Good evening. G’mar hatimah tovah and tzom kal to each and every one of you. Recently I took a fun quiz on Facebook. It was one of those quizzes where you answer a bunch of questions to reveal something profound about you. This one was called: “Which Jewish Holiday are You?” Unsurprisingly, since I have always told people it was one of my favorite days, I got Yom Kippur. I guess I simply can’t hide my love for this day – even from a Facebook quiz!
Though I love almost all of what we do and say on Yom Kippur, I especially enjoy our repeated recitations of the Ashamnu and the Al Het. In particular the Ashamnu, with its “la la lais” and upbeat melody has always made me happy, even though it contains a list of the many things we do wrong each year.
I’ve always felt a little weird about loving these two confessionary prayers, but recently I read a folk-tale shared by Rabbi Shlomo Zevin that allayed my concerns. The story is about the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of modern Hasidism, who arrived in a small town before the High Holidays and asked who led the congregation in prayer during this time. When the townspeople told him it was the rabbi of the town, he asked them “How does he conduct himself during the prayers?” They told him that on Yom Kippur the rabbi had the unusual custom of singing the confessionary prayers to jolly melodies. The Ba’al Shem Tov asked that the rabbi immediately come to speak with him. When the rabbi arrived, the Ba’al Shem Tov asked him to explain himself. The rabbi said, “If the lowliest of a king’s servants, whose task it is to rake away the filth from the gutters of the royal courtyard, truly loves his king, then it is common that as he works, he might sing or whistle with joy out of the sheer pleasure he derives from making his king happy.” The Ba’al Shem Tov said to the rabbi, “If you see yourself as this servant, raking away the imperfections of your congregation, I wish you well and wish that my lot was one with yours!”
Indeed that is what we are all supposed to be thinking about as we go about our prayers over the next twenty-five hours. Of course, it isn’t easy to maintain such focus as we read the many sins that we, as individuals and a community, have committed during the past year. Right now we have just eaten, we are satiated, and it is easy to feel jovial as we pray together surrounded by hundreds of our fellow Jews.
But it does get a little harder as time goes by, and by late morning tomorrow, as we really begin to feel the effects of the fast, it will be hard indeed. The fast is a strange thing. The prophets in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures, repeatedly denounce “meaningless fasts,” and we are told that God prefers our acts of loving-kindness to any fast. And yet there is something profound about denying ourselves for a short while. Even if one must eat during Yom Kippur due to medical conditions, my assumption is always that the person in that situation isn’t going out to their favorite restaurant after services, but rather simply meeting the needs of their body. So why do we fast? We Jews are not really ascetics and we don’t, like some other religious traditions, consider our bodies as blemished with original sin.
Indeed, those of you who come regularly to Shabbat services know that almost every Shabbat I begin services with two blessings that are said first thing every morning of the entire year – the blessing Asher Yatzar, the blessing thanking God for our bodies, and Elohai Neshamah, the blessing thanking God for our souls. The one for our bodies says in part: Barukh atah Adonai, our God, ruler of time and space, who fashions the human body with wisdom, creating openings, arteries, glands, and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design. I believe this particular brachah, which traditional Jews say every time they use the restroom, is very meaningful. Our bodies, which we often mistreat and neglect, are truly marvelous, miraculous. As the Or Hadash commentary on the siddur says concerning this brachah, “This ..blessing…recognizes that the body is a divine creation, and nothing about it is to be despised or disdained. On the contrary, the Sages recognized the marvel of the construction of our physical form and advised us to be aware of the miracle of human existence.”
In my office I have over two thousand books on various topics of Jewish interest. Several hundred of these are children’s books. One of these is a book by the author Yaffa Ganz called From Head to Toe: A Book About You. The book is for Jewish children and contains all kinds of interesting scientific information about each part of our bodies. And then for each body part she explains a mitzvah we do with that body part. For example, after explaining how our eyes are like cameras, with light rays entering the pupil and passing through the lens onto the retina, etc., she says, “You read with your eyes. And daven. And look at the tzitzit when you say Shema. Eyes are for looking at the Chanuka candles every night of Chanuka, and at the Havdalah candle on Motzai Shabbos,” and on and on. Our ears hear the shofar and the words of Torah being chanted, our nose smells the besamim, the spices at Havdallah, our mouth can speak words of praise to God and kiss the Sefer Torah and mezuzah. It is one of my favorite Jewish children’s books. It reflects from a child’s perspective the true wonder and capability of our God given bodies.
