Yom Kippur Sermon 5781 – Building Anew

I was going to give this sermon on Rosh Hashana day, when our theme was Dismantling and Building Anew, but between all the challenges with technology and timing, I didn’t share it then.  I want to share it tonight. 

The last community-wide program we ran at the DJC before we went into Covid lockdown was Purim – ironically, the holiday in which we turn to face impending disaster and then celebrate a world turned upside down.  Little did we know how profoundly our lives and our world would be dismantled, destabilized and upended! 

It was shortly after that, that we, like every other community and organization, pivoted quickly to put our services and programs on line. It was a quick shot up the Zoom growth curve – figuring out how to hold a Seder on line with a powerpoint Haggadah, how to put people into breakout rooms for learning sessions, and I’ve been expanding my shruti box repertoire (that’s the South Asian accordion-like drone instrument you’ve heard me play) so that I can sing and accompany myself as part of prayer. I’m not conveniently married to a skilled guitar player, like some cantors I know.

In the midst of this transition, one of the challenges we had to solve was how to take the 2 group bnei mitzvah classes, 20 students in all, and celebrate this lifecycle milestone on line, with the students somehow chanting Torah, leading parts of the service and being welcomed into Jewish adulthood by the wide embrace of the DJC community and the Jewish people. The bnei mitzvah services were scheduled for the end of May and early June. At the end of March, when it was clear that we would not be able to gather in person, we held a meeting with the parents, on Zoom of course, to discern how to proceed.

What emerged from that conversation had little to do with the technical solutions of how to put the service on line. Instead, the parents grappled with conflicting values, articulated losses and hopes, and navigated through the limitations and possibilities in this new reality.  

Do we postpone the simcha, in the hope that grandparents will be able hand the tallit to their grandchildren or do we engage in this ritual now, as a source of grounding and connection to ancestors, precisely when we can’t be with one another?  At a coming of age ritual when standing in the presence of Jewish community is essential, not only before family and friends, do we postpone to a time when we can be a physical community again, or do we redefine community as virtual and find other ways for young people and DJC members to build connection with one another? Do we try to postpone grief for what we are losing, or do we make a decision not to postpone joy, even as the joy is simultaneous with the loss?

This weighing of values and intentions, limits and opportunities, of course, is not only about a bnei mitzvah celebration. This process is needed for every aspect of our unsettled lives and dismantled world. On Erev,the first night of Rosh Hashana, I spoke about loss, about the grieving that is essential to moving through the experience of all that is coming apart through this pandemic. Tonight, I want to explore how we discern what we need to let go of, what we need to lift up, and what tools we need within this time of pandemic to build the world anew.

While Greek mythology has the image of the great Phoenix rising from the ashes, and Buddhism has the beautiful white lotus flower rising out of the mud, one of Judaism’s great images of this kind of transformation into new life, is of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, very-much-alive, being carried out of Jerusalem in a coffin.  No blossoming flower, no butterfly breaking out of its cocoon.  We have a coffin. 

Early in the first century, as Roman conquest and cultural hegemony spread into the Land of Israel, the Romans placed Jerusalem under siege.  The Jewish extremist group, the Biryoni, blocked all Jews from surrendering to the Romans or attempting to flee, forcing them to fight against the Romans and block their access to the holy Temple.  

Yochanan ben Zakkai was not a Biryoni.  He was a leader of the Pharisees, the group of Sages devoted to the study and interpretation of Torah.  He understood that at this point, waging war against the Romans would lead to certain death – an end to the Jewish people and to Judaism itself.   He saw that the Temple, the very epicentre of Jewish practice and nationhood was sure to be destroyed.  There could be no victory over the Romans, no reclaiming sovereignty, no going back to the way things were.

So he had his students spread a rumour that he had become very ill and died.  His students carried him in a coffin, past the Biryoni guards and out of the city.  The coffin is an apt and evocative image.  What they were facing was not a transition through modest tinkering or gentle flowering.  It wasn’t then and it isn’t now.  This really is a dying, relinquishing the life you knew – willingly or unwillingly –  and trusting that a next incarnation will only come into being once you enter the dark unknowing.  And so, still in the coffin, his students brought Ben Zakkai to Vespasian, the Roman general and they made a deal.  Ben Zakkai and his followers would give up Jerusalem and the Temple on 3 conditions: 

1) He asked for Yavneh and its Sages – Yavneh, the town in northern Israel where he would set up his academy and a new centre of Jewish life; 

2) protection for Rabban Gamliel and his family, – Gamliel being the head of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court of law, so that it would be transplanted from Jerusalem to Yavneh; and 

3) a physician to treat Rabbi Tzadok, who had fasted for 40 years to stave off the destruction of Jerusalem.

As we unpack each of the elements Ben Zakkai requested in order to build something new, let’s notice how they can serve as a roadmap for the new life, and the new Jewish life, we might build during this pandemic and beyond it.  

First, Yavneh and its Sages – When we are in the midst of crisis and all the uncertainty that crisis brings with it, it’s hard to know what to let go of and when.  As the great sage Reb Rogers once said, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”  Ben Zakkai was running from Jerusalem.  And without the Temple, its priests and sacrifices, Judaism would have to be totally reimagined.  

