be moved from his domestic complacency. Great changes only happen when overwhelming even devastating circumstances force it upon us.
In our lives, this obliteration happens in many ways, mostly terrible, always hard. Part of my job as a rabbi is to meet the person or family or even community in that rock bottom place and help shape the hope, the vision, and the decisions that provide for recovery, healing, and change. As sure as spring follows winter, I have witnessed, again and again, the phoenix rise from the ashes. I am reminded of the California spruce whose seed only opens for growth after searing in a fire.
As a rabbi, as your Rabbi, it is also my job to take each one of you and all of us together on that same path of annulation and rebirth on this most awesome day of Yom Kippur. The place where catastrophe can catapult any of us on any day, there we travel together. But the Rabbis are clear: You don’t have to lose all your money, your family, your home, your health. On this day, you only have to bittule your chamatz, so to speak, to flatten and exorcise your ego, your pride, our self-satisfied complacency. It is a necessary first step in teshuvah. But the Rabbis don’t intend that our lives should be destroyed each Yom Kippur. It is our ego within each one of us that must become as nothing. The first step in return.

Specifically, the Law requires that, beginning at sundown, we refrained from eating, drinking, washing, and adorning ourselves. To begin, we are commanded to become as if the lowest of the low worldwide: hungry, thirsty, unwashed and unadorned. We are commanded to afflict ourselves as others might be afflicted, to dislodge ourselves from the world we know, from habit and ready comfort.
The shock of this sudden poverty is designed to help carry us into a foreign country where the norms and rules of our usual existence are turned on their head. How we care for ourselves, how we show respect for ourselves, each other, and our God, is to not feed or hydrate our physical bodies, not allow ourselves the comfort and relaxation of a hot shower, to not beautify our faces with makeup or our wrists and necks with jewelry. It seems absurd perhaps medieval, but that very absurdity is the point. Here, in this time frame of sundown to dusk these 25 hours, we are entered into a different country, an upside-down under powerful space through which we journey. And the beginning of that journey is to be brought low.
The self-affliction are just part of that process. For me, the real emptying out, nothing-making of the self occurs over the long course of the hungry twenty something hours and hours and hours of services, with the recitation again and again of all these sins that I have potentially done, purposefully and by accident, by myself and in a group, sins against others, sins against myself, infractions against God herself. All this complete with the standing and sitting and beating of the breast. Genug already, dyainu. Maspik. Enough! You go through it all once it should be enough.
Unfortunately, it isn’t. The length of the day, the endless confession, is like a wearing down and emptying out, until, in the middle of the forth confession and the forty seventh time you beat your breast, and suddenly a word or phrase ambushes your exhausted and unguarded brain and you realize—I REALLY DID THAT.
They’ve described it to a T.
It’s like they absolutely know me and my life, I DID THAT. And suddenly with newly humbled eyes you read through the confession again, and realize you did that, and that, and that as well. It’s humiliating and painful. In fact, with any luck, it’s totally devastating.
We realize, like civilians in a combat zone, we keep our head down and our doors closed. As refugees in a food line, we experience our own hunger and ignore that of anyone else’s. Similar to a Jew escaping Nazis during the Holocaust, we dissemble, lie, sneak, and do anything we have to do to get by. And while in the extreme circumstances of combat, starvation, and genocide, all these actions and non-actions might be understandable, we are, for the most part, facing none of these challenges. Rather, we are just and only stranded in the colorless Kansas of our own lives, the years like sun and wind wearing and chipping away at our better selves. Day after day inured in our private prairies, we fail to notice the parts of better selves that have fallen away. Living as ‘less than’ becomes habit, the norm, what we think life is all about. And so it takes either a tornado or a day of fasting and praying in synagogue to shift the perspective, revealing our true lives and our real selves.
Fully grasping the extent of our failure in the wilderness of down under, we are ready to repent, to say we are sorry, to disclose to become open, The apology is not for God who never changes but for us, for the restoration of our self-respect, our courage, our vision of who we can truly be, apology restores us to God in, call it forgiveness, call it reconciliation, call it teshuvah, return to our Parent, the One who made us, watches over us, who will welcome our return.
You might want to say, Rabbi I was right with all the way until you brought in this God and God as Parent stuff. I just don’t believe it, it just doesn’t work for me.
