My sermon from Yom Kippur this year. Listen, read, or listen and read.
This sermon began this summer at camp. I had the opportunity to spend time this summer at 2 different Reform Movement camps—first returning to Camp Harlam—the camp where I grew up—as faculty and also serving on faculty during the inaugural summer of the new URJ 6 points creative arts academy. At both camps, in addition to the satisfaction and inspiration of working with the campers and staff, I found (as I often have in my years as a rabbi at camp), that the time spent in conversation with the other faculty was equally meaningful.
As we shared in sacred conversations throughout the day between camp activities, walking from place to place on camp, at meals, and late at night—often over a campfire—we’d cover any number of topics, ranging from the goings on of camp to the happenings in our congregations…from making plans for services to making plans for a “faculty outing”…from ideas for programs to insight on our lives. In my mind’s eye, I imagine that this is how the Talmud was written—through snippets of conversations of the ancient equivalent of rabbis, cantors, educators, and youth advisors. Pieced together across generations. Discussing, interpreting, learning—creating new tractates through our sharing.
In one of those conversations, we had just been singing Noah Aronson’s introduction to the Bar’chu, as we often sing/just sang here: “Am I awake, Am I prepared, Are you listening to my prayer, Can you hear my voice? Can you understand? Am I awake? Am I prepared?”
My friend took issue with the middle portion of the intention: “Can You hear my voice, Can you understand?” saying that it was liturgically problematic because it denied that God can hear and understand. But, I countered, I think that many who say these prayers have had doubts that God in fact can do any of that….My friend continued with the idea that it didn’t make theological sense within the context of liturgy. I continued with my assertion that it didn’t have to—that our prayers were, at least in part, an expression of our own thoughts. The conversation ended there, as camp conversations sometimes do, before we had any chance for resolution, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Because, I believe that most of us have moments, even when we sit here in the sanctuary, perhaps especially when we sit here, when we don’t believe, or when we have doubt, when we honestly aren’t sure that there is a God at all, much less One that can hear or understand any of this. To me, it is profound to express that sense of doubt within our prayers themselves—our very doubt transformed into liturgy.
Indeed, this struggle with belief is nothing new, nor is the expression of doubt. Even in the Psalms, our people’s earliest expressions of prayers, we see this. In Psalm 13, we read:
How long, Adonai; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Look at me, answer me, Adonai, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death
lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,” my foes exult when I totter.
It seems to me that the essence of these words is similar to the essence of Aronson’s: Will you ignore me forever? Can you hear my voice? How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? Can you understand?
And as we read the end of this Psalm, we again find similar echoes:
But I trust in Your faithfulness, my heart will exult in Your deliverance. I will sing to Adonai, Who has been good to me.
I see the message of a complete apparent turnaround in theme as twofold—first, despite the doubt, we pray anyway. Second, we recognize the dichotomy inherent in the first response, and we embrace it—we allow faith and doubt to exist symbiotically, each fueling the other even as they stand in opposition to each other. We recognize that the struggle doesn’t remove us from Judaism or even from the act of prayer. As my teacher, of blessed memory, Dr Eugene Borowitz writes, “What I thought was some secret difficulty of mine with God not only occurred to some Jews centuries ago but has long been an accepted part of Jewish religious life. …Many people feel their disbelief so keenly they cannot give much credence to their occasional sense that there is a God…In Judaism faith in God is that dynamic; it is not an all-or-nothing, static state of being.”
And so we ask—Am I awake? Am I prepared? Are we ready to move forward within our struggle-filled Jewish expression, and attempt prayer, even if we do not know to Whom or for What purpose we are praying? Whether our words reach Some Hearing and Understanding Entity, or hang as vapors. And so, we at least attempt prayer. Because we know that Judaism is a religion of action over faith—and prayer, after all, is an action.
Which brings us back to the struggle, for many, of sitting here in services, reading and listening and singing. And the doubt that is evoked by those very actions. And yet we show up—surely, some of us today intimately know this struggle, but we are all here. Perhaps we feel some amorphous sense of obligation. Or we know that Goldberg comes to talk to God and we come to talk to Goldberg. Or because we hope that it will be meaningful or inspiring. Or because there are parts of it that we love. Or because we recognize that, especially on these High Holy Days, the sounds, the words, the symbols—are all designed to stir up for us the ancient memories of our people, while at the same time calling upon us to return ourselves to the people we were meant to be. Or, perhaps, because recognize that potential exists.
105 years ago, Franz Rosenzweig, who would later become one of the greatest and most influential Jewish theologians of modern times, had decided to convert to Christianity. But he wanted to do so as a Jew—taking a closer look at the things from which he was choosing to separate himself—he wanted to “go through” Judaism to get to Christianity. And so, as one final step of leaving the religion of his birth, he attended Yom Kippur services at a small synagogue in Berlin, understanding the Day of Atonement as a necessary action in his preparing to take on Christianity. At that service, he found himself profoundly moved—and realized there was no need for him to find salvation outside of his own religion. And he chose, that day, to remain Jewish.
As described in a 2013 article in Tablet Magazine:
In effect, Rosenzweig experienced a paradoxically non-mystical enlightenment on Yom Kippur 1913:
A “meta-historical” breakthrough, yet at the same time one solidly anchored in time; a theoretical, yet thoroughly pragmatic epiphany; a revelation irreconcilable with Christian religion, yet committed anew to Hashem via the Neilah service, the final prayers spoken on the Day of Atonement. Just as it is not possible to “unring” a bell, Rosenzweig clearly could not “un-sound” the shofar he heard in 1913.
Clearly, the experience of worship during these days of awe can work and sometimes does work.
