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Rabbi Stein's Sermon - Yom Kippur Morning 5780

Yom Kippur Morning 5780
Temple B’rith Kodesh
Rabbi Peter W. Stein

Hope in a Time of Crisis
 
In memory of my father, Robert Lewis Stein
and his beloved rabbi and mentor, Rabbi Jacob Shankman

 

I want to begin this morning with an account from 1942 Norway. 

This was two years after the Nazi invasion of the country.  Conditions were grave.  One example: the average Norwegian only had 1175 calories per day, a starvation diet.  Germany took 80 percent of Norwegian salted herring. 

I came to these statistics in my research as I prepared for these High Holy Days.  My interest was not primarily in the brutal physical realities during that tragic time…sadly there are far too many examples of that, and they may or may not be instructive. 

I came to the news accounts of 1942 Norway as I explored various sermons that had been preached during the 1930s and 1940s.  One example stood out to me. 

In 1942, there were 1110 clergymen in Norway.  In the weeks leading up to Easter, over 95% of them (1061) resigned their pulpits, including every single bishop. 

In addition, that spring, of the 10,000 schoolteachers in Norway, 1000 were sent to concentration camps.  The other 9000 refused to teach.

What was their protest?  The clergy and teachers acted in response to an order that all children above 10 years old must be enrolled in the Nazi-sponsored youth movement, with all of the brainwashing and restrictions that were part of it.

*****

I found these news reports in the American Jewish Archives in the sermon notes of Rabbi Jacob Shankman.  Rabbi Shankman was a leading Reform rabbi, one who held significant national leadership positions.  His rabbinate paralleled that of our own beloved Rabbi Bernstein—they even retired in the very same year.  He was also my father’s cherished rabbi and mentor.  I grew up hearing many stories about how special Rabbi Shankman was.

Rabbi Shankman seized onto the reports of what was happening with his brother clergy and preached a magnificent sermon.  Entitled Hope in An Age of Crisis1, it holds messages that I think are important for us to consider today.  While I do not equate the conditions of 1942 with the realities of 2019, I do believe that on this Yom Kippur day, we must consider how we take personal responsibility for healing our world. 

1 Jacob Kestin Shankman Papers, held in the American Jewish Archives 

Shankman turned to several examples in speaking about hope.  From American history, he considers Washington at Valley Forge and Lincoln in the dark days of 1864.  He reflects on how each of them found the resilience to continue leading. 

From biblical history, he turns to Chapter 32 of Jeremiah.  Jeremiah was a prophet who lived during the time of the devastating destruction of King Solomon’s temple.  In that chapter, in the face of overwhelming catastrophe, the prophet offers a message of hope.  He describes God using the so called Divine Attributes: “Adonai, Adonai, You show kindness to the thousandth generation…[You are] wondrous in purpose and mighty in deed.”  Jeremiah inspires the people to have hope. 

***** 

These attributes are also found as the backbone of our High Holy Day liturgy.  We repeat them again and again on this sacred day. 

They first appear in Torah as a response to the Golden Calf episode.  The people commit this egregious sin and their destruction is threatened.  But, Adonai Adonai…God is endlessly merciful, loving and kind… 

So too on Yom Kippur.  We confess our sins, again and again, during this full day of prayer and spiritual activity, and…Adonai Adonai…we reassure ourselves that God is endlessly merciful, loving and kind.  There is hope.

*****   

There is one last piece from Shankman’s writing that I would like to share.  He asks us to picture a jigsaw puzzle with pictures on both sides.  On the one side, there is a large map of the world.  On the other, there is a picture of a person.

We start working the puzzle with the picture of the person.  And as we put the pieces of the person together, we put the world together. 

This is what we face on Yom Kippur. This is an intensely personal day, an opportunity to focus deep within ourselves.  The hope is that we will emerge from this day with a renewed sense of purpose and renewed strength. 

If we succeed in this, then we will also be on our way to repairing the world.  We will have the resolve needed to put the pieces back together. 

