The Light and the Dark of the High Holidays

We’ve been traveling together since Selichot to a place of hard scrutiny and courage. We’ve examined our deeds and have chosen the life-giving art of change. And now on Yom Kippur we are reaching the culmination of the journey. We are beginning the final ascent to the top of the mountain. Our breath slows and deepens as we let our prayers lift us to join together in a community of love for each other and for the stranger, including the unwelcome parts of ourselves individually and communally. Throughout this season we’ve approached the High Holidays as solely as a time of beginnings: it’s the birthday of the world, the birth of a new self, the season to correct our direction and start afresh. The chance to move toward a better day and a better self invigorates us, as does a sunlit morning, staying young, and reaching for joy and celebration.

But there is more to the High Holidays than that. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur frame the Days of Awe, days in which we are awed by that which we can change and also by that which we cannot change. This morning I think of my grandfather who used to say, “You want change? Change your underwear.” Between these days we balance our possibility and our limitation. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of our power and independence; Yom Kippur reminds us of our limitation and dependence.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of human beings and it celebrates our creativity, because that’s what change requires. We start diets, take classes, and make resolutions propelled from the momentum of the season.

We love the idea that we can change. It gives us hope, a key ingredient for survival. Last week we began Rosh Hashanah with a kiddush over wine to lighten and gladden our hearts. Our challah for the holiday is round, like a crown, for we are connected to the Sovereign of All. We don’t dip the bread in salt, as we do on Shabbat, to remind us of sacrifices. We dip the bread in honey to taste the sweetness of starting again, erasing the slate for a new self.

We wear our best on Rosh Hashanah, perhaps a new garment. It’s a time to choose life, so we read Bereshit the first morning to remember the miracle and glory of creation, and we heard in the Haftarah the story of Hannah’s barrenness and her answered prayers for a child with the birth of Samuel. We also remember two very old people, Sarah and Abraham, finally becoming fertile, pregnant with Yitzchak, whose name means laughter.

We blow the shofar, an instrument that requires great effort and skill to bring forth sound. It sings to us, full of power, encouraging us to awaken our sleeping minds and hearts to be near God, to behave as we are, in the divine image. A midrash tells us: “When a human being goes on his road, a troop of angels proceed in front of him and proclaim: Make way for the image of the Holy One, blessed be God.” Rosh Hashanah is about the glory of the human spirit, the day God created us, the crown of creation.

In Genesis, Adam and Eve are told “To multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. You shall have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.” On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the assertive, active, and powerful energy, the mover and shaker in us. We’re partners with God and we’re up to the task, capable of anything.

We feel like “The Little Engine That Could,” the train that kept on trying and persisting, chugging its tune, “I think I can, I think I can,” and of course, it being an assertive, positive-minded American choo-choo, it does. Just like us. Just like we’d like to be. If we will it, we can do it. But that’s not the whole truth of our lives, is it? Yom Kippur tells the other side of the story, the side that terrifies us, the part which reveals that, alas, we cannot will everything. Rosh Hashanah celebrates my strength, Yom Kippur confronts my frailty.

Traditional Yom Kippur text reminds us: “Our origin is dust and we return to dust. We obtain our bread at the peril of our life. We are like a fragile potsherd, like the grass that withers, like the flower that fades, like a fleeting shadow, like a passing cloud, like a wind that blows, like the floating dust, like a dream that vanishes.”

Who can stand such a reminder? The rabbis said Rosh Hashanah precedes the Day of Atonement because we would never have the courage to face what it demands without a previous reminder of our strength. A Hasidic rabbi suggested that we carry two verses with us all the time, in one pocket, “For my sake was the world created,” and in the other pocket, “I am but dust and ashes.” We are not Orthodox Jews, but paradox Jews, complete human beings who know that we live with opposing truths. Rabbi Aba bar Yudan said: Whatever makes an animal ritually unfit makes a person ritually fit. The Torah declares ritually unfit that animal which is “blind or broken, or maimed, or having a blemish” (Lev.22:22). But the Torah declares fit the one who has “broken and a contrite heart.”

Last night we didn’t greet Yom Kippur with gladness and sweetness. We only lit candles, perhaps with a memorial candle also on the bare table. Throughout the day hunger will remind us of our dependence. No beautiful clothes for the holiday. In fact, we’re supposed to wear a kittel, a white garment that is part of the burial shroud. We don’t wear leather shoes, either; instead we cover our feet with only flimsy cloth or stockinged feet. We can’t stomp and trod and stride on Yom Kippur; instead we feel the uncompromising hardness of the earth and wince at its rocks and unevenness. In fact, we are to deny ourselves all physical pleasure: besides not wearing leather shoes, we are not to wash, eat or drink, have sex, or annoint ourselves with perfume, oils and lotions.

We don’t read about creation or birth on Yom Kippur. Instead we read about the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, two wholly righteous people killed for bringing strange fire to the altar. Aaron, numb with his loss, remains silent. The shofar is also silent on Yom Kippur; there is nothing to shout about.

