Rabbi Noa Kushner // Yom Kippur 5778

1. (We are a mess)
I saw this on twitter: The worst part of meeting new people is that you have to tell your life story like it is some coherent narrative that you endorse.
And I thought that this is one thing about Yom Kippur:
On Yom Kippur it is a time our life does not have to make a coherent narrative.
We can just be a mess.
We can admit to whatever messes we’ve made.
Not the times we failed forward, just the times we failed and are still failing.
Usually we run and hide.
Usually we try to create some kind of alternative universe in work or recreation an escape, or excuse, yes?

But the rabbis teach that the real scandal is not that we ever did whatever we did, but that we kept continuing because we thought there was no other choice.

I saw a piece in the Tate by Marwan Rechmauoi called

Monument for the Living. This sculpture is a scale model of Burj El Murr building in Beirut, Lebanon. The tower was owned by members of the el-Murr family, a prominent political clan. Construction began in 1974 but it was left unfinished after the outbreak of the civil war. Originally an office block, it was only ever used as a sniper outpost. The tower is too tall to knock down and too dense to implode and so continues to dominate the skyline. It is now seen as a memorial to the internal conflict that has never really been fully resolved [1]. 

How many of us have similar such monuments taking up room in our lives?

Perhaps our ‘monument’ even began with something relatively small, a brick’s worth of conflict, something we did not address, but once we stop being honest with one another, if we don’t intervene, then we stop seeing one another, and eventually we don’t move from our places, we are alone in our darkness.

Our view becomes blocked by so many towers, even though we had a hand in building them, we come to believe they are too big for us to take down.

But David Hartman z”l taught that on this day, on Yom Kippur, the rabbis have created a world where t’shuvah, admitting we did something wrong and trying to change, this is not an aberration, it is not an embarrassment, it is not only permissible, it is expected [2]. 
Get out the jackhammers.

Because on Yom Kippur we agree to create a world together here and now where we are all equal, where we have all done something wrong (it says so right there in the book!). You may have shame but no more than the person on either side of you.

We encourage ourselves to admit to the messes we’ve made, we encourage ourselves to feel the pachad / fear in front of heaven, the fear of losing it all, so that we might remember that our decisions and choices can change our lives.

We are the ones who built those monuments and we can take them down. 

2. (Start with honesty)
There is a great conversation in the Talmud: How do you start a confession? What do you say? It is a great question, and as usual, the rabbis offer a wide variety of answers:
Rav says: You go up to the holy one and say, “You know everything, all the mysteries of the universe are revealed to you” (Right? Because saying something that is already known is less difficult)

Levi says, maybe quote Torah, can’t go wrong quoting an Author’s work
But Shmuel suggests honesty
The idea of going deep within our own hearts
And the discussion winds up not by focusing on the razzle dazzle of quoting a great verse of Torah or noting the power of God but just as Rabbi Yehuda says, “For my mistakes are too many to count and my sins too great to number" [3]. 

How do you start a confession? With the confession itself. Don’t try to wrap it up with a bow.

You see, at first glance, our tradition has little tolerance for lying to ourselves or others. There’s no halacha / law I know of that says, “When things go wrong, have a drink and repress it. Sleep on it a few months.”

In fact, the Rambam (Maimonides) teaches that if one of us hurts another, the matter is not resolved until we make material, financial restitution (yes) but we are also required to beg for forgiveness and implore the one we hurt until we are forgiven [4]. (There is a story of a rabbi who hurt another, sitting and crying on his doorsteps, he stays there until the other rabbi comes out and forgives him.)[5]

Not only that, but if you go to someone and the other person refuses to forgive, we must bring a committee of three friends to implore her to forgive us, and we must bring what I’ll call the forgiveness committee up to three times, each time begging for forgiveness. Only after three times can we say if she still won’t forgive, the other one now owns the guilt and responsibility, and is bearing a grudge.

Perhaps this is why Rambam and others teach that in order even to make t’shuvah between us and God / us and the universe -- we have to confess out loud -- not in a whisper, out loud. So that what we have done is literally amplified, there is no fixing the mess by tucking it under the rug. And as you know, our cries get more urgent by the end of the say, we not only call out, we yell out the truth, no matter how difficult it may be [6]. 

