San Luis Rey

Yom Kippur Drasha by Debbie Masel (Miller)

A few months ago my friend Howard Goldenberg lent me a very little book that asks a very big question. The book is called The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by the American novelist Thornton Wilder, and it opens with an account of the collapse of a bridge in Peru at noon on the 20th of July, in the year 1714, about a century after it was woven from osier by the Incas. In the collapse, five people plunge to their deaths.

The big question is asked by a little monk who observes the disaster. Why, he asks, did these five people die at this exact time? Were they just in the wrong place at the wrong time, the victims of chance and circumstance? Or were their lives and their deaths the direct work of God?

Are we blown about willy nilly like driven leaves, like wind along the waste? Or is everything in this world, all the way down to the fall of every sparrow directed by the hand of God?

Perhaps the biggest question of all is how to reconcile faith in divine direction with a world that tolerates chaos, suffering and pain.

In Wilder’s novel, the little monk is the only one of the many witnesses to the disaster to ask the big question.

The others quite humanly exclaim,
“It could have been me!”
“I was just about to cross…”
“I just crossed over that bridge one minute ago!”
“I’ve been saved by a miracle!”

Disasters inevitably give rise to accounts of miraculous survival.

All of us here who are old enough to remember must have read the ones that made their way around the internet in the wake of 9/11.

“I would have been there, but I had a toothache and got an emergency dentist appointment and so I didn’t get to work on time!”

“My car broke down!”
“I got caught in traffic!”
“I went to help a sick friend!”
“It was a miracle! I was saved by a miracle!”

These stories bring us back to the little monk’s big question. Even those who tell of their miraculous survival must surely also think:

“What about the guy from the 16th floor of the North Tower in the office next to mine whose car didn’t break down?”
“What about the woman across the hall who didn’t get stuck in traffic and got to work at the World Trade Centre on time that morning?”
Was God not watching over them? What does it mean?

In his book on life and death in the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl writes that it is the search for meaning, the faith in meaning, even in the most shattering circumstances, that defines us as human. He says that we must never give up the search for meaning, even in a world that seems incomprehensible.

Yet at the very start of his book, Frankl acknowledges that those who survived the camps, survived by sheer luck. By blind chance. “The best of us,” he writes, “did not return.”

According to Frankl and many other survivors, from our human perspective, life is a lottery. Our ancient sages agree. Yom Kippur, they say is a Yom k’Purim, a day like Purim.
At first glance the two days couldn’t seem more different — one so utterly material, the other so purely spiritual, yet the concept of chance, of blind luck, is a central feature of both.

In the story of Purim, Haman chooses the day for the genocide of the Jews by casting lots. On Yom Kippur, the high priest takes two goats and draws lots to determine which will be sanctified, and which will be flung, like the five who died in the collapse of the Bridge of San Lui Rey, into the abyss.

Along with Viktor Frankl, the sages seem to be saying that from our human perspective, life and death is a matter of chance.

But when we look into this more deeply, it is not a matter of chance at all. There is no option. It is a matter of fact. We are all going to die. God created us mortal. Every year, every day, every moment, people are born and people die.

So when we ask to be written into the Book of Life, what are we really asking of God? Are we asking that it not be us, that it be someone else, someone far away on the other side of the world, someone we don’t know? Are we begging God to send the Angel of Death anywhere but here, the further and more foreign the better?

Or are we asking something more fundamental? Are we asking God to go back to the beginning and change the blueprint of creation, to recreate a new, different world in which death has no part?

Nathan Wolski’s recently published book on the Zohar clarified for me something about the mystics’ interpretation of creation. God didn’t just create the blueprint in which death is so vital an ingredient. God is the blueprint.

The mystics teach that Creation depends as much upon on God’s absence as upon His presence. In a sense, there could be no creation without what might be called “the death of God.” They explain that in His deep desire for a world, God withdrew His infinite light, to make space for creation, for us. In this act of love, of stepping back, He left a divine imprint, a hidden memory of love, breathed into the first human and transferred throughout the generations, from one soul to another.

