Yom Kippur Sermon for 5781

On Erev Rosh haShanah, just after a wonderful dinner and as I was about to take Adar up for bedtime, I made the mistake of checking my phone.  I stared at the headline, frozen, informing me that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had passed away.  Adar ran up to me, from the other room, concerned: “Mommy are you ok?”  I must have screamed.

We have the children’s book “I Dissent” about RBG’s life. Adar could understand my sadness, but not the cry of despair.  So we sat down and I explained to her about the balance of power and how Supreme Court Justices get a lifetime appointment.  Then, we went to bed.  I lay there next to my sleeping daughter, my phone lit up in the dark, scrolling through the articles and all the reactions from friends and colleagues, tears rolling down my face.  

One rabbi wrote, “Now I have to tear up all my sermons!” I thought about my own sermon on hope, yet to be delivered, and said to myself sardonically, “Well, if your sermon has to be torn up now, maybe it wasn’t all that good to begin with!”  I decided that a sermon on hope was needed now, perhaps more than ever.

But I do think a follow up is warranted.  I think it worth talking about despair. I referenced the difficult and often dark history of the Jewish people last week – do we really think we always clung to hope, never giving up no matter what?

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, the brilliant Hasidic master who led an extremely difficult life wrote his seminal text Likutei Moharan about the importance of not falling into despair, that even should you fall into the belly of Hell, like Jonah, you should not despair (Part II 78:7). In this passage he went on to say, “There is no such thing as despair.” 

With all due respect to Reb Nachman, I think that’s taking it a bit far.  Without a measure of despair, hope can consume us and lead us to reject possibilities all around us, because we think there might be something better to come. Sometimes it is important to admit that our dreams aren’t going to materialize. 

We cannot change the past, but we can free ourselves from it so that we can pursue a different future. We do not forget the loss, but we allow it to stop tormenting us. We stop hoping for what will never be. 

So if Rosh haShanah is about hope, as I’ve argued, then Yom Kippur is about despair – letting go of we must, releasing what no longer serves us, so that we can step wholeheartedly into the future. The rituals of Yom Kippur – abstaining from food and drink, dressing in white (a color that evokes a funeral shroud) – are meant to push us to feel close to death, grieving our lives, enabling us our regrets and what no longer serves us so that we can truly begin again.   

Kol Nidre ve’esarei…  All these vows that we have made…may they be nullified.

We began last night by absolving ourselves of vows that hold us back.  Yom Kippur is about release.  Today our confessions, our beating of chests, are our heartfelt effort reshape our beings and our lives into ones that have less armor and heart, less blame and more responsibility, less posturing and more humility, less cynicism and more wonder.

On Yom Kippur we come together to face our losses, acknowledge the relentless passage of time, and forge a path forward.  In naming these losses we begin the long, complex process of doing teshuvah, of changing ourselves. Life is not perfect – we tried, and sometimes we have failed.  Today, we release ourselves of guilt, regret, unfulfilled, impossible promises made.  On this day, we can let ourselves feel despair together.

Despair is a human emotion, one that we have all felt at times.  And I think it is important to acknowledge the grief and despair that many of us feel these days.  We are holding a lot of loss these days, much of it ambiguous and uncertain.  Hope isn’t going to be something that we can always access.  So I am here to say, it is ok to feel despair. We must make room for it too.

The process of teshuvah, in some ways, begins with recognizing our own loss.  Sometimes teshuvah involves grieving – the self we might have become, a relationship that will not be what you hoped it would, a future that cannot be any longer.  Teshuvah involves grief, loss, anger, and yes, despair.  Despair is a necessary element of teshuvah if we are to really reckon with our current circumstances and piece together realistic future.

In rabbinic law, despair is an important facet of the laws concerning lost objects.  The rabbis of the Talmud spend an excessive amount of time discussing, an entire tractate of the Talmud called Bava Metzia, discussing lost objects.  According to halacha, Jewish law, if someone finds an object, they have an obligation to try to return it to its owner as long as the owner still hopes to find it. It is an important mitzvah in the Torah to return lost objects.  Concerning the return of a neighbor’s lost animal Deuteronomy teaches: “Do not remain indifferent” (Deut. 22:3).  Based on this injunction, the rabbis of the Talmud explored a litany of scenarios involving lost objects and finally creating an elaborate ritual to be performed when looking for a lost object.

