Taking God with us

Yom Kippur Morning
10 Tishrei 5779
Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Two thousand years ago, on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yishmael prepared to enter the Holy of Holies. As High Priest he spent days purifying himself - following all the rules laid out in Leviticus. Before he entered, the other priests tied a rope around his ankle. No one else was allowed to enter the center of the Temple. If something happened to Rabbi Yishmael, if he fainted or got ill, then the other priests needed to pull him out. Finally he walked through the darkened hallways into the center of the structure of the ancient Temple.

Carrying the heavy pan of incense with one hand and parting the curtains with his other, Rabbi Yishmael let his eyes adjust to the darkness as he approached deeper into the building, and farther from the sun, or candles, or torches. He blinked through the incense smoke and pulled aside the last curtain and walked into the empty room that was the Holy of Holies - the holiest place in Judaism.

Much to his surprise, God was there.

God said, “Yishmael, my son, bless me!”

Rabbi Yishmael overcame everything running through his mind and heart as he faced God and managed to say:

“Sovereign of the Universe, may it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, that Your mercy overcome Your sterner attributes, that You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake, You go beyond the boundary of judgment.”

God nodded in acceptance, perhaps even approval of Rabbi Yishmael’s blessing, and the Talmud concluded this story with a teaching: learn from this that one should not take the blessing of an ordinary person lightly. If God asked for and then accepted the blessing of a person, then all the more so we must accept the blessings of any and all people, who are so much closer to us than we are to God. [Sources: Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 7a, and Ruth Calderon, A Bride for One Night]

We say over and over again that Yom Kippur only atones for transgressions, for wrong-doings, between us and God. For everything else there is every other day of the year, specifically, the five weeks leading up to Yom Kippur.

We are supposed to encounter God today.

Even though the Talmud told that dramatic story of Rabbi Yishmael talking to God, face-to-face on Yom Kippur, it is still pretty clear that our rabbis are not recommending this as the meaning of “it being between us and God” on this day.

So what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to encounter God?

The Talmud does offer us some ideas from the story itself - when we meet God, God will ask us for blessings. Even God wants to be blessed. The High Priest who is also a rabbi meets God face-to-face on Yom Kippur and the entirety of the encounter is a request for a blessing and a blessing in response. There is no grand request for world peace or saving a friend in need or pulling a town out of famine - there is only the hope that God will be blessed with particularly profound mercy towards the People of Israel.

Blessings are normal. We say them all the time. And that’s what God wants from Rabbi Yishmael, in person on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies.

The rabbis of the Talmud are teaching us that God wants these moments of blessing. If we follow the example of God and the High Priest, then we need to connect with people we know well and then request and offer blessings.

We need to see blessings happening around us even when we don’t at first hear or see an interaction as a blessing. Politeness, courtesy, caring - simple blessings are all around. And often we don’t recognize blessings at all.

Take the case of UNESCO and a Shinto shrine in Ise, Japan. UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, which among other things, secures and protects the world’s most important cultural sites. The Ise Shrine is over thirteen hundred years old, and therefore, UNESCO’s to preserve. The problem is, the shrine is built out of a special type of Japanese cypress wood, and the structure itself is not centuries old - it is in fact only ever twenty years old. Every twenty years the priests build the exact same shrine in the exact same way it has always been built with the exact same type of wood from the forest that grows right next to the shrine. They have now done this 62 times in a row and from the priests’ perspective, they have a thirteen hundred year old building, renewed every twenty years. UNESCO doesn’t agree, pointing out that all they have is a wooden building last crafted in 2013.

This is a clear case of a beautiful blessing going unrecognized.

It is also a clear agreement between Shinto thinking and classic Jewish fundraising - every generation needs to build a building.

Both approaches have merit, in that the creation of blessings through the everyday application of our energies to our communities is the follow-through of the blessings that we utter when we say something is important.

The Shinto priests encounter the power of their teachings, the blessing of working together and doing something that will last through generations, every time they rebuild their shrine, and every time they use it for worship. Each generation of priests feels attached to the blessings of the work of their own hands.