As a city, Jerusalem was layered with a history of ancestors, kings and prophets.  It’s very stones reverberated with direct Divine presence.  Yavneh was nothing special.  Choosing Yavneh was a choice to invest a place with meaning, not because of what had already happened there, but because of what was being created and innovated there.  Like building a shul 24 years ago in Riverdale, or like this virtual space we are in, any place can become Yavneh with the right tools for generating shared purpose and practice and growing creativity. 

The creativity of Yavneh was embodied in the Sages.  When you are building a new civilization out of the rubble, make sure you invite a robust team to figure it out with you – in debate, discussion, experiments in creative ritual, collective minds working together! No one can create a revolution on their own.  

The Sages were committed to creating this new Judaism that would be continuous with its ancient roots, drawing deeply on its teachings and its values, responding the the crisis and tragedy they were still reeling from, while they invented something unrecognizable to the Jews just a generation earlier.  

Replacing Temple rituals, they developed study, prayer and chesed, acts of justice and care, as the new foundation of Jewish life, portable anywhere, accessible to everyone.  Festivals and Shabbat moved around our dining tables as substitutes for altars.  They redefined their understanding of God, with the clarity that the Divine is not a Being who needs a house, but that God’s presence lives through our words, our actions and through community.  

They identified central values and inner qualities to cultivate and act on – chochmah/wisdom, nedivut/generosity, savlanut/patience, achrayut/responsibility, kavod/respect for elders and teachers, gemilut chasadim/care for the vulnerable and all life.  The mitzvot shifted from being the behaviours shared by a tribe, to the technology for living these values every day and fostering these inner qualities.    

The Sages claimed, this is a doozie, that every innovation they introduced, and any future innovating, was already revealed by God to Moses at Mount Sinai – audacious!  Brilliant!  They weren’t innovating, they were simply bringing Divine truths into the light. This not only gave them tremendous freedom to imagine how the Jewish people would offer gratitude, repent, celebrate and be close to the Divine without a Temple, but they forged the tools for all future generations, including our own, to renew and redefine how we serve the Divine purpose, the world and each other as Jewish community.  

Whether they realized it or not, the bnei mitzvah parents stepped into the circle of Sages as they discerned what to build and how.  Now we, I mean each and every one of you, along with me and other teachers, ancient and contemporary, have to become Sages for the next incarnation of Jewish life and how we live it at the DJC.  

What should Jewish spiritual practice look like when we need it to nurture in us the fortitude, moral courage, the wide and sensitive awareness and the resilience to respond fully and wisely to these times? What should substantive learning and the growth of wisdom entail? What new life experiences do we need to create rituals for – a blessing for the technology of Zoom; a new ritual for being with mourners in an on-line shiva?  

What new significance can there be in touching the mezuzah on the doorpost as you leave the safety and isolation of your home, put on your mask and step into the streets?  And in a time when we need to know each other more deeply, and need to show up for each other more regularly and with greater presence, how will we create community when we can’t physically be together? 

 2) Protection for Rabban Gamliel – This meant protecting the institution of the Jewish legislative body.  This is a powerful values-based choice – they let the institution of the priesthood fall apart but they protected the system of law, the means to settle conflict and to build justice.  We may not know what it is we need to create, but like the Sanhedrin we will want to elevate values and principles that will guide the way.

We know that this pandemic is causing disproportionate suffering among the elderly, among People of Colour and people living in poverty.  How can we take hold of the authority of the Sanhedrin to strengthen our communal voice and our collective agency for antiracism?For climate justice? For marking Shabbat as a moral commitment to pause from the capitalist engine of producing, consuming and always wanting more, built on the backs of those who have less?  Rather than leaving our justice actions to the Social Justice committee, how does the institution of the Sanhedrin, in its leadership and centrality serve as a model for us?

Rabban Gamliel was also from the line of King David.  This is the messianic line, heralding Olam habbah – the world to come.  Mystical tradition understands olam habah not as an afterlife or endtime in the distant future, but as the liberated world that is coming, unfolding in this very moment. We can live in that state of redemptive evolution right now, as we mobilize in the present toward a world that is just and equitable, compassionate and humane. This is what holiness looks like.  This is an essential orientation for what we are building.

3) And finally – a physician to treat Rabbi Tzadok, who had fasted for 40 years to stave off the destruction of Jerusalem. On Erev (the evening of) Rosh Hashana I spoke about the need to grieve what we have lost and continue to lose, expanding our awareness to see the grieving of others, to feel the grief we are all part of.  The partner to grieving together is healing together.  Rabbi Tzadok embodies all the hopes that were not fulfilled, the ways he put his life on the line to try to hold on to what was being lost, but it was unsuccessful.  There can’t be a moving forward that doesn’t lovingly attend to one another’s the wounds. 

Marcus Buckingham said, “Many of us feel stress and get overwhelmed not because we’re taking on too much, but because we’re taking on too little of what really strengthens us. These are the tools I want to call on us to pick up, to equip us for the work ahead -Yavneh and it’s Sages, the court of Rabban Gamliel and the physician for Rabbi Tzadok.

The moral and spiritual call of this time demands deep roots in the wisdom that came before us alongside radical creativity from within this destabilizing, dismantling reality. There are possibilities that are uniquely available because our current structures are not working, because we are seeing where inequities lie, because creativity and innovation open up when we cannot function in our accustomed ways.  There is no going back to the way things were.  I want to ask each and every one of you to participate in building what Jewish community and Jewish life become, so together we can build olam haba, the liberated world that is coming, with wisdom, justice, deep community and healing.

Shana tova.