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It’s Time to Start Living – Rabbi Saks’s Yom Kippur Sermon

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It’s Time to Start Living

Yom Kippur 5777

October 12, 2016 – 10 Tishri 5777

Congregation Bet Ha’am

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

 

 

When Kirk and I saw a production of Pippin at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother when we were introduced to Andrea Martin’s character, Berthe. In her signature song, No Time at All, Berthe sings:

“Here is a secret I never have told

Maybe you’ll understand why

I believe if I refuse to grow old

I can stay young till I die.”[1]

My grandmother used to say that you can only be young once, but you can be immature forever. There was a childlike playfulness about her and seeing Berthe on stage, I began to consider the two, their outlook on life, and what I might learn from them. Later, I realized that when Pippin first played in 1972, Berthe, a 66-year-old character, then played by Irene Ryan, would have been about my grandmother’s age. I know that my grandmother saw a lot of Broadway. I do not know if she ever saw Pippin, but No Time at All captured so much of what I saw in her take on life, that I couldn’t help but wonder if the song had an influence her.

Considering the lyrics, I also came to see the importance in its message for this day, Yom Kippur. Last night, I addressed our religious responsibility to act on behalf of others in the world and the work that our Tikkun Olam Task Force has been doing to advance our work in tikkun olam, but in addition to helping others, we also have an obligation to enjoy life. There’s a rabbinic story about a rich man observed by his rabbi eating only bread and salt, in solidarity with the poor. The rabbi rebukes him and demands that if he does not eat meat and drink wine, then he is likely to come to believe that the poor do not need even bread and salt.

This day is the most, and one of few truly ascetic days in the Jewish calendar. We are called to refrain from food and drink, from sexual intercourse and bathing, from wearing leather, many of the things that affirm life. The goal of Yom Kippur is not that we shun the pleasures of life, but rather, that we recognize their value. This day is meant to draw our attention to the ways in which we’ve squandered our lives over the past year so that we will live the year that comes more fully.

“When you are as old as I, my dear

And I hope that you never are

You will woefully wonder why, my dear

Through your cataracts and catarrh

You could squander away or sequester

A drop of a precious year

For when your best days are yester

The rest’er twice as dear…”[2]

“The whole tenor of Torah is based on the idea that God is to be found in the physical world and its blessings. We are commanded to serve God in joy out of the abundance of good things, not through self-denial. One Talmudic teacher went so far as to say that in the world to come a person will have to face judgement for every legitimate pleasure he denied himself in this life” (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12).[3] Asceticism is not a Jewish value. In fact, it disavows the world God created and named good. On this day, when we behave as though we have died, we know that our true task is to hear the shofar’s blast in a few hours and be reawakened to living life, living it more fully than we have up until now. Yom Kippur is meant to remind us of the uncertainty of life. Who shall live and who shall die? We are commanded to choose life, to take advantage of all that life has to offer and live our lives to the fullest.

“What good is a field on a fine summer night

If you sit all alone with the weeds?

Or a succulent pear if with each juicy bite

You spit out your teeth with the seeds?

Before it’s too late stop trying to wait

For fortune and fate you’re secure of

For there’s one thing to be sure of mate:

There’s nothing to be sure of!

Oh, it’s time to start livin’

Time to take a little from this world we’re given

Time to take time, ’cause spring will turn to fall

In just no time at all…”[4]

There’s only one ascetic practice that’s universally revered in Jewish tradition. That practice is fasting, but it is reserved for fast days, like today, and intended for specific special occasions. Fasting is used to express remorse, sadness, and grief in order to aid in prayer. It is not a religious practice in its own right. “The prophets emphasize over and over again the fact that fasting and mortification of the body by themselves do not please God. They are justified only if they help change [our] moral actions.”[5] The rabbis teach that asceticism is a sin against God and that we are meant to enjoy life as a gift.

The Torah describes one religious practice of asceticism, but the Sages debate its virtue. The Nazirite, who would abstain from cutting his hair and avoid grapes, wine, and other intoxicants as an outward sign of his service to God, had to make a sacrifice upon the end of his period of dedication to God’s service. Some interpret this sacrifice as atonement for the sin of depriving his body so that he could fully re-enter normal society. “The Nazirite should be seen as a sinner in that he rejects God’s gift of wine, … [so] one who denies himself all food and drink is an even greater sinner.”[6] Judaism does not hold that our bodies and souls are in conflict with one another. They each serve the other. They are two parts of a whole. Our liturgy reflects this when, in our morning blessings, Asher Yatzar, a blessing that praises God for the miracle of our bodies and our ability to stand before God, is paired with Elohai N’shamah, which thanks God for our souls.

