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Erev Yom Kippur 2017/5778

10/20/2017 01:17:03 PM


Rabbi Jill Perlman

So I just spoke to you.

Right there, in front of the open ark.

We called out your name.

We called out Avinu Malkeinu, Our Parent, Our Sovereign, shma koleinu – hear our voice. We called out Avinu Malkeinu, halt the onslaught of violence and the reign of those who cause pain. We called out Avinu Malkeinu, have compassion on us and on our children.

Do you hear us?

In this tenuous time when the world feels broken and upside-down, we call out your name.

Do you hear us?

When yet another hurricane forms in the sea, when the local school gets evacuated for a bomb threat yet again, when the cancer is growing rather than shrinking, we call out your name.

And I keep asking: Do you hear us? Do you hear us? But maybe the question we should be asking instead is: Are we hearing you?

Avinu Malkeinu, we are open to hearing you …or at least I think we are. I think that I am ready to hear you, to respond to you. But if I am honest, on most days we are probably only as open to you as the speaker in Pastor Wilbur Rees’ poem who says:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine…
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

Yes, we want the ecstasy and the warmth of the womb and the comfort of you, God, but will we take all of you? Will we take the transformation that these days require of us, too? The discomfort of a new birth?

God, we know you by different names and by different experiences. For some, you are the still, small voice, our moral compass. For others, you are the big, booming voice that is judgment. Some struggle to know you, but can’t – at least not yet. And for others, you are a big, beautiful idea and that is where you end.

And what are you to me?

As someone who for too long felt like she didn’t really belong anywhere, I guess I’ve always felt like I belonged with you.

I grew up as the only Jewish kid in my elementary school, the only Jewish kid in an Irish Catholic neighborhood where the streets were empty on Sunday mornings. But we didn’t belong to synagogue either so I had no real Jewish community to speak of. I was Jewish, but had no education or community or experience to back that up. My mom was Jewish, my dad was Protestant, but neither were particularly passionate about any of it. But for some reason, I was.

I’ve always been interested in what makes this world go round – and not in the scientific way although that certainly interests me, too – but I have always been more interested in what powers us with hope and how we learn to live with our fear. I want to know how one discerns their purpose and if our capacity to love will ever exceed our capacity to hate. To someone else, these are only sociological or psychological questions, but to me, they are also deep, rich theological ones, too.

Maybe it all comes back to a conversation I had with my mom when I was 6, maybe 7. She turned to me, seemingly out of the blue, but something –and I wish she was still around on this earth so I could ask her now– something triggered her heart to make her say to me: Jill, just believe in God. Okay?

Maybe that’s why the words of the poet, Yehuda Amichai ring true for me when he says:

Bird tracks in the sand at night
are still there in the daytime, though I’ve never seen
the bird that left them. That’s the way it is
with God.

That’s the way it is with God.

There are bird tracks, footprints all over the sand, all over this world. And my insides itch to respond to them.

Avinu Malkeinu, we want to be seen, heard, understood... And maybe you do, too.

After all, you were that lowly little bush all caught on fire, unconsumed. Midrash teaches us that so many of us passed you by, not paying attention, not seeing you for what you really were. It took Moses turning to notice you.[1] Perhaps it took the trauma in his life to truly prime him to notice the wonder that was you.

Maybe that is why you identify with us, a people who are so often in the depths. Maybe that is why you identify with each one of us, each on our own, when we are in sorrow. For you know what it is like to be ignored, passed by, unloved. You know what it is like to be on your own, to be singular.

Perhaps you need us as much as we need you.

Will we turn in time to notice you, the fire that burns, unconsumed before the gates close? Will we finally hear – this time – the messages you have been sending us for so long?

Through your prophet, Isaiah, you ask us about this moment: is this fast for real?[2] Or is all this moaning and groaning for show? You challenge us to consider: Do our empty bellies mean anything if they don’t lead us to care about the hungry man, woman, and child on the street? Will the sukkot that we will build in just a few days, the houses that are not houses lacking roofs so that the rain gets into our very bones – do they mean anything if they don’t lead us to take in those without shelter? Our rituals, you teach us, don’t exist just to invoke nostalgia; no, they are here to shake us and to wake us up to caring about the world.

And through your prophet, Ezekiel, you urge us to remove our hearts of stone so that you can give us hearts of flesh.[3] For more times than I can count, God, I have found myself feeling like I am floating above my life, watching it like an observer might. Why do I do that? And I know that I am not alone. Maybe we do it because it is easier, maybe we do it because we are afraid to be in this life living it with all the muck and anxiety and uncertainty and pain – and maybe with all the joy, too, not wanting to get too close to the joy in case it suddenly dissipates and disappears. But what kind of life is that? It is surely not a life with a heart of flesh. We need to chip away at the stone in earnest, chip away whatever prevents us for fully living our lives.

