“Why am I standing here?” Radical lessons from our Yom Kippur Torah Portion (Yom Kippur 5777 Morning Service)
Thu, October 13, 2016
The people gather in preparation to hear Moses for the last time. At the end of their desert wanderings, they are about to begin a new stage of life in their own land. And before they cross over to that land, Moses will die at the edge of the wilderness. So now, God has requested an assembly: Everyone. The elders, children of all ages, the officers and leaders, all women and men, wood choppers and those who draw the water – anyone associated with the Israelites. All have been asked to gather and hear Moses share his final message from God.
It is this gathering we read about in our Torah portion this morning, Nitzavim – at what is very nearly the end of the fifth and final book of the Torah.
If you had an opportunity to ask an average person in the assembling throngs, “Why are you here?” he or she might answer: “To honor the life of Moses.” Or, “Because God expects us to be here with the community.” And these things are true.
Yet those in the crowd paying attention to God’s message on this very important day for the people of Israel — they get more. They hear truths about the human experience that are unique to Torah: insights that they need as never before as they set out on a newly independent phase of life. Messages that will directly help them live up to their best as individuals and as a community.
Today, Yom Kippur, is called the Shabbat of Shabbats – the holiest day of the Jewish year. It is a day of sacred assembly for Jews throughout the world. And if you choose some random people from all who are gathered at synagogues in various locations and ask them, “Why are you here?” They might answer in ways similar to their ancestors: “To honor the tradition,” or “Because God expects me to be here – my parents expect me to be here – my community expects me to be here.” And these are valid and important reasons. But like at that ancient gathering at the brink of a new start for the Israelites, for those paying attention: there is more.
Our Torah portion starts almost like a Jeopardy game: It provides an answer to a question that wasn’t directly asked.
“You are standing here – all of you – on this day before God to enter into the covenant between you and God.”
So if you were to push your Jeopardy buzzer, you might respond with this question: For 100 mitzvah points, “Why am I standing here?”
It’s a legitimate question for the gathered Israelites who may feel that they have already sealed the covenant with God — in the past – at Sinai. And it may be a legitimate question for Jews on Yom Kippur who may wonder about the value of reciting and singing prayers and reading Torah texts that are rooted so deeply in the past.
Yet the Israelite people came, and they listened, and if they opened themselves to the notions – radical notions that were presented in God’s final Torah message through Moses, they received truths that directly applied to their new stage of life.
God’s teachings at this gathering had been implied before, but never stated so directly. And never before had the Israelites been in this place in their lives. They had been living very dependently, wandering, only gradually leaving behind their slave mentality from Egypt.
Now everything is about to change – they are to become their own people with more control over their own destiny. Therefore, messages that may have first emerged in a past generation are brought to life in a new way for their new reality.
We, too, are gathered on this Yom Kippur to affirm our covenant: with our tradition, with our God, with generations past. Yet each of us, like our spiritual ancestors in the Torah, is in a new place. On the brink of a new year, we will face experiences, challenges, opportunities that are new for us. We are not the same as we were on last Yom Kippur. We have changed, the world has changed. On this day when we are charged with leaving behind [enslavement to bad habits] and look toward preserving what is best in us, improving on it, and moving into a new year of life – we also strive to hear our traditional messages with fresh ears – to open our hearts to finding new inspiration in liturgy and texts from our past.
So what radical truths came from this final Torah gathering that we read of in Nitzavim?
Truth one is found in the verses, “I have set before you life and good, death and evil — blessing or curse. Choose the path of life – the path of living ethically and with compassion.”
We have the freedom to make life choices. At the time of the Torah this was a radical idea! Many believed that an assortment of fickle gods determined what happened on earth – that we are merely playthings for powers beyond our world. But in our Torah we hear of a new view of humanity. Each of us has the capacity and the ability to make decisions that directly impact the quality of our lives. That there is a Divine power of goodness that offers guidance and encouragement, but ultimately we have free will to make choices for ourselves and for our world.
Radical at the time, but a message that also bears repeating today. We may no longer believe in magical fates playing with us from above. But it can still be too easy to lose ourselves in thoughts such as: “Everything is out of my control” or “I have no choice but to act like everyone else” or “As long as my life circumstances are like this, I have no freedom to improve my life.”
Our Jewish teachers over the centuries acknowledged that there is much that is out of our control. Maimonides, 1000 years ago, talked about a very modern idea: that much of our personality and characteristics are part of our physical and biological make-up. Our rabbis – 2000 years ago – acknowledged that health and family and economic status are all things that affect our quality of life and that are often set into play before we’re even born. We all know very well that life doesn’t always deal us a fair hand.
Yet on Yom Kippur, as each of us prepares our heart and soul to enter a new year, each of us is charged with focusing less on things that we can do nothing about, even if there are many of them. Each of us is, instead, asked: “What has been set before me and what choices can I make within my life as it is? How can I choose in a way – as my Torah teaches – that will bring life and goodness to myself and those around me?”
