Becoming Like Angels

It’s so wonderful to see families together today, on the holiest day of the year. Part of what makes the holidays so special and so meaningful is everyone being here. Please know you always have a place here at the Jericho Jewish Center.

We want to hear from you as to how we are doing, and so we are taking part of Synergy’s Thriving Synagogue Initiative. This is an online survey taking 10-15 minutes of your time, created and analyzed by professionals from Brandeis University. It opens the day after Yom Kippur and will remain open through November 11. Please fill it out via the e-mail link you will receive. If you do not have access to e-mail, please call me to set up an appointment to fill out the survey. We want to have 100% participation.

People want to be part of something greater than themselves; to quote Star Trek, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Why else would there be missions to the moon, or a Guinness Book of World Records? We desire to feel that we are boundless, that nothing can stop us. Yet through so much of the year we feel constrained by our human limitations or by the routines of life. We feel bounded as opposed to boundless and this can be frustrating.

Yom Kippur is the singular day of importance, the day on which we supersede our bodily needs and strive to reach G-d. The purpose of our fasting along with the other prohibitions is to transcend our bodies and rise to the level of the angels. Often in the late afternoon of Yom Kippur I feel a lightness, a calmness that I have ascended in some way. Somehow I get beyond the physical discomforts and am able to reach a level of increased consciousness, and I feel closer to G-d.

The Hasidic masters have written about the singular importance of Yom Kippur. Rabbi Shalom Noah Borozovsky, the Slonimer rebbe, in his book Netivot Shalom, writes that the rest of the year there is a מחיצה של ברזל,[1] an iron barrier, between us and G-d. On Yom Kippur, we transcend that barrier, rising to G-d’s level. Rabbi Borozovsky writes that on Yom Kippur האדם מישראל מתבטל כולו להשי”ת הכל מהותו בכל חלקיו, on Yom Kippur a person nullifies his entire (bodily existence) for G-d, all of his essence in all of its parts.[2] The goal for many Hasidim is בטול היש, nullification of one’s physicality in an attempt to reach the spiritual. We each have a body and a soul; the body is physical and temporary, the soul is spiritual and eternal.

Many of us are in a daze when we reach the end of Yom Kippur. Sure there are the initial hunger pangs and the tiredness but there is also a heightened level of spiritual consciousness that can be reached. When we reach that level of deeper awareness, we are connecting with something greater than ourselves which is boundless. By neglecting our earthly needs we lose track of the here-and-now, heading towards a moment that is greater than what we can put into words.

Yom Kippur is the day on which we get closest to reaching those who are no longer physically present but are still very much spiritually in our midst. We feel their presence in such a heightened way. Through disengaging in the world around us we are able to engage with them, focusing on connecting with their souls. We also recognize the void that is created by missing them, the things they did that can never be replaced.

Mishnah Sotah teaches us, “When Rabbi Meir died, the composers of fables ceased. When Ben Azzai died, the assiduous students of Torah ceased. When Ben Zoma died, the expositors ceased. When Rabbi Akiva died, the glory of the Torah ceased. When Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa died, men of deed ceased. When Rabbi Yosi Ketanta died, the pious men ceased…when Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai died, the luster of wisdom ceased.”[3] At first glance this is an upsetting text, as if all people of such greatness are here no longer, what can we possibly hope to achieve? However, I see it in the following vein: we need to recognize the void left by those no longer physically present and live our lives in accordance with their example. Through learning from them and aspiring to be people of character, of vision and of strength like they were, we will keep their memories alive. It’s when we disregard their life examples that things begin to cease.

Yizkor from the word “Zachor” means to remember. This word is used in the 10 commandments from Exodus for us to remember Shabbat. Deuteronomy uses a different word, “Shamor,” or observe. According to our tradition G-d spoke both words at once. In so doing, G-d commanded us to both remember and observe the importance of our day of rest. Similarly, we need to remember those who came before us and observe in some way their life’s teachings. Yom Kippur, the day on which we rise above our earthly selves, is the perfect day to connect with those who are no longer physically present; remembering their touch, their words and actions of kindness, all that they sought to achieve in life. It’s the day after Yom Kippur that we seek to observe our lives in the way that they taught us: with integrity, honesty, kindness, confidence, perseverance through life’s challenges and determination to succeed. Through reconnecting with our loved ones today, we set the stage for a tomorrow in which we live life to the fullest, giving our all to make our parents, our grandparents, our spouses, our siblings proud of our accomplishments. Like angels we transcend our physical limitations today, and tomorrow, when we are more “earth-bound,” we continue to strive to do our best in every aspect of life.

What about those who have unfinished business with loved ones? That is also what Yom Kippur is about: a day of second chances. The second set of Ten Commandments was given on Yom Kippur as an atonement for the golden calf and for Moses’ smashing the first set. In doing so, G-d gave the message that our ancestors were forgiven for their misdeeds. Similarly, we have a chance to start over, to begin this year with a clean slate and clear conscience, bereft of any feelings of guilt. We all make mistakes and like our ancestors we get the opportunity after genuine supplication to begin anew. That is what the Day of Atonement, or At-One-Ment, is all about: being at one with G-d and with ourselves as we strive to move forward with an attempt at serenity and wholeness.