This is the power of blessings in everyday life.

When we bless our food we acknowledge sustenance as important and special and elevate the everyday by recognizing the miraculous. The meal then becomes a time when something happens - eating gets recognized, and maybe our conversations get deepened. The blessing leads to a “doing” that is better than what happened before.

When we bless Shabbat with candle-lighting we take a Friday evening and turn it into sacred time. Whether joining together in a Shabbat service, a family meal, or merely taking a few moments to say that the time we spend is special before sitting together and watching television - the lighting of the candles with a blessing gives us the opportunity to do something of substance.

God asking Rabbi Yishmael for a blessing reminds us that we can use this encounter of special moments as the blessing that then will begin the transformation of the rest of the year. The Talmud asks us to use this time, be conscious of it as a blessing and source of blessings, and then take it out of Yom Kippur into our normal time as well.

The best thing about this particular insight - take the experience of blessings from synagogue on Yom Kippur and go make blessings and improve everything in the world beyond this particular place and time - is that we can all do this. We don’t need any special Jewish formula or any special Jewish location. We can creatively take our Judaism and combine it with wisdom from other places in any place, and make blessings in many forms.

I included a handout for all of you from a colleague of mine, who created an innovative version of Ashrei - a traditional part of our liturgy made up Psalm 145 and a line from Psalm 84. We have used it a few times at Shabbat morning services, I even shared it with Sharon Meer, may her memory be for a blessing, when she was struggling, and she appreciated it. Mostly, I have made it part of some of my own regular rituals, when I can fit it in which really only happens occasionally.

Occasionally is enough though, and it has more traction the more I use it.

We can do this with anything that clicks with us. Find an inspiration for blessing, use it, and we can be blessed by its use.

That’s the blessing I offer you as we enter into the New Year.

Build your own shrine, make your own blessings, share them all.

Find God everywhere.

Now, please join me in chanting this adapted Ashrei.

An acrostic inspired combining Ashrei and Instructions for Life, by the Dalai Lama
Created by Rabbi Evan Krame

(Sung to the tune of Ashrei, which uses Psalm 84:5 as an introduction to Psalm 145)

Remember to “pray” the silence

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

1. Account for the fact that great love / and great achievements involve great risk.

2. But when you lose at something you attempted / don’t lose the lesson.

3. Chart by the three R’s: Respect for self, Respect for others and Responsibility.

4. Don’t forget that not getting what you want / is sometimes a stroke of luck.

5. Each time you realize you’ve made a mistake / take immediate steps to correct it.  

6. Friendships include differences; don’t let a dispute injure a relationship.

7. Genuine friends will stand by you / whether you are successful or unlucky. 

8. Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions

9. In disagreements deal only with the current situation. Don’t bring up the past.

10. Judge success by what you gave up, in order to get what you wanted.

11. Keep an open heart, everyone needs to be loved.

12. Love and compassion are necessities. Without them, humanity cannot survive

13. Maintain a sincere attitude, be concerned that outcomes are fair.

14. Nurture a loving atmosphere in your home, it is the foundation for your life.

15. Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.

16. Please be gentle with the earth, it’s the only planet we have.

17. Quit complaining about others, and spend more time making yourself better.

18. Remember that silence . . .  is sometimes the best answer.

19. Share your knowledge wisely. It is a way to achieve immortality.

20. Twice or even once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.

21. Understanding for others, brings the tranquility and happiness we seek.

22. Verify your understanding, but don’t forget to believe and have faith.

23. We all need some time alone, make room for you each and every day.

24. X-ray vision doesn’t exist, but seeking the truth is a good start.

25. You are not alone, God made all of us unique but not special.

26. Zero in on what matters, and start each day with loving yourself.

וַאֲנַחְנוּ נְבָרֵךְ יָהּ, מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם, הַלְלוּיָה:

Va-anachnu n’vareich Yah, mei-atah v’ad olam, Hal’luyah!

And we, we bless God, from now until forever, Halleluyah!