A second radical truth that appears in our Torah portion comes in the form of the portion’s introduction: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God”
The word “You” in Hebrew used here is “Atem” which means you plural – “Y’all stand here,” so to speak. So why does the line continue as it does? You all stand here this day – All of you. Why the repetition? And then – as if we needed even more emphasis on the “all,” it goes on to list all the various types of people who are standing: the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, everyone on in Israel, men, women, and children. [And also] – all the strangers in your camp: from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water. You are all here because your future as people living Godly lives is tied together. ”
God relays a powerful message – one unknown in the ancient world. A message that is gained from the act of gathering itself: That every single person in a community is important, created in God’s image – no matter what his or her social standing or position in life, no matter what age or stage – each life is equally important – no one is to be considered invisible or disposable.
As the Torah gathering provided a powerful lesson in its time on valuing others and community, so does the act of gathering provide a lesson for us today. We learn on this Yom Kippur not only from what is written in books and scrolls but also from coming together with others in search of meaning. We are here in synagogue with people we know and people we don’t know – people in all ages and stages and places in their lives — all sharing the quest to better ourselves and connect more deeply in the year ahead. The communal Yom Kippur experience reminds us that our community and our world is a shared endeavor – that in order for us to move forward we need every cherished and valued individual. How often do we go about our busy days, seeing others as obstacles, or as means to an end? Each individual soul has a purpose. As we first learn from Torah – each person – family, friend or stranger, is created in the image of God.
The third radical idea from our Torah is from the section that is perhaps the most literary and poetic. It begins:
“For this mitzvah – this commandment – which I give you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote.”
The obvious question is: “What mitzvah?” What isn’t too hard?
Our tradition is divided into two camps on this question – some sages believe Torah refers to the mitzvah of teshuvah: the process of turning one’s actions and words back to a more ideal state – sometimes translated as repentence.
Other teachers believe that the mitzvah mentioned here is actually all of the Torah’s teachings – living a life of Torah values as instructed by God.
Well – whether this Torah verse is talking about teshuvah or living the Torah’s values – both come down to the same thing: Living a life of awareness and meaning and doing so in a way that brings more peace, compassion and wholeness to our world.
The Torah goes on, playfully, to illustrate how this is not too hard a task for you. We read:
“This mitzvah: it’s not up in heaven, that you should say: “Who is going to go up to heaven and bring it down to us that we may do it?”
It is not beyond the sea, that you should say: “Who is going to cross the sea for us and bring it over to us that we may do it?
No – it is very close to you – it is in your own mouth and your own heart and you can do it.”
What a remarkable message of personal empowerment. Our ancestors lived in a very hierarchical world where power was concentrated at the top, accessible often only to a few families of privilege or to royalty. What a novel truth to hear! You don’t need to be royalty or a world power: You have within you, not only what it takes to live a meaningful life but also what it takes to make a difference in the world.
Democracy may not be as novel a notion to us today, living Yom Kippur in the United States of 5777. But even in our modern world, it is easy to feel helpless and powerless.
Our world may not be more fractured or more violent than it was at some time in the past – but due to technology, and our greater ability to know what happens in other places, it feels that way to many. We see shootings and violence on the news, massacres abroad, terrible events coming alive on our television and computer screens and we can be sent back to that emotional and spiritual place of our ancestors: Problems are too big, and we are just too small.
Yet our Torah-based message on this Yom Kippur is, “I do have strengths and gifts within myself that can bring me meaning and that can make a difference.” As the text says: “It is in your mouth and in your heart. You can do it.”
It is important to note that ‘you’ is in the singular: This is a personal message to each and every individual.
Your mouth and your heart – finding your own authentic voice. The heart is the seat of both passion and compassion. On this Yom Kippur we ask ourselves: “What is my personal gift? What do I have to share that brings me joy and fulfillment while also enhancing the life experience of others? What – within myself – needs most to be developed and nurtured in the year ahead?”
The antidote to a broken world is connection. How can I use my mouth and my heart – my words and my compassion – to connect to and support others? In what small but important way will this world be more connected by something I can do or say?
Our Yom Kippur message: One doesn’t need to be a world leader or a Nobel Peace Prize honoree to impact the world. You have both the ability and the responsibility to follow your heart and pursue a path that brings peace and connection and healing.
Let’s return to our Torah’s implied question. Our own question. “Why am I standing with my congregation before God on this Yom Kippur day?”
I stand before God with my community to find renewal through traditional rituals and texts. To be reminded of the radical teachings that are woven through all of Yom Kippur’s traditional themes and prayers and rituals:
I can make choices.Each moment of each day presents me with a choice – Do I choose to see curse or blessing? Do I go the route of bitterness and selfishness or do I embrace life with positive affirmation?
I live this life together with others:each of us created in the image of God. Each person with whom I share this life is of ultimate value.
I have within me what I need to make a difference– to make a difference in how I live my life – to make a difference in the world’s healing and betterment.
May this day of embracing ancient wisdom shed new light and bring new insights that help each of us – and all of us – to be our best – to face a new year with hope.
May standing together today, lead to standing together tomorrow: as a congregation, as a community and as a world.
Ken y’hi ratzon