Rabbi Noa Kushner
Yom Kippur Morning 5777


1. Graves

It is the day of Yom Kippur, a long day. We’re starting to be a little revealed, a little broken down. We’re starting to consider that we’re not so perfect, that we won’t live forever.

This has been going on a long time.

Maybe you knew and maybe you didn’t -- for all the years that Israel was wandering in the wilderness, every year a few days before Yom Kippur, a herald would go out into the camp and shout: “Go out and dig graves! Go out and dig graves!”

And the people would go out and dig their own graves and spend the night in them. (And you guys get antsy when we tell you to get all the way on the floor for the High Holiday Aleinu!)

Anyway, in the morning, the people would come out and see who was still among the living. Every year, a few people wouldn’t have made it out of their graves, they would be dead. To me this similar to what we do when we look around the room on high holidays and realize who is no longer here.

On year, after they had spent forty years in the wilderness, one year, no one died. The people immediately thought they had the calendar wrong and slept in the their graves an extra night, another, and another. When, after several nights, they realized everyone was still alive, they declared it a festival. That is why Yom Kippur begins with severity and gravity but ends in joy – we are still alive.[1]

Strange as it sounds you could say that this is the ritual that we still follow in some way. As in, this is what the not eating is about, the wearing of the white, the death shrouds: We’re getting inside our graves.

Why? So that we might realize we won’t live forever, and so we might make our necessary t’shuvah, so that we might turn, change.

2. We hide and come out 

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Even eats the fruit from the tree of life, the fruit they were told not to eat. Their eyes newly opened, ashamed at what they have done, they go and hide behind a tree.

God calls out to Adam, “Ayeka?” / “Where are you?”  

The rabbis notice this is a strange moment. They ask, “Surely God knows where Adam is. How could God not see Adam and Eve hiding behind a tree?”

But Rabbi Shneur Zalman teaches that, of course, God is not asking because God does not know, God is asking so that Adam will say to himself, “Hineni” / “I am hiding.”[2]

You see, God wants Adam to realize: “I am hiding but I don’t have to say here.” And although “Ayeka” is a hard question to hear, it is a healing question. Because as soon as we are able to say “Hineni” / “I am here,” a door opens.

Funny how in the story about us getting in the graves – the learning is not in getting in the grave but in the realization that we are still alive and can get out.

Martin Buber teaches, however, that there is another possible question, a fake question. It disguises itself like “Ayekah” / “Where are you?” And it even begins exactly the same: “Where are you?” but then it continues, “Because from where you are, there is no way out.”[3]

You see, when we hear “Ayeka,” / “Where are you?” although we might shudder, we also sense an opening, possibility for growth, and while we may be afraid to leave our hideouts, we see that we can, we have the capacity to grow.

But on the other hand, when we hear, “Where are you? because from where you are there’s no way out,” it is as if that same door slams shut. And Buber teaches, when we feel that door slam, by virtue of our feeling shut in, then we know it must be the wrong question, it must come from the yetzer.

You see, along with the voice of God, we have in our tradition the voice of the yetzer, or the yetzer ha-rah, the “evil inclination.”

The voice of the yetzer sounds something like this: “You’ve always failed and things will not really ever change so why bother telling her? It will just look worse than is already does. It will just rock the boat, make things uncomfortable, and you know this cannot be solved, so better to keep this a secret, better actually to be even a little ashamed that you even want this relationship, this idea, this thing to change.” The yetzer wants us to stay hiding, not to try. Despondency is the yetzer’s best friend. The yetzer loves it when we keep our dreams and sadness to ourselves, when we don’t tell dare tell anyone else the truth.

This time of year we may realize that the yetzer has gotten a lot of air time in our brains, more than his share, more than she’s earned. We realize how appeasing the yetzer, and “keeping appearances” dominates so many of the decisions we make or avoid.

Ayeka” / “Where are you?” God is calling. We look around and realize we are still hiding. We can continue to listen to the yetzer or we can accept this real question as a divine invitation to grow and to keep growing.

I don’t know how long Adam and Eve hid behind the tree. Doesn’t say. Could have been years. But eventually I imagine Adam thinks, “This tree where we’re hiding, I’m cramped. It’s uncomfortable back here, I can’t move. We can’t undo what we did but maybe it doesn’t have to be the end of the story.”