3. (Sometimes we have to throw truth to the ground)
And yet, there’s a famous midrash:
When the Holy One was about to create people, the angels gathered around and were arguing, debating.
Some wanted Adam and Eve to be created, some didn’t.
In the Torah, in Psalms, it says, “Love and truth fought with one another…” (Ps. 85:11) and so in the midrash we learn that Love itself spoke up and said, “Create them! They will perform acts of love.” But Truth rose up said, “Don’t do it! Let them not be created! For they will lie! They will be False!”

What did the Holy One do in that moment? God took truth and cast it to the ground.

And while the angels were in a commotion over what happened to truth, the Holy One created people and then said to the angels,“What are you disagreeing about? It is done. People have already been created" [7].

As much as our tradition commands us to be upfront, to not sugar coat, to be honest with ourselves and others, sometimes we have to recognize truth alone can’t get us to where we want to go. Doesn’t matter if it is 100% verified, pure, unadulterated truth. Sometimes, if we want to find a way to love ourselves and others, if we want to live and be alive, like God, we must cast exacting truth to the ground.

4. (Cables)
I was lucky enough to be in Jerusalem last summer with The Kitchen. Every day we heard from a group of mind-blowing activists, artists, rabbis and teachers. Because I was leading the group, when we got to our authentic hotel, I got a beautiful room, a room I said with one of the best views in all of Jersualem. But because our hotel was built in buildings hundreds and hundreds of years old with incredible views of the old city – in order to get there it was necessary for me to walk up stairs and down, up again and down, through gorgeous courtyards and across a rooftop and up and down again to get to my room.

I looked out of my window and across the valley was Mt. Zion and the old city.
I could see Bethlehem and the security wall that separates Israel from the west bank, all from one vantage point.
And it reminded me of a stanza of famous poem by Yehudah Amichai:

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure
Our two voices met above
The Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the “Had Gadya” / vengeance machine [8]. 

I was thinking of the two mountains, our two peoples separated by a seemingly impossible valley. 
I was thinking of the security wall, the barrier down the road, sign of a conflict that can seem insurmountable.

And then, as I was going to my room the next day and I finally made all the turns to get there, I realized that once you got to the little building where my room was located, the only other thing on my floor was a one room museum, now open.

I can’t say a lot of people visited this museum, I never saw anyone go in or out, and there was no attendant, just one room with a giant open window and a huge crank in the middle of the room.

And going from the crank out the window was a cable that stretched across the very same valley, the valley I had been staring at, the same valley in the poem.

There were some signs and photographs on the walls and from what I could put together I was looking at a cable that linked from the place where I was standing, which used to be a hospital, across the valley to the old city.

A long time ago, at night, the army would use the cable and run a car on it to get supplies over the valley and to bring a few wounded soldiers at a time back to the hospital. During the day they lowered the cable so no one could see. But at night it saved lives. Clever, imaginative Israelis literally figured out how to make a lifeline from a cable. I learned that the cable was kept a secret for many years [9].

And that night I dreamed,
I saw the cable,
But instead of helping just us,
Now the cable ran between our peoples.

The cable reached the other side in my dream the same way Yehuda Amichai reached across and humanized the Arab shepherd with his words, words that required both some truth but also compassion and imagination.

And I think we can learn three lessons about t’shuvah and forgiveness (between peoples, between us and the people in our lives) from this cable and from the “reaching across” that exists in the words of the poem:

First, when there is a valley so wide and we cannot go directly through it, especially when there are lives at stake, you can’t just leave the situation, it is still incumbent upon us to find another way to cross.

We hear in lecha dodi / rav lach shevet b’emek habacha / --you’ve lived too long in the valley of tears, rise up, get up --
so the first lesson is like a command: we cannot stay in the darkness. It is forbidden for us to despair: If the valley is too dark to walk through, create another way.

Second, sometimes the best ways across are not permanent, they are only as wide as a cable, or a phrase of a poem, maybe they only work for hours at a time, maybe they cannot even withstand the public eye, maybe they must start in secret, but we don’t need them to be permanent, we just need them to hold us and whoever is wounded until we can get safely across.

