Saturday, September 26, 2009

An Orthodox, Masorti and Reform Rabbi discuss Yom Kippur

I came across this feature on Yom Kippur in the Jerusalem Post back in 1999. It comprises of articles by an Orthodox (Saul Berman), Conservative (Yosef Kleiner) and Reform (Michael Marmur) Rabbi on Yom Kippur.

Ten years on its still part of my preparation for the Yamim Noraim.


Berman: Observing the fast of Yom Kippur properly means being ready to ask ourselves hard questions about how we usually arrange for our physical comforts, and about whether we acquire and allocate our resources ethically and honestly. Observing Yom Kippur demands that we confront the truth about our intimate relationships, so that holiness and ethical values, not just pleasure, can be furthered in every aspect of our lives.
Kleiner:Let us remember the first question in the Torah. It is God asking the first human being: “Adam, ayeka? (Human being, where are you?) Teshuva, as a response, is an answer to that very first question… “Where are you? Where have your actions taken you? Have you made any progress in taking your share of responsibility toward Creation?” And response demands return – looking back and evaluating. Enquiring and digging into our most profound selves. Returning to our last point of departure, trying to understand whether we have forged ahead or wandered around in a circle – or, indeed, walked backward.

Marmur: My own personal version of preparation for Yom Kippur always begins with a sense of how absurd and limited I am, and how grand I pretend to be…I try to bring to mind the inadequacies and the errors, the times when I was angry instead of smart, and when I was clever instead of genuine.


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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Recommended Yom Kippur Reading

Out of all the Jewish theologians I admire – Eliezer Berkovitz, David Hartman, Yitz Greenberg - the one who moves me the most is Abraham Joshua Heschel. Whenever I fear that perhaps there is no objective meaning in the world, that we live in an unfeeling empty cosmos, that prayer is simply an exercise in futility, Heschel strengthens me.

Below is a moving article on Yom Kippur in which which he discusses his feelings towards the day and the need to channel what he terms as the ‘depth of human suffering into religious experience’.
“Lets talk about the ‘business’ of Yom Kippur…Everything is fine. Soon we will have helicopters in every courtyard… To make the mistake we are making is to forget how much anguish there is in every human being. Scratch the skin of any person and you come upon sorrow, frustration, unhappiness. People are pretentious. Everybody looks proud, inside he is heartbroken. We have not understood how to channel this depth of human suffering into religious experience. Forgive me for saying so, but we have developed Jewish sermons as if there were no personal problems….

We are all failures. At least one day a year we should recognize it. I have failed so often; I am sure those present here have also failed. We have much to be contrite about; we have missed opportunities. The sense of inadequacy ought to be at the very centre of the day”

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Duality of Being Human: 2 Pieces of Paper

A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a drifting cloud, a fleeting breath, scattering dust, a transient dream.”(UneTaneh Tokef)

A friend of mine sent me an email last week complaining about Shul on Rosh Hashanah. Yet it wasn’t the length of the prayers (my initial assumption) rather than their content which produced his ire; “they are just so grovelly and pathetic…you’re so big, we’re so small…how many times can we say we’re insignificant?”

Joking (or complaining) aside, I actually think that the Rosh Hashanah prayers touch on an issue at the heart of being human – the duality between being powerful and creative on the one hand, and being weak and vulnerable on the other.

Similar to Rav Soloveitchik’s description of the creation of man in his Lonely Man of Faith, being human involves living in tension.

Humans really are majestic being. Created in God’s image, we build skyscrapers and bridges. We send people into space. We develop technology at exponential rates.

Yet at the same time there remain so many things out of our control. We’re lonely and vulnerable. Our lives can be snuffed out in a second, often in the most random and meaningless ways. We live within Milan Kundrea’s Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Rav Simcha Bunim used to exclaim that each person should walk around with two pieces of paper in their pocket.

One that says ‘the world was created just for me’.

The other which reads ‘I am but dust and ashes’

Its not surprising we prefer to flee from such duality. No one enjoys contemplating their own vulnerability.

But I wonder if for ten days a year, during the days of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur its time to focus on the second piece of paper, the one that we prefer not to read, the one that reminds us of our own mortality…

Because living genuine lives demands nothing less

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