D’var Torah for Yom Kippur – Linda Losik

D’var Torah for Yom Kippur

As usual, this time of day, I think: Wow, what a journey coupled with “are we there yet”?  The High Holidays are always a journey within another journey.  We begin with the celebration of the birth of the world and end with accepting responsibilities of our actions both as individuals and as a people after ten days of introspection, shining a light on ourselves to find the dark spots that need to be lightened if possible or accepted as is.  These dark spots are scars within ourselves, all of which have been created by trials, grief and horrors that each one of us has experienced.  Today is the final day of the long journey of introspection.  Tonight at sunset, this journey ends and another journey begins.

When I first began this d’var, I was planning on just giving a d’var just on this Torah portion but then several readings later, I began to see how tightly but subtly all of the readings that we have heard during the High Holidays were bound together.  All contain the message of kindness and mercy within them.  Make no mistake about this: mercy does not always contain kindness but kindness always contains mercy.  While many use these words interchangeably, they are not same.  According to dictionary.com, mercy is clemency or the righting of a wrong; while kindness is compassion or benevolence. On Rosh Hashanah we read the binding of Isaac, in which providing the ram stopped the sacrifice of Isaac. This act was merciful but in no way kind.  However, G-d’s action toward the people of Nineveh in the Jonah story was kind as well as merciful.  The moment they repented, the curse was lifted.  Another example is the creation of the vine for shade for Jonah.   I would like to examine the various forms of kindness and mercy shown in these readings.

As it is stated in the book of Micah 6:8: “What does Adonai require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Adonai”.    Kindness or chesed is the act of practicing being kind and giving of self without any hope of getting something in return.   This is not the easiest task we can ever undertake because kindness is something that needs to be practiced every hour of every day, even without anyone demanding or needing kindness and it must be directed to everybody in the world.

In the portion of Leviticus we just read, there are many laws that seem to devote themselves not only to kindness, but to the mercy that is contained within each law.  I would like to look three verses from this parashah.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.

You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.

Both of these verses are acknowledged as excellent descriptions of kindness.  But why?  What’s so kind about not having to do the work? Wouldn’t it be kinder if we made a huge effort to give? By allowing the less fortunate to do the work in our fields themselves, we are not only giving them food but also hope.  Hope that someday they will be able to provide for themselves   by using the same skills that they developed when gleaning our fields. Also, there is no shame or shaming involved.

But how can we do this today? After all we are not, as someone said earlier, “outdoor Jews”.  A good start is to continue to do what we have done today; giving to the food bank or by supporting Advent House or the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing, not just today but the rest of the year as well. Another way to help is to donate non-food items like sanitary supplies or diapers or personal care products.  Most women have extra purses that once we just could not live without but are now collecting dust.  Why not fill them with sanitary supplies or diapers or personal care products? Or maybe sanitizer or a bus token?  A few little things, which like food, are necessary for living and that make life feel good while giving hope without shaming the person who needs the help.  Another way is to get active in our local schools to demand that they feed hungry children.  No child should either go hungry or be shamed because their parents cannot afford hot lunches.

You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

After copious amounts reading and research, it was very evident that most, if not all, that I was reading was written before the advent of social media, especially Facebook.  Although, I do think that Rashi would have had fun using social media.

This verse, as well, is a very complicated one. On the surface this seems straight forward. But like everything else in Judaism, it’s not simple.  Let’s start with the deaf. The literal meaning refers to the physically deaf.  But what about other types of deafness?  Deafness is not just of the body, but of the mind and soul as well.  Is not the inability to hear the pain or the laughter of others, deafness as well?  What if we are so locked into our own little world, that we no longer hear the words of others?  What about the deafness that comes from not listening to our own instincts; what our conscience is telling us to do or not to do?  What about the deafness that comes from our reluctance to hear the song our soul sings to us?  These and other non-physical forms of deafness that we suffer from binds us to this thought: to insult those who suffer from all forms of deafness is to insult ourselves.

I once asked Walter Kron how this verse, particularly the part about placing a stumbling block in from of a blind person, was even needed.  His answer: maybe some people thought that it was funny.  We both agreed that we considered the Three Stooges as three good Jewish boys gone bad.