I want you to know I honor and respect that question. I know many times there is history behind that perspective, of pain, disappointment, disillusionment. And sometimes it is just a conclusion made after thought and observation. Whichever way, I ask simply for what you give good books and movies automatically, tonight and tomorrow for a suspension of your disbelief. For 26 hours we enter a liminal universe, an alternative space where washing is bad and hunger pains a sign of progress. In this temporal span in this alternate universe there is a God who made you, loves you, who more than anything wants you Back. It’s our eternal story, repeated year after year. Come with me. Pretend it’s true. I promise you, when you finally reach out and pull aside the curtain, you will not be disappointed.

Return, Geography
Kol Nidre Sermon 2010

In a recent book on Jewish healing, rabbinic pastor, Estelle Frankel tells the story of a girl who suffers a sudden blow to the head. Laying in a coma for untold days, she is entirely out of the reach of her family, gathered frightened at her bedside. Though she appears motionless, deep inside the child struggles mightily to return to her loved ones. In the story, her ordeal becomes a metaphoric quest for the lost parts of herself and the restoration of the primary relationships in her life. Traveling through an alien landscape, her path is fraught with vulnerability and exposure. She is lead to do scary things to succeed, indeed to survive. However long her journey or terrible the risks, there is certain power to the narrative which increases when we realize that the name of that alien country, OZ, is also the Hebrew word for strength. Oz.
Ostensibly a mere children’s story, The Wizard of Oz is iconic in American culture and many of our own childhoods. I think perhaps there is good reason for this, beyond Judy Garland’s charm and some great show tunes. Perhaps that reason can inform our path now, this powerful night of Kol Nidre, release from our vows, and the beginning of our Day of Teshuvah, of Return.
Let us begin basic questions: What is Teshuvah, anyway, and to where and when are we returning?
It’s a good question.
For example, although Dorothy fights to return to her life in Kansas, frankly speaking, that life does not look that good. She lives with her Aunt and Uncle on an impoverished pig farm in the middle of the Dust Bowl with twisters around the corner and an old witch that wants to kill her dog. At the beginning of the story, she is in fact running away from home. And yet, Dorothy, having finally escaped her terrible life through the cataclysm of the tornado, immediately wants to return. Throughout the book, that return is her sole objective.
A closer look at the story reveals that Dorothy is in fact not pinning away to return to Kansas. It is the people in her life, her relationships that she strives to restore. The Wizard of Oz, then, can be seen, in an odd and delightful way, as a Yom Kippur legend, such as might be told by Jewish master story tellers such as Nachman of Brazlav or the Besht himself. For what is Yom Kippur but a 26 hour struggle to restore our relationships, between each other, ourselves, and our God. Like Dorothy, at the end of the day, we hopefully will learn that the power of Return, of Teshuvah, has been ours all along. Dorothy, however, just has to click her heels together three times and say, “there’s no place like home.” While the sentiment is nice, our process of teshuvah, our yellow brick road of return is much more complicated. Tonight I am going to offer a road map of Teshuvah, complete with an overview of the alien terrain and some of the unfamiliar practices found there in.
There are two beginning steps toward teshuvah ideally begun before we gather here in the Temple for the sacred prayer of Kol Nidre. One step is mandated by the Rabbis in antiquity, the other inspired by the 20th Century Jewish theologian Martin Buber.
To begin, the first step we have heard about again and again, we are to apologize and make amends with the people in our lives. Lots of us don’t bother or don’t remember. Many don’t see the purpose. Apologies can be embarrassing and uncomfortable. They can lead to hearing things you don’t want to hear, and having conversations you really don’t want to have. For some of us—for many men in particular–the business of apology is a new country altogether. Some of us just were not brought up with the words, “I’m sorry,” in our vocabulary.
However, acknowledging our wrongs, the ways we hurt each other and apologizing is essential to functioning relationships. Aaron Lazare, a Professor of Psychiatry and the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worchester, in his book On Apology identifies seven distinct reasons why apologies are necessary to the healing and continuance of relationships.
1.) Apologies offer the restoration of self-respect and dignity—note, then that the lack of an apology is a continuing damage to self-respect and dignity of the offended;
2.) Apologies offer the assurance that both parties have shared values—for example, if I am rude to you and I apologize, then you know that I share with you the belief that people should behave with courtesy to one another. If I do not apologize, you do not know I that value respect and courtesy, neither do you know then, how I will behave towards you in the future;
3.) Apologies also offer the assurance that the offence was not their fault—If I am rude to you and I do not apologize you might think you somehow disservice my rudeness and contempt. This is especially true in relationships with power differentials. The offense is internalize and turned against the offended.