However, on Yom Kippur, when we list our many sins, it becomes very clear that our miraculous, wonderful bodies, designed by God to do mitzvah after mitzvah, are regularly misused by us. Let me share you part of the Al Het using a much more literal translation than that in our mahzor.
Al Het – b’imutz ha’lev - for the sin of hardening our hearts, b’vitui s’fatayim - for the expressions of our lips, b’dibur peh - with the words of our mouths, b’harhor ha’lev - the thoughts of our hearts, b’hozek yad - the violence of our hands, b’tum’at s’fatayim - the impurity of our lips, b’tipshoot peh - the foolishness of our mouths, b’lashon ha-ra – the evil tongue, b’ma’achal u’v’mishteh – our eating and drinking (which involve our mouths & digestive system), b’n’tiyat garon the inclination of our neck (a metaphor for false pride), b’si’ach s’fateynu - the conversations of our lips, b’shiqoor ayin - the lying of our eyes, b’eynayim ramot - the lifting of our eyes in haughtiness, b’azut metzach - the insolence of our foreheads, b’kalut rosh - the lightness of our heads, b’kashyut oref – being stiff-necked, b’ritzat raglayim l’ha’ra – the running of our legs to evil, and on and on.
That is, in the Al Het we list the many ways we use our bodies, which are designed to do good and serve as God’s partner in the world, instead do wrong after wrong. I asked before why it is that we, who are not ascetics, fast on the holiest day of the year. One traditional explanation for the fast on this day is that it is a dress rehearsal for the afterlife, where we probably won’t be eating and drinking. Another is simply so that we focus on the spiritual side of our self and not the physical. However, I find that explanation unsatisfactory. Our bodies have the ability to enhance our spirituality through the observance of the mitzvoth or detract from our spirituality when used to sin. I don’t think denying our physicality necessarily enhances our spirituality. In fact, sometimes our physicality can lead to spirituality – meditation can lead us to spirituality, so too can holding a baby or small animal, seeing beautiful things, hearing certain music, smelling certain scents, etc. However, I do believe that if we think about all the ways we use our various body parts to sin, one way to acknowledge the misbehavior is to deny our bodies that which provides the energy to do all that sinning – food and drink. When you are hungry and thirsty you don’t have much energy to do things that hurt yourself or others.
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg once offered another interesting explanation of this phenomenon. She wrote: “A large portion of the hata’im/sins listed refer to a part of the body (mouth, lips, tongue, eyes, throat, neck) for two reasons. First, our bodies need to know the nature of our wrongs. We need to experience the pain of our behavior viscerally before we are willing to change. Our confession and acknowledgment cannot remain a purely intellectual activity. We must feel, in our guts, the ill we cause ourselves and others, or we will not be motivated to really change. Second, most of the hata’im derive from forgetting our connection to the whole. We imagine that we can act as if there were no consequences, as if we were loose limbs and eyes and mouths divorced from a larger body, the body of our fellow human beings, the body of organic life on earth, the body of all life. Most hata’im derive from our separation and isolation from past and future. Most hata’im spring from the illusion of separateness. We think we can get away with it. But there is no getting away. There is no forgetfulness. All is remembered. All is related.”
I think Rabbi Weinberg is onto something profound. We in the United States pride ourselves on our individual liberties. We are known the world over as a country of rugged individualists. But perhaps today we are supposed to remember that while we are each unique individuals we are not alone. The various parts of our body are not isolated from the whole of us – body and soul together. We in turn are parts of our families, parts of our neighborhoods, synagogue, community, state, nation, continent, and world. Just as each part is connected, so too is each action. If we each commit to using our bodies to do a little more good, bring a little more love, kindness, and sharing into the world, how different would we be as individuals? How different would the world be? Now is our chance. Let’s find out by trying it out. G’mar hatimah tovah.