Immanence and Memory - Yom Kippur 2015

One week ago several hundred people in Berger Hall for Rosh Hashanah service witnessed a truly shocking, jarring sight. A Torah scroll began to shift in its holder. Rabbi Greenwald told me that as he watched it was like witnessing an accident unfold. He saw what was taking place, but he knew he could not get there in time to stop it. A gasp went up from the room. The scroll toppled head over toes and one of the wooden rollers, one of the Atzei Chayim touched the bima with a thud. Everyone stood stunned. Thankfully Rabbi Greenwald rushed forward in time to gather up the scroll before it truly fell to the ground. He picked it up, and everyone was unsure of what to do. Uncertain as to the meaning of this event. Do we believe in omens? (Surely this couldn’t be a good one.) Do we have to fast for 40 days? How exactly would that work? How did this happen? In short -- oy vey!

I can tell you Rabbi Greenwald felt all the same things. And when I heard about it so did I. We all had a feeling in the pit of our stomachs that is probably best described as a knot that punches from the inside out. Rabbi Greenwald apparently did a wonderful job helping the community respond in that moment. We talked afterward and agreed our thoughts were the same. “Man! After all that work the only thing people will remember about Rosh Hashanah now is, ‘remember how that Torah fell?’”

I am very happy to report tonight that the case of the toppling Torah has been solved on a few fronts. First: We have agreed to not use those particular torah holders without human support. Second: we had a wonderful outpouring of interest and concern from so many quarters in the congregation. A number of folks took up the challenge to fast on Tzom Gedalia -- not the biggest draw on the Jewish calendar in most years. Third: we have received much in the way of donations to tzedakah. And Fourth: we have learned. We had 30 people join me for Latte and Learning at Strarbucks on Monday, and I know that we are having many, many more sign up for a whole range of courses being offered this fall. And I trust, rather than just responding to this moment, that our shul will continue to dedicate itself to learning, raising up Torah, and passing on learning from generation to generation. Not only in response to this moment. But as a way of living. With so many expressing their need to ‘lift up the Torah,’ we are surely on the right track. Yashar Koach. Well done.

But most broadly, the response of our congregation was one of Tikkun -- repair. It was focused on how we can take the disruptive, the unwelcome, the upsetting and the negative twists and turns of life’s journey, and make them into a source of community, blessing, holiness and goodness. In truth, this event, which I genuinely hope never to observe again, was a classic example of the kabbalistic notion of how apparent evil can really be for a holy, good purpose- yerida leshem aliyah, descent in order to ascend. Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzato, one of the fathers of the kabbalah, holds that God created evil in order that we might overcome it through goodness. So in that spirit, we are grateful for the goodness which flowed from this event. And I am grateful for the window it provided me on this remarkable community.

So now I have a question for you. A real, honest-to-God question. I want to ask you to think for a moment -- why? Why did you react the way you did? What caused you gasp? To feel so disoriented? To go white for a moment as you read about the events after Rosh Hashana? To feel so upset? What was it about that moment that caused you to fast? To write a check? To think or learn or pray or pause and connect? Why did it strike you so profoundly to see a Torah scroll, a thing, appearing to fall to the floor? How would you feel if you looked up and saw that the eternal light had gone out? How/why/what would you feel when you discover that our holy vessels, our sacred tools of connecting to God -- our tashmishei kedushah -- they are only things? Parchment and wood and ink; light bulb and silver and fixtures and wires.

I remember as a young child in Portsmouth, VA I could not wait for services to end on Shabbat morning. Not for the obvious reason most of us do. But as a seven-, eight-, nine-year-old earnest little boy, I wanted time to wait for everyone to leave the sanctuary, go to the social hall for Kiddush and leave me alone to stand before the ark in my own personal, private prayer. I wanted to do my own thing. Say my own tefillot. I would have my time in that holy space to find God.

As I have grown I have looked back at that sweet boy and thought how I have grown since then. But in my first pulpit in West Hartford, I discovered that boy still inhabited my adult persona. My predecessor Rabbi Bodenheimer had the rabbi’s office placed so that it abutted the rear of the ark in the small chapel. He did this because he was a sofer, a scribe, and he would work on scrolls in his office. When I discovered that the back of my desk chair in the office bumped into the back of the ark, I have to tell you -- I was really unnerved. It felt somehow wrong for me be able to lean back in my office and basically find my head leaning against the aron hakodesh. I still felt ‘it.’ Residing there.

Maybe you and I, maybe we still believe, we still feel this kind of energy in things and matter. Maybe we still experience, even in this modern community, that rooms can be sacred sanctuaries, parchment can be made into God’s gift to the Jewish people, and days can be made into holy occasions. After all, what is today? Why are you here? It is just another 24 hour period. Just another day, humpday. Another day to choose between activities and options: services or the movies, errands and news or holiness and spiritual magic.

We all know in our rational, deductive minds, that there is no magic. Lighting and carpeting and paint are necessary to beautify this space. And donations, and labor and design teams are necessary to purchase and craft animal hides and ink and turn them into parchment and torah scrolls and arks. And the precariousness of torah holders and curtain pulleys and sliding doors- these are all the things of mechanics and textile work and art.