And through your prophet, Micah, you demand that we love mercy, do justice and walk humbly beside you.[4] By turning our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, we’re beginning to get at that complicated command to love mercy; we’re beginning to scratch the surface at how to see the sacred spark in our fellow flawed human beings. By turning intentions into actions, by making this fast real, by making it mean something, the path to justice becomes that much clearer. And as for walking humbly beside you, I see footprints all around, God, and I am running to catch up with you.

Avinu Malkeinu, I hear you echoing through the words of your prophets. You are telling us to stop being afraid and to get courageous and to get out of our heads and back into our hearts. You’re telling us to get to the important work, to stop blaming the universe for our discontent; you’re telling us to LIVE.

God, I am chipping away at the stone so that I can transform, because I don’t want just $3 worth of you… No, God, I will take it all.

Avinu Malkeinu choneinu v’aneinu. Avinu Malkeinu have compassion on us and answer us because it is not easy. Choneinu v’aneinu, have compassion on us and answer us ki ain banu maasim, for we have no deeds.

And this is where it gets real.

Have compassion on us because we are here, we are showing up and yet ain banu ma’asim. It turns out that though we have tried to do enough to earn your compassion on our merit, on our deeds, on our actions in this life, it turns out ain banu ma’asim, we have not done enough.

I’m reminded that though you don’t hear it much anymore, there is an old custom to whisper these last two lines of Avinu Malkeinu.

Why whisper? Because it’s like we’re visiting a supply store that we only get to visit once a year and we’re excited about all the items on the shelves. They’ll make our lives good. And we point at this item and that item and say loudly: give me this and give me that. But then when it comes time to pay, we reach into our pockets and we discover ain banu ma’asim, we can’t cover the costs. So we whisper to the cashier, can you give me credit? I’ll pay you next year, I promise.

We, too, walk around the world saying we want this, we want that. We want compassion, we want health, we want redemption, we want a good year. And when we finally get up to the Great Cashier, when we stand in front of the open ark, we find ourselves reaching into our pockets and whispering: ain banu ma’asim. We don’t have enough deeds.

God, the truth is that we have not done all that we could have this year. We tried – we really did. But all we have left in this grand moment… is us. All I have left in this grand moment …is me.

And as I once learned from Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory: when all you have left to offer is a broken heart, you offer your broken heart.[5]

The psalmist sang: God is close to the broken-hearted.[6]

God, we offer you our heartbreak. The heartbreak of witnessing the horror of our world. The heartbreak of unfairly assigning you all the blame. The heartbreak that we feel so little and like we can only do so much. The heartbreak that we know that we could have done more and we didn’t.

God, I have chipped away at the stone, and I can feel what’s inside, it’s beating, it’s real, it’s flesh. And it’s breaking.

We are turning and noticing you. We are harkening to your voice passed down through the generations and reverberating still right now right here in this room.

And we are learning:

Hurricanes after hurricanes – they don’t mean that you are absent, God; they mean that we, the inhabitants of this world need to pay better attention to our planet and what we are doing to it – and we need to fight for it.

Evacuations from school after bomb threats – they don’t mean that you don’t care; they mean we need to respond courageously to the growth of hatred in human hearts around us and lift up as much love as we can in its place.

Cancer that is growing – it does not mean that you do not cry with us. God, you cry with us. It means that not only do we need to raise awareness and money to find better treatment and a cure, it also means that we need to show up. We need to show up and be with those who are in pain, be a connection, be the hands of God on earth.

Our broken hearts serve a sacred purpose. They remind us that we are awake and alive. And they call us to action.

Avinu Malkeinu, aseh imanu tzedakah v’chesed v’hoshieinu - Avinu Malkeinu, Make justice with us, make kindness with us – and help us.

And it all turns on that one little word that we say at the end of Avinu Malkeinu, doesn’t it, God? IMANU. Make justice and kindness with us.

And I think I am beginning to understand now…

You may be Avinu, our Sacred Parent and Malkeinu, Our Sacred Sovereign, but you are also that lowly little bush who wants to inspire us to turn like Moses did, who wants us to step up and do the work of the world with you. Because you believe that justice is as much our responsibility as it is yours. And kindness, too. And mercy and love.

It is our world. We are responsible for it.

So we stand here now before you, Avinu Malkeinu. We stand here and we offer you our broken, but beating hearts and our commitment to love and mercy and justice and kindness and our sacred promise to keep trying.

We pat our pockets and all we have to offer in this grand moment… is us.

And because you are Avinu, our Loving Parent, I know that we will be enough.

[1] Exodus 3:4.
[2] Isaiah 58:5-7.
[3] Ezekiel 36:26.
[4] Micah 6:8.
[5] I owe my gratitude to Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) and his teachings through his book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, which undergird this sermon.
[6] Psalm 34:18.

Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783