Yom Kippur 5780: What binds us together

My friend and teacher, Rabbi Shmuel Green, a student of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, once likened Yom Kippur to a piece of rope fastened at each end to two opposing points. Sometimes these connections become severed. However, when we tie the severed pieces together, we find that the two ends end up bound closer together than they originally were. So too is it when connections are severed between individuals. Without doubt, repairing them is serious work for the heart, mind, and soul. We might think that today is all about repairing our severed connections with God. This is somewhat true. However, as we read in the Mishnah, “For transgressions between man and God Yom HaKippurim effects atonement, but for transgressions between an individual and their friend Yom HaKippurim does not effect atonement, until one has made things calm with their friend.” (Yoma 8:9) We can count on our time in synagogue and in reflection today to bring us closer to God. However, bringing us closer to each other will require us to do more. Therefore, we might say that the real work of Yom Kippur, is that of creating and repairing connections between ourselves and those around us.


We do this by examining our relationships. In fact, those who have learned with me know that I tend to think everything is about relationships. Our faith is constantly pushing us to reexamine our relationships with God, with the world, and with each other.  To be sure, the centrality of relationships in my outlook and theology does not mean that I have perfected the art of the relationship myself. I am no expert. In fact, my words this morning were inspired by the realization that I, as I assume many of you have, have taken a fair amount of missteps in my relationships over this past year.


It seems our sages thought this sort of work to be central to the self-examination of the day. In the Talmud Tractate Yoma, which deals with Yom Kippur, we learn that Rabbi Yirmeya sat at the threshold of Rabbi Abba’s house after hurting him. Eventually, Rabbi Abba’s maidservant poured out dirty water from the house and it landed on Rabbi Yirmeya’s head. Only then did he feel as if he was humbled enough to seek forgiveness from Rabbi Abba. Our sage, Rav, sought forgiveness from Rabbi Hanina, whom he had offended, for thirteen years straight in an effort to mend their relationship. Rav Hisda teaches us that we must go through the trouble of assembling three rows of people in order to show enough sincerity as we approach those we’ve hurt to ask for forgiveness. Presumably, a public confession of this sort was meant to prove that we had sufficiently humbled ourselves. (BT Yoma 87a&b)  Our rabbis knew that human interaction is complicated. Not even our most pious sages could navigate their closest relationships unscathed.


If our sages could lower themselves in order to be eligible for forgiveness, how much more so should we be willing to do the same? Even more significant is the notion that God did this as well. We learn in our mystical tradition that God contracted Godself in order to make room for creation and the relationship with humankind. We should be willing to do the same in order to create a world that realizes the potential that lay within each of us.


In our world today, we are short of repentant exemplars.  Everywhere we look, we see individuals digging in their heels and circling their wagons in hopes to preserve their own egos. I have been thinking a lot this season about what sort of effect we might have if we were to do the opposite.


First, we must recognize just how much is at stake in our relationships. Rosh Hashanah provides us with the time and content to reflect upon this. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the narrative from the Book of Genesis that describes our ancestor Sarah giving birth to Isaac. After Isaac began to grow, Sarah witnesses Isaac interacting with Ishmael, the son Abraham’s maidservant Hagar had borne to him. She commands her husband, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (Gen. 21:9) We do not know exactly what Ishmael did to incur Sarah’s wrath. Our commentators only speculate. In fact, it is curious altogether that we read this story on Rosh Hashanah. Our Machzor Lev Shalem comments that:

Although Rosh Hashanah commemorates the anniversary of the creation of the world, the Rabbis did not select the opening passage of Genesis as a reading for the first day; instead, they chose the story of the birth of Issac, focusing on a particular human story rather than the creation of the whole world…The Torah does not present us with an idealized heroic family but rather, offers us a domestic scene with clashing personalities and motives…This ambiguity allows us to consider the complexity of our own motivations and how difficult it is to understand ourselves and others. In any given year we may identify with Abraham or Sarah or Hagar or the children, Ishmael and Isaac; as we change, so may our sympathies with different characters. (Lev Shalem p. 100)

It was only in preparing for this year’s High Holy Days that I encountered an explanation for this Torah reading that truly spoke to my heart. On the anniversary of the creation of the world, we are to consider that, though the Holy One of Blessing may have created the world, our words and deeds have the potential to destroy it, or to recreate it. How we respond is everything.


Rosellen Brown is an American author and an instructor of English and creative writing. Her submission to “Beginning Anew: A woman’s companion to the High Holy Days” edited by Gail Twersky Reimer, and my teacher, Judith Kates, holds an honored place at the very beginning of the compendium. In it, she reimagines the relationship between Hagar, birthmother to Ishmael, and Sarah, birthmother to Isaac.


Rosellen Brown imagines the mix of joy and pain that Sarah must have felt upon Abraham’s family growing through her maidservant. She depicts a gorgeous scene in which Hagar goes to Sarah to console her. Brown wrote, “And Sarai wept that her handmaid should supplant her in the eyes of her husband and become the mother of generations by the hand of the Lord. But Hagar embraced her mistress and swore loyalty to her house, saying, ‘You also shall be as a mother to this child.’” (Beginning Anew p. 32) Can we imagine how powerful this moment could have been for our matriarchs? Could we imagine how significantly different the outcome could have been?