But, at the same time, sometimes it doesn’t. Someone’s struggle with the faith-doubt dichotomy may prevent them from fully entering the experience. Someone may feel disconnected. Someone may feel as if they were on the outside looking in, even surrounded by community. For many reasons, for many, the experience of High Holy Day worship doesn’t always entirely grab them. And this isn’t something we often talk about, or acknowledge, or give permission for. But the truth is these days can be fraught with obstacles. It’s important to recognize that, whether we are the person that isn’t connected or we are the person that is.
Sometimes, the experience might feel too unfamiliar…because it’s different from what we grew up with or because we didn’t grow up with these holidays. Or because many of the prayers, the melodies, the content, the aesthetic, are not what we are used to or comfortable with. Or because we happen to be distracted by the rest of life. Or because of our doubt or the ambiguity of our personal connection to Judaism. Or because the God we do believe in doesn’t seem to be reflected in the prayers, overshadowed by the God we don’t believe in. Or, because we harbor anger towards God, or haven’t been able to forgive God.
And much of the text doesn’t necessarily resonate for everyone. The liturgy of these days is full of metaphors that don’t make the connection for many of us that they were designed to make. We don’t live in a world where kings and shepherds are figures we regularly come across outside of stories. Some of the intent of the words is lacking for us—the power that the symbols are meant to evoke can be lost.
And, for many, the liturgy brings pain. Unetane tokef, in particular, can be a hurtful moment—hearing the words can wound us.
I still vividly remember reading those words on Rosh Hashanah 17 years ago, days after the planes hitting the towers gave new meaning to the very idea of “Who shall live and who shall die,” and reading through a blur of tears, many lines of that section of the text hit like shrapnel. A moment of catharsis for some, and of blinding pain for others.
And in any year, for someone who has had loss, for someone who has survived, for someone who is ill, or for someone who loves someone who is ill…those words, as well as others in the liturgy, can be painful. And those moments of pain can tear us away from the experience.
For many reasons, for many people, the experience of these services can be difficult—and the words of our lips do not match the meditations of our hearts—and we find ourselves unable to connect. And yet, even if we are going through the motions of worship, we might find for ourselves a moment where our worship becomes prayer.
And perhaps, the purpose of all of this is discovering those moments. Finding just one prayer, one melody, one insight, one moment of peace, or even one moment of deep feeling—that can be a effective worship experience.
Judaism has never been an all-or-nothing religion. Very few people find every single moment of any given service meaningful—that should be neither our expectation nor our standard.
If we find just one instant of transcendence, then we have succeeded. And even if we don’t, and we won’t always, it need not be a failure. For worship can inspire us towards action, even if it doesn’t transform us in that moment.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in Man’s Quest for God, “Ultimately the goal of prayer is not to translate a word but to translate the self; not to refer an ancient vocabulary in modern terminology, but to transform our lives into prayers.” And that is our challenge and our opportunity.
To take a liturgy, parts of which may seem alien, and to determine the truth, the wisdom, that is inherent in its words—even if that truth is buried, and to then take that truth outside of the service. To make those messages part of our living.
Feeling remorse, facing adversity, hoping for the future, fearing the unknown, wanting what is best for ourselves and for those we love and for the world at large, appreciating that which we have in our lives—all of that is at the heart of our prayers. We can, and we should, take the opportunity to find for ourselves ways through which to express those ideas.
And especially when a prayer is troubling us, is disconnecting us, we can read it with the intention of determining its truth, its meaning in a greater context, and determine what we can say, or better yet, what we can do, that will meaningfully convey that message for us.
We all connect in different ways: through spirituality, or action, or learning, or community, or nature, or music. I challenge you to integrate your mode of connection with your Yom Kippur experience.
It doesn’t have to be today, but find a time to take one aspect of what today is about—one piece of what our liturgy speaks of—and bring that aspect to the way that you do connect. Whether that’s taking a walk outside and truly enjoying and appreciating the world around us, or hand writing a letter to someone who has been helpful to you, or volunteering your time, or giving food to someone who is hungry, or reading a book, or having a conversation with a friend, or whatever it is that you find meaningful, don’t let your Yom Kippur worship experience end when you walk out the door.
Let us not forget, after all, that one of the main themes, the main actions, of this season is t’shuvah, repentence—turning within, truly examining our lives and seeking forgiveness for those times when we’ve missed the mark. And while we can do the self-reflection portion of t’shuvah while we pray, the other portions necessitate leaving the worship setting.
To give someone a meaningful apology or to truly forgive another, one must be in conversation and one must be fully present. And to really determine for ourselves how we can act differently—to engage in real change—that takes a lot longer than the timeframe of services; even when we are here all day.
We must allow the opportunity to find meaning to extend beyond this timeframe and beyond this space. And by expanding this experience beyond this moment, we can, perhaps, find other moments through which we can both transform worship and prayer, and for that worship and that prayer to transform us. And by engaging with the worship, by appreciating the moments when we do connect, and by allowing ourselves to have moments of disconnect…we can each have a Holy Day Experience which calls us—be it through the sound of the shofar at Neilah or through the still, small voice whispering to us amidst the cacophony of the liturgy.
Connecting us each to something—to the community around us, to the generations before us and those yet to be, to the acts of building a world inspired by our dreams, to Something Beyond ourselves, to our doubt and our faith, and even to the prayers. Connecting us to our sacred texts, our insights becoming part of the sacred conversation that has been going on for thousands of years.
And in doing so, we write another page for ourselves in the Book of Life, inscribing ourselves for a meaningful and engaging year, a year of being awake and prepared, a year of connection.