Yom Kippur New Eyes in New Year
Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank
Yom Kippur / 1 Tishrei, 5777 / October 11-12, 2016
Gut Yontif, everyone. It’s great to see everyone back in synagogue for the holiday and I want to wish everyone a tzom kal—an easy fast.
So far this New Year, we have yet to play around with the Hebrew letters composing the year 5777—Tav, shin, ayin, zayin. And the reason for this is when we take all these letters and try to read them as a Hebrew word, they come out as total gibberish. On the other hand, dropping the 5000 as so many Kabbalists might and playing only with 777, we can look for a phrase itself whose letters add up to 777 and that phrase I have for you, one with which you are certainly familiar. From the first paragraph of the Shema:
They shall be for a reminder / frontlets above your eyes
The challenge of this phrase is the difficulty in translating the word “totafot.” It’s a word that appears only twice in the Bible, both times in the Torah, and it is unclear what it means. The notion that it refers to the tefillin of the head is an interpretation of the word, but not a translation. If the word means “reminder,” as our mahzor indicates, then one must wonder how effective a reminder placing a post-it above your eyes would be. How can something you don’t see remind you of anything? If a better translation is “frontlet,” you might ask yourself what exactly is a frontlet. Just out of curiosity, I went to Amazon.com to see if I could order a “frontlet” and indeed I can. I can purchase an item with the catchy title “Korean Style Wedding Bridal Crystal Flower Draped Rhinestone Tiara Frontlet,” for $17 plus shipping. I’m going to stick with my tefillin, but it’s comforting to know that frontlets are alive and well in the marketplace. I like to think of the totafot, the whatever that goes above our eyes as something akin to a third eye. The third eye in certain mystical traditions is the eye that allows for greater insight, vision beyond the obvious. We don those totafot in order to see deeper into reality—whether ourselves or the world around us—and we do so by placing the words of Torah, which is what the tefillin contain, close to our eyes.
Anyway, we do not wear tefillin on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah or any other Jewish holiday, the holidays themselves being vehicles of enhanced insight. Each of the holidays present us with their own charms, and certainly that is true of Yom Kippur. For many years now, I have been asking the B’nei Mitzvah students what their favorite holiday is and as one might well imagine, Yom Kippur does not make the grade. Yom Kippur does not even make it into the Top Ten list of most popular holidays. In fact, I can recall only one instance of a student actually telling me that Yom Kippur was his favorite holiday. It is odd that a holiday which routinely fills the synagogue to overflowing each year should be so unpopular, even among kids. On the one hand, it is a Day of Self-Affliction, and who really would rate that sort of spiritual exercise over a Hanukkah, or a Purim, or a Simhat Torah? On the other hand, there is a Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8) which states that the revered rabbi, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel stated that there were no better days in Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement…” Both these days were days when young people sought each other out for romantic reasons and creating family. Those are reasons based on hope and optimism. One might think them out of place on a day like Yom Kippur when our apprehension about the future would theoretically be most intense. And yet—the reality of how the Hakhamim, the Sages, viewed this sacred day is just the opposite of what one might assume. I think we need our totafot, our Third Eye, to examine this paradox deeper.
Yom Kippur is a day heavy with prohibitions. It incorporates all the prohibitions of Shabbat and adds six more—we are prohibited from eating, drinking, bathing, wearing leather shoes, anointing (which probably means the use of colognes or perfumes), and sexual intimacy. This cluster of Shabbat and Yom Kippur No-Nos encompass most of what it is that makes us alive and human. What do people do? We eat, we drink, we cook, we bake, we buy, we sell, we love, we vacation, and all these activities would be asur, forbidden on Yom Kippur. There are at least two ways of looking at this corpus of constraint. The first is to see it as playing dead, for the dead also do not/cannot engage in any of these things.
The encounter with our own mortality is an aspect of Yom Kippur observance that is virtually undeniable. This is a day of deliberately diminishing physical pleasure as a way of reminding ourselves that life is finite. We all have a beginning and an end. At the end, people tend to think a lot of what has gone on in their lives since the beginning. Judaism has this great idea. Why wait? Why wait until there’s little or no time left to correct the deficiencies, or the missteps, or the indiscretions, or the pettiness? All these prohibitions may be a way that we transform today into our last day, in order to motivate ourselves to make the necessary changes before—and God-willing—way before it’s too late. But we needn’t think of this day as a day of death, for there is a second way of looking at all these prohibitions. We might also think of it as a day of eternal life, living as it were like the eternal angels of Heaven above, because they, too, live daily without food or water or leather shoes and so forth.
