Yom Kippur - Yizkor - 2021/5782
Faith, Hope, Love
One of the books I read this summer was Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Published in 2013, the novel portrays fictional tragic events that occurred in a rural community in Minnesota in the summer of 1961 as told through the eyes of a 13-year old boy. The boy’s father is a minister to three area churches. As events unfold and the tragedies increase, despair and fear take hold in the community. One Sunday morning, after another tragedy hits home, the boy recounts the sermon his father gave in church.
The minister, after acknowledging the utter futility and seemingly hopeless and dire circumstances in which they are living, says the following, “When we feel abandoned, alone and lost, what's left to us? What do I have, what do you have, what do any of us have left except the overpowering temptation to rail against God and to blame Him for the dark night into which He's led us, to blame Him for our misery, to blame Him and cry out against Him for not caring? What’s left to us when that which we love most has been taken?
“I will tell you what’s left, three profound blessings….[F]aith, hope and love. These gifts God has given to us and we have complete control over them. Even in the darkest night it is still within our power to hold to faith. We can still embrace hope. And although we may ourselves feel unloved we can still stand steadfast in our love for others and for God. All this is in our control….In your dark night, I urge you to hold to your faith, to embrace hope, and to bear your love before you like a burning candle, for I promise that it will light your way.”
Though I read a lot, it is rare that I dog-ear a page for future reference. Many books have moved me, but this section of this book moved me deeply. The sermon reflected an honest, pure and faithful response to living in a time of tragedy and upheaval. At those times in life, we feel lost and directionless. We feel we have nowhere to turn and we feel we have lost control. This sermon highlighted for me the need to have something to hold on to. The desperate need we all have to feel as if we are in control.
Just last night, though, I spoke about the power we can feel when we are vulnerable. I said that being vulnerable allows us to handle crises because it makes us more flexible and more resilient. So why am I now suggesting that we still feel the need to be in control?
Because, in a time of crisis - when we live through the death of a loved one, when we see despair and misery and chaos around us - we want to regain balance and control. We can’t tap into our vulnerability without knowing we have something to anchor us. We can’t allow ourselves to recognize our weakness, unless we have a solid foundation.
Imagine, if you will, a flag waving in the wind. As the flag displays the stars and stripes we feel proud and patriotic. The stronger the wind, the more of the flag we see. But if that flag wasn’t clasped tightly to the pole it would just fly away. Without the pole, the flag is just a piece of cloth blowing in the wind. But anchored to the mast, the flag elicits these strong and powerful feelings. The vulnerable cloth transforms into a sacred flag when clasped to the pole.
Like the flag, we need a pole to anchor us. Our anchor as that fictional minister said is faith, hope and love. Or in Jewish terms, Torah, faith and acts of lovingkindness. In Pirkei Avot - the 6-chapter collection of ethical and moral precepts taught by the rabbis - the Rabbis filtered the great rabbinic traditions and teachings down to short, profound statements. They, who lived during Roman persecution and the destruction of the Temple, wanted to give hope to their community. The rabbis included the statement of Simon the Just, the head of the Rabbinic Court - the Sanhedrin - who taught that the world stands on the three pillars of Torah, faith (or worship) and acts of lovingkindness. The rabbis, like the fictional minister, recognize that in our darkest hour, we have to hold on to things that we can have control over, thereby regaining light in our lives. When we are most vulnerable, we need something solid to strengthen us.
Torah - the system of law and values - reminds us that though the outside world may be chaotic, we can choose to live an orderly life. Life may be lawless, but we can choose to abide by the religious standards we have been taught. When we cling to these rules, when we abide by the values we hold dear, then we reclaim order in our lives.
Worship - the faith system of our Jewish tradition - also provides us with a place to turn. It provides us with rituals to perform when we may feel like doing nothing at all. When we feel all is useless and hopeless it may be comforting to recite prayers, it may be comforting to enter the synagogue, it may be comforting to verbalize our thoughts and feelings with the words of the liturgy. These acts, which we may do by rote, have the potential to remind us that there is an outlet for our desperation. When we come to shul we are saying that there is a place of refuge and strength. When we express faith we say that the positive lessons of our tradition can transform our lives and could, one person at a time, transform the world around us.