We enter into the part of ourselves we’d rather avoid, the part we’ve rejected, denied, and fought with. Maybe it’s our controlling side, or our passivity and indifference, or our hair-trigger anger. When we do face ourselves we’re overwhelmed, maybe appalled. The internal critic sneers, “So what? Forget it. You haven’t done it yet. What makes you think you can do it this time?”

We’ve been to therapists, we’ve willed ourselves, we’ve taken anti-depressants, and yet…change is so hard and so many times we’ve disappointed ourselves and others. What can we do?

This is what works for me. I have learned that it is easier to do teshuvah when I hear others tell their stories. Whatever we suffer, whatever we have to face, it’s made bearable by knowing that we are not alone. On Rosh Hashanah we come together to remind each other of our power to change the world and on Yom Kippur we come together, in our imperfection, to console each other.

Our High Holiday liturgy is in first person plural for the same reason. None of us likes looking at our flaws. We all want to be perfect, especially rabbis. We all feel frightened and powerless with our imperfection. Yet by listening to each other, we discover that the flaw, the shortcoming, the weakness, is not the enemy but the teacher.

One night we invited a woman who was visiting TBS and Santa Fe for the first time to have Shabbos dinner with us. I had just led services, spoke about Shabbos as a time of love, a time to see each other as part of ourselves, and now we were having a guest to dinner and much as I tried to will myself to generosity, I couldn’t. I wanted a nice dinner with my family–my sister and husband were visiting from out of town–and I wasn’t feeling inclusive. Finally, I decided to make the best of it and make the stranger feel comfortable.

The first thing the woman said was that her ex-husband had taken her three teen-aged sons from her and had twisted their minds to reject her. She then went on to say that she would leave her children in six months and make a new life for herself in Santa Fe–she’d had enough and her boys could figure it out for themselves. Her face was as hard as her words, unforgiving, case closed. She repeated over and over, “My therapist says I have to stand on my own two feet and do what’s best for me.”

We sat at the table, listening to her rage and her pain, silent and uncomfortable. Then I told her about my own child, a boy who had been cruel to me for years, had even struck me. I had sent him away for two years, to a school that helped him face what he had done, led him to ask my forgiveness. I told her how grateful I was that I hadn’t closed the door, that not only were my son and I good friends but that he had become an unusually compassionate, loving person.

The woman didn’t respond immediately but when she was leaving she turned and said, “All I feel like doing now is crying.” Her anger had given way to grief. She remembered that she was a mother who loved her children. The pain of defeat is unbearable but there can be no triumph, no repair until we face our despair.

What made that woman acknowledge her pain? Someone else’s. I don’t know if that woman realized, or even if I realized at the time, that my story not only gave hope to the mother but that it brought God’s presence to us that night.

Shalom means both peace and wholeness. Tishri is the seventh month, the moon of peace, the time for embracing the wholeness of our lives, not just the successes but the failures, too. Yom Kippur tells me that I will never find forgiveness, I will never have peace, until I accept my limitations and defeats.

We understand why God loves us on Rosh Hashanah. We look good, feel good in our resolve and will to do better. But do we believe God loves us as much on Yom Kippur, when we feel diminished by our incompleteness? Am I cut off from God in my failure? Does God only love the self-sufficient?

We long for the Compassionate, Loving, Forgiving God but many of us see God as Judge and Sovereign only. This God doesn’t love us in our weakness, despair, depression, and defeat. We have forgotten the nurturing God who made clothes for Adam and Eve when they left Eden. God loves us most when we accept our frailty, when we face what is, and when we ask for help to try to do better. “Even the righteous cannot stand in the same place as the penitent,” the Talmud tells us. All God asks for is that we turn within, return to what we know is holy, and to admit that we’re not God. Woody Allen says that 80 percent of life is showing up. Maybe this is what he meant. Sometimes we wish we had more than just ourselves when it comes time to show up.

Some of you may not feel you need healing. You’re more in the Rosh Hashanah mode than the Yom Kippur mode. Happily, for many of us, it’s easy to feel satisfied because on many levels we are fulfilled.

Yet this precious day asks us to look for what is not satisfied in us–the hunger to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated–these are our deepest needs for psychological survival and we cannot give them to ourselves. But we can give them to the person sitting next to us who carries the same unspoken need. Each of us can fulfill this for the other, and when we do we become healers– and in so doing, heal ourselves. Here is the balance of the tensions of the Days of Awe. My need allows me to know yours. Our vulnerabilities lead us to our power.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are different but together they are one. We need both will and submission. The great culmination of this season comes at neilah, when we have fasted all day. The service ends in a crescendo of repeating Adonai, Hu Haelohim, Adonai You are God! seven times and then the great long blast of the shofar that has been silent until the end. The sound comes through us, through our breath, and the breath comes from God. The balance is complete.

It is not a choice of God’s will or ours. They must become one. We are made in God’s image; We are more than ego and we will find help within the self that includes God. And we will also find help above, not in the sky but in the above that dwells below, in community.

We can behave in our community as the healing God, by listening, caring, and speaking one’s truth. When we live with both the humility of Yom Kippur and the empowerment of Rosh Hashanah, we will be close to knowing who God wants us to be and what God wants us to do.

May we be blessings of comfort, encouragement, and hope to each other in the new year.