And so Adam comes out of the first closet ever and the Torah begins.

3. Breakout

Noach, a few chapters later, is another one who hides.

You remember Noach’s story: God makes the world but people are so awful to each other that God tells Noach to build an ark, an elaborate process takes years and years, (one source says he even has to grow the trees that will make up the wood for the ark, I even imagine that the wood that makes up the ark came from that same tree Adam and Even hid behind but I digress), it takes decades, he has to collect all the animals inside and God brings a giant flood that destroys everything. Inside, Noach and his family are safe, he tends to the needs of the animals while he waits for the world to start over.

There’s a midrash by R. Yehudah ben Eli that after the flood, after the world has been destroyed and it is time to rebuild again, after the waters have receded, after Noach has sent out the raven and waited, after he has sent out the dove, and after the dove comes back with the olive branch and it is clear they are safe to come out and they have certainly been in that ark a very long time, Noach is still staying in the ark. My colleague and friend Rabbi David Ingber asks, “What are you waiting for Noach?” “What’s taking so long, Noach?”

Now Noach has a good cover story for why he waits. He says, “God told me to go in, shouldn’t I wait for God to tell me to come out?”[4] But it doesn’t seem right. Doesn’t he want to jump out of the ark at the first opportunity? (I can’t even wait until they turn off the seat belt sign when my flight is over.)

I wonder if Noach, in the ark, started having doubts. Maybe his yetzer got to him: “Who do you think you are to start the new world? You couldn’t even get one person to be righteous in your whole generation. Better stay in the ark.”

Maybe this is why R. Yehuda ben Eli taught: If I had been there, I would have broken down the ark and taken myself out.”

Because sometimes in getting out of hiding – we are fighting for our lives. We have to wrestle that voice of the yetzer to the ground, we have to break down the ark. We have to break apart the hideouts we have built for ourselves, even the ones we painstakingly assembled bit by bit, year by year. If we want to live, we even have to break down the very places that kept us safe in difficult times. And we have to do this again and again and again.  

4. Broken

There’s a teaching that says that when God made the world, it was all chaos and God wanted to bring light. So God made these vessels for the light, but the abundance of light was too much for the vessels and they cracked.

And Rabbi Pinchas taught that we are these vessels, and our job is to try and hold onto some kind of divine light. But invariably, when we do, we crack open, we are changed in the process.[5] The vessel we started with, our impressions and perspectives, our narratives, that vessel will be necessarily transformed as we grow. Maybe if we know that is supposed to happen, that brokenness is a part of growth, that we are destined to crack open every time we hold more light, it will give us koach (strength) to show each other when we are breaking.

5. We want to show who we are to each other, mistakes and all.

We imagine (or maybe the yetzer tells us) that the less of our real selves we show to others, the less we need others, the more security we will have, the more secure we will feel. But it is the opposite. We want to be found out, we are dying to reveal who we truly are, even when we’re in pain, and when we can’t or don’t, the disconnect is unbearable.

There’s a story from Rabbi Hayyim about a highly decorated general.

Now it is customary for guards to give greater honor to a general.

And it once happened that this general was court-martialed because of some wrong he had done. As a result, he was demoted, stripped of his medal in the courthouse.

But when he left the military court and went outside, as he passed the guards, they did not notice that he no longer wore the general’s insignia and saluted him just as always. Only then was he pierced to the heart.[6] 

As ashamed as he was of what had happened, he wanted them to know. More than anything he wanted them to know.

6. Break down the walls: We can show what’s wrong

Our tradition has ways of encouraging us to reveal ourselves not only to God but to each other. Think about how we respond to death. There is not only funeral but shiva, tons of people coming in our house every day for a week, right when maybe we are at our most vulnerable, maybe in our lowest place, right when many of us would choose to be alone. Or think about today, when we confess our darkest moments  -- many of us might lean towards solitude. But the tradition says if we’re going there, we’re not going there alone. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg calls Yom Kippur, “liberation from the crushing guilt and isolation.”[7]

Because we don’t have to hide, we have another option. We can show one another what’s wrong.