Torah and worship then are best expressed through acts of love. In a world of hate and fear, we can choose to express love. When we feel as if we have been treated harshly, we can choose to transform that by expressing kindness and compassion to others. It is our choice how to act, it is our choice as to how to behave. Do we give in to the crisis or tragedy at hand, or do we rise above and behave nobly and richly? By doing one act of loving kindness at a time we slowly feel better and we slowly make a difference in the world around us.
In the fictional sermon in the novel, the minister implored his congregation to carry faith, hope and love like a burning candle before them. These religious concepts, Torah, worship and love in our Jewish version, are broad and abundant. There are so many pages of Torah to learn, so many rituals to perform that even the choice to refer to these to make our lives better can be overwhelming. Instead, an image such as light can be easier to embrace. During this high holiday season, twice a day at morning and evening services, we conclude with a psalm. Psalm 27 begins with the phrase - ה׳ אוֹרִ֣י וְ֭יִשְׁעִי מִמִּ֣י אִירָ֑א- God is my light and my salvation, from whom should I fear? Light - the opposite of darkness - provides hope. It provides a way to see, a way to understand that there is a path out of darkness and trouble. Light can represent Torah, represent knowledge, and represent faith, all positive concepts, that transform our lives.
It is no coincidence that Shabbat and holidays begin by lighting candles and Shabbat ends with the lighting of a candle as well. Among the reasons for doing so, is this idea that light represents what it means to be Jewish. By lighting the candle to begin shabbat, we want to affirm and express our hope that God will be with us, that our lives will be filled with the blessings of Torah, and that we can feel love from others and express love to family and friends. And when we light the havdalah candle at the conclusion of shabbat we express the hope that Torah, faith and love will be found in the week ahead. The simple act of lighting a candle encompasses these profound feelings.
And last night before lighting the Yom Kippur holiday candle, many of us may have lit yahrzeit candles too. The light of the 25 hour candle represents the soul of our loved ones and we hope that the concrete act of kindling the flame will remind us of their enduring presence in our lives.
The power of light and its universal metaphor was further brought home to me when, on January 20, I sat in front of my computer screen, mesmerized by a 22 year old woman as she read her poem The Hill We Climb. Just two weeks after the insurrection in the Capitol, our nation proceeded to perform a peaceful transition as President Biden and Vice President Harris took their oaths of office. That remarkable moment in history - the first time a woman of color became vice president - was made even more momentous by the incredible presentation by Amanda Gorman.
Gorman was born and raised in LA with her two siblings by her single mother. She has a speech impediment which she has spent years trying to overcome, even using the song “Aaron Burr Sir”, from Hamilton, to practice. She said, '’if I can keep up with Leslie [Odom, Jr.] in this track, then I am on my way to being able to say this R in a poem.” Gorman graduated cum laude from Harvard University and was the National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017 while still a student.
Despite her challenges, Gorman exuded an air of promise, hope and brightness of being when she read her poem. She was confident and proud and her outfit - her bright yellow coat and her red headband - emphasized the light emanating from her. And the words she shared were truly inspirational.
Her poem began: “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade We've braved the belly of the beast We've learned that quiet isn't always peace And the norms and notions of what just is Isn’t always just-ice And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it Somehow we do it”. Though clearly Gorman was responding to the events that happened two weeks before, the poem also can apply to any sense of crisis, tragedy or loss we endure. The question she asks - “where can we find light in this never-ending shade” is a question we have been asking for the past 18 months during the pandemic. It’s a question we ask when we are sick in bed. It’s a question we ask when we see humanitarian crises around the world. It’s a question we ask when volcanoes erupt, hurricanes strike, earthquakes rumble. It’s a question we ask when we mourn the death of a loved one. It’s a question that gets to the very core of our being - how can we find a reason to wake up tomorrow?
Her poem ended with this call: “When day comes we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
The second part of that verse from psalm 27 reads: ה׳ מָעוֹז־חַ֝יַּ֗י מִמִּ֥י אֶפְחָֽד - God is the source of strength in my life, from whom shall I be afraid.” So the whole verse reads, “God is my light and salvation, from whom shall I fear; God is the source of my strength, from whom shall I be afraid.” The only difference between those two clauses is light and strength. But they are not different at all. The psalmist is saying that light is strength. Light gives us strength, we have to tap into it. Light gives us strength, we have to fully understand what it represents. Light gives us hope, it gives us faith, it gives us love.
May our lights shine in the new year ahead and may we feel the overpowering blessings of light in our lives as well. May we see the strength behind our vulnerability, may we feel that light emanating from us so that together we can light up our world. Amen.