R. Noa Kushner // Yom Kippur, 5779
1. The Lost Treasury
It was in Eastern Europe, in the late 18th century, on Yom Kippur, in our small shtetl synagogue, that my community was having an astounding problem. You see, our Rabbi was leading services when he learned that the entire treasury of the shul, including all the money that had been donated until that very day, every single ruble had been stolen. Everything was completely gone.
And so the rabbi addressed us, the congregation. Who could do such a thing? To steal from the community! Who could do such a thing? And on Yom Kippur, yet! How could this happen?
Now the Rabbi in our community sometimes had good ideas. And this was one of those times. He proposed a solution. He said, “If the temptation to steal on Yom Kippur was strong enough for one of us, it could be strong enough for any of us. It could be strong enough for you, it could be strong enough for me. What we should do is this: We should all make T’shuvah (turn, repent) as a community, we should all consider ourselves guilty of the crime. And so as each one leaves the synagogue after services, each one will empty out their pockets. This way we will recover the money.”
There was a stir in the room as everyone whispered to one another his or her appreciation for this idea. And so, at the end of the day, eager to break the fast, we all lined up to file out of the sanctuary, and as each person walked out the door, we each emptied out our pockets. In a gesture, we each proclaimed our innocence as we crossed the synagogue threshold to the world outside. That is each of us but Yitzchak. For some reason, Yitzchak was holding us the line. He didn’t want to empty his pockets. He was insistent. His face grew white. We were restless, hungry. We wanted to get home.
Now, I have to explain Yitzchak to you. He wasn’t born in our shtetl. It was only when the tailor, the richest man in town needed a husband for his daughter that Yitzchak came to our community. Now the tailor had searched high and wide for a proper groom, and when he finally settled on Yitzchak, we all heard about it. In fact, we had to go and see for ourselves if it was true. And it was. He knew at least 1000 pages of Talmud. Not only that, he was a master of all the texts, knew quotes from every source. And the secular studies. Mathematics, Astronomy, these he also knew. He also looked nice, like many of the scholars of that time, with brown hair, glasses. Everyone was talking about him.
I don’t remember when it happened, but we also decided, after he had lived in our community for a while that he was a little too intelligent, a little too nice. Did he have to remember every single person’s name on the street?
So you can imagine our silent delight when we saw Yitzchak clearly upset with the prospect of emptying his pockets. He started to feebly protest and we protested back. “We all emptied our pockets,” we chimed, “now you empty yours.” Yitzchak was trembling. “Please,” he whispered. “Please, anything but this. Stone me, drown me, but don’t make me empty my pockets.” His voice got weaker and weaker as he begged. But it was no use, we were impatient, greedy, hungry to break the fast. We held him down on the floor and forcibly emptied his pockets.
And you know what we found? A couple of plum pits and some chicken bones. He was ashamed to be caught eating on Yom Kippur.
Amazed, we all walked home laughing amongst ourselves, chattering about the events of the day. All of us that is except the rabbi. He walked by himself, his eyes sunk with despair, his shoulders weighted with shame.
You might ask, “But what about the money? The stolen treasury?” And I can only give you the answer that was given to me when I heard the story told. The money doesn’t matter.
You see, Real life, real T’shuvah, (a real turning from where we have gone wrong, a real personal change) means not being able to dictate what the outcome will be. Not for us and certainly not for another person. To do so would be to defeat the point. Because at the essence of T’shuvah is trust. Once we start, we cannot know how it will go or where we will end. The things that we thought were our worst sins often simply fall away. The relationships that we were sure were beyond repair take on a new form. And where we end up is often in completely untested territory, places unheard of.
A few years ago, when the girls were smaller we went to Israel. However, we went completely on frequent flier miles and as a result were on nine different flights as part of our trip. I have kind of repressed it now but some point we were in Calvary, Canada on our way to the Middle East. We definitely doubled back at least at one juncture, maybe more.
This reminded me of a section in the Torah which gives us in great detail every single place we stopped in our travels through the desert for forty years. 40 verses of detail. Naming each and every place. And here’s the thing: unlike a lot of places in Torah, regarding most of these places, we have no idea where they are. If you look in the JPS, it notes: Location uncertain. Location Unidentified. Location, uncertain.
It seems the rabbis, too, are drawn to this list of unknown places. If every word has a purpose and a meaning in Torah, this is a whole of detail for places that seem to have no significance. Why not just say: “and the people traveled for 40 years?” What could possibly be the reason for naming all those little towns in the desert? Dopkah? Alush, Rephidim, and on and on.
The Rambam teaches that by listing this long and detailed journey, God emphasizes that everywhere we went, we lacked absolutely nothing, not one thing lacking at any station along the way. That even though we were in all these small and unknown places, we still were not attacked by desert storms or scorpions. In other words, it was a long 40 years but God did not leave us to fend for ourselves and the journey was not without its miracles of survival.
Rashi says the long list of names is to show us that while we went from place to place, in some places, we stayed a long time, we even rested.
We weren’t running around aimlessly.
But the Rambam adds that we were given this lengthy itinerary in Torah to contradict the opinion…that we did not know where to go; that we were in a state of confusion, “entangled in the land.”
You see? Without the listing of the places and the detail, while we certainly don’t walk away with the impression that the Israelites have a great sense of direction, while we don’t come across as an especially efficient group, we were not lost, either. There was an evolving plan.
Maimonides even goes so far as to say, “The Torah clearly states that the route was near, known, and in good condition…They were not lost. The zigzagging and stopping were deliberate…(for which the Torah states the real cause.)”