Now before we go too far down this metaphorical path, a word on angels. Do we believe in angels? In answer to that question, I give you a definitive ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Typically, any statement that begins—Jews believe in...—is almost always going to be off-base. We are a curious, open-minded, respectful, rebellious, provocative, faithful, feisty collection of people, and we hold many contradictory opinions. Some of us believe in angels and some of us don’t. What there is no denying is the role angels play as characters in both our biblical and rabbinic literatures and as such, there were Jews whose belief in angels was as strong as their belief in God. Angels, in this case, were God’s helpers. They were messengers that acted as liaison between God and humanity. They could assume physical shape as did the three messengers who brought news to Abraham and Sarah that they would soon become parents. They could be athletic as the angel who wrestled Jacob. Some were thought to have wings as those fashioned over the Ark of the Covenant that held the Ten Commandments in the wilderness. Or they could be wielding swords of fire as the angels assigned to block reentry into the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s eviction.
For those of us who may have difficulty in believing in angels, think of angels like this—idealized, theoretical human beings who are completely moral and righteous, impervious to decay, and capable of flight without need for TSA pat-downs or surcharges on baggage. Angels are very cool. That the architects of Yom Kippur thought us capable of becoming angelic is not so far-fetched. In Psalms we read:
[God], You have made us just shy of divine creatures (Psalm 8:6)
And so the biblical author’s conception of who we are: AA’s, Almost Angels. Today, we remove ourselves from human pleasures not because we are dead, but because we are more than alive. All those pleasures mentioned earlier—eating, drinking, bathing and so forth—they are unnecessary and unessential. For a 25-hour period, we are able to see our lives and the lives of those around us with the broadest of all perspectives, as if we were in heaven itself looking over our selves, our families, our communities, our nation and seeing our lives in a way that we have never seen our lives before.
I want to tell you about an affair, a wedding—not an unusual happening by any stretch of the imagination—but nonetheless an affair, a wedding, that helps us see such a common event as extraordinary. Do you remember in the film Schindler’s List, there was a wedding depicted in the Plaszow Concentration Camp? That wedding was not Hollywood fantasy but the recreation of the wedding between Joseph Bau and Rebecca Tennenbaum that really took place in the camp. It was a wedding that took place in secret, as it was illegal, but it was a wedding that took place because Joseph and Rebecca were determined to do something human in spite of the landscape of death in which they found themselves. And besides that, they were very much in love. Joseph Bau was a very interesting man. He was an artist and in his youth, he learned German Gothic lettering which allowed him to create, in essence forge, German passports and identification certificates granting many Jews escape from Europe. When asked why he did not create such documentation for himself, he said, “If I make documents for myself, who would help the others?” Joseph and Rebecca were separated, she sent to Auschwitz, but after the war, they reunited, made aliyah, and Joseph took up his artistic ventures there. He was actually the one who created documentation for both the Israeli spy Eli Cohen who did masterful espionage work in Syria before his execution, and also for the Israeli team that captured Adolph Eichmann in Argentina. Today in Tel Aviv, there is the Joseph Bau Museum which features an exhibition of his work. A couple years ago, the curators of the museum, Joseph and Rebecca’s daughters, decided to celebrate the 70th anniversary of that Concentration Camp wedding at Nahalat Yitzhak Cemetery, near Tel Aviv, where their parents are buried. Now people celebrate anniversaries all the time, and in securing the proper venue for the celebration, a cemetery is not what typically gets chosen. But that is where the celebration took place. Here is what their daughters, Klilah and Hadassah said:
“According to Jewish tradition, in times of deep desperation, a wedding ceremony would be held in the cemetery, symbolically linking the living and the dead,” Clila Bau told JNS.org. “The bride and groom, who had to be orphans, would stand among the dead to ask for rachmanut (mercy) from God, both for themselves and their community. They sought a promise from God, the ultimate matchmaker, for continued life.”
“Our parents were that bride and groom,” said Hadasa Bau. “We [created] this symbolic wedding so that Israel, our country, will always have love.”