We learn in midrash that the water source for all of the promised land started in the holy of holies, in the innermost chamber of the Temple, the place we are told, that when the Temple was standing, the high priest would go there just one day a year, just on this day. We learn the spring that issued from that place that was only as wide as the thinnest thread but as it sprung out, it got incrementally wider (I imagine like the Andy Goldsworthy at the deYoung Museum) and by the time it reached the entrance of the Temple Hall it was as wide as a rope and by the time it reached the entrance of the Courtyard, it was as wide as the mouth of a jug and by the time it reached the outskirts of the house of David it became a swiftly flowing brook in which all the people could immerse themselves and become pure again [10].

So don’t be fooled, in other words, by the outward appearance of a seemingly insignificant gesture. We don’t always need the complete answer at the beginning. Because we can imagine that what looks like a flimsy, barely a thread of water may grow to cleanse us all. 

The third thing we learn from the cable is that sometimes the best way across something insurmountable is not by trudging through every bit of darkness on the ground but rather, elevated, through the sky, purposefully staying above a great deal of the very real pain on the ground, leaving some of the truth buried there, cast to the ground, so we can keep our eyes on the horizon, on the goal.

In other words, less truth, more imagination.
Amichai’s poem continues:
Afterward, we, [the Arab shepherd and the Jewish father] found them, [the goat and the boy], among the bushes
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.

And so I imagined them all in the cable car, with the goat,
I imagined all of us, all of us who are seeking forgiveness from ourselves and each other, each group in our cable cars, supported by the same thin cable of imagination and compassion, elevated, gliding across the valley, looking down at the truth, laughing and crying and forgiving.

5. (Imagination)
I have one last idea of what to do with truth.
Apparently there is a new Japanese idea called Kintsugi
Which is the art of fixing broken objects, usually pottery, by drawing attention to them with visible gold seams.
This reminded me of an image in the untaneh tokef (prayer) where it says we are like shattered pottery.

R. Gordon Tucker teaches that there is only one place in torah where this image occurs and it comes from a context where a vessel that was used in a sacrifice is considered broken or unusable.

The rabbis asked, they want to know, how we can re-pure-ify vessels that were either made impure or were used in sacrifice and now we want to use them in other ways?

They discuss the techniques for using metal, wood, glass in other ways.

But then the question arises, what about earthenware, pottery? And the rabbis said that the only way to purify an impure pottery vessel is to completely break it open and to put it all back together again. To make the breaks the basis of the new, pure whole.

And what else in torah is made from the earth? People. Remember, God made us from the dust of the earth. So we learn: we mess up, we hurt ourselves, others, we are cracked, rendered impure, so we break ourselves open fully, and take the broken pieces in order to put ourselves together again [11].

The cracks are not scars, counter intuitively, they show our stability, they are proof that we are sound.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook teaches that, “What is remarkable about t’shuvah / this path of changing our ways… is that, in a sense, it allows us to rewrite the past. [He says] Teshuvah is not just about attaining forgiveness for past misdeeds. [Rather] there is a level of elevated t’shuvah through which sins are transformed into merits" [12].

Here is a last way to consider truth:
Not only on its own terms, not as something to be transcended even, but as a necessary ingredient for the good.

In other words, t’shuvah requires us to be able to see how those acts (yes even those), the material from those seemingly permanent monuments of failure, The monuments blotting out the sky, the cracks, dafka those things shall become the foundation of our goodness,
they will become the ground floor of what makes us whole and sound.

On this day, through some kind of religious catalyzing process, the very thing that brought us the most shame will become the beginning of what is most valiant and admirable in us. Starting now.




[1] Text from exhibition notes, Tate Modern, London.

[2] Notes from a lecture Hartman gave to Rabbis in the summer of 1991.

[3] All paraphrases from Yoma 87b.

[4] Hilchot T’shuvah 2:9

[5] Yoma 87a

[6] Hilchot T’shuvah 2:3

[7] Sefer Aggadah 13:46

[8] From Yehudah Amichai, “An Arab Shepherd Is Searching For His Goat on Mount Zion.”

[9] This is from “The Cable Car Project – Avshalom’s Way” located in the Jerusalem Hotel.

[10] Yoma 77b-78a.

[11] Gordon Tucker, Torah For Its Intended Purpose, “Shattered Pottery – Unshattered Hope” (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 2014), p. 96-7.

[12] Abraham Isaac Kook, Sapphire From the Land of Israel, trans. R. Chanan Morrison, 2013, p. 228, adapted from Olat Re’iyah, vol 1, pp. 139-141. See also Yoma 86b.