Friday, September 29, 2017

Yom Kippur: Nitzavim and Sieze the Day

            Shabbat Shalom and gut yontif. I hope your fast is moving along safely. You should be feeling some hunger pains by now and allowing the discomfort remind you of the discomfort you make have inflicted on others in the last year, the discomfort of the hungry you have looked away from, and thinking about how this feeling will shape your teshuvah for the year to come. However, if you feel like you are going to pass out at any time today, please eat or drink something, and/or rest in one of our empty classrooms. I’ll be here all day, and I promise you can rejoin whenever you’re ready. Your teshuvah will still be counted.
            This reminder is important, as sometime we allow the Yom Kippur liturgy and the importance of the day cloud our judgement, or we allow perceived judgements from others whose bodies are able to withstand fasting differently to make us feel guilty. Those who are here doing true teshuvah, those who fast in some way even if you are not able to deprive your body of food for the day, will still be written in the Book of Life. One of the central prayers of Yom Kippur is the U’netaneh Tokef prayer, “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die” poem with all it’s possible outcomes for the year. It invokes a feeling of doomsday upon this day, and while some sentiment of that is helpful in connecting with our guilt and our atonement, I don’t want anyone to feel that they should actually risk meeting our Maker for the sake of this day.
            In his book The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven,” Dr. Ron Wolfson writes that U’netaneh Tokef has always been the most moving part of the whole body of high holy day liturgy for him, even as a child. Imagining the scene of judgement alluded to in the poem, young Ron would picture it like a courtroom drama such as he might see on TV, except instead of a human judge and jury, God and the angels filled the courtroom, while each of us hearing the prayer simultaneously stand alone before them, facing judgement. What sort of questions might the Judge ask to determine if you should be written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the year to come?
            In the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the fourth century safe Rava said that when a person gets to heaven they are first asked, “Were you honest in business?” Dr. Wolfson reports in his book discovering this piece of text and being shocked that the ancient rabbis would believe God would ask about common business before assessing the person’s faith and regularity of prayer. Of course, dedication to prayer and Torah study are also in the list of five questions Rava believes will be asked, but they come after honesty with other humans.
Besides the five questions Rava provides, Dr. Wolfson adds two more to the list from modern Jewish thinkers. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the first Modern Orthodox philosopher, thought God’s question would be, “Did you see my Alps?” By this, he means, did you make the most out of your life, did you see the wonders of the world, did you appreciate the beauty of nature? If you spend all your time only in the synagogue, asking God to make miracles for you, you will never have the chance to appreciate the miracles God has already created. Martin Buber, influential 19th century philosopher, suggested the question upon reaching heaven would be, “Why were you trying to be Moses? Why were you not you?” Similar to Hirsch, Buber is also suggesting something to the effect of making the most of your life. Though it is lacking the framework of appreciating natural miracles, just as Hirsch thought we should go out and achieve all the travels on our “bucket lists”, Buber seems to be saying, we should be sure to check off our spiritual bucket list as well. Did we say all that we wanted to say in life? Did we teach our most honest Torah? Did we let our best and truest selves shine through, even when it seemed like others wanted us to conform to some other idea of who we were supposed to be?
I can appreciate why Dr. Wolfson would be surprised by these questions, but I am not at all surprised. Though they are not framed as questions about God, faith, or seemingly the fullest assessments of our lives, they check off the most important values. How did we live? Were we honest, to ourselves and others? Did we appreciate what we had, and took opportunities to appreciate more? Did we live this life in this life, being human and realistic, or did we keep an eye on the world to come all our years, being so preoccupied with avoiding mistakes that we never made gains either?
            In this morning’s Torah reading, we read the words “[the Torah] is not in heaven, Lo Bashamayim Hi.” Moses is telling the people of Israel, poised to enter the promised land, that each of them have access to God’s teachings, and each of them will be expected to uphold God’s law. In the eyes of God, every human is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the Divine image, and thus is equally responsible for upholding the commandments, equally deserving of God’s love. In another section of the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59), the earliest rabbis argue about the kashrut of an oven. Rabbi Eliezer believes the oven in question is Kosher. The other rabbis are not sure. Eliezer says, "If the law is as I say, let this carob tree prove it." The tree suddenly uprooted itself and flew about the length of a football field. The Sages, unimpressed, commented that a proof of Jewish law cannot be brought from a carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer continued, "If the law is as I say, let this stream of water prove it," at which point the stream began to flow uphill! Again, his fellow rabbis were unconvinced. So Rabbi Eliezer continued, "If the law is as I say, let the walls of this study hall prove it." Suddenly, the walls began to cave in. Finally, a voice from heaven calls out, “Why must you continue to argue with Rabbi Eliezer? The law is as he says!” And the sages reply, “The Law is not in heaven, Lo Bashamayim Hi.” The heavenly voice laughed and said, “My children have defeated me!” And the law was decided according to the consensus of all the other rabbis.
            It may or may not have been so honest of the rabbis to insist upon their way when the forces of God and nature clearly agreed with Eliezer, but it illustrates that Torah is not in heaven, and neither should our concerns be. God, Torah, reward, bereavement, atonement, amends, all these things exist here on Earth with us. We can’t ever really know who is written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death, we may never know what will happen tomorrow, and Judaism is a bit vague or argumentative with itself about what comes next. What we do know is that here and now, we can live by the guidelines of God’s teaching. To act in righteousness, to go about our daily business honestly and with an open heart, to appreciate and care for the natural world, to be ourselves fully. By doing these things, we can ensure we are being our best selves, and upholding Torah in this world. Because that is where it belongs. Lo Bashamayim Hi.

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