Rabbi Judith HaLevy’s Yom Kippur sermon: I’m Still Here


Mazel Tov! If you are sitting here in a seat this morning, it means that made it, and YOU ARE STILL HERE! No one can take that for granted, as I am sure that Dr. Ruth, Steve Kivo, and many others in this room who have battled with life threatening illness can tell you. Many of us come into this room mourning loved ones who have passed away this year, and we know that getting here requires not only determination and attention but a certain amount of good luck. Thank God-, as we should, every day.

As you may have noticed, I’m also still here. Last year’s Yom Kippur sermon was to be my final sermon, but…Heneni- Here I am. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I asked the question “Why am I still here?” and I could not fully answer except to say “I think the answer will be revealed during these ten High Holy Days.” It has. I am here because I could not face this High Holiday season without you.

And why are you still here with me? I was completely prepared to hand over these High Holidays to a successor. “Lo Alecha l’gmor, you do not have to complete the task, but neither may you desist from beginning it” was the theme of last year’s Yom Kippur farewell. A search committee went into gear, and I finalized arrangements for my house in Santa Fe. I even had a fantasy of spending the High Holidays as a rabbi on a cruise ship somewhere, perhaps the Caribbean. But as the world whipped itself into frenzy over the last months, I realized that one more time; we needed to ride out the eye of the storm together.

Even at the Gala in late May, I still had hopes for a lightening strike hire of a new rabbi. But the winds of change were already buffeting this community. A week before, our beloved Cantor had lost all of his belongings in a house fire caused by a careless neighbor. He was devastated. It did not seem to be an appropriate time for Cantor Marcelo to forge a relationship with a new rabbi right before the High Holidays. After all, as he often points out, after seventeen years, our relationship is his longest relationship.

Neither was it the best time for me to be visiting Israel as usual.

Every summer, I attend the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem during the first two weeks in July. I did not register, as I planned to be moving to Santa Fe. By early July, the city of Jerusalem was on High Alert. An Israeli policeman had been stabbed in the Old City, and the response was to alter the rules and put metal detectors at the entrances for Arabs onto the Temple Mount. This is not the simple security precaution that it appears to be, but a question of “Who’s in charge here?” challenging a long-standing arrangement with the Jordanians. Tempers over the Temple Mount reached a flashpoint, and the Middle East once again stood on the brink of war. To add to the tension, most of the one hundred and seventy five rabbis attending Hartman were furious because Netanyahu’s government, bowing to ultra-Orthodox pressure, had just cancelled a compromise allowing egalitarian worship at the Southern end of the Western Wall.  This did not seem to be a formula for a relaxing vacation.

By mid July, I realized just how much I needed one more summer of Shabbat on the Beach.

Each Shabbat was spectacular, as the skies changed from tear drop sunsets to a womblike cloud, to a sparkling canopy of stars. Thanks to global warming, we never even used our parkas. I felt your warmth and support as we huddled in a circle, with blessings for healing and infinite versions of Ose Shalom. I do not know if I would be ready to leave now if we had not exchanged so much love and blessing this past summer.

By the time we reached Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, it felt as if the entire world was in total chaos. Tensions with the North Koreans grew as one nuclear missile test followed another in rapid succession. Bigotry and hatred were rampant in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. A week later, much of the American West was on fire, and you know how nervous fire makes us here in Malibu. And then, Hurricane Harvey, a “once in a hundred year” storm, struck Houston, followed a week later by Irma, another monster hurricane that barreled up the Florida peninsula. In the same week, an 8.1 earthquake toppled Oaxaca, and the temblor was felt throughout Mexico. Fires raged close to home in Pasadena. Maria struck Puerto Rico.

And then, I understood why I am still here.

I AM HERE TO SAY ONE LAST “UNETANEH TOKEF” PRAYER TOGETHER WITH YOU. I am here in answer to the question: How can Judaism help in times of trouble? I am here to remind us that we are not the first nor the last people to face crisis, and that the truths revealed in this prayer, written 1000 years ago, continue to guide us.

Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom… Now we declare the sacred power of this day…

Hayom-Today is the day that we stand, together, and acknowledge, as a community, that we are not in control. In this era of flexible, fungible truth, one Truth stands firmly beyond all doubt. Eventually, no matter what, we will face death.

All of humanity is founded on dust, of dust they are made, and to dust they return;

It is not a question of “if”, but “when”. At the end of the day, our lives are not in our own hands. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer reminds us that death is always over our shoulder, and we are ultimately not in control.