4.) Also having to do with power, apologies offer the assurance of safety in the relationship—If I am rude to you and do not apologize you may never again feel entirely safe in my presence, but rather always be expecting more rudeness;
5.) The opportunity to see the offender suffer—If I apologize and show my pain and remorse, you receive that small recompense, my pain for your pain;
6.) Reparation for harm caused by the offence;
7.) The opportunity for meaningful dialogues with the offenders. Perhaps we would discuss dynamics in our interactions or the stressors in our lives that led to inadvertent rudeness, and maybe we would even figure out how to avoid such happenings in the future. Without an apology, that conversation and problem solving would probably never happen.

It is also very important to realize that each time an offense is made and apology withheld, the hurt and fear and humiliation piles higher with the resultant distance between parties becoming greater and greater, even or especially if they are intimate partners. A first step of the Yom Kippur process is to apologize, restoring mutual respect, dignity, safety, insight and understanding to our relationships in all facets of our lives: familial, congregational, business and otherwise. It is not empty ritual, but a process designed to heal what is broken and help bring us home within ourselves and in the presence of one another.
Another necessary first step has been suggested by a Christian theologian and colleague of mine, Carter Heyward through her work on Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Her theological concern is relationship between people and her standpoint, the point from which she theologizes is that of a lesbian. What this means is, just as being a Jew in a predominantly Christian country provides a certain set of insights, so also, says Carter, does being a lesbian in a predominantly heterosexual world. Some of these insights, if articulated, might be of worth to everyone, especially, I think, us Jews tonight on the eve of Yom Kippur.
Heyward looks specifically at relationships in which one person is gay or lesbian and, as the expression goes, in the closet., She finds that this kind of relationship, in which a profound secret a part of one’s self is kept hidden, has many of the same disruptive and un-equal power dynamics as enumerated above with the lack of a needed apology:
1.) There is a lessening of self-respect and dignity;
2.) No assurance of shared values, and no way to find out;
3.) There is no way for the closeted person to read social signs without continually imagining a subtext;
4.) And there is a constant lack of safety, fear of discovery, a constant need for subterfuge;
5.) Finally, there is no opening for meaningful dialogue.
Coming out, then, for Heyward, is a move toward what she and Buber might call “coming into right, or just relation,” a relationship in which there is a much greater chance of mutuality, equality, openness, growth, and yes, even forgiveness. As such, moving into “right relation” is appropriate as a Yom Kippur redemptive project.
Am I suggesting that Yom Kippur become a national coming out day for Jews? Maybe not. What I do know, is that Yom Kippur has been successfully used for exactly this project: coming to honesty in relationships, moving from lies, secrets and silences to sharing, tears, and reconciliation. And I’m not just speaking of homosexuals. So many couples and families and communities have their relational capacity impaired and the power dynamics skewed to devastating degrees because of information that has not been shared. If sin is to be defined as that which keeps us from loving and experiencing love, then this is sin. If sin is power, manipulation, and intimidation, then enforcing silence and inequality is a sin and another sin again.
Apologies and disclosure, processing and reconciliation, all this falls under the traditional category of bein adom v’havro, between person and person. It is a necessary part of Yom Kippur, but only a part. Like the friends Dorothy meets and develops during her journey as if she is gathering the lost parts of herself: heart, mind, and courage, so also are our relational gatherings necessary to the Yom Kippur journey ahead. We need our wits, our family and our friend around us, for the first place we have to go is ‘down under.’
By the time her house crashes in Oz—in Hebrew, the land of power, also slang for Australia, Dorothy has lost everything but her little dog and her country charm. The violent storm destroyed her identity, and taken her away from everything that is known and familiar. Frankel notes that it is this kind of cataclysmic loss, such as death, divorce, disease, hitting bottom that lands us in alien terrain. This new land requires movement for the most basic survival, forcing change because where you are and who you have become is simply too painful to endure.
Great religions around the world recognize that those cataclysmic events can lead to profound spiritual breakthroughs. For example, the founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov lost his mother at birth and his father at age five. Overcome with loneliness and longing, as a young boy he wandered days and days alone in the forest, where he learned to bond deeply with his only remaining Parent, God. From all his suffering came one of the most profound mystical practices in all of Judaism, devecut or cleaving with the Divine.
