Being Real in our Judaism, Being Real in our Lives
Yom Kippur 5771
(This drasha is written partly in shorthand, please excuse any mistakes )
I’d like to start with a tip for Yom Kippur. I got this by email before RH:
Alongside the list of viduy, list of sins, in the silent amidah, why don’t we say a list of things you did well. ‘I cared for my friends and relatives’; ‘I gave tzedaka this year’; ‘I was a good spouse’.”
We got a lot of stuff wrong this year, made quite a few mistakes. But I’m sure between all of us in this room we got quite a lot of stuff right as well. We had moments of which we can be proud of, moments we’d like to emulate, return and strengthen for next year.
Elana and I have been coming here on and off for 6 years, 4th visit.
I’d like to point out things on this shuls good list, things I learned from this shul, from all of you.
Singing: I’d remember our first Kabbalat Shabbat – the singing was soaring, running, breaking through the walls of the week into a world of Shabbat. Davening like a footy match. Singing as a spiritual practice. The Hasidic masters noted that the songs we sing on Shabbat are not called shirim but zemirot זמירות – the word for song which also means “to prune” – לזמור. Wen we are singing in davening we are pruning our soul. This is the kind of singing we do at Shira.
A way of being Australian. I see here not only pride in your nationality, but also a willingness to take responsibility for issues. Not a resident alien mentality, but deeply rooted in the place you are. And not just the good news about Oz, but the bad news as well – immigration, aboriginal issues, racism. Jews often make politics completely ethnically based – Israel decides all. Here I learned a model where Israel is always at the heart, but politics are about deeply caring for this land for what it is. Bringin this caring to shul is truly remarkable. That’s what shul is at Shira – a place where we care.
Gender and Inclusiveness: not only the bold decision to include women in the service as much as Halakha would allow, but a deep spirit of including people in the shul no matter their age or background. Two weeks ago a ten year old gave the most moving derasha, sharing his concern for prejudice against autistic people, advocating for his friend. This was just before his mother gave a deep and learned derasha herself. How many other shuls would showcase those voices as their central speakers?
Those are some of the things on the “good list” of this community, I think, and alongside the brow beating, I’d like to recognize those, strengthen that positive center, and build from it to grow ourselves more this yom Kippur.
What combines all of these traits? It’s an attempt to be real. Real in our singing. Real in our membership both in our Judaism and in our australianism. Real in our relationship between genders. Real in our Judaism.
Real-ness. The calling for real-ness in our Judaism comes from the most powerful Talmudic story for me personally.
For R. Joshua b. Levi said: Why were they called men of the Great Assembly [Knesset]? Because they restored the crown of the divine attributes to its ancient completeness. [For] Moses had said: 'The great God, the mighty, and the awesome'. (Deut. 10:17) Then Jeremiah came and said: Aliens are destroying His Temple. Where are, then, His awesome deeds? Hence he omitted [the attribute] the ‘awesome’ (Jer. 32:17). Daniel came and said: Foreigners are enslaving his sons. Where are His mighty deeds? Hence he omitted the word ‘mighty’(Dan. 9:4). But they [the men of the great assembly] came and said: On the contrary! Therein lie His mighty deeds that He suppresses His wrath, that He extends long-suffering to the wicked. Therein lie His awful powers: For but for the fear of Him, how could one [single] nation persist among the [many] nations! But how could [the earlier] Rabbis [Jeremiah, Daniel] abolish something established by Moses? R. Eleazar said: Since they knew that the Blessed Holy One is real, they could not ascribe false [things] to Him.
Just like those prophets, knowing that god is real to us, knowing the our Juadism is real for us, therefore we can’t lie about. We can’t be fake in it.
My inspiration from Shira is about bringing that kind of “realness” to the shul experience, to our Judaism. Tradition can often prevent us from being real. We are doing this today because we did it yesterday – thank God for that, but also how terrible is that.
None of us was here six years ago. This shul is not a place you go to simply because you went last year, because you are expected to by outside standards.
If we are here, it is because we want to be here. We are here deliberately, and we are bringing our full selves.
But alongside that we are sticking to the old recipes. We deeply respect our traditions, we do not change the basic structures that bind us to community and to the past, rather we reinterpret. Powerfully, radically if needed. Why? Because just like those Prophets, Jeremiah and Daniel, because we know our Judaism is real, perhaps even because we know God to be real, we can’t lie about it.
That’s the end of the compliments. Now to the brow beating:
What would it mean for us to translate that concept of real-ness to our wider lives? Since we know our lives are real, we can’t lie about them, we can’t fake our way through them. I’d like to suggest YK is a waking up for us to be real in our lives. We purge our actions, the good and the bad, and awaken a deeper self.
It is so hard to be real in our lives. Not to fake it, hoping that no one is watching too closely. It’s easier to do things simply because we’ve done them before. To say “this moment doesn’t count”. To fake through a moment without giving it much thought. Being truly authentic in the moment, demanding from ourselves that kind of presence.
The Kotzker rebbe said: If you davened today because you davened yesterday – that’s avodah zarah. A powerful statement that our religious lives, our connection to God cannot be by rote, but through full presence and authenticity.
What happens when I say that about my wife? Kiss today because of yesterday – that’s adultery!
And that’s about the good deeds in our lives.