On Rosh Hashanah all is written and revealed

And on Yom Kippur the course of every life is sealed.

-How many pass on, how many shall thrive,

who shall live on, and who shall die,

whose death is timely and whose is not.

WHO DIES BY FIRE, AND WHO SHALL BE DROWNED

WHO BY EARTHQUAKE AND WHO BY PLAGUE…    

And there was, right in front of our eyes on National TV.

“But why, Rabbi,”  “Why does one house stand unscathed and the next house is flooded to the rooftops? Why does one person suffer absolute loss and despair while I am safe in my bed in Malibu? Why?

There is a paradox embedded into the liturgy of Yom Kippur. On one hand, it is our deeds that determine our fate.

True it is that you are our judge;

You alone can reprove, you alone can know,

You alone are witness to all deeds… 

ON Rosh Hashanah, ALL IS WRITTEN AND REVEALED

AND ON YOM KIPPUR, THE COURSE OF EVERY LIFE IS SEALED.

The shofar of Rosh Hashanah rouses us to examine our actions. These ten days give us the opportunity to return, correct and make amends, so that we will be judged favorably “by justice’s eyes”. We are to be judged on our merits, and strive to improve.

But there is also a random, chance factor at work. The biblical Yom Kippur ritual, which we read this morning, speaks of two goats, one which carries the sins of the whole community into the wilderness, and one (the lucky goat) who gets to be slaughtered as the Yom Kippur sacrifice. Which goat is which? Literally, it is luck of the draw. Why does one house burn and one does not? Sometimes, it’s random, just plain luck. The rabbis loved the pun of Yom Kippur- and Yom Ki-like-Purim. Purim is the plural for the word PUR, meaning  “lots” or dice, and it was by a roll of the dice that the day of Adar 14 was chosen as the day to annihilate all the Jews. Our Purim victory is celebrated with feasting and parties, “we won, lets eat” with no mention of God.  Yom Kippur is day a day of abstinence and fasting that acknowledges God’s sovereignty and dominion over all. They are two sides to the same coin, and we stand at this moment of Yom Kippur to remember that ultimately the short straw will be ours.

How can we live with this fatalistic premise?

TTTTTTTTT!!!!(Sound shofar) The sound of the shofar, calling us to action, holds the key.

But teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah

Make easier what God may decree,

Make easier what life holds in store,

Make easier facing the world,

Make easier facing ourselves. 

Oh, we already knew that. Rabbi, You repeat that every year, we just heard this on Rosh Hashanah! But I am here, THIS year, one more time, to share these tools with you as never before.

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The essence of the Unetaneh Tokef  prayer provides  our  Emergency Preparedness Kit. When disaster strikes, which we know it will, we ask ”How can tshuvah, tefilah and tzeddakah help me in this situation?” This is not a magic formula.  No words or actions can wipe out the cruel decree of loss and death, but our actions can make “easier what life has in store”. Let’s open the kit one more time, with the images of the past few months before our eyes.  Get ready, as “This is real, and we had better be prepared”

Tshuvah-

The screen on the dashboard in my new car has an arrow that curves and turns around, pointing the other way. That’s our sign for tshuvah, as we literally turn and make the necessary changes. These weeks of category four and five hurricanes hurtling across the Atlantic have put “an inconvenient truth” before our very eyes. Climate change, no matter how much we deny it, is real, and its normal effects are exacerbated by human actions. Of course, we can find the odd study that disagrees, but the force of these hurricanes feeding over rapidly warming waters is strong evidence that human change is needed. We cannot cancel the decree, hurricanes will happen- but we can ameliorate the situation through our actions. We need to turn, and change, before all of our coastal cities are underwater.

Tshuvah means that we must be able admit our mistakes. If we cannot, and “double down”, the situation will be exacerbated until change is no longer possible. Ego is the enemy of tshuvah. as we do not want to be seen in a bad light. On Yom Kippur afternoon, we traditionally read the story of the prophet Jonah, who turned away from God’s instruction to go to Nineveh to offer the sinning citizens a chance of repentance. Jonah had already prophesied their destruction, and did not want to look bad if they repented. When the reluctant prophet Jonah finally delivers God’s message under duress, the King of Nineveh, Israel’s enemy, immediately asks for forgiveness, and changes his ways. But even a sojourn in the belly of the whale does not cure Jonah’s ego as he sulks in a hut outside of the city.  Eventually God loses patience, and the self centered Jonah ends up alone, living under a dead vine.

