Yom Kippur 5779
We celebrate a tradition that encourages us to become masters of fine souls while we stitch our broken pieces back together.
When the news broke that Leonard Cohen passed in November 2016, he had already been flown back from Los Angeles to Montreal, his childhood home, and buried according to traditional Jewish rites. There was no doubt that this musician, philosopher and poet had a very Jewish soul. His family belonged to the shul in Montreal. He belonged to the shul. And while he may have practiced Buddhism and eschewed a traditionally observant life, he was brought home when he passed and buried with his family, with his people. His gift to the world - his music and his poetry - now perpetually resonate with the minor chord, the Jewish chord.
Listen to the lyrics of “Who by Fire” - a soulful interpretation of the U'netaneh Tokef prayer we recite during these holy days:
And who by fire, who by water, Who in the sunshine, who in the night time, Who by high ordeal, who by common trial, Who in your merry merry month of may, Who by very slow decay, And who shall I say is calling? ... And who by brave assent, who by accident, Who in solitude, who in this mirror, Who by his lady's command, who by his own hand, Who in mortal chains, who in power, And who shall I say is calling?
These are words that expand the prayer of the holiday. We shudder from their power and the uncertainty that descends upon us throughout these holy days. They're midrash, interpretations of the traditional text. And through them the fragilities of our souls are revealed.
Or, take his words from his Book of Mercy - a Book in 50 chapters to be read each day during the 50 days between Pesach and Shavuot we call Sefirat HaOmer. “Blessed be the covenant of love between what is hidden and what is revealed... blessed is the covenant of love, the covenant of mercy, useless light behind terror, deathless song in the house of night.”
Leonard Cohen is perhaps most famous for his Halleluyah song. You know you have a hit when you find yourself as I once did in a small house in Be'er Sheva, Israel, listening to a young girl from Kazakstan singing it for a group of rabbis. She hoped to make it as Israel's next music star. We were in awe.
He doesn't make it onto the most popular lists, perhaps because his style was, say, melancholy. Melancholy, dramatic, depressed. It's simply not in my key. I imagine it doesn't resonate with many of you either (except for those I know who are big fans of his music and poetry. To you, I give my apology for misunderstanding)
But the lyrics speak to my soul - they're speaking to our souls. It's where we find the beautiful words from another song of Cohen's, entitled “Anthem:”
Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That's how the light gets in
Beautiful. Hauntingly ambivalent.
There's a crack in everything. It's so easy to say this and even think it. But to live it? To practice it? I think not. I buy things on Amazon all the time. And if they don't arrive just right? There's free shipping to return the item and a credit to buy another. Recently, we ordered a whole bunch of M&M's online. It was delivered to us melted in the box and not in our hands. They told us to throw it away, a refund would be given. Plenty of cracks. And plenty of light.
Look at what we've created. A world in which the brokenness is quickly repaired with a stamp and a click. Admittedly, this convenience is for the stuff in our lives. But it permeates our attitude toward everything around us. There's no real feeling of disappointment, because the healing begins before the pain sets in. There's no need to feel pain, because a replacement is on its way, even overnight, as long as you can afford the extra shipping costs.
It is the consequence of our non-stop world. Pick up the pieces, or return them, or simply throw them away. There's no time for brokenness. We're rushing to a blissful end, the closer and more convenient to us the better. And the most clever among us know that a quick fix will set us straight before the sting of pain is even really felt. It's a race to make it, and a shame if you aren't strong enough.
This is, of course, only partially true. Walk up and down the halls of a hospital and see the faces of patients contorted with the maladies of existence - failing organs, cancerous cells, struggles to breathe. Sit with someone who is truly in pain and you begin to see the wisdom of Leonard Cohen. “There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.”
As Jews, we rehearse and imagine what we do with the cracks in everything. It happens at the Seder table when we take the whole Matzah and split it into two pieces - a crack in what was once whole, not to eat, but to symbolize the stories of brokenness we can quickly forget, in every generation. The cracks are not the same, there is no way to perfectly split the piece of Matzah like was done once before, or thousands of years before. Each split is unique, reminding us that cracks in the world are not like any other. One slave, one victim, one tormented soul is an affliction upon us all. What strange and impossible odds to care that much?
We place the larger half back into the pile of matzot, never to be fully enjoyed. And the smaller half? We hide for children and grandchildren to discover and ransom for a sweet treat. The cracks are there, even in the holiest times of our lives, reminding us that being broken isn't a failure of existence, but a gift that lures us into growth, into realizing our potential.
Take the wedding ceremony, when loving couples stand under a huppah and shatter a glass to signify the end of the perfect union they've now created. We wait for the sound, like a cannon blast, as if the end of speaking about love is complete, and now the couple can emerge forth into their ‘happily ever after.' The shattered pieces of glass are never exactly the same as any other glass. For generations, Jewish couples have broken the glass. It has become tradition. One into many.
The shattered glass is a reminder that the words spoken in the home when the last thank you note for the last gift is written can be whole between loving friends. Or, the words of critique and judgment can shatter into an irreparable number of pieces. Each stomp of the glass is unique. The shattered glass is a reminder that joy is incomplete without a little brokenness. ‘There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.'
There's a Japanese form of art called Kintsugi or Kintsukori, in which one takes the cracks from a cherished piece of pottery and seals them with gold. It has become a work of art all on its own. There are even those who intentionally smash their own pottery in order to have them repaired in this way.
The cracks have become a form of art. “That's how the light gets in.”
We're familiar with the Hasidic story of the crack in the diamond. A king has a treasured gem that sustains a crack through its center. Artists come one after another trying to somehow restore the gem, even suggesting that it be broken into smaller pieces to retain its collective value. One artist emerges and doesn't change the gem at all. Instead the artist etches a beautiful stem from the crack and a multi-petaled rose on the top of the gem.