But at some point, lost objects are really lost, and the time comes for us to give up looking for them. It’s at that point that we come to a place of ye’ush – despair – acknowledging that it is gone forever.  Because it spite of all the rabbis efforts, there is no foolproof system that can ensure that everything can be found, no matter how thorough you are. Some things cannot be returned. Some losses are final.  Despair is inevitable.

Only when we get to the point of despair, when we truly let go of ever retrieving the object, can we free ourselves from it. It enters into the public domain and it is no longer ours. It’s at that moment that we relinquish hope for a dream that is lost, when we acknowledge to ourselves that we have to let go and walk a different path. This is the redemptive aspect of ye’ush.

Why were the rabbis so obsessed with returning lost objects?  Perhaps because it is part of the human condition to lose things – like socks, or keys.  For me, it is earrings.  I still ache over the memory of losing a beloved earring.  

But maybe the rabbis were laying a foundation for a discussion of loss and despair in general. Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, drawing on the teachings of Dr Marjorie Lehman, posits that the losses of our rabbinic sages were much more profound than keys or socks. They were mourning the loss of their holy Temple, of their community, of their authority – the very foundation of everything they knew. 

I think the example of the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem is instructive for us today.  It was a permanent destruction; the Temple was never rebuilt.  But that calamity paved the way a completed new form of Judaism.  Our religious practice transformed virtually overnight from one of animal sacrifice overseen by priests to one of prayer and torah study, legislated by rabbis.  

It is incredible to consider that we survived the destruction of not one, but two Temples.  How did we do it?  How in the world did we manage to rebuild after such a catastrophic loss, the loss of our spiritual center and exile from our home? I would argue that despair played a key role.

There is a famous story recorded in the Talmud of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who would later become one of the leaders of rabbinic Judaism.  Ben Zakkai was a young pacifist in Jerusalem in 68 C.E. when the city was under siege by General Vespasian. Unable to convince the Zealots who controlled Jerusalem to surrender to Rome, ben Zakkai faked his own death and had his disciples smuggle him out of Jerusalem in a coffin. They carried the coffin to Vespasian’s tent, where ben Zakkai emerged from the coffin. He told Vespasian that he had had a vision (some would say, a shrewd political insight) that Vespasian would soon be emperor, and he asked Vespasian to set aside a place in Yavneh (near modern Rehovot) where he could start a small school and study Torah in peace. Vespasian promised that if the prophesy came true, he would grant ben Zakkai’s request. Vespasian became Emperor within a year, and kept his word, allowing the school to be established after the war was over. The school ben Zakkai established at Yavneh became the center of Jewish learning for centuries and replaced Jerusalem as the seat of the Sanhedrin, the great rabbinic council.

Ben Zakkai did the unthinkable – he abandoned Jerusalem.  The coffin he was carried out in was the metaphor for his accepting the death of what was.  It was ye’ush – despair.  His brilliance was that he also had a vision for what could take the place of Jerusalem, and in this way Yavneh became the point of rebirth for the Jewish people. 

Now, I am not suggesting that if things aren’t working for us; that we should necessarily throw up our hands.  I think we should be inspired by the example of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who set an example of dissent.  Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt eulogized her on Friday saying that “And even when her views did not prevail, she still fought. In recent years Justice Ginsberg became famous for her dissents.  Despair was not an option.”  Rabbi Holtzblatt quoted Ginsberg herself as saying, “Dissents speak to a future age…the greatest dissents do become court opinions, and gradually, over time their views become the dominant view.” We learn from Justice Ginsburg that even when it is clear we won’t be on the winning side, it is important to actively speak out and dissent.  Despair is releasing ourselves of an impossible; it does not mean that we are silent or passive in the face of it.

Going into ye’ush enables us to see in a new way, to recognize that a different story can be written, a different future can emerge, a different journey can unfold. We give ourselves permission to disengage from the suffering that we cause to ourselves. 

Yom Kippur starkly reminds us that we are imperfect human beings. We let ourselves down, we fail ourselves. We hold onto dreams instead of being fully here, now, in the present. 

On Yom Kippur we create a space to discover who we really are. Not who we wished we were. Not who we hoped we would become. But to see ourselves candidly, honestly, genuinely. 

On this Yom Kippur, let’s gather together so we can find what we have lost. Let this be a time of real discernment. Let’s bravely embrace ye’ush, despair, death. And then let’s live. Really live. Live with intention, with meaning, with awareness of who we really are, with all of our imperfections. 

Gmar chatimah tovah.