Blindness, as with deafness, is not only of the body but of the mind and soul as well.  Our inability to see others as they are or as they need to been seen is a stumbling block for them as well as ourselves.  Last summer, I was at Kroger’s in Okemos, where there was a woman behind the counter who was wearing a hijab.  It was very beautiful and the needle work was done by an expert.  I went up to her and complimented her on her hijab.  A family member had made it for her to wear at her first day of work; she had just started in the bakery.  After chatting for a bit, I left and went towards the checkout.  As I passed thru the pharmacy, I was accosted by two women who were livid that I dared to speak to this employee of Kroger’s in such a manner.   One of them asked if I was not a patriotic American.  She also stated that she was so offended by the hijab; she wanted to rip it off her head.  I asked if she wanted to do it to other women of faith, like nuns.  I told her that pulling the veil off a Buddhist nun might not be dangerous, but a Catholic nun could be vicious; I would not advise that move.  I also asked if she would pull the shidel from a Jewish woman or pull off the babushka of an eastern European woman.  I pointed out that no one was making the employee wear the hijab and that it was her choice.  Here in America we have freedom of and from religion.  The second woman spoke up to agree with me as the first woman said: “I never saw it that way.”  My answer:  “the question remains, now that you can see, what are you going to do about it?”  Then I left to check out of Kroger’s.

By being kind to those who are deaf and the blind in any form, we further ourselves. Why? Because in some way, we all are deaf and blind, which does lead to us being unkind.  So how do we become kind?  We start by being kind to the one person in our life to whom we rarely give kindness.  First we need to look in a mirror, for we are own worst critic.   After the introspection of the last ten days, it should be somewhat easier to see ourselves as we really are.  However, even knowing where the flaws are and vowing to correct them will not really help as much as it could unless we start being kind to ourselves.  When was the last time you were kind to yourself?  We have been trained not to brag but to be humble about what we accomplish.  So why not, instead of saying to yourself, “I could have done better”, say “good job”?   Why not acknowledge the good that we do privately to ourselves so that no one hears our words but us?  By acknowledging the good we do within the privacy of our own minds, we begin to heal the blindness and deafness that are contained within all of us. If we are going to be doing and spreading kindness we need to start with ourselves.  Then we will truly know how it feels.  Then we can practice kindness to our family, friends and community with the knowledge of the good feelings we are spreading.  Who knows, this might even start trending?



Rabbi Michael Zimmerman

Congregation Kehillat Israel, Lansing, Michigan

contact:    517-303-1260, kirabbiz@gmail.com

At Rosh Hashanah, when Steve Weiland climaxed his d’var with an ode to pot roast, all I could think of at that moment was that it’s a good thing he wasn’t slated to speak at Yom Kippur. Imagine trying to focus at this moment on a multisensory communion between the poet and his mother’s hamisch culinary masterpiece!

And yet our liturgy challenges us even more than the idyllic dreams of mama’s pot roast. It mocks our well-intentioned attempts at piety and self-sacrifice on the one day of the year that we try as hard as we can to be contrite, to be reverent, and hopefully to be forgiven for the past year’s fumbles and foibles. Just as the absence of breakfast is really starting to get to us, we are told that fasting simply by abstaining from food, even if we followed all the instructions in the book, is not really what God wants from us. This of course creates a conundrum – we know we’re doing it wrong, and for the most part there’s not much we can do about it, at least not until tomorrow at the earliest when we can presumably start to implement some of Isaiah’s injunctions:  unlocking the chains of wickedness, the loosening of exploitation, and so on. But we know that the solution is not to go out and order a falafel; that would only make things worse. Plus, if we can hold out fasting until this afternoon, we know that we will read in Jonah that fasting for the sake of repentance is actually a good thing. So next year at this time we’ll find ourselves fasting once again, and once again being mocked by Isaiah for not doing it right.

Still, I really don’t think that Isaiah’s goal is to make us feel guilty, even if that’s what we may expect from a Jewish author with an acid wit. No, Isaiah is not so much a literary superego as a visionary, a political spiritual radical who recognizes that the world we accept as real is not the world to which we aspire, and that a world of love and balance is within our grasp.