Both the Japanese art and the rabbinic story have a more powerful message than the repair. That which is broken is beautiful to start. Can we see ourselves in this way as well? “There's nothing so whole as a broken heart,” proclaimed the rabbinic master, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk.
How often do our cracks reveal the blemishes, the tarnish, the imperfections of our souls? How often do we rush to plaster over the cracks, jagged in their own unique way, to preserve what was once pristine, once perfect? We believe, for our own comfort and protection, that the cracks can be fixed. Embarrassment is a crack in our self-esteem, and no amount of plaster, dusted with gold or silver, can cover that up.
There is a midrash about the great leader Moshe. When the Israelites leave Egypt and journey toward the Land of Israel, one of the regional kings sends his wise men, practiced in physiognomy, to capture Moshe's visage and interpret his character for the king. When the wise men return they explain that in Moshe's face they found vanity, avarice, gluttony, and immorality.
When the king goes out to meet the people Israel, maybe prepared for war, the king meets Moshe in person. Upon hearing the report of the wise men who reported to the king, Moshe responded, “What your wise men said of me is true...all those traits which they described are indeed part of my biologic makeup. Yes, my body has all those base impulses, but I have overcome them and channelled their energies into other directions. (Qtd. in Let us Make Man, Twersky, 1991, p.77)
All the pieces that make up who we are can be beautiful and ugly. The breaks open us up to make room for the beauty that lies within. This is the journey of mastery of our souls.
The pottery, the gem, your soul, is beautiful to start. It's worthy of repair. On Yom Kippur, we are the Japanese artists, we are the fabled servant of the king who finds the beauty within, who takes the cracks and creates a masterpiece of a life of wisdom, a life in which the concerns are not for how to restore that which was once whole, but to shape the brokenness into something more beautiful than what was there before.
It's certainly easier to speak of what is broken, than to speak of what can be made whole. How many times in the past year, did you throw your hands up in despair and proclaim, “It is what it is.” How many times in the past year did you furrow your brow and dig deeply into the recesses of your soul to protect yourself from the appearance of critique, of shame, for all that you weren't, for all the imperfections that you could not successfully plaster over?
Yom Kippur isn't a day of stickers and glue. Yom Kippur is a day of soul artistry.
Imagine yourself as the artist with the broken pieces of a treasured family heirloom. Today is the day we gather, and before we hunt for the return label to ship our souls off to some warehouse in Memphis, Tennessee to await a shiny new one it its place, we have the rosin and the gold dusted powder, and the chisel and paintbrush to begin re-creating our souls.
There are three pieces we can focus on repairing over this day:
First, the personal cracks - Who am I? We are invited to enter a story of a man of Chelm. When visiting a public bath, he found himself in a terrible predicament. Without clothes, everyone looked essentially alike. He said to himself, “Among all these men who look alike, how will I know which one is me?” So, he devised a plan in which he tied a red string around his big toe so he could distinguish himself from the others. While washing and bathing himself, the string slipped off. Unbeknownst to him the string somehow slipped onto another man entering the bath. When the man noticed the red string on the other man's toe, he asked, “Pardon me sir, I hope you can help. It is very clear to me who you are. But can you tell me who am I?” (Qtd. In Let Us Make Man, Twersky, 1991, pp.43-4)
We are given permission and command to explore the parts of us that were not the best reflections of our soul this year. Words we spoke, judgments we made hastily, silence when we should have spoken. Reflection upon these cracks gives us the contours of our soul healing.
Second. The book of Proverbs teaches, “Do not criticize a fool, for he will hate you. Criticize a wise person and he will love you. (Proverbs 9:8). Looking at the broken pieces of our connections, between family and friends requires careful and caring discernment. There are times to speak and times to listen. And the time is not always right to speak. Proverbs would have it that the people who need to hear that you have been hurt by them may not be capable of listening. Or, perhaps it is we who must listen even more carefully to our souls, to smooth the jagged edges and to refine our speech so that others can hear it in wisdom. Maybe it was an argument over how to care for an ailing parent, or maybe it was a fight over the correct routes to avoid traffic. Large and small, Proverbs reminds us when and to whom we should speak. Reflection upon these cracks affirm our morality and our obligations to sustain a healthy community. (Twersky, p.96)
Third. Let us listen to the prophetic voice. Over this day, the voices of Isaiah, Jonah, Micah, and Hoshea will resonate through our liturgy. What we can learn by listening to their voices is this, also said by Rabbi Abraham Twersky, “The moral rightness or wrongness of an act must be judged by what preceded it, not by what follows it.” (Twersky, p.89) Today reflection begins not for a world as it ought to be, but to take note of the world as it has been created by us. Personal lives, communal lives and beyond are as much a consequence of our actions as they are forces that we are subject to. Reflection on the pieces of our souls that bolster our confidence that we do indeed matter, that our choices and actions do indeed make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others is the artistry of Yom Kippur.
All of this is why we recite no less than 5 times throughout the day the words of Selicha, petitions for forgiveness. Selicha is the resin we use to bind the soul back together.
The act of repair is incomplete once the last of the shattered pieces is expertly replaced. Gems and pots are restored for their use. We, too, come to restore our souls here. Today, don't let the world of brokenness be swiftly swept under a rug, or invite distractions of the more compelling and entertaining flaws of everyone and everything else. Today we take the shattered pieces and let the light shine through them.
May this day and the year to come radiate with the light of whole bodies and minds, whole hearts. It's what we need the most of right now. G'mar Chatimah Tovah.