*****

The Nazi invasion of Norway took place on April 9, 1940.  That day on the Jewish calendar was Rosh Chodesh Nisan…the first day of the month of Nisan, the month when we observe Passover.  So, just as that descent into darkness was underway, Jews the world over were remembering in personal ways what happened to our ancestors…proclaiming that we remember the experience of oppression and we will not accept suffering in our world ever again.  We will use our own personal experience of redemption and of repair to create wholeness in the world.

The courage of the Norwegian clergy inspires me.  On this day, my hope is that we will find the courage to mount our own spiritual resistance. 

The world may not be as dark as during the time of Jeremiah or as threatening as during the time of the Nazis, but we do find ourselves very far from a world of peace.  On Rosh Hashana eve, I spoke about the bitter divides in our country and how we might be the ones who build bridges to greater cooperation, person to person…not erasing our differences but intentionally adding to the diversity of those with whom we have meaningful relationships. 

Today, I want to further consider the possibility that when we nourish our souls we will bring sustenance to the world. 

*****

On Rosh Hashana, we repeated the proclamation, “Hayom Harat Olam”, “Today is the birthday of the world.”  However, it has been taught that we can read those words differently. 

Harat (Hara) actually means pregnancy, conception, or gestation.  Not birth, but the process that leads to birth.  Olam can mean world, but it can also mean eternity.  So, the prayer Hayom Harat Olam can be understood as “Today is a day that is pregnant with eternity.”2                                                           

2 Rabbi David Seidenberg, Seventy Faces of Torah, September 2014

These holy days are “pregnant with eternity”, filled with infinite possibilities.  These holy days are a time when we can find renewed hope, even when we despair at so much of what we see in the world.  These holy days are a time when we can mount a spiritual resistance, one that is boundless with possibility as we mine the reservoirs of our souls. 

How do we do this?  I believe there are several steps we can take. 

In Talmud (BT Eruvin 65b), there is a teaching of Rabbi Elai, who said, “In three matters a person’s true character is ascertained: in their cup (i.e. their behavior when they drink), in their pocket (i.e. their conduct in their financial dealings with other people), and in their anger.  And some say: A person also reveals their real nature in their laughter.” 

I take this ancient teaching into our time as a challenge for this Yom Kippur and for the year to come. 

“In their cup…”: do we have self-discipline and moderation?  Do we have control over our appetites and evil inclinations? 

Or, conversely, are we answering the call of the yetser tov, the inclination and ability within us to do good and to act with love and kindness. 

“In their pocket…”: are we having an impact with our tsedakah?  Do we prioritize the synagogue and other Jewish institutions?  Are we using our resources to further the pursuit of justice?  Are we doing all we can? 

“In their anger…”: We know that this teaching is a response to the biblical verses that idealize one who is slow to anger.  But, I would offer a different nuance. 

Are we numb or do we feel anger at the violence in our world?  When tragedy strikes in some far off place or to somebody with a different identity, does it still pierce our soul that there is human suffering?  Have we become indifferent or are we angry at the lack of equal opportunity in our country? 

Anger can be destructive, of course, but it can also be the fuel that enables us to do the soul-work that in turn enables us to do the work of tikkun olam.  Righteous anger has power that can lead us to take action.

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Using these questions as a spiritual exercise on Yom Kippur can lead us down a good path.  And, by strengthening ourselves, we can bring strength to our world.  When we see darkness, we can create light.  When there is despair, we can establish hope.  Our own spiritual growth this year can impact the entire world in positive ways, ultimately helping in the creation of peace. 

The postscript to the Talmud passage, that one reveals their real nature in their laughter, is an important note, even on this somber day.  Let us never stop from searching for joy in our own lives and creating joy and happiness in the lives of those around us.  I pray that this coming year will be one filled with many moments of laughter! 

Yom Kippur is a day of eternal hope.  In every generation, there have been moments of despair.  And, in every generation, we have found the resolve to become healers.  May we find in this day the resilience to do so again, healing our souls and healing our world.

Wed, June 3 2020 11 Sivan 5780