2021/5782 Yom Kippur Sermon

Shana tova! Thank you for the pleasure of bringing in the new year with you, and for the honor of offering a few words of Torah today. As I scanned both the landscape and my inner stirrings for what to speak about today, I was struck by just how many threads there are to pull. I could address any number of pressing global issues: the ongoing public health crisis and its economic, mental health, and social aftershocks; the growing outcry for racial and economic justice; the catastrophic weather that practically screams in our ears that climate change is looming closer than any of us feels ready to reckon with; and a society in which the values of freedom and individualism are in mortal conflict with the communal commitment of caring for one another. The world feels like too much to take in, and yet the need to pay attention and take action is more urgent than ever. 

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted. Don’t misunderstand me; I am happy with my life and I deeply recognize my many blessings. Yet I often find myself wanting to pull the covers over my head because there is just so much turmoil — calamity everywhere I look. 

And then the question comes to me, over and over: What do we do when we feel overwhelmed and caught in the middle, when the forces swirling around us start to feel like drowning? When is it a moment for reflection, and when is it a moment for action? 

Which is it now?

Of course it is now — and always — both. Our texts for this season point us in both directions, toward introspection and discernment and toward the never ending work of tikkun olam

Both reflection and action constitute a kind of presence to the Divine — whether it is presence to the still, small voice that guides us on our way, or presence with the righteous work that still, small voice calls us to. 

I have been reflecting a lot on both types of presence lately. In this historical moment we are more acutely aware than ever of presence and absence. The great blessing of being in the same space as other people is something whose importance many among us hadn’t fully realized until it became a scarce commodity. All those months of missing people or of seeing them only behind a mask or onscreen lent an air of unreality, of watered-down-ness to our relationships. This past year and a half, I think we have come to realize how much our sense of the presence of others is rooted in seeing their faces. In Hebrew, the word פָּנִים neatly encompasses this idea: its definitions include both face and presence. In the inflected form ָלְפָנֶיך heard so often throughout our liturgy, it means, “before you” — literally in your presence and in front of your face.

Psalm 27, which many of us recite daily from the beginning of Elul through the end of Sukkot, offers a rich meditation on the idea of connecting face and presence. Verse 8 reads: 

לְךָ  אָמַר לִבִּי בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי — אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ יְהֹוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ׃

This is a puzzling verse, one which opens up a theological question. A traditional approach to the Biblical Hebrew yields the translation, On Your behalf, my heart says to me, “Seek My face!” and I do seek Your face, o God. The psalmist’s heart advocates on the part of God, imploring for the speaker to seek out the presence of God. The Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra likens the heart to God’s שליח, God’s representative. He sees the heart as a Divine internal compass calling the Psalmist into stillness and searching. However, a more contemporary interpretation of this verse, taking into account modern Hebrew usage, switches the roles around — My heart says to You, “Seek my face!” O God, I seek Your face. In this reading, the Psalmist is asking for God to recognize him, and pledging to do the same. This reciprocal recognition, which posits both God and the Psalmist as seekers, changes the theology, casting the still, small voice as… more of a duet. The next verse continues: אַל־תַּסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי Do not hide your face from me. The stakes are high, located in the fear of not connecting, of all of this searching being met with nothing. Yet the psalmist persists. The last verse reads:

קַוֵּה אֶל־יְהֹוָה חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהֹוָה׃

Hope toward Adonai! Keep your heart strong and courageous, and hope toward Adonai! Regardless of who is doing the seeking, the psalm invites us into quiet reflection and hope, even amidst turmoil, asking us to search for the presence of God and wait. 

Our Haftarah for today, on the other hand, demands that we act. This fiery speech from the prophet Isaiah is full of action words, exhortations, imperatives — Build up a highway! Clear the path! Remove the obstacles! You can practically see Isaiah shaking his fists, trying to get his people to pay attention. Isaiah derides the people who fast in body only, while remaining spiritually unmoved. Such empty ritual strips the fast of its meaning and import. Rather, Isaiah says: “This is the fast I desire: to open the bonds of wickedness, shake off the yoke, let the oppressed go free! Share your bread with the hungry, take the poor into your home, clothe the naked! Do not turn away from your flesh and blood!” He goes on to promise that if our fasting and introspection inspire us to do those things, then the presence of God will be with us.

אָז יִבָּקַע כַּשַּׁחַר אוֹרֶךָ וַאֲרֻכָתְךָ מְהֵרָה תִצְמָח
וְהָלַךְ לְפָנֶיךָ צִדְקֶךָ כְּבוֹד יְהֹוָה יַאַסְפֶךָ

Then your light will burst forth like the dawn, and you will immediately return to flourishing. And your righteousness will walk before you, the presence of God will gather you in.

Where Psalm 27 calls for reflection, Isaiah urges us to press that reflection into service, to take up our sacred task of tikkun olam. The values of stillness and action are not in conflict but rather in dialogue. Our alternate Torah reading for today, from Deuteronomy chapter 29, says: 

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ
וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד־עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת

The hidden things are for God, but the revealed things are for us and for our children, to enact all of these teachings into eternity. So, yes, the quiet matters are between us and God — discerning, reflecting, finding our way. But once we’ve found that way, we must stand tall and translate thoughts into deeds.

The activist Sandra Steingraber wrote, “We are all musicians in a great human orchestra, and it is now time to play the Save the World Symphony. You are not required to play a solo, but you are required to know what instrument you hold and play it as well as you can. You are required to find your place in the score. What we love we must protect. That’s what love means. From the right to know and the duty to inquire flows the obligation to act.”

Steingraber’s words are a summons to righteousness, an echo of the principle from Pirkei Avot that we are not required to complete the work but neither are we free to desist from it. Each of us has a role to play, no matter how humble and incomplete. We need simply to find our place, to do something.

My blessing for you this Yom Kippur is for deep, soul-filling reflection that nourishes you toward action, in whatever direction you are called. 

Gmar chatima tova!

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