by Rabbi Jared H. Saks
Yom Kippur 5780 | October 9, 2019 – 10 Tishrei 5780
“A singular disaster; a disaster is coming. Doom is coming! The hour of doom is coming! It stirs against you; there it comes! Here is the day! See, the cycle has come round; it has appeared. The rod has blossomed; arrogance has budded; lawlessness has grown into a rod of wickedness.”
Ezekiel prophesied these words in the 6th century BCE. Ezekiel, a Zadokite priest, was deported with 8,000 exiles to Babylon in 597 BCE after the siege of Jerusalem, where he ultimately learned of the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE. At that point in history, this was one of the worst experiences for the Jewish people, the destruction of our sacred shrine, the deportation of our people, the annihilation of our homeland. These were, then, our darkest days. If we were to rank the calamities that have befallen our people, the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem would fall high on that list.
But the beauty of the book of Ezekiel is that it doesn’t end with gloom and doom. According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b), Ezekiel begins with doom, but ends with consolation. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Ezekiel makes a shift. Chapter 33 marks a transition. Ezekiel reports, “In the twelfth year of our exile, on the fifth day of the tenth month, a fugitive came to me from Jerusalem and reported, ‘The city has fallen.’” Take a moment to imagine this. Picture what Ezekiel and his fellow exiles are learning. They’ve been in exile from their land for over a decade. An enemy has taken over and now they’ve learned that their central shrine, the Temple, and the entire holy city of Jerusalem have been destroyed. How will Ezekiel react? How would you have reacted?
Friends, we live in some of the most challenging times that most of us have experienced. It’s hard to say right now whether, when we look back on the pages of history, this period will appear as dark as it feels to us right now. But no matter, many of us are troubled by the state of our world and of our country. Many of you have reached out to me over the past few years seeking guidance on how to endure, if there’s anything we can actually do to make the world a better place. Perhaps I’m an optimist. Maybe I’m just naïve. I not only think it’s possible. I think it’s probable. But if that’s not what you’re feeling, let me share this pearl of wisdom from the 13th century philosopher, physician, and commentator, Maimonides: Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable. Again, hope is the belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable. So, even with things feeling as grim as they do on some days, I still have hope.
As soon as Ezekiel received word of the destruction of Jerusalem, he begins to share only messages of hope and restoration. He shares visions of the reunification of his people and the rebuilding of his land. The early chapters of Ezekiel contain repeated warnings about the doom and exile that will come. “In contrast with his contemporary fellow prophet Jeremiah, Ezekiel offers no direct call for repentance… One is therefore left with the sense that the time for hope is past.” But, when the worst does come, Ezekiel doesn’t say, “I told you so.” Rather, he presents a hopeful vision. “Ezekiel’s hopeful vision gave rise to a Jewish identity that extended beyond geographical and political borders.” He witnessed the exile of his people, the fall of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple. “The Hebrew nation was shocked and in a spiritual crisis.” But when that catastrophe befell his people, Ezekiel presented them with the possible despite the probable. He gave them hope.
The Psalmist cries out to God, “Do not cast me out of Your presence, or take Your holy spirit away from me. Let me again rejoice in Your help; let a generous spirit sustain me.” A generous spirit. Ruach n’divah. This, my friends, is what we need to carry us forward, to move us from tragedy to triumph, from heartbreak to hope. Generosity of spirit doesn’t involve digging deeply into our pockets, but it does require intention. In spite of the world around us, we have to maintain our ability to be caring souls. The Mussar tradition of Jewish practice, a movement developed in the 19th century, calls us to be sensitive to others as part of our spiritual practice. This is both a goal and a measure of our spiritual growth. “Being a giving person (and not just with money) is a sign of the exquisite sensitivity that is our potential.”
There’s a story told about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the 19th century Lithuanian founder of the Mussar movement. It was the eve of Yom Kippur, when Kol Nidre was supposed to begin. The sanctuary was full, but Rabbi Salanter wasn’t there. The congregation was forced to begin Kol Nidre without him. At the same time, they sent out a search party to find him, but no one could locate him. The congregation began to panic as the service was drawing to a close, but he still wasn’t there. All of a sudden, Rabbi Salanter appeared, draped his tallit over his head, and began to pray. When he finished praying, he told them what had happened.
On his way to synagogue, he’d heard a baby crying. He went into the house from where he could hear the infant. He found her in her cradle, her bottle just out of reach. As it turned out, her mother had prepared the bottle, left it with her older sibling, and went to synagogue. She had expected her six-year-old to feed the baby. But the child had fallen asleep and didn’t hear the baby crying. Rabbi Salanter fed the baby and put her to sleep. As he was about to leave, the sibling woke up and asked him to stay, afraid to be alone. So, the rabbi stayed until the mother returned home.
