Yom Kippur 5780

A Sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

Why are you here? What made you decide to spend this day in this place? You could be on the golf course, on your boat, at work, at home, shopping, on the beach, cleaning your closets….  You had a choice.  What drew you here?  Are you here to connect with this community? Are you here because the voice of your grandparents and great-grandparents echo in your soul? Are you here because you would feel guilty if you were anywhere else?  Are you here because you might learn something from your tradition that will inspire you or inform you? Are you here because your parents, your spouse, your children told you that you must be here? You made a choice – what informed that choice?

Why are you here?  Did you seek spiritual solace?  Did you want to be surrounded by people from similar backgrounds? Did you look forward to hearing the music of your past?  Did the music move you?  Did the prayers in the prayerbook have meaning for you? Where you surprised by anything?  Comforted by anything? Disturbed by anything?  You made a choice – was it the right one for you?

So now you are here.  You made your choice. Once that choice has been made are you “all in?” Have you set your intention to get everything you can out of the experience?  That is what we call in Hebrew, Kavanah – intention – direction. Will you bring to this experience as much as you expect to get out of it? Once you have made your choice, might as well see it through.

The meaning of life is often found in where you place the emphasis.  This is true especially in language.   A little comma — a jot, a tittle, a little mark — changes the entire meaning of a text.  Let us take a text from a commonly known phrase from the Torah which resonates with the spirit of this day: U’v’charta hayyim, l’ma’an t’chiyeh ata v’zar’eh’cha.  If I place the comma where it is normally found, the translation would be: Choose life, so that you and your descendants will live.  And while there are no commas in the Biblical text, the diacritical marks that guide the cantillation (chanting) of the text tell us where to pause, which modern grammar connotes with a comma

Now, allow me to move the comma back one word, placing it between the first two words: U’v’charta, hayyim l’ma’an t’chiyeh ata v’zar’eh’cha.  We would now read: Choosing — live in a such a way as to give life to you and your children.  Not: Choose life.  But: Choosing, as a way of life.  Our life is filled with choices – which requires us to choose.

Our Torah speaks in broad language, painting the picture of choosing with wide brush strokes — Arrayed before each of you are the choices between good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death. And yet, life is not lived making such easy choices.  Life is lived, not in black and white, as in television sets of old; life is lived in shades of grey, and vital vibrant colors, tantalizing, attractive, and seductive.

The life of choosing is not an easy life at all.  Each of us is confronted with myriad choices each day.  Some choices are easy: what to eat for breakfast, what clothes to wear, which roads to take on the way to work….  These are the choices that take little effort, and produce little discomfort.  But some choices are painful ones, calling into account ethics, morals, values, and areas in between. Fred Friendly z”l, moderator of a Public Broadcasting Service series on Ethics in America used to begin his program with the following words, “Our purpose is not to make up anyone’s mind but to open minds: to make the agony of decision making so intense you can escape only by thinking.”

The choices of life, if we take up the cudgels, cause us to wrestle and squirm — they make us think, they make us doubt, and ultimately, they make us live.

Yet, there is great danger in the life of choosing.  Often, we make the wrong choice.  We choose the wrong word, the wrong tone, the wrong moment, the wrong action. 

How often have we tried to comfort someone, or apologize for something that we have done that has caused pain — in our best of intentions, our mouths betray our feelings.  We must choose, not only what to do, but what to say, and how to say the things we mean. 

There is a Hasidic folk-tale about a choice in action: One day, a young man who had heard about the great powers and intellect of the Baal Shem Tov decided that he would make a great journey to see this sage on Yom Kippur.  After praying with his own congregation on Rosh HaShanah, he set out on his long trek.  Everything went wrong on his journey.  His donkey got sick.  He took a wrong turn.  Finally, one day’s journey out of the town where the BST would be teaching for YK, his cart overturned, it started to rain and he thought that he would never get there in time.  He then ran into a group of shabbily dressed men who said, “Brother can you stop, we have only nine men here and we need to make a minyan.”  He shouted, “Are you kidding, I’m running to see the BST.”  Away he went.   He finally arrived and saw the great BST, but after the end of Yom Kippur, when it was the BST’s habit to greet everyone, the BST ignored him.  He ran over and said, “I have travelled a long and hard journey just to see you, why wouldn’t you greet me?”  “Don’t you know,” said the BST, “you were brought into this world by God only to join those nine men in prayer! Instead, you ran away!”  Each of us has choices to make, and things we are to do — we must choose correctly.

What is interesting about this hasidic tale is that it points out the very difficult nature of making choices.  In our story, the young man wants only to gain knowledge — to sit at the feet of a great master.  His concern is for the long-term gain of the experience.  In his rush to fulfill his wish, he decides to forego an experience that seems ephemeral — short-lived — something just of the moment.  His challenge is ours — could he have known, as the BST did, that his purpose was to fill out that minyan and allow nine others to pray?  Can we know when to forego one opportunity in order to pursue another?