But we feel, in our bones, that more is present sometimes. That some things are more than things. That some pathways to the holy must intrude into the world of the real, observable and measurable. That something calls us to the holy immanence all around us. Today is no ordinary day. Today you are called. The voice of God, the kol demama daka, the still small voice, that is usually shut out by the cacophony of life’s noise, today that voice shouts out to us. Stop! Pay attention! Notice the hidden holiness as its leaps out at you from every direction. Pay attention to the passage of time. To the guilt and errors you know in your heart that have accumulated in the past year. Strive with all your heart for a new beginning. And it can be yours.

Today is Shabbat Shabbaton. Yom Kippur, like the weekly Shabbat, this is a day that is filled with wonder, the same spiritual possibility we have open to us each week. I know that we will not have a synagogue filled like we do tonight next month. Shabbat week in and week out is hard to sustain as a day of immanence, as a day of transformation. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the High Holidays, the Days of Awe -- well its right there in the name. I get it. These days are special because they are rare. But I implore you -- seek out the magical holiness of Shabbat throughout the year. Don’t wait for the rare day, or the dropped holy object to jar you into an awareness of what is real and possible all the time. What you can find in your home, around your Shabbat dinner table, what you can find here all the time. Holiness is your inheritance, your birthright. You just have to claim it.

Rav Nachman of Bratslav told a story:

There was once a poor, God-fearing Jew who lived in the city of Prague. One night he dreamt that he should journey to Vienna. There, at the base of a bridge leading to the King's palace, he would find a buried treasure.

Night after night the dream recurred until, leaving his family behind, he traveled to Vienna to claim his fortune. The bridge, however, was heavily guarded. The watchful eyes of the King's soldiers afforded little opportunity to retrieve the treasure. Every day the poor Jew spent hours pacing back and forth across the bridge waiting for his chance.

After two weeks’ time one of the guards grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and demanded gruffly, "Jew! What are you plotting? Why do you keep returning to this place day after, day?" Frustrated and anxious, he blurted out the story of his dream. When he finished, the soldier, who had been containing his mirth, broke into uncontrollable laughter.

The poor Jew looked on in astonishment, not knowing what to make of the man's attitude. Finally, the King's guard caught his breath. He stopped laughing long enough to say, "What a foolish Jew you are believing in dreams. Why, if I let my life be guided by visions, I would be well on my way to the city of Prague. For just last night I dreamt that a poor Jew in that city has, buried in his cellar, a treasure which awaits discovery."

The poor Jew returned home. He dug in his cellar and found the fortune. Upon reflection he thought, the treasure was always in my possession. Yet, I had to travel to Vienna to know of its existence.

We Conservative Jews tend to be the type that can be found in Vienna. We are not known for doing ‘magic’ well. We are not the community of ecstatic prayer or meditation. We are the Jews of Wissenschaft der Judentuums, the scientific study of Judaism. We are the Jews who know the difference between naarishkeitfoolishness- and science. In the formulation of Dr. Saul Lieberman, mysticism is naarishkeit. But the study of naarishkeit- that is science. We are always at arm’s length. Always with caveats and distance and questions and doubt. But today, this Shabbat Shabbaton, this Yom Kippur, I ask you to leave all of that aside and remember why we are here today at all. We are here because we feel called to that which is greater than our lives. That which is more enduring than our meager worries. We are called to eternity. And eternity is too big for science. It is too big even for Dr. Lieberman.

In five days time Sukkot will start. Sukkot, coming fast on the heels of Yom Kippur, is not disconnected from today’s high drama and holiness. Sukkot is the reminder that it is not just on the days of greatest awe and grandeur, it is not only on those times when we are shaken by the holiness around us, that we can find this magic. On sukkot we take a simple hut, the most basic expression of our human frailty and vulnerability, and we elevate that space, that leaky roof and those shaky walls, and we find God’s presence there. When you know things can fall down, that is just when we can be lifted up. When you know the precariousness of our being, that is just when you most crave the taste of the infinite. When you have seen a torah fall, that is the time to raise up the Torah inside of you.

This year, this Shabbat, this Sukkot -- lift yourself up to new Jewish heights. Raise your vision, your expectations, and feel the holiness of a world enchanted by God’s presence. Discover the treasure that is buried right at home, right here at Temple Israel, right at your feet.

And raise it up.

On this day, with this sacred purpose, we can nearly see eternity. The immanence of our connection with God is apparent all around us.

And as we turn, in memory, to those who are not present…there is a way in which, today they are here with us as well. Their smile is as clear to us now as it was when they walked among us. Their loving embrace, their wisdom, their struggles and their triumphs are as real to us now as they ever were.

Today we live in two worlds at once. Seeing them inhabiting our minds, we also catch a glimpse of our own absence. How the world will look without us one day.

This is the gift of vision we are offered when we perceive eternity. It is a gift that will bestow its blessings on us even after Yom Kippur, as we remember how fortunate we are, how crucial it is that embrace every moment. How truly thankful we should feel for our own chance to start again. We are able to see ourselves today from above, from a point of transcendence.

If you allow yourself the gift of this vision, it can sharpen your sight every day.

If you will yourself to see the world inhabited with holiness, you will never be alone.

In memory we stand with those who gave us life. With those who taught us about the goodness of this world. With those who whisper to us still… we are blessed. We are loved. Forever.

Rabbi Ron Fish