Yom Kippur Day - Iyunnim - 5780
Kavannah on Torah Study
Think for a moment about our Jewish story. The one that unfolds form our sacred Torah and continues through Jewish memory. It is one that illustrates for us the first layers of our collective tale - the narrative of the Jewish people. This begins with our father Abraham, who contends with his own world view from Ur, a land of idolatry and paganism. The son of an idol merchant, our sages tell us, Abraham breaks through the story that has been his whole world view to see the world differently. He, together with his partner Sarah, set out to alter the way others around them see the world, to change their own narratives. It is through this story, and the countless ways it unfolds over millennia, that we have been molded as a people, by a narrative, by our tale. And the power of this seed of our existence as a people, the redemption found in our collective narrative is that of change. It teaches that we can find the right path forward, as Abraham and Sarah did, through not only our intuitive and snap judgement and decision making based only in our narratives, but being able to truly reason and lead us where we ought to be… This story of Lech Lecha - going forth is about separating from a singular way of seeing the world and forward to what will be shown to us. As we embrace this b’racha - blessing - for the study of Torah, let us know our own stories and identity well and know that we can be the authors of our own path, our own lives….
Benediction - YK Morning
In the days leading to this season, the High Holy Days, the Hebrew month of Elul engages us in spiritual preparation. Among the practices, we are inspired to recite twice daily the words of Psalm 27. Embedded in this poem, we sing out: Achat Sha’alti - One thing I ask of Adonai, and the one that I seek is to dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life and to gaze upon the sweetness of Adonai and frequent God’s Temple.
May each of us, on this Yom Kippur, and all days of this New Year, merit to dwell in the house of Adonai and to gaze upon God’s sweetness. May we see the spark of the Divine in every other being so that we see their sweetness, and dwell together in blessing, joy, harmony and Shalom and Shleimut - Peace and Wholeness - Amen.
Introduction to Jonah
Written By Michael Frank - Board Member at NTHC:
Like the speaking she-ass who sees the avenging angel of God when the great pagan prophet called Balaam does not, the story of Jonah uses fantasy-like incidents and metaphors; this time with a reluctant Jewish prophet. We have a prophet, Jonah, who is told to go to Nineveh and prophecy against it but instead gets on a boat headed in the opposite direction across the Mediterranean. Nineveh was the largest city of the Assyrian Empire back in 760 BCE and the worst enemy of the two kingdoms of Israel. So, a Jewish prophet going to Nineveh is rather like a Jewish prophet preaching in Spain in 1492. The ship encounters a storm that only affects that ship. We have polytheistic pagan sailors who believe that Jonah’s God, the LORD God of the heavens… who made the sea and the dry land, is all powerful. We have lots cast that always point to Jonah as the cause of the storm which subsides as soon as Jonah is tossed overboard. Jonah is swallowed by an enormous fish and is sustained for three days in its belly before the fish vomits him up onto dry land. We then have the weakest prophecy ever recorded. As Jonah walks through Nineveh, he says only: “Forty days more, and Nineveh is overthrown.” He does not explain why or how. He does not attribute this to God’s displeasure and power. Nonetheless, Nineveh gets the message. The people miraculously and immediately don sackcloth and sit in ashes in repentance. Then the king tells all people and beasts to repent by wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes in the hope that the decree will be changed. Beasts repenting? As you will see, that’s what the story says.
The time setting of this story is revealing. Jonah is said to have ended his career as a prophet about 750 BCE which precedes the destruction of the Northern Kingdom with its 10 tribes at the hands of the Assyrians by only 28 or 29 years.
Except for Jonah, the prophets of Israel all worked in context limited by concerns of the nations of Israel. Their messages were addressed to the people of Israel, often with explicitly political concerns, and the messages were focused on the fate of the nations—such as its destruction by foreign powers if it does not repent its sinful ways, and also the hope of national restoration after the disaster has occurred. The perspective of Jonah is, by contrast, decidedly universal. The prophesy is to take place in the Assyrian Empire, the very foreign power that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered the ten tribes. It addresses the sins of those people rather than sins of the tribes in Israel. It takes place at the time of extraordinary expansion of that empire. It is almost as if God is helping the Assyrians prepare for their role as God’s avenger against Israel by having them repent. It is ironic that the Ninevites exhibit exactly the behavior that God wants Israel to do.
For the first time in Tanach, God is portrayed as having influence over, if not dominion over, humans of all nations, livestock and beasts, fish, oceans, plants, and wind, none of which are in the land of Israel. Indeed, God seems to have less control over his Jewish prophet than over the rest of the world.
So, the story of Jonah represents a major expansion of the notion of God, from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the God of the nations of Israel to the God of the world and all its inhabitants. It reinforces the hope expressed in the prophesies of the second Isaiah that some day all nations will recognize the God of Israel as the one God.
