The New Shul

Rabbi Wasserman’s Yom Kippur Drashah – September 30 2017

Yom Kippur is a day on which we hope for liberation from our own internal enslavement, from all the ways in which we keep ourselves trapped in the status quo. On Yom Kippur we hope to break free of the past and chart a new course.

Another way to say the same thing is that, on Yom Kippur, we hope to be redeemed from alienation and exile, to return to our true selves, and to God. The Hasidic masters taught that there is a spark of holiness, a spark of the divine, in each of us. That is what makes us who we really are, and connects us go God, in whose image we were created. During the year, we become more and more detached and alienated from that inner spark, to the point that we forget that it is there at all. We find ourselves in exile from our true selves, and from God. On Yom Kippur, we hope to come home, to be redeemed from exile, to return to who we really are, and in the process rediscover who we have the potential to become.

For the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics of the middle ages, language was at the core of reality. They believed deeply in the holiness – and the creative power – of words. And so they taught that, when we feel alienated from God, and from the spark of God within us, it is a sign that language itself is in exile. God’s words and – and our words– are cut off from the deeper voice behind them, the voice that gives words meaning and power.

The Kabbalists taught that kol, the voice, and dibbur, the articulation of words, are two distinct divine attributes. Kol, the divine voice, is deeper than language. It is closer to the infinite, to the unfathomable, to the levels of divinity beyond our understanding. Dibbur, articulation, on the other hand, is closer to the human realm. In dibbur, the divine voice is parsed into human speech. The voice becomes intelligible to us.

Moreover, the kabbalists taught that, because human beings are images of the divine, the same is true of us. We too have a kol within us (as in “Sh’ma Koleinu – Hear our  voice”). We too have a voice that is deeper than words.  And we also have the power of dibbur,  the power to articulate, to parse that kol into discrete sounds and syllables. That is how our deeper voice becomes intelligible, to others and to ourselves.

According to the kabbalists, the exile of language, galut dibbur, occurs when dibbur is cut off from kol, when language becomes empty because words and syllables do not express a deeper voice behind them. When language is in exile, when words feel meaningless, then we are in exile too. We cannot connect with God, with others, or even with ourselves.

That is how the kabbalists understood the story of our exile, our enslavement in Egypt. They understood it as a story of galut dibbur, the exile of language. Why had God been so silent for so long during our enslavement? Why had God said nothing for so many years? It was because kol was cut off from dibbur. Language had been emptied out, and hence God could not speak.

At the burning bush, why did Moshe complain of being k’vad peh u’khvad lashon, heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue? Why was it so hard for him to speak? Again, it was because language was in exile. Words had become empty. Hence he had no way to express himself.

When Moshe returned to Egypt and addressed the slaves, the Torah tells us,  “v’lo sham’u el Moshe mikotzer ruah – They could not hear him because of their constrictedness of soul.” Not only was Moshe cut off from his deeper self, but they were too. They could not hear Moshe’s voice, in part, because they could not hear their own. Their souls were too constricted. Their outer exile was symptomatic of an inner exile, which had emptied language – any language – of its power to communicate and to inspire.

For the kabbalists, the story of our redemption from Egypt was a story of the redemption of language. The culmination of the Exodus story, the story of God’s revelation at Mount Sinai – as they told it – was, above all, a story about the renewal of words. It was at Sinai that language became full again. Kol, the voice, and dibbur, the articulation, were aligned again. Words recovered their power to bring God and the world together.

And it was at Sinai that we became whole again as well. Our words, too, returned from exile. When we answered, “Na-aseh v’nishma” – we will do and we will hear” – our speech was charged with meaning once again.  We were able to respond to God’s voice with our own authentic voice.

In a way, you could say that that is what we try to do each year on Yom Kippur. We try to reconnect our kol, our voice, with our dibbur, our words, so that we can reconnect with God, with each other, and with ourselves. Yom Kippur is a day full of language. We spend the whole day with the mahzor, a thick book full of words. As we recite and sing from this book, what we are really trying to do, I think, is to renew the power of sacred language. We are trying to bring kol and dibbur  back together in the form of prayer. And in the moments when we succeed in doing that, when prayer opens our hearts, we feel that we have come home. We feel reconnected to God, and to the spark of God within ourselves. We have returned from exile because sacred language has returned from exile.

Very often, we struggle with the words of the service. Much of the time, they don’t seem very meaningful at all. The prayers feel alien to us. And often, we assume that the problem is with the words themselves. We imagine that, if the words were different, less antiquated and more up to date perhaps, they would be more meaningful to us. They would do a better job of expressing our inner voice.