Similarly, Rumi, the great Sufi mystic and poet, was only a pretty good poet before the death of his lifelong friend Sham. According to legend, at Sham’s murder, Rumi’s heart broke open, after which he knew love without boundaries, producing poetry of ethereal splendor and mystical insight.
As the Maggid of Mezerich taught: “Before [a person can be] transformed…[he] must [first] come to a level of Nothingness.” I understand him to be saying that the necessary first stage of the process of changing ourselves, becoming empty. This reminds me of another kind of prophet from my younger days, who sang, “Freedom is another word for nothing left to lose.” When you have nothing left to lose, you still have two things: You have the rest of your life, and you have a choice. The choice is to continue down that path until you lose your life, or to change.
This is the journey of Yom Kippur.
The first step of that journey is becoming nothing. The Hebrew word the Rabbis use is bittule, which means to negate or nullify. Some of us recognize the concept of bittule from Passover. Just before the holiday we perform bittule chametz, or the nullification of chametz. Chametz is all the puffed up grain products representing our ego that we are forbidden to own or eat during the eight days of Passover. We clean our homes of chametz, burn the last crumbs, and just before the holiday begins, and say a prayer that nullifies any tiny bits we may have missed. On Yom Kippur we are taught to treat ourselves as if we were chametz and be swept up, burned, and made nothing.
The fact that the Rabbis use this term from Passover to describe a Yom Kippur process is multiply instructive. They want us to connect the dynamic of the greatest change—the Exodus—to our process of change on Yom Kippur. In the Exodus narrative, despite the fact they don’t really belong there, the Israelites live happily in Egypt for generations. They had to become slaves and sorely oppressed before they cried out to our God and understood they needed to leave fleshpots of Egypt. Similarly, Pharaoh has to be brought to his knees, witnessing the destruction of his empire before he lets our people go. Moses himself requires a visitation from God to be moved from his domestic complacency. Great changes only happen when overwhelming even devastating circumstances force it upon us.
In our lives, this obliteration happens in many ways, mostly terrible, always hard. Part of my job as a rabbi is to meet the person or family or even community in that rock bottom place and help shape the hope, the vision, and the decisions that provide for recovery, healing, and change. As sure as spring follows winter, I have witnessed, again and again, the phoenix rise from the ashes. I am reminded of the California spruce whose seed only opens for growth after searing in a fire.
As a rabbi, as your Rabbi, it is also my job to take each one of you and all of us together on that same path of annulation and rebirth on this most awesome day of Yom Kippur. The place where catastrophe can catapult any of us on any day, there we travel together. But the Rabbis are clear: You don’t have to lose all your money, your family, your home, your health. On this day, you only have to bittule your chamatz, so to speak, to flatten and exorcise your ego, your pride, our self-satisfied complacency. It is a necessary first step in teshuvah. But the Rabbis don’t intend that our lives should be destroyed each Yom Kippur. It is our ego within each one of us that must become as nothing. The first step in return.

Specifically, the Law requires that, beginning at sundown, we refrained from eating, drinking, washing, and adorning ourselves. To begin, we are commanded to become as if the lowest of the low worldwide: hungry, thirsty, unwashed and unadorned. We are commanded to afflict ourselves as others might be afflicted, to dislodge ourselves from the world we know, from habit and ready comfort.
The shock of this sudden poverty is designed to help carry us into a foreign country where the norms and rules of our usual existence are turned on their head. How we care for ourselves, how we show respect for ourselves, each other, and our God, is to not feed or hydrate our physical bodies, not allow ourselves the comfort and relaxation of a hot shower, to not beautify our faces with makeup or our wrists and necks with jewelry. It seems absurd perhaps medieval, but that very absurdity is the point. Here, in this time frame of sundown to dusk these 25 hours, we are entered into a different country, an upside-down under powerful space through which we journey. And the beginning of that journey is to be brought low.
The self-affliction are just part of that process. For me, the real emptying out, nothing-making of the self occurs over the long course of the hungry twenty something hours and hours and hours of services, with the recitation again and again of all these sins that I have potentially done, purposefully and by accident, by myself and in a group, sins against others, sins against myself, infractions against God herself. All this complete with the standing and sitting and beating of the breast. Genug already, dyainu. Maspik. Enough! You go through it all once it should be enough.