And now, on the eve of this Sabbath of Sabbaths we are about to step into that hidden imprint of love, created by God’s withdrawal. We are about to enter the soulbreath of creation. The Talmud teaches that if only the Jewish people kept two Sabbaths, they would be immediately redeemed. This is usually understood to mean that if every Jew in the world fully observed two consecutive Shabbats, the age of Moshiach would dawn.A beautiful Hassidic interpretation, however, suggests that “two Shabbatot” refers not to two consecutive Shabbats, but to two Sabbaths that coincide on a single day. That can only be today, right now, when Yom Kippur, which the Torah calls Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of all Sabbaths, and the weekly Sabbath are one and the same day. Right now, we are entering the holiest of days, a moment of infinite possibility. The busyness of the six days of the week are right now being replaced by the still peace of Shabbat and by the pure spirituality of Yom Kippur, when we divest ourselves, with faith, of what we need to sustain life, and step into the souls of angels. Tomorrow morning we will return to this room and look out onto the park and see joggers and dog walkers and tennis players. We’ll hear car horns blare and trams rumble along Balaclava Road.

But, as the poet Doris Brett said to me the other day, we will be like the birds who sing from the treetops in the park to the tune of their own rhythms, oblivious to the sounds of the surrounding city. We will be here, inside the inside, in the still centre, beyond all that busyness, inside the Sabbath of all Sabbaths, standing before God.

This day is unique in all the year. It is the innermost sanctum, the holy of holies.

To me the most mysterious thing of all is that according to the law of Torah, it is not God, but we who create this sanctuary.

In the Torah, God commands us to set aside the tenth day of the seventh month for our annual Day of Atonement, but the sages stress that it is up to us to decide which particular day this will be. After the end of the lunar cycle, we proclaim the new moon. We determine which day will be the first of the month, and hence, which will be the tenth. We decide that this particular evening, this Shabbat, these clouds, this sky shall be the sky of Yom Kippur. It is we who sanctify time. We decide that on this particular day, our prayers will open all the gates of heaven.

If we can establish the holiness of Yom Kippur how much more can we create the beauty of a regular day?

The Hassidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav used to say that each day is unique, born of its own song, and we are the singers of that song.
We cannot stop the day from dying, and that is part of its glory, but if we don’t sing it into being it will pass us by like a driven leaf, like wind along the waste, as if it never was.
We can’t change the way the world was made, but we can change the way we wear it.

On Shabbat Shuva Gabbi reminded us that Rebbe Meir, the great illuminator of the Torah, changed an ayin to an aleph and transformed begged or, our shameful coverings of leather, into begged ohr, our radiant rags of light. And from the Zohar, we learn that like Rebbe Meir every one of us has the power to transform each day into a garment of light that illuminates the soul.

In Thornton Wilder’s novel, the little monk who asked the big question was as aware as Rebbe Meir of his power to illuminate his life. He had perfect faith in divine providence.
He knew in his heart of hearts that God watches over the fall of every feather of every sparrow. His meticulous research was only to convince others.

But after years of painstaking study of every detail of the lives of the five who died he was forced to admit that he could not discern a higher plan. He could find no evidence of Divine will in the disaster at the Bridge of San Luis Reh. Nor could he find any rhyme or reason for the happy or sad, short or prolonged lives of a group of Peruvians he chose to observe over a long period of time.

Ultimately, along with Viktor Frankl, he concluded that from our perspective the five deaths were a matter of sheer chance, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Despite his best efforts, the little monk failed to find any statistical evidence of Higher Will or any verifiable meaning for life, but his pure faith was not damaged. In fact it was strengthened by the awesomeness of the mystery with which we humans are presented. He had never needed proof. His faith in the meaning of life and death had nothing to do with scientifically verifiable facts. Even if it had, he didn’t consider himself worthy to judge the deeds of others, let alone the mind of God, so how from his theological framework how could he know which of the five had been blessed and released from a full and good life into an everlasting world hereafter, and which lives had been cut short due to sin and wilfulness?

What he knew came not from his head or even from his eyes, but from his heart. The faith that he could neither prove nor intellectually grasp was the imprint of divine love that he shared with his fellow creatures and with his God.

Because he happened to be in Peru at the time of the Peruvian Inquisition, his inconclusive conclusions were condemned as heresy and he was burned at the stake, along with his voluminous notes. The locals who gathered to watch the auto da fe were those he had been trying to convince, and instead of being swayed by statistics they were moved by his great burning faith and imprinted with the love he carried.