There may be some truth to that. But I think that there is a lot less truth to that than we imagine. I’m not saying that the words are perfect, far from it. But I don’t believe that the limitations of the language of the mahzor are the main problem.  First of all, we are not the first Jews who have had trouble with the literal meaning of the words – for instance, with the very concrete ways in which the mahzor portrays God. Even many centuries ago, as far back as the Middle Ages, religious beliefs had evolved to the point where many Jews could no longer take the language of the prayers literally. There is nothing new about that. But the point is that, even though they didn’t take the prayers literally, the words still resonated for them. They resonated as poetry, as metaphor, not as literal truth. As poetry, the words were still able to express their inner voice.

Furthermore, we are not the first Jews who have had trouble understanding the Hebrew. Ever since Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language some 2000 years ago, there have been plenty of Jews in synagogues around the world who did not understand the Hebrew of the prayer book very well, if at all. And yet, even though they couldn’t tell you exactly what the words meant, the words still felt full to them. Sometimes it was just the sound of the language that felt holy to them, or the sense of history that echoed through it. In one way or another, they were able to express their deepest longings through those words, even though they could not translate them. Kol and dibbur were still aligned.

So when we say, “the mahzor does not speak to me because I don’t believe the words, or I don’t understand the words,” our explanation isn’t really adequate, because neither those two things are new. It does not fully explain why words that resonated with deep meaning for our ancestors – even those who couldn’t take them literally or didn’t know what the words literally meant at all – no longer resonate for so many of us.

Most often, I think, when the language of the mahzor feels like it is in exile, when it feels disconnected from our inner voice, the real reason is that we have lost touch with our inner voice altogether.  We cannot fill the words with meaning because we have nothing to fill them with. Like our ancestors in Egypt, we find it hard to access our kol, our inner voice because of a constrictedness of soul. The modern world has a tendency to do that, to constrict our soul. Modern culture is relentlessly pragmatic. It tends to focus on the practical, on the surfaces of things. And there is plenty of good that comes from that. But the downside is that modern culture does not offer us much of a vocabulary to express the spark of holiness inside us. As a result, it leaves us feeling cut off from our deepest selves. The spark is still there, deep inside, but we have to work a little harder to uncover it. When the words of the mahzor feel empty, I think, it is usually because we are having trouble accessing the voice within us that could make our prayer experience feel full, that could bring the language of the mahzor out of exile.

And so part of our task on the Yamim Noraim, the days of Awe, at the beginning of each year, is to try to uncover our own deepest voice, and then use the experience of prayer to give expression to that voice. In that way, we bring kol, voice, and dibbur, words, together again.

So how do we do that? Sometimes working backward from the language helps. Remembering how the prayers of the Yamim Noraim resonated so deeply for our ancestors, how the words were able to express their voice so powerfully, can make us yearn to feel something like what they felt in prayer. And when we feel that longing for transcendence, what we are coming into contact with is our own kol, our inner voice.

Often, music helps as well. We know that the melodies of prayer – especially the melodies of the Yamim Noraim – have a great power to unlock our deepest longings and aspirations.

But sometimes the best way to uncover our inner voice is just to work at it directly. Sometimes what we need to do when we are in shul is attack the problem head on, consciously peel away the layers of our own defenses until we uncover what lies deep inside us, our deepest spiritual yearnings. Sometimes we just have to dig down into our own hearts until we get down to the raw, unarticulated longing for connectedness, for connectedness to God and to the image of God in one another, that lies at the core of our humanness.

That raw, unarticulated voice within us is what the sound of the shofar represents. The call of the shofar is like the voice within us that we are struggling to uncover during these days, a raw, unformed voice of longing. When we ask God on Rosh Hashanah to be “shomea kol t’ruat amo Yisrael b’rahamim, to hear the the kol, the voice of the shofar in compassion,”  what we are really asking God to do, I think, is to hear our human kol, the unarticulated voice inside us. We are hoping that, if God can hear that voice in us, then maybe we can hear it too. And at the moments when that happens, when we become aware of our own voice, our own yearning for transcendence, then the experience of prayer feels meaningful again. Whether we understand the Hebrew or agree with the theology of the mahzor doesn’t really matter. What matters is that, however we connect with them, the words feel full. At those moments, we return from exile because sacred language has returned from exile.

The challenge of bringing kol and dibbur back into alignment is not limited to our prayer life. In fact, outside the synagogue, the challenge is even greater. So much of the time, the words that we hear on the street, in the marketplace, in the digital universe – and even the words that we ourselves say in those places – feel empty. In the larger world, language seems to be in exile too, even more so. So little of it seems to express anything real.

To some extent, the problem is the same problem that we have in prayer – that we are out of touch with our inner voice. Words feel empty because there isn’t enough behind them.

But when it comes to secular language, there is an additional problem. It is not just that modern culture makes it hard to access any deeper voice behind the words. It is that so many of the words out there are inherently empty. Even if we had something real that we were trying to express, the words are too cheap, too insubstantial to express it. They don’t have the capacity to speak with a true voice,  even if we could access that voice. The words are so devalued that they don’t have the ability to mean much of anything.