At the end, the story uses a metaphor of a plant that gives shade to Jonah and then disappears. Jonah complains of the loss of the plant and tells God that he did not want to go to Nineveh because Jonah was afraid that God would be merciful thus contradicting Jonah’s words. Jonah says of God, “You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in kindness”, which are words directly from Genesis 34:6, and one of the themes of Yom Kippur. God admonishes Jonah for his complaint because it is so selfish. Jonah is angry over the plant and his failed prophecy while God is concerned about her citizens in a great city and its beasts. Taken in all its odd twists and turns, the book of Jonah is a fitting story for Yom Kippur because of its overarching theme of repentance to a universal, powerful but compassionate God.
Introduction to Avinu Malkeinu
In a moment, we will engage with the sacred words of Avinu Malkeinu - Our Father our King. These words always leads my mind to a tension. There are very different roles for a parent and for a sovereign. The notion that God as parent provides a sense of mercy pervades my hopes as this time of year; yet the reality that God is sovereign, decreeing justice, is the reality check. And yet, thinking about those earliest moments in our lives when parents, for most of us, were viewed through a lens lending them a sense of sovereignty – they know everything…they knew everything. That is the blending of the Avinu and the Malkeinu. The two come together when we recognize with awe the power that God is in our lives, our world. The two come together when we see in God the loving mercy that is Avinu.
The lines of this prayer build up. We petition God for one thing after another. We beseech God for blessing, for health, for a good life, for sustenance. Yet, at the end, the build up is our humility. We are humbled before both Avinu and Malkeinu. We are humbled before God and community. We want to ask all of those things of Avinu – our father…our parent. Yet, in the conclusion, the line we often sing together brings us to a sense of humility before Malkeinu – our Sovereign.
O God, may we with honest and pure intention recite the petitions, prayers and sacred words of these holy days. And, may we also bring ourselves, through humility, to recognize both our smallness and our greatness in God’s world and know how to say:
Our Father, Our King, be gracious with us and answer us, we may be of little merit, act with us in righteousness and goodness and save us.
Introduction to Yizkor
As we embrace the memories that inspire us, as we wrestle with our own mortality and as we engage in this mitzvah of Yizkor - of memory, we will continually hear the melody of the well known piece Eli Eli, penned by the heroine Hannah Senesh, may her memory be for a blessing. Her story is one that symbolizes the best and the most tragic of our collective Jewish memory. IN 2012, a previously unknown poem, written in Hebrew, was discovered by Hannah Yasur, the daughter of the woman to whom it was sent. The poem, written form he perspective of an exile like Senesh, evokes the feelings of solitude and the moment of almost grasping something, but having it evade your reach. As we memorialize our loved ones, may we never forget the inheritance they have bequeathed to us, and may we always live with the zeal for life with which Hannah Senesh is said to have carried to her last moments:
Hora to an Exiled Girl
A hora, roaring, tempestuous, blazes around me
With the mystery of rhythm, gladdening and forging,
It tugs at my body and heart
The foot marches, the back quivers, the song is ignited, a searing chorus
Dance and song, a wordless prayer,
Hail to the future, hail to creation
But then a figure flutters before my eyes
My arm has escaped my friends’ embrace
My heart spurns the tempestuous singing,
Far and near it consumes me whole
Such a bewildered glance
A sad silence and a stubborn mouth
The stillness grows in me
I remain standing
Alone, in a crowd of a hundred, her and I
(Translation by Elie Leshem)
Introduction to Neilah
As we stand now at this moment of Neilah, as the gates of teshuvah begin to close, may we re-center ourselves to our personal missions. May we find the spiritual guidance we yearn for to lay out before us our path, our charge. May we always own our narratives, our personal story and always, always, make room for to embrace those of others. May we strike this balance between what it is we need and search for and be part of the sojourn of our fellow human beings. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Judaism is spiritual effrontery... [we must] insist that life involves not only the satisfaction of selfish needs, but also the satisfaction of a divine need for human justice and nobility…Who is a Jew? A person whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done to other people.” May we not allow our integrity to decay, may we therefore be moved to continue writing our stories, stories that a part of bringing goodness, light, mercy and justice into the world, for us and for all.
Psalm 118 Introduction
Let us consider verse 18 of Psalm 118:
פִּתְחוּ־לִ֥י שַׁעֲרֵי־צֶ֑דֶק אָֽבֹא־בָ֝ם אוֹדֶ֥ה יָֽהּ׃
Open the gates of victory for me that I may enter them and praise the LORD.
We often consider this as a petition to the Divine, to God, to the Mystery of Creation to open those gates for us. Yet, when we explore the Hebrew of this verb, to “open”, it is a request to a plural, and our commentators teach us that at its origin this was a request to the gatekeepers of the ancient Temple. Having transcended the ancient reality that atonement was found only in the ancient Temple, to the realization that atonement is found in our own acts, behaviors and choices as well as those of community surrounding us, here and wider, we see this verse having a deeper meaning. It is our request to all of those around us for a shared journey of seeking the righteous path. May we all find ways in this season to discover, working hand in hand, the Gates of Righteousness, and know we can travel that path together. Shanah Tovah!