The New Shul

Rabbi Kanter’s Message on Erev Yom Kippur

[This drashah was given on October 4, 2022]

L’shana tova tikateivu, v’teihateimu.  May we all be written and sealed for a good year.

One of the great votes of confidence that Jewish tradition gives to human beings, is to call humanity partners with God in finishing the work of creation.  How could human beings possibly be God’s partners?  This idea of divine/human partnership is radical in the respect it accords humanity, and the profound belief it implies of our potential.    But sometimes we don’t live up to that vote of confidence in us.  Sometimes we prevent ourselves from fulfilling our side of this pairing.  I want to share two stories about where we go wrong, and they may seem contradictory at first.

The first is from Rabbi Naftali of Ropfshiz, a late 18th/early 19th century Hasidic rebbe:   He would tell the following story before Rosh Hashana, but it’s equally applicable to Yom Kippur: 

In the days of the siege of Sebastopol, in the famous Crimean war, the Czar Nikolai rode to a corner of the battlefield to review the troops.  One of the enemy soldiers aimed his rifle at the Czar to shoot him.  A Russian soldier who saw what was happening, screamed at the top of his voice, and frightened the horse of the Czar such that the horse turned sideways, the bullet missed its target, and the Czar was saved from death. 

Afterward, the Czar spoke to the soldier who was responsible for saving him, and said: “What would you like, and it shall be given to you?”  The soldier said: “Could our lord the Czar order to have me transferred to a different bridgade, because our commanding officer cruelly beats me.”  The Czar said to him: “Fool!  You could have asked to become a commanding officer yourself!”

So too with us, we ask for little, trivial things and we don’t dare ask for the big things.  When our goals are too small, too narrow, we shortchange ourselves and we don’t live up to our side of our partnership with God.

I remember one time the head of education for AIPAC asked our high school students:  what is the most powerful way you can impact the political process?  One student said:  Protesting bad legislation.  Another said:  working on political campaigns.  Another said: lobbying my representatives in congress.  To each student, he said no – and finally, when the suggestions stopped coming, he said: you know what is the most impactful way?  by running for office.

When he said it, you could see it was an eye-opener.  Most people never consider the possibility.  The students were thinking of important ways to be an active citizen but had never thought about the possibility of themselves or their classmate running for office, I think, because of what the Rabbi Naftali was trying to say:  we often sell ourselves short, and often it’s not others who get in the way of our dreams, but we ourselves do, when we don’t dream big enough.  Like the great name of one of Rabbi Feinstein’s books, the Chutzpah Imperative, we all need a degree of chutzpah, so that we can live into our real potential and our true ability to impact the world.

The second story I learned from our colleague Rabbi Jack Riemer.  And I know I’ve shared this story before, but I just couldn’t resist referring to it again.  This has to do with the death of Emperor, Franz Josef of Austria.

“The funeral procession arrived at the monastery of the Capuchin monks, where the members of the Hapsburg dynasty were traditionally buried. The gates of the monastery were locked, as if no one was expected there on that day.

The Royal Master of Ceremonies stepped forward and pounded on the gate with his ornate staff. From within, a monk called out: “Who is that, demanding to be admitted?” The Royal Master of Ceremonies, uniformed and standing at attention, answered loudly and distinctly, stressing each syllable, so that the monk should not misunderstand him:

“This is His Royal, Imperial, and Apostolic Majesty, Franz Josef the First, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, King of the Lombards and Venetians, King of Bohemia, King of Galicia, King of Croatia and Slovenia, King of Jerusalem, Prince of Silesia, Prince of Bukovina, Prince of Styria, Salzburg, Carinthia, Carniola, and Windsnark, Count of Tyrol, and Ruler over Trieste”.

The voice of the unseen monk came back: “We know him not.”

Again, the Royal Master of Ceremonies came forward and knocked on the gate, this time more gently. This time he spoke more quietly, and he announced a more condensed and modest list of the titles of the deceased.  And again, the monk inside answered: “We know him not.”

The third time the Royal Master of Ceremonies came forward and tapped on the door. And this time he said, in a low and humble voice: “A poor, sinful man seeks admittance.”  This time, the monks replied: “We know him,” and they opened the gate.”

This is the story of a different kind of obstacle to growth.  It’s the obstacle of coming to believe our own press, of losing sight of what really defines us:  it’s not a job title, or a bank account figure.  It is our humanness, our acknowledgement of the fact that along with our incredible potential, we also all get it wrong sometimes.

That’s why we have Yom Kippur:  When we come before God on Yom Kippur, we spiritually remove our titles and our resumes and all our other badges, so we can see who we truly are, and recognize the imperfect human beings we are, because like Franz Josef, only then will the gates open for us.  On Yom Kippur, only if we own our imperfections can the gates of growth open for us.

So one story is about thinking too little of ourselves, and one story is about thinking too much of ourselves – it sounds like a contradiction, but not really; it’s just two different ways in which human beings get in their own way, and often within the same human being.  So how do you avoid the one and embrace the other, avoid being too pre-occupied with self, cultivating the ability to think of our selves less, but when we do think of ourselves, to do so understanding the expansive potential we’ve been given. 

We embody this balance perfectly in the Aleinu prayer.  This is something I learned from my father, Rabbi Shamai Kanter, Alav Hashalom.  Part of Aleinu is about body language, and our movements carry important messages.

Aleinu asks us to recognize our smallness with regard to the creator of the universe.  And so we bow in recognition.  V’anachnu korim, umishtachavim u modim, we bend the knee, we bow and we recognize divine transcendence.  And yet when we come to the words lifnei Melech, before the King, we are supposed to return to an upright position.  And that upright position is explained by words of the neilah service that we’ll recite tomorrow. 

Atah hivdalta enosh meirosh, we say.  You have distinguished humanity from the beginning.  Va takireihu la’amod lifanecha.  You have recognized us to stand before you.  God does not want us to cower in the corner.  When we stand, it’s a reminder that God has given us dignity, and has instilled within us incredible capacity and potential.   In the Aleinu, we immediately follow the acknowledgement of our smallness – bowing – with a reminder that God recognizes our largeness – we stand upright.  Frail we are, but also amazing.  We are both, in the same prayer, and in the same human life, and right perspective has to include both.  It is not just one or the other.    

Yom Kippur is about both of those sides.  Yom Kippur asks us to recognize, to really, profoundly understand our limitedness as mortal humans.  At the same time, we are challenged by God and by ourselves to stretch our limits so that we can accomplish what may seem impossible:  the healing of ourselves and the healing of our world.  In the coming year, may we get the balance right, and bring blessing to those around us, and to the world that so needs it.  So may it be.