It was R. Nachman who also famously said that kol ha’olum kulo, gesher tzar meod.. whole world is a very narrow bridge. A few days ago I learned that only one in ten traditional Cambodian dancers survived the Pol Pot genocide in the Nineteen Seventies. Tomorrow at the emotional highlight of our service we will recite the story of the ten Talmudic sages brutally martyred by the Romans. According to Midrash, they were killed to atone for the nine brothers who sold Joseph, while Rabbi Akiva, the tenth, atoned for the complicity of God. The mystics say that God is a living fusion of ten divine attributes. And God commanded that Yom Kippur shall fall on the Tenth of the month. Ten Plagues, Ten commandments, Ten sayings of creation. I could go on. I could search for meaning, and I believe that the beauty and magnificence of Torah is hidden inside that search.
But the only thing of which I am sure is that I will never arrive at a definitive answer. How could I, when I am such a large part of the question?

We are all walking on the woven Bridge of San Luis Rey, but what binds us is greater than meaning and stronger than all the osier of the Incas. Like the little monk, we cannot explain the ways of God. We cannot know who shall be poor and who shall be rich, who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted.

But that is not the main thing. The main thing, said R. Nachman, is lo l’fached klal…not to be at all afraid.

The little monk could not explain the ways of God to man, but he carried the imprint of the love that God first breathed into Adam, who passed it down from soul to soul, all the way to Abraham.The Midrash likens our father Abraham to a jar of perfume which instead of lying untouched in some forgotten corner was moved from its place and opened, filling the world with its sweet fragrance.

From Abraham the fragrance passed from soul to soul all the way to Moses, who in these weeks around the High Holy Days, as we read the closing portions of his Torah, passes it on to every soul who is about to cross the River Jordan. Moses, who is condemned by God to remain behind, nonetheless crosses over. We carry him across in the imprint that he carried from Abraham, whose imprint was carried from Adam, who was imprinted with the nefesh hayyim, the living breath of God, and each one of us passes it on to every single person whose life touches ours.

Even God forbid a child who dies before it has a chance to live is loved by the mother who carried it, and the imprint of that love transforms the mother who loved, and imprints itself upon everyone who comes in contact with her.

Way beyond the few generations who remember an individual, the imprint left by love is woven into the fabric of life, stronger than the osier of the Peruvian Incas, stronger even than death.The American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

If in the next twentyfour hours we are to create a palace in time, if we are to make of this bowling club a holy temple where we prostrate ourselves before God, our prayers must weave themselves into the prayers of our neighbours. All the imprints of love that we carry, from that very first divine breath, imprints still fresh in our lives and imprints of ancient and forgotten light passed down from generation to generation, from soul to soul, must weave themselves now into this very narrow bridge.

This is what it means to be written into the Book of Life.

To leave an imprint of love that weaves itself through time and space, bringing this whole great spinning world together into this moment, this holy of holies, this day that according to our sages is the most joyous of the entire year.

The great joy of Yom Kippur, they say, is equal only to the great joy of the little festival of Tu b’Av, when people let go of their differences and dance, ultimately forming a great circle with God in the middle, equidistant from each one of them. Yom Kippur also culminates in a great mechol, a great dance of mechila — forgiveness, whose every step creates a new imprint of love. As on the little festival of Tu B’Av, each of us, divested of material differences, dances equidistant around God, who is the kol d’mama daka, the gentle sound of silence at the heart of this great spinning world.

As we enter this Sabbath of Sabbaths, let us all be High Priests stepping into the heart of light. Let us celebrate the great divine mystery of life and death that weaves itself into a world in which beauty is so incomprehensibly possible.

Let us open ourselves up with Abraham and with the little monk and fill this room with holy fragrance. Let the love we imprint upon each other travel in time and in space, imprinting itself on others in times to come, times within memory and times beyond memory, until the whole world is filled with the scent of the incense from this holy of holies.

Thornton Wilder ends his little book with the words: “Soon we shall die and all the memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. “Even memory is not necessary for love. “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Shabbat shalom, Gmar Chatima tova, may we seal and sign each other as we dance together in the imprint of that great love that was, that is, and that always will be.

Posted on September 19, 2010 .