Reading this Haftarah every year, I thought I understood it. I even thought that its message—that doing social justice is a good thing—is too obvious to even discuss. This year though, I’m  reading a new book by Rabbi Michael Lerner with the modest title Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World, and this is giving me a much fuller appreciation of what Isaiah is trying to tell us. Written nearly 2000-3000 years apart, these two works carry essentially the same message, the same assessment of what’s broken in society, the same analysis of the causes of the contributing factors, and to a large degree the same solutions. The metaphors and undefined terminology of the ancient religious poet and the detailed interdisciplinary working out of analyses and solutions by a contemporary scholar may read very differently; yet Lerner reveals hidden facets of Isaiah’s vision just as Isaiah demonstrates the deep Jewish roots of Lerner’s lifelong project to heal society.

To see how Isaiah and Lerner line up, it helps to back up one chapter from our Haftarah, and take a look at Isaiah 56. Two key elements in this chapter are a vision of inclusivity and a condemnation of the evils of society. The inclusivity passage starts with a welcome to eunuchs, in other words those who were dismissed as sexual outliers and had been excluded from the community. This passage is frequently cited by religious leaders who advocate for LGBTQ rights:
“As for the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast to My covenant; I will give them, in My House and within My walls a monument and a name, better than sons or daughters; an everlasting name that shall not perish.”

Next are pious foreigners. They are not detained at the border, but embraced:
“I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. For my House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Isaiah then rails against greed and lack of communal concern, and mocks mindless pleasure-seeking:
Everyone has turned his own way.

Every last one seeks his own advantage, saying:

COME, I’ll get some wine, let us swill some liquor, and it will be just like this tomorrow or maybe even more.”

Our ancient prophet will settle for nothing less than a society that is based in compassion and social responsibility, in which greed and exploitation are curtailed, and empty diversions are no substitute for the bliss of divine blessing. This coincides perfectly with Lerner’s vision of a society that no longer privileges financial gain as the be all and end all, but rather embraces a new bottom line, QUOTE “that judges every aspect of our society as productive, efficient, or rational to the extent that they maximize our human capacities to be loving, generous, and caring toward each other and toward the Earth, ethically and environmentally responsible, and committed to justice; and promote joy, playfulness, compassion and empathy, self-acceptance, humor, creativity, health,” ENDQUOTE. There are more criteria, but you probably get the idea by now.

Lerner’s core premise is that all human beings seek love, acceptance, and purpose. However, throughout history those with more power and resources have subjected the rest of society to exploitation, and have fostered an ethos of selfishness, rugged individuality, and alienating competitiveness. As a result, we’ve become conditioned to believe that the only true reality is that everyone is out for themselves, that one needs to compete to survive, and while the few succeed, the majority have only their own inadequacies to blame for their economic deprivation, meaningless jobs, loneliness, and lack of purpose. Meanwhile, commercial interests create a longing for lots of stuff we don’t really need, and people escape the emptiness through entertainment, diversion, and addictions, like Isaiah’s liquor-swilling party-goers.

The most debilitating element in this model is the powerful notion that the only reality is based in what is tangible and measurable:  money, rank, status, reward. All contributing to a state of existential despair Lerner calls “the great deprivation.”

One thing is clear: this cannot be the way people want to live. Transformation is needed, and the first step, to use Isaiah’s words, is to “Remove the stumbling block from my people’s way.”

In last month’s KI newsletter, Leon Puttler wrote in his co-president’s column: “I don’t know about all of you, but there is an underlying something (depression, numbing, etc.) that invades my daily life regarding the state of the world and our country. And I don’t really know what to do with these feelings and thoughts.” I’ve noticed something similar in recent weeks: people are agitated, short-tempered, depressed, forgetful, more than usual. Or as Michael Lerner describes it, “All over the world, psychotherapists are beginning to notice a pervasive depression in many patients. People feel hopeless about the possibility of saving our planet and are more inclined to abandon any involvement in societal processes other than extracting as much pleasure for themselves as possible before our planet becomes unlivable.”  Isaiah’s response:  “As for the downtrodden and the destitute, I shall revive the spirit of the lowly, and the heart of the depressed I shall restore.”

We may be lulled into silence, but Isaiah reminds us that we must not succumb:  “Cry from the throat, do not relent, raise up your voices like a shofar.”