Later today we will learn of another choice gone awry – when Jonah chooses to ignore a request from God to prophesy the results of the people of Nineveh turning away from righteous action.  It takes quite an experience for Jonah to learn his lesson for choosing wrongly.

Rabbi Marc Angel recalled another tale of the BST. There is a story about a shohet (ritual slaughterer) who came to a new town and wanted to be employed by the community. As was the custom, he came to the town’s rabbi and sought approval. The rabbi asked the shohet to demonstrate how he prepared the knife for the slaughter of animals. The shohet showed how he sharpened the knife; and he ran his thumb up and down the blade checking for any possible nicks. When he completed the demonstration, he looked to the rabbi for validation.

The rabbi asked: “From whom did you learn to be a shohet?”
The shohet answered: “I learned from the illustrious Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov.”

The rabbi replied: “Yes, you have performed the task of sharpening and checking the knife very well. However, you did not do so in the manner of the Baal Shem Tov. When the Baal Shem Tov checks the knife, he always has tears in his eyes.”

Yes, the shohet had learned the technical skills of his trade-but he did not plumb the depths of his work. He had not internalized the emotional, psychological and spiritual elements that were the hallmark of his teacher. He was technically proficient – but he had no tears in his eyes.  Here the shochet had made a choice; but he had done so without the proper Kavannah – the proper intention.  So it is not just in the choices we make, that life is lived, but in the intention we bring to those choices.

It has been said, “Kasheh l’hiyot yihudi — It is hard to be a Jew.” We study the tradition, learn from the sages of ages past, and choose how to practice our faith.  We take to heart the statement from Deuteronomy 6:18, “Do what is good and right in the eyes of the Eternal.”  Our choices must be ones that will be deemed ‘good’ and ‘right.’ 

But we may choose what is right and good; and decide that we can do it later.  Another story.  There were once three demons who gathered together to compare results of their attempts to corrupt human beings: the first says, “I tell them that there is no God.  But they are too smart, they don’t believe me.  They look around the world and see all of the wonders and they know that I have lied.”  The second says: “I tell them that there is a God, but that God did not give them the Torah.  But they are smart.  They look inside the Torah and see all of the wisdom and they know that I have lied.”  The third says: “I tell them that there is a God, and that God gave them the Torah — but I say to them: what’s the rush?  You have time to do what God wants tomorrow” and that always works! 

Sometimes, we choose to do something that we know to be right, and rather than delay, we rush to do good.  We read in Pirke Avot (4:23):  “Do not try to placate your friends at the height of their anger; do not attempt to comfort them in the first shock of bereavement; do not question their sincerity at the moment when they make a solemn promise; do not be overeager to visit them in the hour of their disgrace.”

There are so many choices — so many options that we could be frozen into inaction.  But our fear cannot prevent us from acting, nor should our fear prevent us from having faith in our actions.  Living a life of choosing is living with ambiguity.  We must learn to live with ambiguity: almost to revel in the tensions that the complexities of life present to us.  It is these tensions — the very frustrations — in which living truly takes place.  The power to choose is power indeed.  Sure — it would be easier if all was laid out before us — arrayed in such a way as to make all choices disappear.  But wouldn’t life be boring, moving from point to point, knowing each and every step of the way.  According to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, life is a series of doors at the end of a corridor, behind each door is another corridor which ends in another series of doors.  Whitehead saw life as an eternal version of the old Television game show, “Let’s Make A Deal.”  Every moment we have a choice of Door # , Door #2, or Door #3, or the box behind the lovely Carol Miller!

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has said, “The Torah is about the truths that emerge through time. That is one of the great differences between ancient Israel and ancient Greece. Ancient Greece sought truth by contemplating nature and reason. The first gave rise to science, the second to philosophy. Ancient Israel found truth in history, in events and what God told us to learn from them. Science is about nature, Judaism is about human nature, and there is a great difference between them. Nature knows nothing about freewill. Scientists often deny that it exists at all. But humanity is constituted by its freedom. We are what we choose to be.”

Our choices define us.

The power of choice is awesome in scope, affecting every aspect of life.  We cannot shirk our responsibilities to choose the right action, the right word, the right moment, the right tone, the right gesture, the right intention….

U’v’charta, hayyim l’ma’an t’chiyeh ata v’zar’eh’cha.  And you shall choose — live in a such a way as to give life to you and your children.  Not: Choose life.  But: Choosing as a way of life.  May we all make our choices, God give us the strength and insight to make the right choices – more often than not.

Tzom kal – g’mar chatimah tova!

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