I’m thinking it was like our family trip. There were a lot of what would seem like unnecessary stops (Calgary? Seriously) but we were not lost. We were headed somewhere.
So what is the difference between being lost and zigzagging versus stopping in dozens of unidentifiable locations for a generation’s worth of time but still being the way somewhere? To the outside observer the two paths might even look the same.
To the outside observer, “lost” might even look preferable.
Because as we know a Torah mandated life of zigzagging does not guarantee efficiency or ease. It just means the journey is deliberate.
When we were traveling, we got to see some art. I was in one instillation that took place in an elevator. Once the operator closed the elevator door, we all moved up in complete and total darkness until we reached our destination. The walls and the floor of the elevator were heavily carpeted so the small traveling room even felt dark. Even the few seconds was disarming, until my daughter, then five, started to talk. In the darkness, we were not lost but we had no idea where we were. We just knew that we were moving somewhere. Zigzagging.
In another exhibit, another place, we waited in a long line to enter a large room with a small group of people. Once in the room, it was so filled with soft colored lights and a kind of mist, that we literally could not see where we were. We felt weightless. We had no idea how big or small the room was, where the walls were or even which way to go. Again, there was no way to describe the location of where we were, we only intuited that there was a way to move through the room. There was a door on the other side, if only we could find it. Zigzagging.
When I thought about it, in both rooms, really the only way of orienting ourselves at all was through the people we came in with. You could reach out your hand to hold the arm of the one next to you so you did not bump into each other. Or you could say something. In both rooms, you could hear people calling out into the darkness, into the light. Nervous laughter. “Are you there?” “I think I am kind of scared.” “Isn’t this wonderful?”
One room of complete darkness and one full of light. We didn’t know where we were in either room. But we never felt utterly lost.
And they set out from Mount Hor and encamped at Zalmonah. They set out from Zalmonah and encamped at Punon.
We are told in Torah that a cloud or a series of clouds also protected us through the wilderness. Which is the kind of protection that, frankly, makes me anxious. It makes me think about driving in the fog. But maybe, as we went from place to place, not only did we not really know where we were, we also couldn’t see properly. Maybe that was the point. To learn the difference between not knowing where we were going and being lost.
They set out from Zalmonah and encamped at Punon. They set out from Punon and encamped at Oboth.
I heard a story from some Kitchen-ites.
They were lucky enough to have a house in Napa in the wilderness and wanted to build a path for any hikers who came through.
Sounded easy enough but their first attempt was a disaster.
They tried to do it themselves and came back hours later covered in bruises and scratches, having had a close call with an illegal marijuana farm and some pretty shady characters. Not hikers at all.
The second time wasn’t much better, they paid someone who then pretty much just put down a beginning mark and an end mark and essentially drew a line from one mark to the other, disregarding that the “path” went over a cliff, among other non-negotiable hazards
Finally, they asked around and did some research and found a person I will call “the path whisperer.”
And when I heard this story a few years ago I could not believe it, it sounded so Chasidic. And to this day I am convinced that the path whisperer is the prophet Elijah who always comes to us in disguise.
And here is what I heard he said:
“I will build you a path but you have to trust me and you will have to come with me and we will do this together. Not only that, I won’t be able to tell you at the beginning where it will end. I can just help you get from station to station, without knowing in advance how long the path will be, or where exactly in what directions it will go.”
And this was the way the path was built, without a master plan, one station at a time. I thought: zigzagging.
Sometimes the zigzagging of life brings you into light, so much light that we are disoriented. I have seen this many times at weddings I officiate and I remember our own wedding. Michael, as you know, is also a rabbi so even twenty years ago we knew our way around a chuppah. And yet, at the end of our own wedding, we were so disoriented, so surrounded by light, we forgot everything we knew. After Michael stepped on the glass we looked at our rabbi with blank, quizzical faces. “Kiss!” He told us. So we did. Then we stared at him again. “Go!” He said. “It’s over!” We held on for dear life and tried to make our way through that light to the next door. To the next town we had never heard of and probably would never be able to find again.
They set out from Iyim and encamped at Divion-gad. They set out from Divion-gad and encamped at Almon-Divlatayma.
And sometimes the zigzagging of life brings you into so much darkness, darkness like we have never known. A set of coordinates on the map of darkness. A death. A loss. Something that seems irretrievable, irreparable. We are down for the count, the wind knocked clean out of us.
And here too, we don’t quite know where we are. We look around but our eyes don’t tell us what we need to know. In these moments where we are bereft, empty, confused, and the only way to know where we are is to hold on to each other, to listen to the voices of the people we love around us as we walk through. To follow the words of Torah, of the tradition, not because those words protect us, they can’t, but because when something like this happens, they tell us what do to. “Gather!” “Sing!” “Don’t let go of my voice.” “Look for the door on the other side of the room, the one with the light underneath.”
“Don’t despair. There is another town up ahead. It’s not that far away. I can’t actually see it and I don’t know anything about it but it’s on the way to the land that has been promised to us. You are not lost. We are not lost. We are zigzagging.”
They set out from Divion-gad and encamped at Almon-Divlatayma. They set out from Almon-Divlatayma and camped in hills of Avarim…
At the end, what’s the difference between being lost and zigzagging? Maybe it comes down to remembering who we are with, listening for the sound of their voices or for God’s voice. Knowing we are moving somewhere else, somewhere named. Maybe this is also the essence of T’shuvah. Knowing we are not lost. Knowing to listen for the sound of the voices around us, listening for God’s voice. Knowing that even though we don’t know how it will turn out, or even how we will turn out, we are moving somewhere else, somewhere named.