Know Before Whom You Stand

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Yom Kippur 5779, September 19, 2019 – 10 Tishri 5779

When I was assigned a research paper in my 9th grade history class, I decided that for the first time in quite a few years I wasn’t going to choose a Jewish topic for my paper, which had been my pattern for a while. I decided, instead, to write a paper about the last Dutch director- general of the colony of New Netherlands, Peter Stuyvesant. Of course, as I did my research, I discovered the narrative of his anti-Semitism and the paper that I had been determined wasn’t going to be about Judaism all of a sudden had Jewish themes. Throughout my life, this has happened quite a bit to me. I have had a tendency, even before I was a rabbi, to find Jewish threads running through much of life. So, it shouldn’t have surprised me that while I spent a great deal of my sabbatical studying midrash at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, exploring worship and Jewish life at some of LA’s most renowned synagogues, welcoming Shabbat with my family, and deepening my own spirituality and connection to God through hashpa’ah, one of the most profoundly Jewish experiences I had was my appearing on The Price is Right.

I’ll be honest. Being on The Price is Right has been on my bucket list since I was about 8- years-old. On days that I stayed home sick from school or when there were teacher in-service days, I regularly found myself in front of the television at 11:00 tuned into CBS. And the experience lived up to the hype. Kirk and I were fortunate enough to have a friend from Minneapolis who was on the show a few years ago who clued us into the process. Alyssa told us that as soon as we arrived at CBS Studios, we should assume that we were being watched. The entire process, she told us, was an interview. As we waited in line with other audience members and potential contestants, we knew that there were cameras on us and that some of the folks in line might have actually been staff who were watching our every move.

Kirk and I had to be at the studio at 8:00 in the morning and those of you who know me fairly well know that that’s not my finest hour. We were up at 6:00, Zak’s babysitter arrived by 6:30, and by 7:00 in the morning we were out the door. In the car on the way to the studio, Kirk turned to me and said, “No fighting today!” I listened. I was on my best behavior. When the woman next to me needed a pen to fill out paperwork, I was out of my seat before she could ask and shouted back to her as I ran to the desk, “I’ll get you a pen!” I talked to strangers, something I’m really not good at. I was probably the most helpful, most friendly, and most gregarious I’ve ever been in my life. And it worked. In the first round of contestants I was called up on stage and by sheer luck made it all the way to the Showcase Showdown.

As soon as we left the studio, I said to Kirk, “I wonder what the world would be like if people interacted with everyone around them thinking that their behavior meant they’d have a chance to win $50,000 on Plinko or win a new car.” And I didn’t even mean a guarantee that they’d win, just the chance to play for it. I realized the thing about my behavior at CBS that morning. I was fully aware, the entire time, that there were eyes on me, that at every moment someone was judging my behavior and determining whether I was worthy of reward.

In Tractate B’rachot in the Talmud we encounter a teaching about Rabbi Eliezer when he had fallen ill. His students gathered around his bed and asked him to teach them the ways of life so that they could earn a place in the World to Come. Rabbi Eliezer said to them: Be mindful of the honor of others. Restrain the youth from being idle and place them at the feet of scholars. And when you pray, know before whom you stand. On account of this, you will merit a place in the World to Come.1

Da lifnei mi atah omeid, know before whom you stand. This third part of Rabbi Eliezer’s teaching is inscribed above many arks in synagogues. Practically, it reminds the worshipper to engage wholeheartedly in worship in the sanctuary, that this place is a place of holiness. Spiritually, it tells us that if we stand in awareness of God and open our hearts to God, we will be in God’s presence not only in the synagogue or when we are actively engaged in Jewish life, but at all times we may feel God’s presence. Whether we feel a sense of God more at the shore or atop a mountain or when we are engaged in study and prayer, if we know before whom we always stand, this text suggests, we’ll have a greater sense of God’s presence in our lives. It’s a good principle in the synagogue, but it applies beyond these walls, as well. This, I think, is what I realized when we exited our taping of The Price is Right. There, I knew that eyes were upon me, that my behavior in every moment mattered. But in the rest of my life, how aware am I that Someone is watching? How well do I know before whom I always stand?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught the importance of cultivating the art of awareness of God. On this day especially, we may feel a stronger connection to God, but the idea is that what we take away from clear encounters with God should be applied to the rest of our lives. Heschel writes, “Faith is sensitiveness to what transcends nature, knowledge, and will, awareness of the ultimate, alertness to the holy dimension in all reality.”2 This, perhaps, is why threads of Judaism run not only through my rabbinate and my Jewish life, but through my so-called secular life, as well. Even when I have tried to escape encounter with God, God has had a way of showing up, anyway.