Unfortunately, it isn’t. The length of the day, the endless confession, is like a wearing down and emptying out, until, in the middle of the forth confession and the forty seventh time you beat your breast, and suddenly a word or phrase ambushes your exhausted and unguarded brain and you realize—I REALLY DID THAT.
They’ve described it to a T.
It’s like they absolutely know me and my life, I DID THAT. And suddenly with newly humbled eyes you read through the confession again, and realize you did that, and that, and that as well. It’s humiliating and painful. In fact, with any luck, it’s totally devastating.
We realize, like civilians in a combat zone, we keep our head down and our doors closed. As refugees in a food line, we experience our own hunger and ignore that of anyone else’s. Similar to a Jew escaping Nazis during the Holocaust, we dissemble, lie, sneak, and do anything we have to do to get by. And while in the extreme circumstances of combat, starvation, and genocide, all these actions and non-actions might be understandable, we are, for the most part, facing none of these challenges. Rather, we are just and only stranded in the colorless Kansas of our own lives, the years like sun and wind wearing and chipping away at our better selves. Day after day inured in our private prairies, we fail to notice the parts of better selves that have fallen away. Living as ‘less than’ becomes habit, the norm, what we think life is all about. And so it takes either a tornado or a day of fasting and praying in synagogue to shift the perspective, revealing our true lives and our real selves.
Fully grasping the extent of our failure in the wilderness of down under, we are ready to repent, to say we are sorry, to disclose to become open, The apology is not for God who never changes but for us, for the restoration of our self-respect, our courage, our vision of who we can truly be, apology restores us to God in, call it forgiveness, call it reconciliation, call it teshuvah, return to our Parent, the One who made us, watches over us, who will welcome our return.
You might want to say, Rabbi I was right with all the way until you brought in this God and God as Parent stuff. I just don’t believe it, it just doesn’t work for me.
I want you to know I honor and respect that question. I know many times there is history behind that perspective, of pain, disappointment, disillusionment. And sometimes it is just a conclusion made after thought and observation. Whichever way, I ask simply for what you give good books and movies automatically, tonight and tomorrow for a suspension of your disbelief. For 26 hours we enter a liminal universe, an alternative space where washing is bad and hunger pains a sign of progress. In this temporal span in this alternate universe there is a God who made you, loves you, who more than anything wants you Back. It’s our eternal story, repeated year after year. Come with me. Pretend it’s true. I promise you, when you finally reach out and pull aside the curtain, you will not be disappointed.

Return, Geography
Kol Nidre Sermon 2010

In a recent book on Jewish healing, rabbinic pastor, Estelle Frankel tells the story of a girl who suffers a sudden blow to the head. Laying in a coma for untold days, she is entirely out of the reach of her family, gathered frightened at her bedside. Though she appears motionless, deep inside the child struggles mightily to return to her loved ones. In the story, her ordeal becomes a metaphoric quest for the lost parts of herself and the restoration of the primary relationships in her life. Traveling through an alien landscape, her path is fraught with vulnerability and exposure. She is lead to do scary things to succeed, indeed to survive. However long her journey or terrible the risks, there is certain power to the narrative which increases when we realize that the name of that alien country, OZ, is also the Hebrew word for strength. Oz.
Ostensibly a mere children’s story, The Wizard of Oz is iconic in American culture and many of our own childhoods. I think perhaps there is good reason for this, beyond Judy Garland’s charm and some great show tunes. Perhaps that reason can inform our path now, this powerful night of Kol Nidre, release from our vows, and the beginning of our Day of Teshuvah, of Return.
Let us begin basic questions: What is Teshuvah, anyway, and to where and when are we returning?
It’s a good question.
For example, although Dorothy fights to return to her life in Kansas, frankly speaking, that life does not look that good. She lives with her Aunt and Uncle on an impoverished pig farm in the middle of the Dust Bowl with twisters around the corner and an old witch that wants to kill her dog. At the beginning of the story, she is in fact running away from home. And yet, Dorothy, having finally escaped her terrible life through the cataclysm of the tornado, immediately wants to return. Throughout the book, that return is her sole objective.