So here’s the deal. The world we experience is not the world that is our birthright. Michael Lerner describes the goal as “The Caring Society,” or “A World of Love and Balance.” Isaiah speaks in metaphors and similes:  “From me shall my spirit drip like dew. I shall create the breath of life.” “Your light shall shine in darkness.” “The Righteous One will satisfy your thirst in desert wastes, will give your bones new life, and you’ll be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail.” These water images are especially poignant in an era when climate change is rapidly producing desertification and life as we know it on this planet hangs in the balance. Clearly  this imagery sends a powerful message of hope, just as Michael Lerner has continued for decades to send a message of hope, even as so much in human society seems to just keep getting worse.

In Lerner’s vision, that hope stems from the recognition that people in all segments of society, including those who subscribe to hateful ideologies or perpetuate oppression and exploitation, basically hunger for love, respect, and purpose. They may seek it in counterproductive ways, which is why Isaiah said that “The wicked are like a troubled sea, they cannot be at peace, their waters stir with mire and mud.” But if we engage with those whose worldviews we find problematic, doing so in a spirit of “prophetic empathy” that is both respectful to others and clear about how things are and how they need to be changed, people can start to find their way out of the mire and mud.

Isaiah’s program is comprehensive: “To unlock the fetters of wickedness. To let the oppressed go free.  V’CHOL-MOTAH T’NATEKU “And to break EVERY yoke.” Lerner is equally uncompromising, convinced as he is that indecisive compromise positions will not inspire people to work for the vision and will probably not lead to substantive change. As he writes, “Martin Luther King Jr. did not become the major icon of social change by giving a speech to 300,000 people in which his main line, repeated several times, was ‘I have a …complaint.’”

Lerner’s program is not only far reaching; it is radical by any measure, because it is clear that so-called “realistic” solutions are inadequate for the state of today’s world—new family support policies, new economic models, new systems for education, health care, and criminal justice, and more. Just as the Book of Isaiah scans two or three centuries of Israelite history, so does Lerner jump ahead from 2019 to the mid-22nd century, inspiring us to work for future outcomes that would be inconceivable in today’s world. What more fitting tribute to the spirit of the Biblical prophet who envisioned a world in which the wolf would dwell with the lamb, the leopard would lie down with the kid, and nation would not take up sword against nation or ever learn war again. In his closing chapter, Lerner spins off of Isaiah’s prophecy:  “In the 22nd century China, Russia, the United States, the European countries, and the Islamic countries are all working together to repair the damage of the past and to ensure that there are no more hot wars, trade wars, or diplomatic struggles.”

But as Lerner repeatedly emphasizes, strong transformation requires a soft touch. The program he outlines must reflect love and generosity. And in every step of the campaign to bring the caring society agenda to realization, debating those who oppose it, implementing it, and generating the mechanisms to sustain it, love and caring must pervade every interaction. It is only by promoting kindness and human decency at every turn that Isaiah’s vision of a people pervaded by the blessings of the Almighty can truly come to be.


Join us for High Holidays!

Rosh Hashanah 5780 – Shanah Tova!
Sunday, Sept. 29th
7:00pm – Erev Rosh Hashanah (daycare provided)
Monday, Sept. 30th
9:30am – Rosh Hashanah Day 1, Lunch to Follow (daycare)
1:30pm – Tashlich (at Crego Park off Mt Hope in Lansing)
Tuesday, Oct. 1st
Rosh Hashanah Day 2: 9:30am, Lunch to Follow (daycare)
Yom Kippur 5780 – G’mar Hatima Tova!
Tuesday, Oct. 8th
7:00pm – Kol Nidre (daycare provided)
Wednesday, Oct. 9th
9:00am – Yom Kippur Morning (daycare provided)
3:00pm – Meditation
4:00pm – Yom Kippur Afternoon (daycare provided)
7:15pm – Break The Fast
Congregation Kehillat Israel, 2014 Forest Rd. Lansing, Michigan
Community-Led, Family-Friendly Services – No Tickets Required. All are Welcome!

Musaf Service (with Siddur Sim Shalom)

Concluding Service (with Siddur Kol Haneshemah)

Torah Service