Yom Kippur Morning 5773 – Wednesday, September 27, 2012
Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina
G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may we all be inscribed for a good New Year.
Leah got a rough deal. Her father snuck her under the veil and married her off to Jacob, who was supposed to marry her sister. Leah married someone who didn’t love her, who was tricked into marrying her, and possibly resented her. Leah had only her children to comfort her.
Leah’s first four boys appeared quickly. She is the first of our ancestor women to name her children herself, and she explained each name as she gave it. Her first son, Reuben, from the Hebrew “See, a son!” – “See everyone! A son! Maybe now my husband will pay attention to me.” Her second son, Shimon, like “Sh’ma!” “Hear me! Why don’t you hear me Jacob? I have given you another son!” Leah’s third-born, Levi, in Hebrew, “My companion!” “Another son, will you now at last Jacob accompany me?” And after all of that, boy number four, Yehudah, Judah, from the Hebrew for “Gratitude”, “Thank you God for giving me a child!”
We receive our names from our parents, and then live our lives, giving them meaning.
I am Jonathan Benjamin. Jonathan in Hebrew translates as “God gave” or “God’s gift”. Like many of you, I am blessed to be son to a wonderful loving Jewish mother, so I truly know what it’s like to be God’s gift, at least to my mother. My name regularly reminds me that I need to work on what I offer as gifts to others too, including myself.
The name Benjamin comes with a story. The meaning of the word, “son of the right hand”, may come from the history of the Benjaminites binding their sons’ right hands behind their backs during childhood, training them to be lefties. Not unlike in baseball today, left-handed sword wielders had certain advantages in ancient times. My name Benjamin helps me remember that much of what I am comes from what I learn, even when it doesn’t come naturally for me. For example, I was told as a child that our family couldn’t learn foreign languages. So, of course, I chose a career that requires me to know three types of Hebrew AND Aramaic.
My names both describe me and offer me goals to shoot for. They are an intersection between the hopes and dreams that my parents had for me, and the development of my own ideas about myself.
The names we receive as a people likewise have meaning and teach us about ourselves.
The first name we received in the Torah is Hebrew – Abraham is described as “Avram the Hebrew”.
“Ivri” is how we say it in Hebrew and it means “one who crosses”, as in to “cross a river, or a boundary,” or even to “cross a line of behavior”.
People saw Abraham as a traveler, an immigrant, a wanderer. So Hebrew fit him and his family. Abraham’s comfort with confronting the unknown expressed his relationship to God too – when he moved, when he took risks, he often was rewarded. God was on Abraham’s side when Abraham went looking for a new home.
Abraham embraced the name Hebrew for himself – he crossed lines as both an adventurer in his own right, and with God. Abraham challenged God, argued with God when it seemed like God was unfair.
When we as a people embrace the title Hebrew we make strides towards the unfamiliar, we lead by breaking down boundaries that hold others back.
Jacob also was a Hebrew. Jacob’s first journey away from home led him to his first spiritual encounter. When he departed, setting out to find a bride and make his fortune, Jacob dreamed a powerful vision of his relationship with God, and God promised to maintain the same promise with Jacob as he had with Abraham. Jacob set out on a risky journey and met God along the way.
Jacob earned another name for himself and for us as a people. When Jacob returned home, he needed to do more than just travel. He needed to make amends. On Rosh HaShanah we talked about Jacob’s wrestling as a form of personal transformation that allowed him to go and confront his brother Esau, whom he had wronged so severely. A Hebrew sets out and confronts the unknown, Jacob needed to do more than that, he needed to struggle and change himself at a deep level.
When he wrestled with an angel Jacob went beyond risk-taking and receiving blessings. Arguing with God was part of the Hebrew path, grappling with God, wrestling with how the universe might help us change, and then making the change – this is the path of Jacob’s new name, of Israel the God-wrestler.
As a people, we earn the name Israel when we follow Jacob, wrestle with difficult issues, and change our selves. When we initiate the challenging and thoughtful discussions that bring about progress, we are Israel.
One of my mentors, Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz tells a story of our Eastern European (in his book The Seventh Telling) past about an officer of the law. He was proud of his position, his sharply pressed uniform and shiny buttons. He marched instead of walked, more involved with his status than anything around him. One day the officer encountered a homeless man, dressed in rags.
The homeless man said to the officer, “Oy. What am I going to do with you?”
“Do with me?” said the officer, in astonishment, “I am the officer of the law, it is I who must do with you!”
Thinking for a moment, the homeless man said, “Ah ha – here’s what I am going to do,” and out of the folds of his rags he pulled a sword, and attacked the officer.
The officer was stunned. Still, he was a professional, and drew his sword and parried well, fighting off the homeless man. Suddenly, the homeless man fell on the officer’s sword.
The officer said in shock, “What have you done? Why did you attack me? You didn’t need to die today?”
With his last breath, the homeless man said to the officer, “I curse you with the curse of blessings. You may not live past another sunset without offering a new blessing.” The homeless man’s body then disappeared into thin air, leaving the officer with a pile of rags on his sword.
Shaken, the officer puffed himself up again, shook the dirty shmatas off his sword, and went about his day trying to forget the disturbing experience. As the sun set in the afternoon he began to feel his life fade away, and knew that the curse was real. Grasping in his mind for the nearest blessing, he said, “Praised are you God, creator of sunsets.” The officer felt his life’s energy return to him.