A closer look at the story reveals that Dorothy is in fact not pinning away to return to Kansas. It is the people in her life, her relationships that she strives to restore. The Wizard of Oz, then, can be seen, in an odd and delightful way, as a Yom Kippur legend, such as might be told by Jewish master story tellers such as Nachman of Brazlav or the Besht himself. For what is Yom Kippur but a 26 hour struggle to restore our relationships, between each other, ourselves, and our God. Like Dorothy, at the end of the day, we hopefully will learn that the power of Return, of Teshuvah, has been ours all along. Dorothy, however, just has to click her heels together three times and say, “there’s no place like home.” While the sentiment is nice, our process of teshuvah, our yellow brick road of return is much more complicated. Tonight I am going to offer a road map of Teshuvah, complete with an overview of the alien terrain and some of the unfamiliar practices found there in.
There are two beginning steps toward teshuvah ideally begun before we gather here in the Temple for the sacred prayer of Kol Nidre. One step is mandated by the Rabbis in antiquity, the other inspired by the 20th Century Jewish theologian Martin Buber.
To begin, the first step we have heard about again and again, we are to apologize and make amends with the people in our lives. Lots of us don’t bother or don’t remember. Many don’t see the purpose. Apologies can be embarrassing and uncomfortable. They can lead to hearing things you don’t want to hear, and having conversations you really don’t want to have. For some of us—for many men in particular–the business of apology is a new country altogether. Some of us just were not brought up with the words, “I’m sorry,” in our vocabulary.
However, acknowledging our wrongs, the ways we hurt each other and apologizing is essential to functioning relationships. Aaron Lazare, a Professor of Psychiatry and the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worchester, in his book On Apology identifies seven distinct reasons why apologies are necessary to the healing and continuance of relationships.
1.) Apologies offer the restoration of self-respect and dignity—note, then that the lack of an apology is a continuing damage to self-respect and dignity of the offended;
2.) Apologies offer the assurance that both parties have shared values—for example, if I am rude to you and I apologize, then you know that I share with you the belief that people should behave with courtesy to one another. If I do not apologize, you do not know I that value respect and courtesy, neither do you know then, how I will behave towards you in the future;
3.) Apologies also offer the assurance that the offence was not their fault—If I am rude to you and I do not apologize you might think you somehow disservice my rudeness and contempt. This is especially true in relationships with power differentials. The offense is internalize and turned against the offended.
4.) Also having to do with power, apologies offer the assurance of safety in the relationship—If I am rude to you and do not apologize you may never again feel entirely safe in my presence, but rather always be expecting more rudeness;
5.) The opportunity to see the offender suffer—If I apologize and show my pain and remorse, you receive that small recompense, my pain for your pain;
6.) Reparation for harm caused by the offence;
7.) The opportunity for meaningful dialogues with the offenders. Perhaps we would discuss dynamics in our interactions or the stressors in our lives that led to inadvertent rudeness, and maybe we would even figure out how to avoid such happenings in the future. Without an apology, that conversation and problem solving would probably never happen.

It is also very important to realize that each time an offense is made and apology withheld, the hurt and fear and humiliation piles higher with the resultant distance between parties becoming greater and greater, even or especially if they are intimate partners. A first step of the Yom Kippur process is to apologize, restoring mutual respect, dignity, safety, insight and understanding to our relationships in all facets of our lives: familial, congregational, business and otherwise. It is not empty ritual, but a process designed to heal what is broken and help bring us home within ourselves and in the presence of one another.
Another necessary first step has been suggested by a Christian theologian and colleague of mine, Carter Heyward through her work on Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Her theological concern is relationship between people and her standpoint, the point from which she theologizes is that of a lesbian. What this means is, just as being a Jew in a predominantly Christian country provides a certain set of insights, so also, says Carter, does being a lesbian in a predominantly heterosexual world. Some of these insights, if articulated, might be of worth to everyone, especially, I think, us Jews tonight on the eve of Yom Kippur.
Heyward looks specifically at relationships in which one person is gay or lesbian and, as the expression goes, in the closet., She finds that this kind of relationship, in which a profound secret a part of one’s self is kept hidden, has many of the same disruptive and un-equal power dynamics as enumerated above with the lack of a needed apology:
1.) There is a lessening of self-respect and dignity;
2.) No assurance of shared values, and no way to find out;
3.) There is no way for the closeted person to read social signs without continually imagining a subtext;
4.) And there is a constant lack of safety, fear of discovery, a constant need for subterfuge;
5.) Finally, there is no opening for meaningful dialogue.