Rosellen Brown does. She imagines the birth of Isaac to Sarah in her old age. She reimagines the scene that, in our text, caused Sarah to send away Hagar and Ishmael to battle heat, hunger, and thirst in the desert. When Sarah perceives a threat to her birth son, Isaac, from Hagar’s birth son, Ishmael, Sarah approaches Hagar and asks why she has done nothing to discipline Ishmael. Hagar responds, “Let him do no thing that is grievous in thy sight. Thou also shall be as a mother to this child. Go thou and reprove him and he shall pay heed to thee as a mother.” In this version, Sarah does just as Hagar suggests. The story continues, “So Sarah spoke words to Ishmael as if he were of her own making, now speaking hard words, now gentle. And in his trust Ishmael became as the Lord had promised, a man who loved goodness and hated injustice.” (Beginning Anew p. 33)


Rosellen Brown goes even farther in imagining how Hagar and Sarah’s relationship may have changed the ending of our story:

Now Hagar and Sarah had seen the love of Isaac and Ishmael and together they rejoiced, but Abraham favored Isaac, who was the seed of Sarah’s fathers and her fathers’ fathers. But Sarah rebuked him saying: “There shall be no peace in our house if thou dividest thy love as a loaf of bread, in unequal portions. Forasmuch as God hath opened our wombs together to thee, neither son shalt thou put above the other. Flesh is flesh and blood blood and the sinew that binds us one to one is nothing but the breath of life.”


And all their days their sons were not divided, but as if under covenant they shared their portion and lived as brothers who stood before but a single mother. And each in time was father to a multitude which lived in harmony according to their wishes, Ishmael and Isaac, the sons of Abraham borne by two stars in the firmament who, in this prayer to what might have been, held them close and loved them equally. (Beginning Anew p. 34)

Each year gives us the aseret yemei teshuvah, these ten days of return between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to reflect upon the Torah we read and the work we began on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. At the root of the word teshuvah is the command to shuv, to come back again and again. This does not mean that we will not make mistakes. This does not mean that we should terrorize ourselves as we replay past interactions repeatedly in our heads. It means that we recognize that we have the power to retell our stories. We have the power to mend a broken cycle. We have the ability to help our current and future selves react differently in less than ideal situations. We have the power to help future generations find peace where it eluded us. We can appreciate the real outcome of Yom Kippur, which is a reconnection that brings us closer together in order that we may move forward.


We have many examples in our tradition of ancestors and sages who internalized and exemplified this. They understood, as in the story of Isaac and Ishmael, that things are never black and white. Rather, our narratives serve as theoretical placeholders. That is to say that they are opportunities to recognize that one individual’s experiences do not necessarily graft onto those of another. This makes the work of building relationships even more precarious, more delicate, and more important. Our tradition is constantly guiding us toward the understanding that we never have the full picture. We never fully realize the potential of what could be. We must always take a step back and imagine not just alternate, but better, holier, outcomes. Or, as we say each time we find ourselves standing in front of an open Aron Kodesh reflecting upon the Torah we have just read, “Hadesh Yameinu K’kedem.” “God, renew our days, not so that we can go back to the way things were, but rather that we may move forward.”


Our Torah wants us to move forward. Our narrative wants to be seen through a wide angle lens. As an example, we can go back to the very beginning of the Torah and notice that God gave us two differing, but compatible, accounts of creation. Genesis 1:1 focuses on God’s ordering of the chaos so that we can inhabit the universe. Genesis 2 sets a scene in the Garden of Eden and invites us to get to know our first characters, Adam and Eve. Reading the first chapter might lead us to believe that God created the world for God’s sake. Chapter 2 reminds us that we have a part in the story. If we were to focus on one or the other, we would be missing something. Another way of saying this is that if we were only to focus on God, and not one another, we would be missing something.


Interestingly, Both narratives use a narrative tool called the hendiadys, which uses two words linked by the conjunction “and” in order to communicate the whole they encompass. Again and again in both versions of the story, we read that God created shamayim v’aretz, a hendiadys referring to the entirety of creation. We can look at the heavens and the earth separately, but we would always be missing a significant part of the picture. Likewise, in the Book of Joshua, we are told to meditate upon the Torah, “Yomam va’layla,” day and night. Without either side of the equation, we would be missing the command to study Torah all the time. Without both sides of the story, we are missing half of the story. If we are not going to focus on each other all the time, we must recognize that there are pieces to each other’s stories that we cannot know. Therefore, we have to make room for one another.


We can also be reminded of this as we heed our sages, who gave us the imperative to focus on the keva, the fixed liturgy, the facts of faith, as well as the kavanah, the intention with which we approach our prayer, our service of the heart. The Rabbis obligated each and every one of us to pray, but also told us that to do so without inserting our own private supplications was to ignore a huge part of the narrative. Our tradition provides a model for a multi-valenced approach to our relationships. It bids that we do not retreat fully into the words of others, nor fully into ourselves. This is how knots are tied. We take a bit of one side and a bit of the other in order to join them together into a whole.


The famous singer, songwriter, and teacher, Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, once relayed the following Midrash. She taught that the Shechinah, God’s presence here on earth, typically dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem. However, as our prophets went out to warn us of the potential destruction of the Temple, for which our behavior was paving the way, they were rejected by us time after time. Each time the prophets were rejected, the Shechinah, God’s presence, withdrew further into the walls of the Temple. Finally, she made it to the Kodesh Kodeshim, the Holy of Holies, at which point she had nowhere else to dwell when the Temple was destroyed. After sharing this midrash, Debbie Friedman wrote, “As we build more walls for self-protection, there are fewer places for our souls to emerge.” (In Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life p. 178) Just as God’s presence seems to implode within the Holy of Holies, so too will our souls if we are not open to seeing our souls’ reflection in others.


Borei Shamayim va’aretz, Creator of Heaven and Earth, as you opened Hagar’s eyes at the well where God sees, when she found herself and Ishmael near to dying of thirst, open our eyes to the opportunity provided by the blank slate of today and each day. May we see opportunities for building relationships, renewing connections, and helping others to be seen and heard. Eternal God of connection, who gives us Yom Kippur to tie together our own broken strands, bring us closer to one another, so that we may come closer to you. And we say, “AMEN.”


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