Of course, there are varying opinions within Jewish text on the value of asceticism and restraining our body’s desires. Sages living in times they perceived to be more morally lax were more likely to advocate for some form of asceticism. Rabbi Yehudah Loew, the Maharal, taught that matzah is a symbol of freedom because regular bread is ‘enslaved’ to other ingredients for flavor and texture. But what about God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be freed from Egypt with great wealth? “If austerity is the symbol of freedom, why did God muddy their crystal purity with the burden of prosperity?”[7] Holiness and the commandment to be holy, as displayed in Parashat Kedoshim, is not defined, but it is accompanied by examples of ways to exhibit holiness: honor your parents, be charitable and honest, refrain from gossip and slander, avoid hatred and revenge. “These values imply a material lifestyle, not an ascetic, puritanical one. The ascetic is detached from society and has little opportunity to gossip, hate, or be dishonest in business,”[8] and therefore cannot fulfill these commandments. “To engage in worldly matters in a spirit of sanctity is an act of worship in which the holy sparks inherent in the material universe are reclaimed for the sacred.”[9] Part of living a religious life is recognizing that God, “wants us to embrace the world into which we were born, including its material pursuits.”[10]

“I’ve never wondered if I was afraid

When there was a challenge to take

I never thought about how much I weighed

When there was still one piece of cake

Maybe it’s meant the hours I’ve spent

Feeling broken and bent and unwell

But there’s still no cure more heaven-sent

As the chance to raise some hell.

Oh, it’s time to start livin’

Time to take a little from the world we’re given

Time to take time, ’cause spring will turn to fall

In just no time at all.”[11]

The Baal Shem Tov, one of the great Hasidic masters, drew from the mystical tradition that everything in this world is imbued with the divine spark, a result of the shattering of vessels containing God’s light during the time of Creation. Even what we wear, what we consume, and the possessions we have contain these sparks. When we use these objects fully, with recognition that everything we have comes from God, then we praise God with the fullness of our lives and the even the ordinary becomes a holy act.

The poet Marcia Falk writes about this season and its call to live our lives fully: “Nothing. You began as nothing and you will end as nothing. And in between—everything, and nothing. In between—joy and sorrow, beauty and decay. Everything yours to partake of, yours to bear. Yours to see, to know, to give birth to—and to let go. None of it is yours to have. Not even you are yours to have. You belong to a wholeness so great you cannot even conceive of it. No, it is not a belonging; nothing owns you. You are simply part of it. You came out of it and you will return to it. You do not ever leave it, you are part of it forever. And this is your moment to be alive.”[12]

This is our chance to be alive. This is the message of Yom Kippur. The symbolism of death and the warnings of how we might fail are not meant to predict what will happen, but rather to call us to make sure they don’t happen. In spite of anything that has befallen us in the past year, the message of this day is that the year that lies ahead can be better, if we decide today to start living.

“Now, I’ve known the fears of sixty six years

I’ve had troubles and tears by the score

But the only thing I’d trade them for

Is sixty seven more…

Oh, it’s time to start livin’

Time to take a little from the world we’re given

Time to take time, ‘cause spring will turn to fall

In just no time at all!”[13]

[1] Stephen Schwartz. No Time at All. Pippin. Sony/ATV Music Publishing, LLC, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jonathan Sacks. To Heal a Fractured World. New York: Schocken Books, 2005, p. 35.

[4] Schwartz.

[5] “Asceticism.” Encylopedia Judaica. Jewish Virtual Library. <http://jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/ejud_0002_0002_0_01417.html>.

[6] Louis Jacobs. “Asceticism.” The Jewish Religion: A Companion. Reprinted at <http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/asceticism/>, 2008.

[7] Lazer Gurkow. “Is Asceticism a Jewish Value?” Chabad. <http://www.chabad.org/parashah/article_cdo/aid/18362580/jewish/Is-Asceticism-a-Jewish-Value.htm>.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jacobs.

[10] Gurkow.

[11] Schwartz.

[12] Marcia Falk. “Nothing.” The Days Between. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014, p. 87.

[13] Schwartz.

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