Coming out, then, for Heyward, is a move toward what she and Buber might call “coming into right, or just relation,” a relationship in which there is a much greater chance of mutuality, equality, openness, growth, and yes, even forgiveness. As such, moving into “right relation” is appropriate as a Yom Kippur redemptive project.
Am I suggesting that Yom Kippur become a national coming out day for Jews? Maybe not. What I do know, is that Yom Kippur has been successfully used for exactly this project: coming to honesty in relationships, moving from lies, secrets and silences to sharing, tears, and reconciliation. And I’m not just speaking of homosexuals. So many couples and families and communities have their relational capacity impaired and the power dynamics skewed to devastating degrees because of information that has not been shared. If sin is to be defined as that which keeps us from loving and experiencing love, then this is sin. If sin is power, manipulation, and intimidation, then enforcing silence and inequality is a sin and another sin again.
Apologies and disclosure, processing and reconciliation, all this falls under the traditional category of bein adom v’havro, between person and person. It is a necessary part of Yom Kippur, but only a part. Like the friends Dorothy meets and develops during her journey as if she is gathering the lost parts of herself: heart, mind, and courage, so also are our relational gatherings necessary to the Yom Kippur journey ahead. We need our wits, our family and our friend around us, for the first place we have to go is ‘down under.’
By the time her house crashes in Oz—in Hebrew, the land of power, also slang for Australia, Dorothy has lost everything but her little dog and her country charm. The violent storm destroyed her identity, and taken her away from everything that is known and familiar. Frankel notes that it is this kind of cataclysmic loss, such as death, divorce, disease, hitting bottom that lands us in alien terrain. This new land requires movement for the most basic survival, forcing change because where you are and who you have become is simply too painful to endure.
Great religions around the world recognize that those cataclysmic events can lead to profound spiritual breakthroughs. For example, the founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov lost his mother at birth and his father at age five. Overcome with loneliness and longing, as a young boy he wandered days and days alone in the forest, where he learned to bond deeply with his only remaining Parent, God. From all his suffering came one of the most profound mystical practices in all of Judaism, devecut or cleaving with the Divine.
Similarly, Rumi, the great Sufi mystic and poet, was only a pretty good poet before the death of his lifelong friend Sham. According to legend, at Sham’s murder, Rumi’s heart broke open, after which he knew love without boundaries, producing poetry of ethereal splendor and mystical insight.
As the Maggid of Mezerich taught: “Before [a person can be] transformed…[he] must [first] come to a level of Nothingness.” I understand him to be saying that the necessary first stage of the process of changing ourselves, becoming empty. This reminds me of another kind of prophet from my younger days, who sang, “Freedom is another word for nothing left to lose.” When you have nothing left to lose, you still have two things: You have the rest of your life, and you have a choice. The choice is to continue down that path until you lose your life, or to change.
This is the journey of Yom Kippur.
The first step of that journey is becoming nothing. The Hebrew word the Rabbis use is bittule, which means to negate or nullify. Some of us recognize the concept of bittule from Passover. Just before the holiday we perform bittule chametz, or the nullification of chametz. Chametz is all the puffed up grain products representing our ego that we are forbidden to own or eat during the eight days of Passover. We clean our homes of chametz, burn the last crumbs, and just before the holiday begins, and say a prayer that nullifies any tiny bits we may have missed. On Yom Kippur we are taught to treat ourselves as if we were chametz and be swept up, burned, and made nothing.
The fact that the Rabbis use this term from Passover to describe a Yom Kippur process is multiply instructive. They want us to connect the dynamic of the greatest change—the Exodus—to our process of change on Yom Kippur. In the Exodus narrative, despite the fact they don’t really belong there, the Israelites live happily in Egypt for generations. They had to become slaves and sorely oppressed before they cried out to our God and understood they needed to leave fleshpots of Egypt. Similarly, Pharaoh has to be brought to his knees, witnessing the destruction of his empire before he lets our people go. Moses himself requires a visitation from God to be moved from his domestic complacency. Great changes only happen when overwhelming even devastating circumstances force it upon us.
In our lives, this obliteration happens in many ways, mostly terrible, always hard. Part of my job as a rabbi is to meet the person or family or even community in that rock bottom place and help shape the hope, the vision, and the decisions that provide for recovery, healing, and change. As sure as spring follows winter, I have witnessed, again and again, the phoenix rise from the ashes. I am reminded of the California spruce whose seed only opens for growth after searing in a fire.