Tshuvah means not only to repent, and to turn, but also to forgive. I do not know what my “legacy” is, but if I have to choose one line that I have contributed, it is this:

“God made families so we can do tshuvah.”

Everyone, in every family has an issue with someone- a parent, a sibling, a cousin, a branch if the family that we no longer speak with, though we are not quite sure why. Why can’t everyone be just like me? Tshuvah allows me to turn and ask, “What is my part in this situation? When do I need to say, “I’m sorry”, and when do I need to forgive? Families provide us with an opportunity to practice our tshuvah skills at all times. When we forgive, we free not only the offending party, but ourselves. I love this poem by Marge Piercy:

We forgive those we firmly love
because anger hurts…

We forgive because we too have done the same to others…
or because anger is a fire that must be fed
and we are too tired to rise and haul a log

How long are you going to haul that log of resentment around with you? It probably has no place in this year’s paradigm. Tshuvah, the ability to turn, change and forgive, makes the world go round.

T’filah- Prayer

Nestled into the toolkit is a small prayer book. Some prayers are written on paper. Others are written on our hearts.

When a fire or a hurricane strikes, we do not enter into a complicated philosophical dialogue about God and the efficacy of prayer. We pray, we beseech, we give thanks for our very lives. “Please God, send help soon, this water is rising so fast.” “ Please make sure that my mother in Florida, who I can not reach by phone, is protected.”  And then “ Thank you, God,.. Our home is gone, but we are grateful to be alive, and in this shelter…”

The Gospel choir that went from shelter to shelter in Houston, giving people a chance to praise God for their lives, even though their belongings were in tatters, particularly moved me. Song will get us through.

And then, there is liturgy; prayer written long before us that reminds us that we are not the only ones to suffer a storm. “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me”…Modah Ani l’fanecha- I give thanks before you. These words are engraved upon our hearts. In a moment of crisis, they are your protection and salvation.

Tzedakah- Charity and Justice

This tool holds the ultimate key. In a moment that seems difficult beyond belief, “secure your own mask first” but then, reach out and help someone else. Slamming into Texas just a few weeks after the racist debacle of Charlottesville, Hurricane Harvey gave us the opportunity to see the true character of America. Neighbor helped neighbor, and no one in rescue boats asked for immigration papers or established priorities based on the color of one’s skin. It rained on rich and poor alike, as huge houses flooded and hovels were destroyed. Volunteer rescue squads, from the “Cajun Navy” to fleets of private planes from all over the country, made every effort to see that no one was left behind. The veneer of separation was stripped away, and we were reminded, once again, that we are “all in the same boat”. Can we remember once the rain stops falling?

Crisis and disaster are not new to the Jewish people. The seeds of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer were planted after the destruction of the Temple, and legend has it that the prayer became High Holiday liturgy around the year 1000CE in response to the persecution of the Jews in Medieval Europe. Each generation has passed it forward, in response to the exigencies of the times. It has been an honor to serve as your Rabbi for these past twenty-one High Holidays, and I can only hope that the seeds planted here will be passed on to our children’s children’s children.

There is a famous story of Honi HaMagal, a Jewish sage of the First Century:

One day Honi the circle-drawer was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Honi asked: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children.”

Usually, this is where the telling of the story ends. There is, however, another chapter that seems so relevant to this last Yom Kippur sermon.

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him, and he slept for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and Honi asked him, “Are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied: “I am his grand-son.” Thereupon Honi exclaimed: “It is clear that I have slept for seventy years.” Shaking himself awake, he then mounted the great grandchild of his donkey, and returned to his village. There he inquired, “Is the son of Honi still alive?” The people answered him, “His son is no more, but his grandson is still living.” Thereupon he said to them: “I am Honi the Circle-Drawer,” but no one would believe him. He then repaired to the beit ha-midrash [study hall] and there he overheard the scholars say, “The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer”. Whereupon he called out, “It’s me, Honi I am he!” But the scholars would not believe him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed for mercy, and he died.

No, with God’s grace I am not dying, just retiring, and I hope that when I return to visit, you will still recognize me. But the time has come to let the seeds that I have planted be harvested by the next generations, just as I have brought the fruits of my teachers, who came before me, home to you.

I would like to end this, my last sermon, with homage to Leonard Cohen, a great Jewish poet who died this past year. May his words guide our farewell:

I’m not looking for another as I wander in my time
Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me
It’s just the way it changes like the shoreline and the sea
But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie

Your eyes are soft with sorrow
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye

May we all be sealed for another year in the Book of Life.

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