When is a wedding a miracle? The wedding of Joseph and Rebecca Bau was a miracletaking place as it did in a prison where both weddings love and even a kiss were forbidden. But here is an equally compelling question. When is a wedding not a miracle? When is the decision of two people to devote themselves to each other and to sanctify that union within a gathering of friends and family not a miracle in a world like ours, wounded by corruption and bleeding from terrorism? In a world that daily assaults our faith in the future, when is a wedding not a miracle? And this question—When is it not a miracle?—is a question that can be asked of so many moments in our lives whether big life cycle situations like a Brit Milah or Bar/t Mitzvah, or the smaller mundane activities like mobility from one space to the next, communication between two parties, education or the growth that comes from learning new things. Humans may not see readily the divine in all we do, but the angels view the world with much different eyes.
Many of the Birkot Hoda’ah, Blessings of Appreciation, are blessings that have to do with seeing. These blessings are our tools that help us focus on those points in time when insight and appreciation intersect to create what is essentially a WOW moment. Every blessing begins as one might expect—Barukh atah Adonai, we bless you God; eloheinu melekh ha’olam, the One who guides us through this universe, and then there is the hatimah, the conclusion to the berakhah. The conclusion changes to fit the WOW moment.
The blessing for seeing beautiful trees or fields: shekakha lo ba’olamo—so it is in God’s world.
The blessing for seeing a great Torah scholar: shehalak meihokhmato lirei’av—for God has transferred wisdom to those who revere the sacred within the world.
The blessing for seeing a great secular scholar: shenatan meihokhmato l’vasar vadam—for God has granted wisdom to all humankind.
There is even a blessing for coming to a place of a personal miracle: she’asah neis li bamakom hazeh—for having made a miracle for me in this place. There is something extraordinary in this blessing, the blessing that acknowledges some encounter with God in an otherwise common place.
Where is the place of your personal miracle? Again, we needn’t think of a miracle as a supernatural event, we need think of it only as a moment in our lives when the unanticipated materializes before our eyes. Is your personal miracle at a hospital where you had surgery? An intersection where you were in an accident? An office building where you were given your first job? Is it a grave where lays buried one who gave you an identity like no one else could have? Is it, perhaps, not a place but a time like an anniversary? The birthday of a child? A day of retirement? You may never have thought of these moments in time or these places in your history as moments or places of miracle, but now imagine you are looking at them with an angel’s eyes, on this day when we live as angels, on this day when we reconsider just how much we have to be grateful for.
There is a blessing we say upon seeing 600,000 Jews. The blessing is not Oy Vey! Someone once asked me—when are you ever in the presence of 600,000 Jews. I told him, “You apparently have never flown El Al to Israel. In that one Boeing 747…” It’s the blessing you say when you are in the presence of many Jews. Perhaps, like right now: Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, hakham harazim: We bless you God who walks us through an incredible universe who is the One who knows all of our secrets. With this one blessing we can never treat a large group of people as an anonymous crowd, but rather know that each individual here is a person in her or his own right and there is a Knowing within the universe, with a capital ‘K’, that understands each and everyone one of us, our weaknesses and our strengths, our shortcomings and talents, our dreams and our nightmares, and that Knowing is God.
How many times have you had a conversation with someone and afterwards you walked away saying, “I never knew that…”? I never knew she was in an abusive relationship. I never knew he’s been out of work for the past six months. I never knew she lost a child. I never knew she had breast cancer last year. There’s lots of things we don’t know. We may pretend to be angels on this day, but we are neither angels nor God. We need to walk this world with a greater sense of humility for what we rarely or cannot see far exceeds that which we can see. Knowing how little we can see, is an important insight. And so we pray:
[God], Deal with us justly and lovingly…
Cut us a little slack God because all too often we operate as if we see much more than we do and we also miss so much of what ought to be apparent—namely, the presence of God in our lives. We apologize for our myopia, for our inability to see the miracle in our lives, the lives of our children and our grandchildren. Cut us a little slack God and we promise to cut everyone in our lives a little more slack as well.
So I ask this kid: Yom Kippur, that’s your favorite holiday? How is that? And he said, “I was born on Yom Kippur; it’s my Jewish birthday.”
If Yom Kippur were your birthday, you’d love it too. But here’s the thing. On this Yom HaDin, this Day of Judgement, this Yom Kippur, it should be everyone’s birth day—perhaps our Re-birthday. This should be the day when we begin to see the world with our totafot, our third eye, securely above our eyes, judging less, loving more, and always searching deeper into our lives and our own humanity for the presence of God, the energy of insight and kindness, love and optimism, the force of spirit that resides with us always.
Tzom Kal—an easy fast everyone.