As a rabbi, as your Rabbi, it is also my job to take each one of you and all of us together on that same path of annulation and rebirth on this most awesome day of Yom Kippur. The place where catastrophe can catapult any of us on any day, there we travel together. But the Rabbis are clear: You don’t have to lose all your money, your family, your home, your health. On this day, you only have to bittule your chamatz, so to speak, to flatten and exorcise your ego, your pride, our self-satisfied complacency. It is a necessary first step in teshuvah. But the Rabbis don’t intend that our lives should be destroyed each Yom Kippur. It is our ego within each one of us that must become as nothing. The first step in return.

Specifically, the Law requires that, beginning at sundown, we refrained from eating, drinking, washing, and adorning ourselves. To begin, we are commanded to become as if the lowest of the low worldwide: hungry, thirsty, unwashed and unadorned. We are commanded to afflict ourselves as others might be afflicted, to dislodge ourselves from the world we know, from habit and ready comfort.
The shock of this sudden poverty is designed to help carry us into a foreign country where the norms and rules of our usual existence are turned on their head. How we care for ourselves, how we show respect for ourselves, each other, and our God, is to not feed or hydrate our physical bodies, not allow ourselves the comfort and relaxation of a hot shower, to not beautify our faces with makeup or our wrists and necks with jewelry. It seems absurd perhaps medieval, but that very absurdity is the point. Here, in this time frame of sundown to dusk these 25 hours, we are entered into a different country, an upside-down under powerful space through which we journey. And the beginning of that journey is to be brought low.
The self-affliction are just part of that process. For me, the real emptying out, nothing-making of the self occurs over the long course of the hungry twenty something hours and hours and hours of services, with the recitation again and again of all these sins that I have potentially done, purposefully and by accident, by myself and in a group, sins against others, sins against myself, infractions against God herself. All this complete with the standing and sitting and beating of the breast. Genug already, dyainu. Maspik. Enough! You go through it all once it should be enough.
Unfortunately, it isn’t. The length of the day, the endless confession, is like a wearing down and emptying out, until, in the middle of the forth confession and the forty seventh time you beat your breast, and suddenly a word or phrase ambushes your exhausted and unguarded brain and you realize—I REALLY DID THAT.
They’ve described it to a T.
It’s like they absolutely know me and my life, I DID THAT. And suddenly with newly humbled eyes you read through the confession again, and realize you did that, and that, and that as well. It’s humiliating and painful. In fact, with any luck, it’s totally devastating.
We realize, like civilians in a combat zone, we keep our head down and our doors closed. As refugees in a food line, we experience our own hunger and ignore that of anyone else’s. Similar to a Jew escaping Nazis during the Holocaust, we dissemble, lie, sneak, and do anything we have to do to get by. And while in the extreme circumstances of combat, starvation, and genocide, all these actions and non-actions might be understandable, we are, for the most part, facing none of these challenges. Rather, we are just and only stranded in the colorless Kansas of our own lives, the years like sun and wind wearing and chipping away at our better selves. Day after day inured in our private prairies, we fail to notice the parts of better selves that have fallen away. Living as ‘less than’ becomes habit, the norm, what we think life is all about. And so it takes either a tornado or a day of fasting and praying in synagogue to shift the perspective, revealing our true lives and our real selves.
Fully grasping the extent of our failure in the wilderness of down under, we are ready to repent, to say we are sorry, to disclose to become open, The apology is not for God who never changes but for us, for the restoration of our self-respect, our courage, our vision of who we can truly be, apology restores us to God in, call it forgiveness, call it reconciliation, call it teshuvah, return to our Parent, the One who made us, watches over us, who will welcome our return.
You might want to say, Rabbi I was right with all the way until you brought in this God and God as Parent stuff. I just don’t believe it, it just doesn’t work for me.
I want you to know I honor and respect that question. I know many times there is history behind that perspective, of pain, disappointment, disillusionment. And sometimes it is just a conclusion made after thought and observation. Whichever way, I ask simply for what you give good books and movies automatically, tonight and tomorrow for a suspension of your disbelief. For 26 hours we enter a liminal universe, an alternative space where washing is bad and hunger pains a sign of progress. In this temporal span in this alternate universe there is a God who made you, loves you, who more than anything wants you Back. It’s our eternal story, repeated year after year. Come with me. Pretend it’s true. I promise you, when you finally reach out and pull aside the curtain, you will not be disappointed.

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