The Talmud says “a person only sins if a moment of silliness, of discombobulation.” If we can stay real, we usually don’t sin.
What does it mean to be “real” in our lives?
We are real when we are being deliberate about our lives. When we are acting in a way that we are willing to be defined by.
My parents, my children. My friends.
“In general I want to be good, but not right now” “In general I don’t recoil, be angry, but this is differnet” – so many of those moemnts – those are the “not for real” moments, when we allow ourselves to not be real
What’s the dynamic in the relationship – is this what I want it to be about?
“this counts” – when we are acting as we would like to.
Critique: When we do not compartmentalize, but bring our full presence to bear. Not hiding our opinions or critiques, but bringing them to light so they ca be aired and the relationship can improve.
Often something overlooked in “Jewish talk”
Moving from simply whats “legal” and “obligatory” to the what is just, right and good
Pirated material, copyright infinrgement – might not count, but it’s not right and good. Taxes. Being upfront and faithful in our business trnasactions.
הטוב והישר doing the good and the just
Not because I’ll get caught, but because I know it to be the right thing
Not an outside barometer, but the inside one
This moment counts. The times when we aren’t cheating ourselves, cutting corners.
Finding the moment that we would be willing to be defined by
The challenge: to be real this year. In our relationships, in our politics. In our financial choices. In our Judaism.
For me, this is what God is about.
ה' אלהיכם אמת
God is ultimate reality. It almost doesn’t matter if you believe in him or not. God in our culture represents “the real”, creation, din – judgement. All those things are about being real. What does it mean to stand before something truly real? That is yom ha-din. But that is what life is. Only most of the year we can’t take it. Once a year we get together. We don’t eat, because food so often distracts us. Lack of food reminds us how real our bodies are, how fragile our lives.
ואתה הוא מלך אל חי וקים
Another way to day it is through life. When we talk about the books of life and death opening, not necessarily actual end of life, although that is to often the case. It’s also about” will we be ALIVE this year”? will we take control of our lives, live our lives in full? זכרנו לחיים – remember us into life. Bring us to life. God is the God of life, life-force itself. Being connected to life is being connected to God, and that something worth crying about.
So what does it mean to stand in front of god on Yom Kippur with this desire for real and life?
People who make me feel fake. Real people. Standing in front of them, it suddenly becomes oh so clear all the thigs I need to improve in my life. All the קליפות – the layers of falsity and dried behaviours that I need to peel off. Every time the Aron opens – it is like that.
But come on. It is so hard to be “real” like that. How can we possibly be expected to be like that all year?
Looking at the YK ritual, we discover it is more complicated than that.
The ritual we just read this morning mentions two acts of purification, of atonement: the sacrificial goat, the scape goat who bears our sins and “gets rid” of them very literally.
But there is also the purging of the altar. A strange ritual where the kohen sprinkles the blood of the animal on the altar. This is what we’ll repeat in seder haAvodah in about an hour nad a half.
What is that about?
The Kohen Gadol enters the holy of holies, which is never entered into the whole year, that most intimate, dangerous, delicate place. The place which represents the fact that God chose to dwell among us. ועשו לי משכן ושכנתי בתוכם – the whole idea of the mishkan was the crazy idea that God wanted to dwell among the people. (In hasidut – the person itself)
Once inside the holy of holies, the high priest purges the altar.
As Jacob Milgrom, z”l, explains: all year the sins of the people of Israel rest on the altar. Like a “dirty conscience”, a collective one, the altar collects the residue of all of our mistakes and malicious actions.
What’s so moving to me about this idea is that it accepts the fact that there are going to be mistakes. There are even going to be malicious actions, purposeful hurts in this relationship. God knows that. He never expected otherwise.
This is the secret of the verse: השוכן איתם בתוך טומאותם - God understands that he is residing among us, in our impurtuies. In our inadequacies. That is the secret of true committed relationship.
Friend hwo is dating – I know I want her good sides. But am I willing to be שוכן איתם בתוך טומאותם? And God says – Yes! I am! I know there will be all kinds of impurities, and still I want to dwell with you.
But there is a limit. A point after which that altar gets too crowded with ill will. At that point, God could not take it anymore, so to speak, and would leave his dwelling among us.
That is why we must purge the altar once a year. A thorough cleaning, and a riddance of the ill will that has accumulated. A forgivement of all past greviencas, all emotional debts. And a fresh start.
That is the meaning of the avodah of YK.
To translate this back into our previous discussion:
Yom Kippur understands that we aren’t always going to be “real” in that full sense we described before. That there will be all kinds of moemnts.
But it calls upon us to purge ourselves. to be reminded of who we can be when we are real.
To bring us back into full presence with ourselves.
Through fasting, through prayer, through some brow beating. Through purging singing.
And I think that is what god wants. He wants us to be real. YK is a an opportunity to be real again.
Zusha – scariest story in hassidut.
Zushya of Anipoli – on YK, or maybe on Carlisle street having a coffee – starts to shake – child asks, why are you crying?
I had a vision I was dying, and at the gates they asked me a question:
They didn’t ask me why I wasn’t Moshe Rabbeinu, why I wasn’t Abraham or Sarah, or Devorah the prophet
Why weren’t I Zushya. That’s what they asked me when I met my maker. And that’s why I cried in the middle of Carlisle street: Will I be able to be myself?