November 21, 2018

Exhaling a little holiness

Yom Kippur sermon delivered after Kol Nidre at Chabad at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

We live in a world where we are flooded with images—images on billboards, on our smart phones, on Youtube videos– and yet, in this visually-obsessed world, what is the Jewish religion about?

It’s all about words.

There are no images in this prayer book—it’s all words.

On an average Shabbat morning, we read about 40,000 words.

Over the next 24 hours we will read about 120,000 words.

Tonight, we just read about 10,000 words.

The most important of those words were Kol Nidre—and what is Kol Nidre about?

It’s about words– the words we use when we make vows and promises.

We are a people of words… millions and millions of words—words of Talmud, of mysticism, of philosophy, of laws, of ethics, of literature, of poetry, of prayer.

How are we supposed to ferret out those precious few words of wisdom that we need… from these millions of words?

How can we swim in this ocean of words without drowning in them?

We are already drowning in the words of our everyday lives.

And I don’t just mean the 100,000 amazing words we share with you every week in the Jewish Journal.

I also mean the millions of words on Twitter and Facebook and cable television and everywhere else we turn to get the news or be entertained.

I don’t have to tell you that in this election year especially, it’s been a banner year for ugly words.

But there is one category of words I want to focus on tonight.

These are not the words of the media…but the words we use in our own lives.

The words we use when we speak to our spouse, our parents, our children, our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues, our employees.

These are the words that so often define us—and they also happen to be the only words we can control.

But how carefully do we choose those words? Are we as careful choosing them as we are choosing a new car or a new smart phone?

When we talk about rectifying our sins of the past year, are we not talking about the words that we used?

In his book, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote:

“Think about your own life… chances are the worst pains you have suffered in life have come from words used cruelly—from ego-destroying criticism, excessive anger, sarcasm, public and private humiliation, hurtful nicknames, betrayal of secrets, rumors and malicious gossip.”

Rabbi Telushkin is reminding us that words– simple words– can be so hurtful.  

The Hebrew word for speaking, Davar, shares the same root letters as Dever, or pestilence, which is one of the ten plagues.

Think about that: The act of forming words can also be an act of devastation. As our society has become more and more sophisticated, it seems as if words have become our favorite weapons.

So, my talk tonight is really about the power of words… to hurt or to heal.

But specifically for this holy night, I’d like to explore how the power of words connects to the power of Yom Kippur.

I’m interested in whether there’s something special, something unique about Yom Kippur that can assist us in this great, difficult endeavor of choosing the right words to live by.

And believe me, I’m also part of the audience—I need assistance as much as anyone.

So, how can this Holy Day of Atonement help us choose words that will uplift our lives– words that we will cherish rather than regret?

My rabbi Manis Friedman, who wrote the book, Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore? once gave a class at my house on the quiet voice of our souls.

For Rabbi Friedman, our soul is not this mysterious, abstract force that we can never comprehend.

Our soul is something real, it has a mind of its own– it has a genuine voice.

This voice represents our inner conscience, our inner Godliness.

Precisely because it represents our inner Godliness, the soul, instinctively, knows the words that are right and those that are wrong.

In one of his many examples, the rabbi would say: Just when we’re about to lose our cool and get angry with someone we love, just when we run the risk of causing irreparable harm to a relationship we treasure—at that very moment, our soul is there, it is present, it is ready to guide us with the wisdom of our inner Godliness.

More than that, it is actually speaking to us, quietly and calmly telling us to take a deep breath and remember how much we love that person we’re about to get angry with– telling us that there’s another way, a kinder way.

But, as Rabbi Friedman would say, it is so hard to listen to our soul… because our busy minds make so much noise.

He called it the noise of being right.

We have become experts at cultivating and consuming this noise.

We consume it in the media, when we only watch or read the views we agree with.

We consume it in our own lives, when we only associate with like-minded people.

After a while, we become so sure of ourselves, is it any wonder we lose our cool with anyone who disagrees with us about anything?

So, it turns out we’re not just swimming in an ocean of words, we’re also swimming in an ocean of words that make us believe…we’re always right.

And it is this loud certainty that prevents us from listening to our quiet souls– to our inner Godliness.

Yom Kippur is the day when our souls can make a comeback.

It is the day we stop consuming.

We don’t eat, we don’t drink, we don’t watch the news, we don’t check our Twitter feeds.

We stand alone with God.

It is our moment of truth, when we can turn our noisy minds off…and turn our quiet souls on.

Being weak from hunger and thirst, we are less hyper, more attentive to essential things.

We can better listen to what really matters. 

If we listen well to the speech of our souls, it becomes that essential voice that can guide us in our everyday lives.

This is a voice of reason— like the voice of our great sage Hillel, whose disciples– the Talmud says– were gentle and modest.

It’s a voice of kindness that cares for the stranger, like the voice of Abraham, who told God to wait while he cared for God’s children.

In my case, it’s also the voice of my mother, who would feed Arab children as well as her own when we would go on pilgrimages at the graves of holy men in Morocco.

It’s a voice of empathy, like the voice of a therapist who hears our angst… without judging us.

It’s a voice of honesty, a voice that lives up to its vows and promises.

It’s a voice of love, like the voice of Moshe Rabbeinu, who put the needs of his people ahead of his own.

It’s a voice of openness, a voice that can listen to those with other views without allowing those views to tear us apart.

And it’s a voice that carries words of silence…because our soul knows that, all too often, the wisest thing we can do with those we love is to say nothing… and just listen.

There is something odd in the Biblical story of the Jewish people. At every great event in our epic story, the shofar is blown.. except at one event, arguably the greatest event—when God created man.

How did God create man? The Torah says, “He blew into his nostrils the breath of life.”

At that moment, no shofar was blown.

A friend of mine once commented: Maybe God’s breath turned us all… into human shofars.

Maybe we are living, walking shofars blessed with the Divine breath of life, and it is up to us to exhale a little holiness when we speak.

Think of the sound of a shofar.

It is a humble sound, a sound that awakens rather than intimidates, a sound that reaches so deeply inside of us we might even say… it is the sound of our souls.

This humble sound is also the sound of Yom Kippur, a day when we quiet down up and take a lot of deep breaths.

In the Targum, the “breath of life” is associated with the “gift of speech.”

In other words, speech equals life, and life equals speech.

With our speech, we have the power to add life, and the power to diminish it.

We can shame, or we can honor.

We can yell, or we can whisper.

We can put down, or we can elevate.

We can bring pestilence, or we can bring blessings.

We can hurt, or we can heal.

This hope for healing is the great promise of Yom Kippur.

God has given us this whole day to listen to our souls, to harness its wisdom, to internalize its vocabulary– so that we become His living, human shofars.

As human shofars, we can then contribute to the great symphony of the Jewish people by blowing the breaths of love and decency.

May we all be blessed in the coming year with an abundance of words that will heal and elevate our community.

May we be blessed with the wisdom of our souls to always find the right words to live by.

So that when we gather here next year for Kol Nidre, we will cherish our words rather than regret them… and we will have fewer reasons to ask for forgiveness.

Have a meaningful fast.