One of the most powerful stories I heard at a shabbos table in Jerusalem was of a young man who was raised as an ultra orthodox hasid. And now that he was on his own he had decided to pray in a more progressive community. With trepidation, he told his father. His father asked him, is there a mechitza? (Is there a separation during prayer between men and women?) “No,” said the young man. “Well,” asked his father, “In this place, can you cry?” See, here is our real litmus test: Is your place of prayer a place where you can show God and one another what’s wrong?

One of my earliest memories of The Kitchen was at our first yizkor, memorial service on Yom Kippur. We were only a few weeks old, no one knew anyone and we had like 60 people if that. And I went around the room to collect the names of those who died as we do to remember them. And I asked for people to say their relationship to those who had died along with the name and a young woman in her twenties said a name and then she said, “my brother” as she started to weep openly. I was taken aback, I knew that if I stopped to really comfort her, the other mourners would not get a chance to say their names. But before I could do anything, the woman next to her -- they had not come together -- they did not know each other, she put her arm around her and held her tight. I knew then we would make it as a kehilla / community. Because someone could show her pain and someone else would step in to tend to it.

But I worry about those of us here who are still crying but behind closed doors where no one can see. I worry about those of us keeping up our medals of all stripes even though we struggle with feeling worthless. I worry about those of us hiding like Adam or Noach, certain we have destroyed everything. This Yom Kippur, I want to give us all the koach to do what it takes to break down those walls.

Because in these moments we have to remember that while the yetzer is powerful and clever and has many disguises, no matter where we are, no matter what is causing us pain, there is always a way out, there is always an open door. The minute we recognize the yetzer for what it is, once it is unmasked, it loses much of its power. And when we reveal whatever secret shame or fear we are carrying to each other, the yetzer all but loses its claim on us. We call this revealing to ourselves, to each other, to God -- t’shuvah / turning. With it, we not only have a chance to save ourselves, we can save our relationships.

7. Say it

My teacher R. Ed Feinstein taught me about the most heartbreaking  thing he ever read. It was the transcripts of the phone calls to the people on 9/11 who knew that the towers had been hit and they were going to die. As we might imagine, they didn’t waste time. There was no pretense and a level of genuineness, purity. “I love you,” they said. “I’m sorry if I ever hurt you.” “I forgive you for everything.” “You mean everything to me.”

We don’t have to wait for a life ending tragedy to say what we need to say. In our deepest heart of hearts, we want to reveal ourselves to each other, we are desperate to silence the yetzer and to come out of our hiding places, kicking down the doors. Yom Kippur is our chance.

On this day our ancestors made graves. And I have to imagine that sleeping in one’s own grave, lying in the dark, brought home whatever still needed to be said, whatever brokenness called our attention and I want the same for us.

On this day our ancestors made graves and I have to believe that sleeping in one’s own grave brought home the fact that no matter how long we hide, no matter how elaborate our hiding places, no matter how many reasons the yetzer gives us for why we can never come out, I have to believe that in those graves we learned that nothing the yetzer tells us to do will protect us, and I want the same for us.[8]

It is not too late.

See, on this day, our ancestors slept in their graves. But in the morning, when they were still there, they got up and went out -- back to the risky, heartbreaking world; back to a mess of complicated relationships, back to the work of being a broken vessel of light, back to the business of being alive.


[1] Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, eds. The Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah, 99:123.

[2] Martin Buber, “Where are You?,” Tales of the Hasidim, Volume 1, p. 268.

[3] Martin Buber, The Way of Man: According to the Teaching of Hasidism, New Jersey, Citidel Press, 1966, p. 14. “There is a demonic question, a spurious question, which apes God’s question, the question of Truth. Its characteristic is that it does not stop at: ‘Where are you?’, but continues: ‘From where you have got to, there is no way out.’ This is the wrong kind of heart-searching, which does not prompt man to turn, and put him on the way, but, by representing turning as hopeless, drives him to a point where it appears to have become entirely impossible and man can go on living only by demonic pride, the pride of perversity.

[4] Bereishit Rabbah 34:4

[5] Martin Buber, “The Breaking of the Vessels” Tales of the Hasidim, New York, Schoken Books, 1947, Volume 1, p. 121.

[6] Martin Buber, “The Story of the General” Tales of the Hasidim, New York, Schoken Books, 1947, Volume 2, p. 213.


[7] Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way, New York, Summit Books, 1988, p. 207.

[8] See Audre Lorde who writes beautifully on this subject in her book, Sister Outsider