The New Shul

Rabbi Kanter’s Erev Yom Kippur Drashah – Sept. 18 2018

According to our Rabbis, during the High Holy Days and every day, God calls out to us and says Ayeka?  Where are You?  This is what God first says to Adam in the garden of Eden, when, because of his sin and failure to obey God’s command, Adam tries to hide.

God’s question is not a request for information.  Rather, it’s an invitation to the human being to take responsibility for having done the one thing he was not supposed to do.  Instead, he hides, and he blames Eve, but the one thing he doesn’t do is step up and say:  Ashamnu – I’ve made a mistake, I’ve been wrong.

Hiding from reality is one very common response to human failure.  Rather than experience the pain of the awareness of our failure, we try to avoid thinking about it, or doing anything about it.  The problem with that is when we hide from it, we can’t move past it.   As long as we are expending all our time and effort trying to avoid it, we transform a temporary setback into a more permanent obstacle.

So when God called to Adam, and when God calls to each of us, Ayeka, where are you in your life, we are being asked:  where are you in facing what needs to be faced so that you can learn from it?  Ayeka is the call to responsibility that asks us to take our mistakes and create out of them a piece of learning that can help us move forward with greater wisdom and understanding.

Rabbi Sharon Brous put it this way: “In Hebrew the same word – mashber — is used for birth and brokenness. Brokenness is essential to the beginning of something completely new. When we face crisis, our system is cracked open and new opportunities arise that can lead to death or to new life. Rabbi Ed Feinstein once told me a story about friends of his who were looking through a shop in Chinatown in San Francisco and found an unusual box made up of all sorts of ceramic pieces.

The owner explained that it’s a traditional Chinese “Shard Box.” In China, when there’s an earthquake and the family ceramics fall and are smashed, they gather the broken pieces and bring them to an artist who fashions a shard box – a treasured piece of art made of the broken pieces of yesterday’s treasures. That is our spiritual challenge – to collect the broken pieces of our hearts, to honor and treasure them for what they have taught us about our lives and the world.”

The broken pieces of our lives can create something beautiful, but, as with the shard box, there is an art to knowing how to do that, an art to squeezing learning out of failure.

Hiding from our mistakes and not facing them is one way we handicap ourselves. But equally counter-productive is when we give too much attention to the ways we have failed, which also prevents us from moving on.

There is an amazing commentary by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainer of Ishbitz on the second of the ten commandments.  The second commandment is about idolatry and says, “You shall not bow down to them, and you shall not serve them,” meaning the idols.

Commenting on the phrase “You shall not bow down to them,” the Ishbitzer Rebbe writes:

“You shall not bow down to them,” meaning, you should not allow yourself to be beaten down by something [you did] that is contrary to His will, may He be blessed; just try to overcome all of those things that are strange forces and strange desires.”

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef makes the astute observation that people can surrender to and start to worship their failures.  We can allow a failure to stop our growth by giving the failure too much importance, by reliving it over and over,  and then blaming it for our inability to move on.  We can become pre-occupied with the mistake itself, rather than with what we should learn from the mistake, and so we miss the opportunity to grow, and move beyond it.

How do we prevent succumbing to failure?  How do we maintain perspective so that we can learn from our mistakes but not be vanquished by them?

Our friend and colleague Rabbi Jack Riemer wrote a piece that he called “the other side of the spiritual inventory.” Rabbi Riemer agreed that, yes, as part of our process of teshuva, we should enumerate the ways we fall short, but we should also give time to the other side, which is the good we have done.  So he created a kind of spiritual stock-taking of the good things that human beings do.   And I suspect you will recognize yourself in some of what he writes because you have done some of these same good things.

He wrote:

For the good that we have done in this past year,
Whether we did it by our own free will Or whether we were shamed into doing it.
For the good we have done when we softened our hearts,
And for the good we have done when we offered kind and comforting words
For the good we have done by sharing with our life partner,
And for the good we have done by respecting our children.
For the good we have done in public and in private,
And for the good we have done whether ostentatiously or anonymously.
For the good we have done by speaking gently,
And for the good we have done simply by listening to others in their time of trouble…
For all these good deeds that we have done, strengthen us, support us, and reward us by giving us the opportunities to do more.
And may our good deeds outweigh our bad ones
When the ledger of our lives is read.  Amen.

Rabbi Riemer is trying to re-balance our teshuva process, remembering what we did right so that we don’t get lost in what we did wrong.  It can help us keep perspective, so that we don’t give too much importance to our mistakes.  Remembering our spiritual success can help us avoid the pitfall of bowing down to our failures.

As Heschel once said, we are the artists of the canvas of our lives.  And we can create beauty through good deeds, but we also create beauty by learning from the brokenness of our lives.  And both good deeds and learning from brokenness, both are within our capacity to do, if or when we choose to.

Tomorrow evening at Neilah, we will say:  “Lovingly you have given us this day of Atonement, an end to all our sins in pardon and forgiveness that we may cease doing violence to our lives, that we may return to You, with full heart.”

What is the violence we do to our lives?  According to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the word Oshek, which is translated as violence, is actually about not paying a debt that we incurred long ago.  Rabbi Soloveichik reminds us of the midrash that says that every baby in utero takes an oath before God and swears to fulfill his or her life’s mission, to do the work in this world that he or she has been created for.

We have been given this day of Atonement, an end to all our sins in pardon and forgiveness, so that we can return to the work that we promised God we would do, and that we deeply want to do.

The gift of Yom Kippur is the chance to move forward with our lives and pay that debt, to renew our commitment to fulfill the obligation that we took on, to do that work.  My hope for us is that we can appropriately remember where we have fallen short, tempered by the memory of the good that we have done and do, and that that double-sided introspection can us help us to move forward and to do our life’s work with greater wisdom, a blessing to those we love and a source of strength for the world in which we live.