Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Yom Kippur Evening Sermon

 YK Sermon I 2020

Rabbi Charles L. Arian

Kehilat Shalom

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away Erev Rosh Hashanah, once said “so often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be a great good fortune.” She was talking about the fact that when she was fresh out of law school, no major law firm would give a job as a permanent associate to a woman. If she had been hired by one of the firms where she applied, she said in an interview, she probably would have followed the typical career trajectory and ascended up the ladder of corporate law. Instead she turned to academics and legal advocacy, and we all know the rest of the story.

On Rosh Hashanah I briefly discussed what may be one of the most difficult prayers of the High Holiday liturgy, Unetaneh Tokef, which says that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water and who by plague . . . but teshuvah, prayer, and acts of charity and justice can transform the harshness of our destiny.

It seems almost contradictory; if it is written and sealed, how can we do anything about it?

But I believe that this seeming contradiction contains the seeds of a powerful lesson. Accepting that we are not always in control can help us to judge others more favorably. It can also help us to judge ourselves more favorably; and one of the great sources of suffering that I have seen in 34 years as a rabbi, is people being extremely and unfairly critical of themselves as well as of others.

But accepting that certain things are beyond our control could also lead us to passivity. While we need to accept that not everything is within our control, that doesn’t mean that it’s the case that nothing is in our control. While we often don’t control what happens to us, we do have the ability to choose how we respond. 

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, instead of a sermon, I taught a text from Avot D’rabbi Natan about a conversation between Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua as they were gazing on the ruins of the Temple.  The Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and Rabban Yohanan died twenty years later so while we don’t know exactly when this conversation took place, it was no further away from the destruction of the Temple than 9/11 is for us today. A very recent memory, a wound that was still open.

Rabbi Joshua lamented the destruction of the Temple because, in keeping with explicit Torahitic teaching, he believed that only through the Temple rituals of animal sacrifice could Jews gain atonement. But Rabban Yohanan told him not to grieve, that we have another means of atonement which is just as efficacious -- gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness. How does Rabban Yohanan know that this is so? Because it says in Hosea 6:6 -- “I desire hesed and not sacrifices.”

The text doesn’t tell us how Rabbi Joshua responded but he would have been biblically correct to disagree. What gave Rabban Yohanan the right to change the rules? And what gave him the right to bring a quote from Hosea -- in the Bible, sure, but not part of the Torah and thus not legally authoritative -- in order to do so?

In establishing that acts of lovingkindness were spiritually and legally the equivalent of Temple sacrifices, Rabban Yohanan is responsible for the fact that Judaism still exists today. He knew that there was no possibility of rebuilding the Temple; it was he who had been smuggled out of the besieged Jerusalem shortly before the Romans destroyed the Temple and cut a deal with them to establish a yeshiva in Yavne, on the coast. 

Leonard Cohen wrote: 

Ring the bells that still can ring 

Forget your perfect offering 

There is a crack, a crack in everything 

That's how the light gets in. 

Under the leadership of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, our ancestors forgot their perfect offerings sacrificed in the Temple and let the lights in through the cracks to create the Judaism we practice today; rabbis instead of priests, prayer instead of sacrifices, and Torah study and acts of lovingkindness as our holiest actions.

Last year on Yom Kippur in one of my sermons I said the following:

The Hebrew term for a synagogue is “Bet Knesset” which means “House of Assembly.” But when we pray in Hebrew for the welfare of the congregation and its members, we do not use the term “Bet Knesset” but rather “Kehila” or “Kehila Kedosha” -- congregation or holy congregation -- the same word as in the name of our congregation. We are Kehilat Shalom; we are not Beit Knesset Shalom. Our beautiful building is the place we study, the place we pray, the place we gather with each other for friendship and fellowship. But the building is not the congregation; the people are the wonderful congregation we have today.

I did not know then that for six months and more, our building would not even be the place where we study, pray, and gather for friendship and fellowship. Zoom has been that place, as have to a lesser extent the telephone, emails, and text messages. And yet we have not skipped a beat. We have had a minyan and more for every Friday night and Saturday morning service and for all but one or two weekday evening minyans. We had a beautiful Bat Mitzvah which was written up in Bethesda Magazine. We added a weekly Havdalah service and virtual social events. We have had an educational musical performance, cooking lessons, classes and lectures. We had a meeting with the CEO of the Jewish Federation and next month will have a meeting with our Member of Congress. We’ve had a drive-thru kosher barbecue and a pick-up Break Fast and a drive-in Shofar Service. And I participated over Zoom in the Bet Din for a conversion candidate in Iowa City, sponsored by the rabbi there who usually has to bring candidates to Chicago to meet with a Bet Din.

Just like with our pandemic, when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, some Jews believed that it would be rebuilt soon and the old ways of worship would be restored. Rabban Yohanan understood that this was not to be and laid the groundwork for a type of Judaism that no longer depended on a particular building or a particular piece of ground; the Bible became, in the words of the poet Heinrich Heine, our “portable homeland.” While we certainly mourn the loss of lives during the Jewish Revolt against Rome and the loss of independence, few of us, I think, really mourn the fact that we no longer have a Temple where Levitical priests offer animal sacrifices to the Lord.

Jewish sovereignty was not reestablished until 1948 and the Temple has not been rebuilt. We can be pretty confident that we will not have to wait nearly 2000 years until we can once again hold services in the synagogue building without taking unacceptable risks. But social distancing and COVID precautions do not come with an on/off switch. Even under the more relaxed Montgomery County regulations which were announced literally as I was writing this sermon, we would have been able to legally accommodate only about a third of our typical High Holiday attendance today.

In having our services online we discovered that there are a lot of people in our community who have not participated in some of our in-person activities because of various pre pandemic health concerns or because it didn’t make sense to drive half an hour in each direction for a fifteen minute minyan service. We have congregants who suffer from both visible and invisible disabilities and health conditions that make it unlikely that they will feel comfortable at indoor in-person activities until there is a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine. We have had participants join us for services and classes from a number of different states, from the UK and Taiwan and Canada and the Bahamas.

If we treat the six or eight or however many months of COVID precautions as a blip and simply go back to doing everything precisely as we did before, we will leave out many members of our community no matter how we define community. Is it ethical to have services which exclude some congregants? Should we continue to do Zoom services only? A hybrid model with some people at the synagogue and others online? What would that look like?

There are no easy answers to these questions. As we consider all the alternatives and discuss them, it is clear that we will not be able to go back to what we had done before, and our new reality will be deeply uncomfortable for a lot of people -- including, at times, me. But precisely 1950 years ago our ancestors faced a similar crisis as the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the main form of worship that they had was now impossible. They responded creatively with Torah study, acts of lovingkindness, and prayer replacing the Temple service. We too will figure this out and emerge stronger than before.

Ring the bells that still can ring 

Forget your perfect offering 

There is a crack, a crack in everything 

That's how the light gets in. 

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