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Reflection on Rabbi Summit's High Holiday Sermons

By Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, delivered on the morning of Yom Kippur, 2016

For a while now, the only music I listen to in the car is pop country. As an ethnomusicologist, I love many kinds of music. Brazilian or afro-pop when I’m cooking dinner, Beethoven string quartets on Sunday afternoon, but there’s something about the car and pop country that just feels right.

So, this summer I’m listening to a song by Clay Walker and I find myself crying. The song is called “The Chain of Love” and it tells this sappy story of a guy who stops to fix the tire of an older woman in a Mercedes stranded by the side of the road and when she offers to pay him he tells her “You don't owe me a thing, I've been there too. Someone once helped me out, Just the way I'm helping you. If you really want to pay me back, here’s what you do: Don't let the chain of love end with you.” Now, in the song, the elderly woman then stops at a little café, and leaves the waitress, who is eight months pregnant, a hundred dollar tip, writing on a napkin, “you don't owe me a thing. If you really want to pay me back, don’t let the chain of love be broken.” The waitress goes home and of course, she’s married to the guy who had stopped to change the woman’s tire and she tells him that things are going to be all right.

When I was growing up, we called that kind of exchange “paying it forward.” The Jewish tradition has its own word for this kind of connection: it’s called “hesid,” which means “undeserved love.” Hesed is difficult to translate because it stands for a cluster of ideas—love, mercy, grace, kindness. Hesed is a quality that moves someone to act for the benefit of someone else without asking “What do I owe that person?” or considering "what's in it for me?" When we experience hesid in our lives, we feel a generosity and rightness in the world that can turn a cynical person into a believer.

I like this story because often during Yom Kippur, I’m trying to figure out how God works in the world. For many of us, there is a major disconnect between the language of the prayerbook on Yom Kippur, where the machzor talks continually about God and our regular lives as Jews where we don’t talk about God very much at all. In general, we Jews are much more comfortable talking about community, religious observance, Israel, the Holocaust or food. As much as I encourage people not to take this God language literally, or to see it as poetry, or just to let the powerful tunes of the service carry you into a deeper realm of reflection, these images of God looms large. When we sit here in services, many of us quickly get caught up in the classic question and ask: “Wait, do I actually believe in God and logically flowing from that, if I don’t, how can I say these prayers and what am I doing in services anyway?

I would like to suggest that if we want Yom Kippur to be a time of growth and real change, I think it’s important to find ways to reframe the God question. I once heard a rabbi tell how he asked a group of school kids how many of them believed in God? One or two raised their hand. Then he asked how many of them had ever had an experience where they felt God’s presence in their lives and most of the kids replied that they had. So asking the right question is important.

There’s a story that made it’s way around the internet several years ago from a woman who was shopping in Whole Foods when her brother called her to say that their father had taken his own life. In this letter, the woman writes about how she just came apart when she heard that terrible news and she wrote this open letter to thank the strangers who so graciously stepped in to help her when she totally lost it. Strangers who surrounded her, helped her call her husband, prayed for her, drove her home and even bought her a gift card so she wouldn’t have to worry about having  food to eat that night. She never even learned these strangers’ names but she wrote, “If it were not for you, I don’t know what I would’ve done in those first raw moments of overwhelming shock, anguish and grief. Your kindness, your compassion, your willingness to help a stranger in need have stayed with me until this day. And no matter how many times my mind takes me back to that horrible life altering moment, it is not all darkness. Because you reached out to help, in the bleakest moment I’ve ever endured. I will never, ever forget you. And though you may never know it, I give thanks for your presence and humanity each and every day.”

My friend Rabbi Larry Kushner wrote this poem and I think about it a lot when I try to figure out how God words in the world. I was moved by this idea and put in some edits of my own. Here’s the poem:

Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

For some there are more pieces.

For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.


And so it goes.

Souls going this way and that

Trying to assemble the myriad parts.


But know this. No one has within themselves

All the pieces to their puzzle.


Everyone carries with them at least one and probably

Many pieces to someone else's life.

