Erev Yom Kippur
10 Tishrei 5779
Tuesday, September 19, 2018
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York
by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich
This time of year, I find myself sifting through the memories of faces of my family, the smells of my childhood homes or even the ocean, all surrounded by aspects of love and connection, warmth and embraces. Some of these memories are poignant, bittersweet, and some simply evocative of days gone by. These are the sacred landscapes of my life - some of which might even include listening to the beautiful voices of cantors and possibly wise words of rabbis on the High Holy Days and the aroma of old prayer books and the aging wood scent of pews.
We come together tonight at the beginning of Yom Kippur to deeply experience holiness. The sacred in Judaism is much more than just a religious thing - it is specialness that emerges from all our important memories and experiences.
Right here as we are encountering the holiness of our year, the memories of being together on this day, here in this sanctuary and others, with the people around us, everyone present for us even those who’ve passed, and with the meanings that swirl around in the air like eddying currents in a tide pool - we could easily say that this was the point. That this is what we’ve come here for. Yet, in this place and time laden with the past and our experiences, we must go deeper.
Since moving to Buffalo, Ginny and I have marveled at all of the connections we find running through Western New York - friends and acquaintances from other places who turn out to be from here.
Last year a college friend visited us. It turned out that he grew up in North Buffalo. In fact, he grew up on the street where we now live.
Just a month ago I connected with a rabbi who was eager to help me as a Buffalonian since some of his relatives hailed from Eggertsville.
One of our closest friends from when we lived in Northern Nevada grew up in Amherst and graduated from Park School.
We have begun to say that all roads lead through Buffalo.
It is really no surprise then, that a singer-songwriter whom I loved in my twenties, Ani DiFranco, is a Buffalo person too. In one of my favorite of her songs, she sings:
go back…and dig deeper, dig deeper this time
down beneath the impossible pain of our history
beneath unknown bones, beneath the bedrock of the mystery
…beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel
there's a fire just waiting for fuel.
[Ani DiFranco, Fuel, from, Little Plastic Castle, 1998]
We are here to connect with meaning and go deeply into ourselves - to find out what is really ours and what isn’t. To claim for ourselves the meanings in our memories, to separate out what is ours and what we need to leave behind, and to figure out how to use it better.
We must get past all of the things that distract us, and all that we use as excuses, and uncover ourselves in this moment of truth.
The world offers us many distractions and they are so easy to follow down and away from the work we hope to accomplish. Things get in the way. In the course of explaining ourselves we can so easily shift blame and duck responsibility. Our apologies come with excuses and justifications before we even speak them.
Much in the news today, a term has re-emerged. It is called “whataboutism” and is an old Soviet propaganda technique of deflecting criticism by pointing out faults in critics. The Soviet Union’s spokespeople would dodge questions about how they treated their people by saying, in the 1960’s, “Look at the racism in the United States.”
There is no “whataboutism” on Yom Kippur. When we go beneath the surface to face our selves, our consciences, our senses of the universe, God, we don’t get to deflect the critique - we must face the self-assessment. We call this cheshbon ha-nefesh - an accounting of the soul.
Self-accounting is frightening. One of my teachers, Rabbi Richard Hirsh, said that people don’t fear change, we fear loss. To face ourselves, to get rid of the distractions and the excuses, is to experience a loss of all the band-aids that we use to hold ourselves together. Think about one of the things that the famous comedian George Carlin, may his memory be for a blessing, said, “Try to get through the day without nine good rationalizations.” We have to drop the rationalizations and face ourselves. And we have to do more than draw up a list of self-criticisms. Being honest with ourselves, getting rid of the easy answers to who we are and what we do, also means being generous and merciful to our selves.
And this is difficult too. We are here tonight, beating our chests, literally, confessing our sins. I have a much easier time accepting that I need to be more generous to others. Tonight, we have to be more accepting, more giving, more forgiving, of our own flaws. We are here to do the work together, to support each other as we face the mirror of our souls. We support one another in the work we do on our own. The time and place and the company helps, and so do the words of the service.
We started this evening with Kol Nidrei:
“All vows -
…that we take upon ourselves…
we regret them and for all of them we repent.
Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone;
they are not valid and they are not binding.
Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves;
and our oaths they shall not be oaths.”
Kol Nidrei - the sound of the words in Aramaic is haunting, the music echoes through the chambers of our hearts and the depths of our souls, and the meaning of the words has made impressions for generations. We declare our oaths to be null and void - we relieve ourselves from the obligations we make. Historically anti-Semites have used this declaration as proof of Jews’ sinister and corrupt nature - that we would declare our business obligations null and void and use this as a religious justification to cheat and steal. Rabbis always clarify that the oaths we declare void are only those that we make with ourselves. We understand that in the year to come, as in the year gone by, we will bind ourselves to things that we cannot complete. We seek to be forgiving to our past, present, and future selves.
The turning of the year, the process of returning to do repentance, to atone, to make ourselves whole enough to go into the next year with holiness, requires us to unbind ourselves from promises that we can’t keep to our selves. We must start fresh and new.
Connect with the power of this day, cut away the things that hold us back, dig deep, so that we confront ourselves with clarity and generosity and compassion - all of this we do in order to begin again, to reinvent ourselves. We are on a journey to create something sacred.
Mark Goldman, a member of our community, said something about this just this past week. On Saturday evening we were celebrating Havdalah, the ritual with the braided candle, spices, and wine, which marks the transition between Shabbat and the rest of the week, as well as doing Tashlich, the symbolic casting away of last year’s bad behavior into the water, on the bridge by the Naval Museum at Canalside. We have been making Havdalah in places throughout Buffalo - Delaware Park, at the Black Rock Canal and Broderick Parks - for the sake of “spiritual place-making” - connecting the everyday and wondrous in our city, with the everyday and sacred in Judaism. As we were talking about this, Mark said that “Where memory and meaning connect, the place becomes sacred.”
Listen to Mark again - when memory and meaning connect, we get holiness.
This is profoundly true and wonderfully Jewish.
Our hope with the Havdalah series this summer was to create memories in places with meaningful experiences - to connect the Jewish ideas about holiness with the meaningful places and experiences here in Buffalo - to bring a little bit of holiness into our lives through meaningful memories.
We make places and moments holy by what we do and experience in those times and locations.
The Day of Atonement is the beginning of our journey to create something sacred in the coming year. To turn the memories evoked by this time into a meaningful experience that leads us into holiness as individuals. We need to be better, holier, in the days, weeks, and months to come. We must connect to our past in a powerful way, we must not be dragged down by excuses and other baggage that holds us back, and we must care for ourselves with compassion in this process.
The setting out on this journey is imperative. To do anything less is to allow us to be stuck in the past, and so abandon the future. We must look forward while holding on to what came before, without being held back.
We must reinvent ourselves.
Beneath it all, beneath all of those vows that bind us to our own courses of action, we unknot ourselves, we see what it is like to go into the New Year with fewer fetters tying us down.
So what do we find when we dig deeper in order to reinvent?
We start with the cores of ourselves, the parts that have been put together and crafted and buffeted - the centers that have triumphed and survived. When we unbind and uncover we attempt to honestly face who we are beneath it all - who we are, who we have always been, and who we hope to become.
Underneath all of the surfaces and strata, the layers of obligations and oaths that we have placed upon ourselves in the last year, that we might place upon ourselves in the next year, we clarify what is truly us. What we have built and what we still need to work on. What needs to be preserved, maybe renovated a bit, and what can be jettisoned entirely as a failed experiment.
Yom Kippur must be a day of liberation for our souls as we embrace the New Year as we celebrate our history, our starting point and foundation, and make progress in the sacred places of our own inner geographies, seek and create meaning that moves us forward from the past into a better future, and make new memories that expand upon and celebrate and honor the ones we already have.
We come here today to find greater meaning in the New Year. We start in our hearts, dig deeper, and then, taking what worked best before, we reinvent to find the sacred in what was, what is, and what can be for all of us in a better year to come.
We craft this holiness in ourselves, and we craft it together as a community.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah - may we find a holy link from the past to the future on this day of meaning and memory.