Rabbi Eliezer’s students, fearing that their teacher was on his deathbed, wanted to know how to get to the World to Come. That was their goal. But he taught them that the path to the World to Come is through this life. It’s not about enduring life to get to the World to Come, but rather, “to perceive the wonder that is here and to be stirred by the desire to integrate the self into the holy order of living.”3 This happens when we realize there is meaning in the ordinary, not just in the extraordinary.

On this day, especially, we contemplate the meaning of our lives. Perhaps, it’s easy for us to know before whom we stand on Yom Kippur, but how aware are we the rest of the days of the year? What are we doing to cultivate that awareness? Even in our ordinary lives, we need to, “live by the certainty that we are not as dust in the wind, that our life is related to the ultimate, the meaning of all meanings.”4 Heschel teaches that if we pursue goodness not beauty, love not power, gratitude not grief, then we can begin to find the holiness that is in everything and in everyone. “He whose soul is charged with awareness of God,” he teaches, “earns his inner livelihood by a passionate desire to pour his life into the eternal wells of love.”5

Too often, we function in the world as though the world is all about us, all about our own families, about our circle of friends and community. We lose sight that there is something bigger than us that connects all of us to each other, not only our circle, but all humanity. “Dazzled by the brilliant achievements of the intellect in science and technique,” writes Heschel, “we have been deluded into believing that we are the masters of the earth and our will the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong. However, the universe is not a waif and life is not a derelict. Man is neither the lord of the universe nor even the master of his own destiny. Our life is not our own property but a possession of God. And it is this divine ownership that makes life a sacred thing.”6 How differently would we live our lives if we lived them with an awareness that they belong to God, that everything we possess belongs to God, and that God charges us to use our lives and what we have for the sake of increasing God’s presence in the world. We talk about the circle of life, but life does not move in a circle. It moves in an ellipse, with focus on self and focus beyond self, tugging at us all the time. Sometimes we are more aware of one, sometimes the other. There is a pull between instincts and ideals, the instinct to acquire, enjoy, and possess and the ideal to respond, to yield, to give. By striving towards an awareness of the One before whom we stand, we can shift our lives towards the ideal. Heschel calls for “anxious caring” in all aspects of our lives: care for ourselves and others, in words, thoughts, events, and deeds. “What is it that makes us worthy of life, if not our compassion and ability to help? We do not exist for our own sake. Life would be preposterous if not for the love it confers.”7

Knowing before whom we stand is about cultivating the art of awareness of being in relationship with God. And relationship with God is reciprocal. We expect to rely on God and God expects to rely on us. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches, “Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. For some there are more pieces. For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble. Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle. And so it goes. Souls go this way and that. Trying to assemble the myriad parts. But know this. No one has within themselves all the pieces to their puzzle. Like before the days when they used to seal puzzles in cellophane, insuring that all the pieces were there. Everyone carries with them at least one and probably many pieces to someone else’s puzzle. Sometimes they know it. Sometimes they don’t. And when you present your piece, which is worthless to you, to another, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are a messenger of the Most High.”

God’s calling to us, “Come on down!” Do you know before whom you stand? Shanah tovah.

1 BT B’rachot 28b.
2 Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Faith,” Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. New York: The Noonday Press, 1996, p. 330.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid, p. 332.
6 Ibid, p. 338.
7 Ibid, p. 332.

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