Better late than never?! Well here is the third of four sermons delivered at Manchester Reform Synagogue over the High Holy Days. How do we know when to take action? And which action should we take?
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By this time tomorrow night (at the end of Yom Kippur) – where will you be? Sitting down for some food? Lying on your sofa? Already tucked in your bed? More importantly – how will you feel? Exhausted? Liberated from all that you have been holding this year? Confused? Excited? Disappointed? And more importantly still – what will have changed in you? Will you have opened to all that Yom Kippur offers in terms of transformation? Will you have listened and paid attention? Will you already have taken the action that is required of you?
The celestial gates, the book of life is closed, so our teachings tell us, at the end of Neilah, sealing our fate for the year. Over the next few hours we will, together, face our mortality. For me, this is signified by wearing a kittel - this garment which I will be buried in. Some of us will be fasting – to concentrate on the soul and not the body. Whether we believe in a personal God or not, whether or not we believe in fate – today is about addressing the gift and possibility of life, embracing the uncertainty of our mortality and living more fully as a result. ‘Who will die by fire, by water this year’ we chant, ‘we are like clay in a potter’s hand’ we will sing, ‘we are frail like grass’ we will read.
Hopefully over Rosh Hashanah we heard the wakeup call of the shofar – things can be better, the blasts announced, change is possible – wake up! Be accountable for yourself! Tomorrow night, the end of Yom Kippur is signalled with the blast of the shofar, and acts as both a wake up call and a battle cry. The piercing note will mimick the pleading sounds from Rosh Hashanah and will herald us towards a new, transformed us.
As Rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote in this poem for Neilah:
The last word has not been spoken,
The last sentence has not been written,
The final verdict is not in.
It is never too late
To change my mind,
To say no to the past
And yes to the future,
To offer remorse
To ask and give forgiveness.
It is never too late
To start over again,
To feel again
To love again
To hope again….
It may seem counter intuitive to begin at the end! Yet, if we do not, we get to the end of Yom Kippur having missed an opportunity. We also know, being part of the Jewish people as we are, that we always look towards The Promised Land. The narrative from the Torah does not end with us entering the land of milk of honey but standing on its borders looking in. That is where we also stand tonight.
Yet Jewish teachings are clear that we do not get lost in that vision for the Promised Land but we live in the present, choosing life and living fully – one teaching goes as far as saying – if you have not taken pleasure from the good in the world around you, you will need to explain yourself in the next world![i] We work and live fully in the world as it is, whilst we reach for the world as it should be.
Today we inhabit the third phrase of Hillel’s quotation from the Sayings of the Father, which we have been exploring since Rosh Hashanah: If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when? Our first duty, always, is to ourselves and the task of self-compassion, our second duty is to be open to and to foster moments of heaven in encounters with others in our own and their pain. Having done this work we are then open to discern what action we need to take and then we act.
Indeed, the rabbis, who dedicated their entire lives to the study of Torah, taught, in the same chapter of Mishnah as Hillel’s teaching, ‘Study is not the most important thing, but actions.’ We are here together, doing all of this spiritual and physical work only in order that we and our broken world are transformed.
There is a concept from the Ancient Greek language which may help us embrace Yom Kippur as a time to take action. There are two words for time – chronos and kairos.
Chronos refers to chronological or sequential time – it is the time we live in – the clock watching at work, the counting the minutes until it is the kids’ bedtime, the wait for the doctor’s phone call, constantly refreshing the phone for updates or notifications. Kairos, however, signifies a proper or opportune time for action. As the writer Glennon Doyle teaches, whose work we looked at last year, ‘Kairos is God’s time. It’s time outside of time. It is metaphysical time…those magical moments in which time stands still.’ It is in these moments of Kairos that we can connect with what we can do of value in this world – how we can connect to hope. A deep connection with our higher self.
Let us look at a story in the Talmud, tractate Ketubot, for an example of stepping into Kairos and taking definitive action. We are at the home of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi – one of the greatest rabbis who was said to be the compiler of the Mishnah – one of our early rabbinic works. He was on his deathbed. His disciples were devastated and they kept a vigil around his bed, praying and attempting to intercede with God to save their teacher. Rabbi Yehuda’s maidservant was also in pain watching this great man suffer. At first, we hear her voice join with that of the Rabbi’s disciples – please, she says, may it be the will of God that the lower worlds, and our prayers, impose their will upon the upper worlds. Though over the next few hours she saw beyond herself and saw her master struggle with the most basic of his physical needs. She saw his suffering and her prayer changed – may it be the will of God that the upper worlds should impose their will upon the lower worlds – it is time for him, she recognises. Yet this unnamed maidservant does not finish with her words and intention, but she takes action.
Standing on the rooftop of the house she takes a jug and throws it from the roof to the ground, creating an almighty blast. Due to the sudden noise, all of the Rabbi’s disciples are distracted from their praying and during that moment of silent, so we are told, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi died.
This maidservant gave herself the space to be able to step into Kairos – to see what was really going on – to step out of regular time. She sat with her own pain and through this work was able to discern what her task was in this world and which action to take.
Finding our own task in this world, and which action to take, is deeply personal. We cannot do everything even though we know how much there is to do – we cannot both defeat systemic racism, end violence against women, stop climate change, educate on trans rights, provide homes for asylum seekers, help our elderly parents, change government inaction of the climate crisis, advocate for children’s rights and so on. All of that is impossible. Our task is to find what our personal calling is – what action do you need to take? What can I do? What is possible for me? Given our work with the first two parts of Hillel’s quotation you may want to ask yourself: what brings you the most pain? What makes you the most angry? We use this to work out where we can put our energy. I’m sure you can think of people, who with even the smallest of actions have made the greatest changes – Simone Biles perhaps, the American world champion gymnast, who spoke up and demonstrated that mental health is as important as physical health. Or maybe Greta Thunberg and her simple and profound act of striking from school to draw attention to the climate crisis. Or Rosa Parks whose act of courage, and activism, contributed to the civil rights movement in America.
As we sit here during this intense moment of Kairos at Kol Nidre – a time outside of time – when the usual rhythm of life changes – and we face our mortality – imagine that the gates are closing, the book of life is closing, we might want to ask – how do I want to be remembered? Maybe you would even go as far as asking - What would be on my gravestone? Our actions may not be as grand as those we mentioned, or as transformative, but that does not matter. It is how we answer our own call – our personal task. And that is only for us to discover, know and act upon.
As Thomas Merton, an American monk, wrote:
‘If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the things I want to live for.’
What is holding you back? What do you want to live for? Who do you want to be? How do you want to be remembered? What is your pain? What is your anger? What is left unfinished? What action can you take?
Now is the time, the gates are closing, the injustice is great. With deep self-compassion, the experience of heaven here on earth and the connection with your pain and the pain of others we take action. Tomorrow night, may we each be one step closer to being the person we wish to be and making our unique mark on this world. May we live fully in the world as it is as we work towards the just world as it should be. For if not now, then when?
Ken Yehi Ratzon – may this be God’s will – amen.
[i] bTaanit 11, yKiddushin 4