Rabbi Salanter had a principle for this kind of generosity of spirit: “The spiritual is higher than the material, but the needs of another are an obligation of my spiritual life.” What do the villains of our tradition–the Hamans, the Pharaohs, the Amaleks–have in common? They are all insensitive to the needs of others. “The story of Pharaoh’s resistance to letting the Jewish people go continually refers to his hard heart, his heavy heart, his stubborn heart.” We are called not to be like Pharaoh. Judaism calls us to have a ruach n’divah, a generous spirit. We may not always be able to offer the kind of generosity that can lift someone out of poverty, but we can all be generous of spirit.
On his podcast Mobituaries, journalist Mo Rocca profiles the renowned actress Audrey Hepburn. Audrey Hepburn was born in Brussels, Belgium, on May 4, 1929. She spent some of her youth in the United Kingdom where her parents were supporters of the Fascist movement. When her father abandoned her family, Hepburn and her mother moved to neutral Holland. Soon after, the Nazis invaded. “In spite of her parents’ pre-war politics, as a young teenager, Audrey did what she could to help the resistance, like raising funds through secret dance performances.” Her hometown of Arnhem, Holland, was a battlefield and many of its citizens, including her own family members, starved during the Dutch Famine. At Christmas in 1944, they ran out of food. By the end of the war, Audrey Hepburn was malnourished, weighing only 88 pounds. The war stayed with Audrey Hepburn the rest of her life, but not how you might imagine if you didn’t know who she was.
Her son, Luca Dotti, said of her, “My mother was a survivor and when you are, you always have this duality. You are happy to be alive, but you have this sense of guilt, because the person next door didn’t make it.” Hepburn was one month older than Anne Frank. The two never met, but Audrey Hepburn was captivated by Anne Frank’s story. She read the diary when it was still being edited. Otto Frank, Anne’s father, wanted Hepburn to play his daughter on screen, but she refused. “She thought it would kill her.” Audrey Hepburn was crushed that she’d made it, but Anne Frank hadn’t. The rest of Audrey Hepburn’s life was imbued with both yearning and gratitude, gratitude that her life had been spared and a yearning to improve the life of others.
I imagine that this might have been the kind of shift that occurred in the prophet Ezekiel. The first thirty-two chapters of Ezekiel are prophecies of destruction, warning, and peril. But when he learns that Jerusalem has been destroyed, he is, perhaps, overcome with a sense of both gratitude and obligation. His promise to the people that God’s covenant with them had not been broken, in spite of everything that had transpired, ensured that Jewish customs and practices were maintained in exile. “In fact, scholars believe that the Babylonian exile marks a crucial phase in the effort…to compile the many strands of Jewish history, ritual, and law into one comprehensive set of books. These books…would enable families to retain their unique identity and continue the rich liturgical life of their [ancestors].” Everything we know of Jewish life today is the result of the Babylonian exile. I don’t mean to say that the exile was a good thing for Judaism. Rather, Judaism continued to thrive even after the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple in 586 BCE and after the Romans destroyed the second one in 70 CE because there were people who held out hope, who were instilled with a generosity of spirit that would ensure Judaism’s survival.
After the war, Audrey Hepburn lived a life of generosity, in large part because she had survived. The end of giving, for her, would mean the end of living. As a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, Hepburn ensured that children starving in Africa, Asia, and Latin America received the care they needed. She sold dresses from her acting roles to support UNICEF’s work. On her appointment as a goodwill ambassador, Hepburn said, “I can testify to what UNICEF means to children, because I was among those who received food and medical relief right after World War II.”
Ezekiel was surrounded by hopelessness. It took his resilience and his persistent hope to move the people beyond their darkness. They felt as good as dead, overwhelmed by the reality of their world, with no sense of a way out. Still, he didn’t give up, either on God or on the people. He shared this vision from God: “O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone; we are doomed.’ Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: Thus says the Eternal God: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel. You shall know, O My people, that I am the Eternal, when I have opened your graves and lifted you out of your graves. I will put My breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil. Then you shall know that I the Eternal have spoken and have acted’—declares the Eternal.”
In this new year, 5780, may we be imbued with a generosity of spirit, a sense of responsibility and of gratitude. May we find hope and embody it, bringing it into a world so in need of hope. G’mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for blessing in the Book of Life. Shanah tovah.
 Ezekiel 7:5, 10-11a.
 Ezekiel 33:21.
 Michael Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002, p. 550.
 Jean-Pierre Isbouts, “In exile, Hebrews found hope in Prophet Ezekiel’s visions,” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/people-in-the-bible/ezekiel-prophet-israel-old-testament.html, January 17, 2019.
 Psalm 15:13-14.
 Alan Morinis, “Through a Mussar Lens: Cultivating a Generosity of Spirit,” The Mussar Institute, https://www.mussarinstitute.org/Yashar/2015-02/mussar_lens.php, February 2015.
 Mo Rocca, “Audrey Hepburn: Death of an Icon,” Mobituaries, https://www.mobituaries.com/the-podcast/season-1/audrey-hepburn-death-of-an-icon/.
 Ezekiel 37:11-14.