What do we do when we are feeling bereft, that our world is empty without our loved one? For this I return to Netivot Shalom who discusses this topic as well. He states that “at a time when one feels that their world is dark and does not find something to cling to, his/her responsibility is to cling to G-d.”[4] A key principle of Hasidim, literally the “pious ones,” is דבקות, or clinging to G-d. During a funeral, I always mention why so many of the prayers at the cemetery have to do with praising G-d, why we say the Kaddish, which exalts the name of G-d, or צדוק הדין which refers to G-d asתמים  הצור, our rock in whom there is no flaw. Why at a time of grief and bereavement would we seek to praise G-d? The answer is not for G-d’s sake but for ours-that when we are vulnerable and broken inside, we need something greater than ourselves to cling to, to give us hope, to make us remember that our life has meaning and purpose. For some that is fulfilled through family, for others through friendships, but our tradition teaches that G-d, a being greater than ourselves, is the source of comfort. That is why one of G-d’s names is שלום, or peace, and why we pray that in addition to bringing peace to the world, G-d brings us peace of mind and a sense of שלמות, of wholeness.

This Yom Kippur we remember the lives of two individuals who gave so much to the Jewish people: Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres. Wiesel spoke at the Jericho Jewish Center 21 years ago at our 40th anniversary celebration, which remains one of the largest fund-raisers in the history of our synagogue. One of his remarks which continue to resonate with me is “hope is like peace. It is not a gift from G-d. It is a gift only we can give one another.” [5] He said in his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of 1986 “Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history.”[6] As we remember Wiesel on this Yom Kippur, I wish for us to keep this at the forefront of our minds-that no matter what difficulties we undergo we remain united as a congregational family and that we always have people to whom we can turn to help us stay on course.

We also remember another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shimon Peres. Peres is the only individual in the State of Israel’s history to have served as both President and Prime Minister. Shimon strove with every fiber of his being to bring peace to Israel, and though some felt he was too naïve, or too much of a dreamer, he never gave up hope for peace. Upon his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, Peres stated, “The wars we fought were forced upon us. Thanks to the Israel Defense Forces, we won them all, but we did not win the greatest victory that we aspired to; release from the need to win victories.”[7] While he could not lead Israel to peace, Peres said, “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem but a fact-not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”[8]

As we prepare for another Yizkor, I pray that each of us takes a moment to deeply connect with those who are no longer physically present in our lives, to remember their touch, their smile, their words of inspiration, to remember the memories shared over the years. I also hope that we will rise up, transcending our current state of being and become like angels, striving to reach the souls of our loved ones. Through Yizkor on this holiest day of the year, we rekindle their spirit and reunite with them-keeping their presence with us. This is not meant to be easy to achieve-there may be tears, frustration or sadness upon recalling one taken before his/her time or when we hoped for so many more special moments together. However, on Yom Kippur we have an opportunity to get as close as possible to the ones who came before us, who taught us values and ethics, who modeled for us how to live our lives. Through closing our eyes, taking a deep breath, letting our thoughts go, we no longer focus on our worldly concerns, instead deeply connecting with our loved ones. In so doing, we can ascend like angels to the supernal realms.

I conclude with a special reading by Rabbi Josh Moskowitz about Rabbi Soloveitchik entitled “To Say Yizkor is to Say…” Though a lesser loss, I think about this after we put our dog down this past Wednesday.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suffered from pain and depression upon the death of his wife. Rabbi Soloveitchik describes the pain this way:

Over the course of many years, a man becomes accustomed to returning home from his outside affairs. He climbs the few steps before the front door of his house in the same way he has done for years. He rings the bell out of habit and expects to hear, as always, the soft steps from the other side of the door…He waits, but the steps never come. He puts his hand into his pocket, pulls out the key and opens the door…It seems to be the same door and the same furniture. Everything is clean and polished as usual…Nevertheless, something has changed. Everything appears to be in exactly the same state and in the same place as before he left his house. Nothing has been moved, only no one is there waiting for him. All around there is peace and quiet-which can sometimes be worse than heart-rending cries. Mourning engulfs his whole being.

At four times during the year, it is custom and obligation to stand with one’s community and to remember how it was before everything changed; to remember what we loved so much about them; and to acknowledge our sense of loss.

To say before one’s people: I am less than whole…because people I still care for, still love deeply are not here among we, the living, but are at rest (God willing) among the dead. But just like those I love, these too were somehow a part of me…and that part of me is now gone.

To say before one’s people: I hurt, at least now when the memories come back into focus, and the feelings rise up from who knows where.

And also to say before one’s people: Despite the hurt life does go on, that in some unpredictable but sure way, time does heal, most wounds do close up…The feeling of being engulfed by mourning still comes…but over time loses some power, some frequency.

That life continues on and can still be quite good-not because we have forgotten loved ones, but, in fact precisely because we choose to remember. Remember the qualities we loved and were touched by; remember ideas and sayings and small bits of humor; and remember their love and concern for us…

And in some unplanned but real way, all of this has become a part of us, so that we are more whole than we ever would have guessed…Because they are a part of us…They sustain us. And they stay with us in life-as we stay with them in death. Let us remember them.”[9]

We continue with Yizkor on Page 321.

[1] Netivot Shalom, Yom Kippur, Fourth Article, כי גדול יום ה

[2] Ibid

[3] Mishnah Sotah 9:14

[4] Netivot Shalom, Service of G-d, Second Article, Page 241

[5] Attributed to Elie Wiesel

[6] Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1986.

[7] Shimon Peres, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1994.

[8] Attributed to Shimon Peres.

[9] From The World of the High Holy Days Volume 1, edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer, Pages 349-350.

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