Part of that is due to word inflation. When you print too many dollar bills, they lose their values. The same is true of words. When you generate words by the billion, as we do through cable TV, print, and digital media, when we flood the world with language 24 hours a day, words are bound to lose some of their value, their capacity to convey real meaning. There are just way too many of them. The sheer amount of language, of dibbur, in our environment is way out of proportion to the amount of true kol, of authentic voice, that there is to express. So words are bound to become relatively empty.

That is part of the problem: word inflation. But there’s more to it. There is also the problem that so many of the words that our culture generates are words that have only a loose relationship to the truth. And words that aren’t true are always words in exile. False words can never express a true voice.

Why are so many of the words out there untrue? Part of it is – again – that there are just too many of them. When we generate so many words, so quickly, it’s hard to take the trouble to make sure they’re true. Guarding the integrity of language means taking time and paying attention, and when you’re spewing out words nonstop, you just can’t do that.

But there is more to it. Sometimes the emptiness of public language, we know, is by design. It is on purpose. Untruth has always been a tool that people – especially people with power – use to manipulate others.

Pharoah did it. The Torah tells us that, when the Israelite slaves began to get a little restless, when they started to dream of freedom, Pharoah responded by declaring, “Nirpim heim – they are shirkers, they are lazy, they have too much time on their hands,” and he increased their workload to try to shut them up. What Pharoah said, of course, was the opposite of the truth. But that is the point. That is what kings and dictators have always done. They drain words of their meaning. They empty language out by saying things that are not true.

Sometimes what they say does not even rise to the level of being a lie. Think of the kind of slogans that the Nazis and the Soviets used when they were in power. For instance, think of the famous sign over the gates of Auschwitz – the sign that said, “Arbeit macht frei – work makes you free.” To call it a lie would be giving it too much credit – because, for something to be a lie, the person saying it has to hope that someone somewhere might believe it. And it is hard to imagine that the people who put up that sign expected anyone to believe it. Sometimes propaganda isn’t meant to be believed. It is just pure nonsense. Its purpose is to undermine the very notion of truth, to drive people to the point where they assume that all words must be nonsense, that nothing can ever be true. If you can drain words of all meaning in that way, if you can convince people that words don’t mean anything, then you create a world in which there is no such thing as truth. And if there is no such thing as truth, then power is all that there is. And if power is all that there is, then the one who has the power wins.

That is why, throughout history, movements that push back against the abuse of power have always begun with a struggle to redeem language, to make words mean something again, to insist that there is such a thing as truth. Because if words mean something, if they are capable of conveying truth, then power is not all that matters. And if power is not all that matters, then those resisting power have a place to stand, a place where they can start to gain some traction.

So that too may be what the Jewish mystics meant when they taught that the story of the Exodus from Egypt is a story about the redemption of language. Sometimes reconnecting kol, voice, and dibbur, words, means repairing language after it has been debased by misuse. When God spoke to us in Egypt, it was the beginning of our liberation from enslavement because, at that moment, language – which had been misused for so long – started to recover its capacity to convey truth.

When we work to repair our world, often we have to start in the same way, by repairing language. We must rededicate ourselves to the idea that there is such a thing as truth, and that words have the power to express it. Struggling to speak the truth, to make words capable again of speaking truth, is another way in which we bring kol and dibbur back together.

Often we need to do that, not just in the world outside, but in our inner life, the life of our own soul. Sometimes, when we feel that we are stuck in our own private Egypt, that we cannot move forward, that we’re spinning our wheels and can’t get any traction in our lives, it is a sign that we’ve been talking nonsense to ourselves for too long, that the words that we have been saying to ourselves have been devalued by self-deception, that they don’t hold meaning anymore

When we reach that point, what we need to do is to take a step back and be brutally honest with ourselves. We have to ask ourselves a simple question: What do I believe is true in this world? What do I think is important, and not just because other people say so? Among all the nonsense and half-truths that fill my inner monologue, what can I say to myself that I actually believe? Where am I prepared to take a stand? And then we have to put the answer into words. We have to tell ourselves what we believe to be the truth.

Often, as we do that, we find that we begin to get a little traction in our inner life. We feel that we can start to move again. That is because we are repairing language. We are reminding ourselves that words can actually mean something real. We are bringing language out of exile. And in the process, we are redeeming ourselves too.

In our prayer lives, bringing language out of exile usually means struggling to re-access the spark of holiness inside ourselves, so that words that used to resonate with meaning for our ancestors can resonate with meaning for us today. In the larger world outside the synagogue, and in our inner world as well, there is often an additional step. Often we have to repair language after it has been distorted and emptied out by misuse. We have to fix the container so that it is capable of holding meaning once again.

On this Yom Kippur, let us think about the ways in which we can, and must redeem words – words of prayer, words that we say in the public realm, words that we say with our friends and loved ones, words that we say to ourselves – so that those words can resonate with truth again. Words have the power to renew us, to free us from Egypt, but we must renew them first. May we do that work today, and in the year to come.