Yom Kippur Morning 5778/2017
A young rabbi stood on the bima delivering his Yom Kippur sermon. Wanting to make a strong impression he banged on the lectern as he loudly delivered the first line of his sermon, “Every member of this congregation will die someday!” He paused and looked around at the somber look he had put on everyone’s face. His eyes settled on one man in the front row who responded differently from everyone else. This man was grinning back at him! Certain the man in the front row had not heard him, the rabbi again thundered, “I tell you that everyone in this congregation will one day die!” He looked down at the front row and saw that the man was still smiling. One last time the rabbi shouted, “True it is that eventually everyone in this congregation must die!” Seeing that the man’s grin had only grown larger, the rabbi paused and asked, “Excuse me sir, are you amused by that idea?”
“Oh no,” replied the man, “I’m not amused. I’m relieved… You see, I’m not a member of this congregation!”
On Yom Kippur, we can laugh and we can cry because, unlike the man in the front row, we are all members of this congregation, members of one human family and, as such, we share a common trait: we all were born, and at a point yet undermined in the future, we will die. It’s part of what it means to be alive and it compels a choice: we can be like Woody Allen, who said he wasn’t afraid of dying; he just didn’t want to be there when it happened. Or we can embrace the reality that our lives have limits and resolve to make the most of our days on earth.
Yom Kippur is like that. In so many ways, it points us back to an essential question, not “who shall live and who shall die,” but “how shall I live and How shall I die?” It’s reframes the question to be one not of quantity of our days, but of their quality.
It does this by having us play act our own mortality. On Yom Kippur we don’t eat, drink or have physical relations with others. Unlike the rest of the year, when, in imitation of the angels in heaven we sing the second line of the Shema in a muted voice, on Yom Kippur we recite the second like as loud as the first, because it is as if we too, are with the angels in heaven.
And in the meantime, we enter this sanctuary, into this holy space, surrounded by these holy people. Some of us are here on a courtesy visit; some of us are in full blown existential crisis, while yet others inhabit a more nonchalant mood like that described in the following poem:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love the stranger
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
In truth, some days that is enough. On some days, it is all we can manage. On some days, it’s just what we need.
A story: A town had only 10 adult Jews and, despite the dearth of Jews, they always had a minyan on Shabbat. No one ever missed it because they knew they were responsible for another. Then one day, an 11th Jew moved to town and they could never again make a minyan.
Why was that the case? One might surmise that the chances were now greater with the addition of another soul. The laws of probability would make it that much more likely. But in fact, once people thought that perhaps they weren’t needed, that they wouldn’t be missed, they felt much less of a need to be there.
A story is told of a King whose daughter was to be married in 3 months. He sent out invitations to his entire kingdom for everyone to come and celebrate at the wedding feast. He also asked that guests bring no gifts. All that he requested was that each household, in the weeks before the wedding, should bring a pitcher of their finest red wine to the town square. There, he had erected a huge barrel – 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide. During the weeks that led up to the wedding, each household was to bring their pitcher of wine to the barrel, climb up a ladder and open the lid and pour it in. In this way, when it came time to toast his daughter and her new husband, they would do so using the shared bounty of the entire community.
As the weeks and months passed and the wedding date grew closer, a representative from each household came to the town square, climbed up the ladder, opened the lid and poured their pitcher into the huge barrel. It slowly filled with each offering until it was almost completely full.
Finally, the day of the wedding arrived. The bride and groom stood under the Chuppah, rings were exchanged, the glass was broken. Everyone shouted MAZAL TOV!!! Then, at the beginning of the feast, the King prepared to bless the wine and called for the 1st toast. He held a clear, crystal glass up to the tap on the bottom of the barrel. He broke the seal, opened the spigot and out came a stream of pure…..water.
You know what happened; all the townspeople, as they heard about the King’s request, thought to themselves: “So many people are contributing to the King’s toast, and it’s such a huge barrel, if I just pour water in, no one will know the difference! So, one by one, thinking that their contribution didn’t count, each person poured water, not wine, into the barrel.
And so it goes. The truth is, each of us counts more than we know. Whether we are the tenth person in the room or the hundredth, without us, the community is immeasurably diminished.
And what is true in the aggregate is true individually. As individuals, we never know what critical role we might play in the life of another member of this community. I am reminded of a poem written by Lawrence Kushner:
Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
For some there are more pieces.
For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.
Some seem to be born with nearly a completed puzzle.
And so it goes.
Souls going this way and that
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.
But know this. No one has within themselves
All the pieces to their puzzle.
Like before the days when they used to seal
jigsaw puzzles in cellophane. Insuring that
all the pieces were there.
Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.
And when you present your piece
Which is worthless to you,
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.
I would imagine you have had moments like that – instances in which some ineluctable transaction occurred, when someone gave you the answer to a question you didn’t yet know you were even asking. Moments when, without realizing it, you showed up just in time to heal someone else’s hurt. The exquisite, precious moments of life most often happen, are most likely to happen, in community.
Oh, and in connection with that story about the minyan – a real true story: There was a new shul, and as they were getting organized they met in an Episcopal church. The priest started going to morning minyan. He liked it so much that whenever they were short of ten Jews to make a minyan, the priest would call the shul members and get them out. At the end of the year the members called an emergency meeting to raise funds. “We’ve got to build our own building and get out of this church” they said, “so we can stop coming to minyan every day.”
At Sinai, we can probably form a minyan without you, but if you are not here, something important and essential is missing. The community isn’t complete.
In a mountain village in Europe many years ago, there was a nobleman who was concerned about the legacy he would leave to the people of his town, and decided to build a synagogue. In the course of his planning, he decided no one would see the plans for the building until it was finished. He erected a wall around the building and began construction. The workers were sworn to secrecy. Day and night they worked until the new synagogue was finished. When the work was completed, the townspeople were excited and curious about what they would find upon entering their new synagogue. They lined up early in the morning and anxiously waited for the wall to come down.
The doors opened and the townspeople began to enter. They marveled at the synagogue’s magnificence. No one could ever remember so beautiful a synagogue anywhere in the world. They sat admiring the intricate designs and beautiful windows. They were in awe of the craftsmanship and attention to detail.
Then, noticing a seemingly obvious flaw in the design, one of them asked, “Where are the lamps? What will provide the lighting?” You built such a beautiful building and forgot to place lamps so that we could see when we worshipped. How could this be? And the crowd began to laugh …
The proud nobleman held up his hand to silence the crowd. A hush came over the congregation. He then pointed to brackets which were strategically placed all along the walls throughout the synagogue. He then gave each family a lamp as he explained, “Whenever you come to the synagogue, I want you to bring your lamp, and light it. And your light will fill this place of prayer. But, each time you are not here,” he said, “a part of the synagogue will be dark. This lamp will remind you that whenever you are absent, some part of God’s house will be dark. Your community is relying on you for light.”
And so it is at Sinai. We might be able to make a minyan without you, but your absence will deprive the community of your light. Your light, your presence is more important than you know – you may indeed provide the missing piece to someone else’s puzzle. You might meet someone who provides a missing piece to your puzzle. So don’t be a stranger. As good as it is to see you this morning, your presence here during the year is more precious and purposeful than you will ever know.
Rabbi David B. Cohen
©2017 David Cohen