Starting in the morning the officer began to bless his everyday things. “Praised is the Creator of my teeth,” “Praised is the Creator of my breakfast,” “Praised is the Creator of my ability to walk”. Soon, the officer had to get more creative, and would bless people and odd and obscure things. Word got around that the officer uttered meaningful blessings, and he was often invited to the openings of projects and events, as well as weddings and other celebrations. The officer’s life grew full due to all that he noticed around him. He found himself transformed by the beauty of the world and all who shared their lives with him.
Since continuing to utter new blessings preserved his life, the officer lived very long. On his 120th birthday, he decided he had lived long enough – after all 120 was old enough for Moses. So, he awoke on that day and reviewed his full life, repeating many of the blessings that he had spoken. As sunset approached and his life began to slip away, the homeless man appeared to the officer again.
The officer was thrilled, and said: “I am so glad you are here. I have so many questions for you. Who are you for one and…”
The homeless man held up a hand gently, and explained, “I am the angel who was sent to gather your soul upon your death. When I saw you I immediately noticed a problem – you had no soul! I could not gather what wasn’t there. And so I found a way to help you grow a soul.”
The officer answered, “I don’t know how I can thank you enough. Praised is the Creator who brought you to me.” As the officer’s life returned to him for another day, he and his angel looked at each other and said, “Oy!”
This story helps teach us our third name as a people. In addition to Hebrews who cross boundaries and take risks, in addition to Israel, those who struggle with the world aiming to become better, we are also Yehudim, descendants of Judah, Jews, those who give thanks.
Leah’s name for us is what we call ourselves. Other people called us “Hebrews”, and the wrestler gave Jacob the name Israel. Jew is our own name.
Leah journeyed from despair to joy and gave us this name.
Adding a child to our lives can be one of the most amazing moments of connection with God. In response to her first three births Leah focused entirely on what she lacked – specifically, a loving relationship with her husband. As she named her first three sons, she talked of her misery: see me Jacob! Hear me Jacob! Accompany me Jacob! The names have nothing to do with her joy at having new babies.
And so arrived baby boy number four, and Leah changed her attitude. “This time I will give thanks…” She, like the officer in the story, learned to see the good of what was right in front of her – the miracle in her lap.
By giving her son a name Leah became the first Jew, a yehudit, one who gives thanks.
As a people, we earn this name when we enter each day with gratitude. When we relate to each other and the world with appreciation for the miracles all around us, when we see the good and share it, we live as yehudim, as Jews.
Expressing gratitude seems simple.
We all know it isn’t though.
We show appreciation by really saying, “Thank you”. When we acknowledge a gift, saying thanks right takes some work. Seldom, if ever, do gifts turn out to be exactly what we want. In order be truly thankful, we have to up our game. We need to shift out of expectations (not exactly what I wanted, not in the right color, or “socks again!”) and into gratefulness. Accepting gifts with real gratitude requires being in touch with our deeper values, not our superficial desires.
The officer’s lesson about seeing blessings in everything, Leah’s move from “God, give me what I want!” to “Thank you God!” – both show us a good path for this day.
We show our gratitude by getting rid of blame.
We must start with Leah’s acceptance of her own worth – when she offered thanks for Judah she stopped blaming everyone else – her father, Jacob, and God – and instead allowed her gratitude to shine forth. So our thankfulness must come before our apologies.
Our prayer book asks us to begin our day every morning with the words of Modeh Ani – “I offer thanks before You, Ruler of Life and existence, that you returned to me my soul with compassion, great is your faith.”
The order of our days begins with a prayer of thanks. Gratitude leads us to compassion.
When we treat existence as a gift, we appreciate God’s compassion and in turn, we offer the universe compassion. Sometimes we may wish things were different – we could be healthier, or more successful, or suffer less. When we start with gratitude though, we begin to transform our relationship to God as offering thanks with grace, accepting our imperfect existence.
When we relate to God in this way, we also can treat our own difficulties, our own feelings, with compassion and gratitude.
We grapple with our names – no one knows me as Benjamin, yet I have used it to help define and redefine myself. I have been called many names, some I have changed – Jon to Jonathan, and back again perhaps – some I have earned – like “rabbi”.
Some names hurt.
Even facing the hurt of what we’re called can help us grow.
When we experience hurt, we often want to avoid it. We want to reject our difficulties and move on. Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to offer kindness to our selves. We can face our own wounds, our difficulties, and treat them gently. We can be thankful for the paths we have shared with our pains, the lessons we found with them and from them, and welcome our whole selves, even our hurt selves, with kindness.
Compassion for our selves helps us offer sympathy and compassion for others too.
So we can enter this day of repentance with healing in mind – healing for our selves, healing for everyone.
We get here today as Hebrews – crossing over into difficult places, testing our limits, being brave. We are Israel, we embrace the idea of change. We wrestle with our own capacity to learn from the miracles around us. We are Jews, Yehudim, those who offer thanks and gratitude for all of reality, for our communities and families, and for our own individual selves. When we see our names as gifts from others, and opportunities for our growth, we participate in healing the world from our inner selves outwards.
Let us embark on this journey together. Let us find a year where we accept our names and live up to them, and craft new blessings for ourselves. May the day of Yom Kippur be one of meaningful and brave grappling, leading to appreciation and compassion. May we start with ourselves, and take that tikkun, that repair, and share it with each other.
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ
Modeh Ani Lefanecha – I am thankful before you… – today, for all the good around me.
מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם
Melech Chai V’kayam – Ruler of Life and Existence… – look at the miracle of creation.
שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה
Sh’heh-cheh-zarta bi nishmati b’chemlah – that you returned to me my soul with compassion – my senses, my thoughts, my feelings are gifts as well.
Rabah emunatecha – great is your faith – I will return to you on this day, in gratitude, in compassion, with my confessions, making amends.