Yom Kippur Teaching 5777/2016

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As a minority population in far flung lands for over two thousand years, the Jewish community was influenced by external social pressures, but the Jewish experience also has been shaped by creative inner tensions.

One tension is that of the particular versus the universal.  Our traditions have evolved from our tribe.  We are a small group, sometimes described as a people or a nation, never more than eighteen million individuals. Our ancient literature articulated for the world some of the loftiest ethical values: fairness, honesty, humility, sympathy for the stranger and the oppressed.  Through numerous Jewish philanthropic organizations we reach out to help those in need all over the world, as in the current outpouring of support for victims of the hurricane.

Twenty-seven hundred years ago the prophet Isaiah delivered a Divine message to the Israelites: to be an or la-goyim, a light unto the nations, to model and share our ideals. (Isaiah 49:6) But we have never developed universalist ambitions, never sought to bring the nations into the Jewish fold.  We address universal concerns, but we do so as a particular people.  Unlike the great traditions of the Christian Church or the House of Islam, we speak not to the masses of humanity, but to one another.

Another tension in our tradition is that of the collective versus the individual, the importance of belonging to the group versus the longings of each person.  Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz once said to his teacher, the Seer of Lublin: “Show me one general way to the service of God.” The Seer replied: “It is impossible to tell men what way they should take.  For one way to serve God is through learning, another through prayer, another through fasting, and still another through eating.  Everyone should carefully observe what way his heart draws him to, and then choose this way with all his strength!”
We also have inner tensions between those who see our customs as fluid and changing, and those who see them as fixed and not to be changed.  Over so many years of holding these tensions, our tradition has developed a tensile strength which resists being pulled apart.

Most of our prayers are in the first person plural; we ask, we plead, we praise – Avinu MalkeynuOur parent, our sovereign, be gracious to us and answer us!  When we say the Sh’ma we declare, Hear Israel, HaShem is our god, HaShem is One! (Deut 6:4)  Despite the centrality of this beloved verse, and the emphasis on Divine Oneness, I would like to suggest that we do not actually pray to the same God, that it’s impossible to do so.  Let me explain.

The Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine has found in preliminary studies that the average person has about 48.6 thoughts per minute, a total of 70,000 thoughts per day. That would be 25 million thoughts per year.  There is not yet a firm definition of what a thought is.  The study assumes a thought to be a “sporadic single-idea cognitive concept resulting from the act of thinking, or produced by spontaneous systems-level cognitive brain activations.”

If I were to hold up a flower, you all would see the same flower, and agree generally about its size, color and shape.  But if I say, “Imagine a flower”….within moments there will be more than a hundred very different flowers in the room.  And if I say, “Imagine another kind of flower,” and then “Imagine yet another,” and then “Imagine a bouquet of a flowers,” “Imagine a garden”…within minutes the room can be filled with thousands and thousands of flowers blooming in the hot houses of our imaginations!

The Chassidic masters were intently focused on the workings of the mind.  In the 18th century the Baal Shem Tov taught: “You should have just one thought in the service of God, Blessed be He…for it is from the multiplicity of thoughts that confusion comes.”  (Tzavaat ha-Ribash, p. 12, Jewish Spiritual Practices, page 296) 

Two generations after the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi wrote, “Purify all your ideas and thoughts, and do not think many thoughts, but one alone: to serve your Creator with joy.  And let all the thoughts that come to you be included in that one thought.”  (Kitvei Kodesh, p 23, Jewish Spiritual Practices, pg 297)

The beginning of the last century saw an extraordinary leap in our understanding of the cosmos and of ourselves.  Albert Einstein famously remarked, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”  How inspiring!  To think of taking in, of embracing the whole world through the imagination!

But acknowledging the limits of our brains, in 1927 the British geneticist J.B. S. Haldane wrote: “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

Haldane considered himself an atheist, but his sentiments are echoed in the words of the modern Chassidic master Rabbi Arele Roth who emphasized the importance of emunah, of faith: “I believe that God is the beginning and the end of all Creation, the catalyst of everything, who always was, who always is, and who always will be the all-powerful source of all possibilities.  God controls all forces in the world, is above everything, and is the cause of all causation.  No human can ever fully and completely capture the true essence of God.” (Ahron’s Heart, pg 44)
From all this wisdom we might conclude that Ultimate Reality, which we might call God, is beyond our ability to grasp with our God-given brains.  And yet we all dare to try.  And we each imagine the unimaginable in our own completely unique way.

The second line of the Sh’ma says, “V’ahavtah et adonai elohechah…You shall love HaShem, your God, with all your heart.” (Deut. 6:5)  The “you” here is not in the plural, but in the singular.   When I recite the v’ahavtah, I am not speaking of our God, but of my God.  I ask myself, how do I attune to the God that is mine, the God that I imagine as only I can imagine, the God of my intuitive knowing, which is unlike that of any other person who has ever lived?

Jewish holidays usually include the conviviality of sharing a special meal as families and friends gather around the Passover table or sit together in the Sukkah.  In the fasting of Yom Kippur there is no conviviality.  Though gathered together in music and prayer, on Yom Kippur we are each on our own.  Deep teshuvah is when we address a problem that is specifically our own, when we complete a circuit which is ours alone to complete, when the return to self is a completely unique journey for each of us.

Our prayers consist of both supplication and praise.  I think supplication is easier for us, especially when we supplicate for the needs of others, we can pray with great feeling.  I think praise is harder for us, especially if we limit ourselves to our ideas of a general, all-purpose, universal God which can seem hopelessly distant and disinterested. The individual cannot truly express appreciation to the God of the collective. But if we personalize the Divine, each of us praying to our own partsuf, our own unique interface with reality, then our praise can be profound.

In these precious hours of Yom Kippur, I encourage each of you contemplate your God, and I’ll contemplate mine, and together we will generate hundreds of thousands of unique thoughts of prayer and blessing that have never been thought before.  And in this way, we take part in the God-experience.  Or as my beloved Reb Zalman would say, “we grow the God field.”  And this is part of the magic of our long, strong tradition, that we can use words that have been said and sung for thousands of years, to offer thanks, praise and appreciation that have never before been expressed!