Sometimes they know it.

Sometimes they don't.


And when you present your piece

to another, whether you know it or not,

Whether they know it or not,

You are a messenger from the Most High.

So, I’m a rationalist and I could critique the God connection in this poem by saying,  “Of course, some people are very kind and many of us are blessed to have, at some point in our life, experienced hesed, undeserved generosity, from strangers or friends. But does that really make them “a messenger from the Most High?” If we are willing to expand the way we think about God, maybe that is exactly what God is in the world. Perhaps we might accept that there are profound spiritual powers that impact our lives -- the transformative impact of love, the sustaining power of hope, the life saving quality of kindness. And when you pay it forward, you actively free those holy sparks and for that moment, the God’s presence shines and becomes visible in the world. Buber says that God exists in the space between human beings when they have a true encounter, where two people are present for one another. Then we don’t look for God in miracles writ large. We focus on those precious moments of growth, change, support and connection that impact us and move us forward in our lives.

The second way that we might reformulate how we think about God is not about how we are impacted by other’s actions but about how we act to make holiness real in the world. There is a wonderful Midrash, a rabbinic story that teaches that God was unable to finish creating the world, so God designated men and women as “partners in creation.” Recently, this teaching has been used to stress our responsibility for tikun olam, social justice, with us as partners creating a just society, repairing the parts of the world that are broken. But this morning, I want to suggest a theological step beyond that concept. I want to suggest that when the tradition talks about us as God’s partners in creation, it could also imply that it is our responsibility to create God in the world, to act in such a way that we create the kind of communities, families and relationships where God’s presence is felt and experienced.

And sometimes by affirming the holiness, the precious nature of our fellow human beings, we can actually transform both our relationships and the communities that hold our lives. There’s a story that I love and often go back to on Yom Kippur. I learned this story from the writings of Rabbi Jack Riemer. The story is called, "The Rabbi's Gift."

"The story is told of a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once it was a great order, but as a result of the waves of anti monastic persecution in the seventeen and eighteen centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteen, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

Now, in the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little cabin that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used as a retreat.  Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was visiting the cabin.  "The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again." they would whisper to each other .  As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one time to visit the rabbi and ask, if by some possible chance, he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut.  But when the abbot explained the purpose of this visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. "Yes. I know how it is, " he exclaimed, "the spirit has gone out of the people.  It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together.  Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things.  When the time came for the abbot to leave, they embraced one another. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should talk after all these years," the abbot said. "But I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?

"No, I am sorry , the rabbi responded,. "I have no advice to give you. But then the rabbi paused and said quietly to the abbot. “Yes, there is one thing I have to tell you: One of you is the Messiah."

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him and asked, "Well, what did the rabbi say? " "He couldn't help," the abbot answered . "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving--it was something cryptic—he said, that one of us was the Messiah! Maybe it’s something from Jewish mysticism. I don't know what he meant."

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks began to think about this and wondered whether the rabbi's words could actually be true?   The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, who is it? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone he probably meant Father Abbot.  He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant that Brother Thomas is a holy man.  Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he couldn't have meant Brother Jonathan! Jonathan gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Jonathan is virtually always right. Often very right.  Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Jonathan. But surely not Brother Philip. Philip is so passive, a real nobody. But then almost mysteriously he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Could Philip be the Messiah. Of course, the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? Oh God, me?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them might actually be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the monastery was situated in a beautiful forest, it so happened that people occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. And as they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it.  Hardly knowing why, people began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray.  They began to bring their friends to show them this special place.  And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them.  Then another.  And another.  And it happened, that within a few year the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirit."

The day of Yom Kippur has tremendous power. While the liturgy says that today our fate is recorded in the Book of Life for the coming year. But in truth, we are the ones wielding the pen: It is in our power to act in ways that pay it forward, making the Godly quality of hesid, love, support and connection, real in the world. We can create communities of holiness by treating the people around us with profound care and respect. Though our actions, may we seal ourselves into the book of life for the year to come. 

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