Laura Goldman’s Yom Kippur Drash
by Jhos Singer
This drash was written and delivered by Laura Goldman on Yom Kippur 5779.
You and I come to services on Yom Kippur for so many reasons, and all of them are good ones. When I was a kid I would go to services with my family in the West Los Angeles Reform synagogue to which we belonged, and I would sit next to my father, and when it came time to recite the V’Ahavta, the prayer about loving God that comes after the Sh’ma, we would recite it together in English, he with a slightly embarrassed earnestness, I chanting from memory, proud to share the words, but struggling to find any meaning in them beyond that momentary closeness to my father.
And yet the memory of that experience has remained with me as somehow seminal. I think my father and I had stumbled upon an awkward intimacy in that prayerful moment – with the self-consciousness of a generational divide and familial distance, and the intimacy linked to sharing, even with just a glance, the act of stepping with sincerity into prayer. We quickly dispelled the moment with a couple of chuckles and a roll of my eyes in youthful disdain, and just like that we were back in the dry monotony of rote prayer. But we had touched into something.
The year after my father died, Yom Kippur services for me were all about him, feeling our connection, missing him, realizing for the first time that my relationship with the service and the holiday was inextricably linked to my relationship with him. Some of you may be here today for a similar reason. Or you may be here because going to services on Yom Kippur is just what you do. You may be here for your partner, or your child. You may be giving Yom Kippur another try, or perhaps sticking your toes into the Jewish High Holidays for the first time. Whatever your reason, you are warmly welcome, and it’s a good reason.
Many years and many Yom Kippur services after I lost my father, I began searching for a service and service leaders who offered some sort of meaning to the holiday, something that touched me and felt relevant to my life. I wanted to feel moved, I wanted this series of holidays, to which I knew I somehow belonged, to speak to me in a broader way than simply being about my connection to my father. I didn’t have high hopes for the liturgy, but I waited for the sermon, the drash, and I judged the entire holiday by whether or not I was inspired by the teaching. I did not yet understand that The Day, this day, is the teaching.
It seems to me that Yom Kippur, like that prayer that my father and I chanted, is all about the heart. We do or we don’t spend the month prior to the holidays preparing our hearts by repairing the breaches in our relationships. We do or we don’t spend time in self-refection, zeroing in on where those breaches lie and what might be needed to make them whole. And then comes this day: we enter some religious gathering – as we all have here – we settle in, and the ritual proceeds. Perhaps the very first notes of music call us into a particular internal state, perhaps being surrounded by our community, or a piece of the liturgy.
But, it seems to me, one way or another, through the language of music or ritual or memory, this day is designed to lead us into a full-frontal encounter with the deep and hidden contents of our hearts, into a nose-to-nose confrontation with the terrifying and glorious experience of being human.
This day stretches out its hand and walks us into the most essential paradox of our lives: the truth of our radical limitations and vulnerability right alongside the inexpressible beauty and holiness of this life. This day says: You have been sleeping and you will go back to sleeping, but today Wake Up and feel, really feel into who you are: you are mortal, your time here is limited, and you are holy and the whole world is holy. This day implores us to let the enormity of that penetrate the shell of our everyday complacency.
In the splendid and wildly popular play, ‘Hamilton,’ there is a moment when Alexander and Eliza Hamilton are mourning the unimaginable loss of their child, and the lyric goes: “We push away what we can never understand, we push away the unimaginable.”
Yom Kippur, this day, invites us to stop pushing away that which is beyond our intellectual or emotional grasp; it in fact asks us to do the exact opposite: to get very, very close. To feel into our humanness through our hearts, to let the pageantry and the majesty of this day carry us on the wings of Awe into the only existing remains of the ancient Holy of Holies: into the deepest recesses of our hearts. It asks us to pause there, to look around, to notice what is true, to notice what matters.
It asks us to be brave and awake; it asks us to engage in a kind of dress rehearsal for our own death as we abstain from food and drink, as we dress in shrouds or shroud-like white, as we chant the Vidui, the confessional prayer that is only recited today and on the day of our death. It asks us to take the blinders off our awareness of how precious and fleeting is life. And when the blinders come off, the heart opens and we feel all the tenderness, all the shaky fear, all the beauty, all the love.
About 16 years ago I was in a 3-year training program in Jewish Meditation through Chochmat HaLev. It was an intense training, the students came from all over the country, and we were steeped in learning and spiritual practice. A community of the local students grew, with the kind of intimacy that forms with shared practice. We all came together to worship at the High Holidays at Chochmat HaLev.
When I think about Yom Kippur, along with that long-ago memory of my father, I think about sitting with my community during that period of our training, and I think about a particular moment, I think it was when we were all singing with great feeling about the quality of compassion, in God, in life, in us, and tears were streaming down my face and I looked up and tears were streaming down the face of my dear friend, Jonah. I just assumed that we were moved and crying about the same thing, and we never talked about it, and Jonah is no longer here in this community, but I can tell you what those tears were because here we are again and it is Yom Kippur again, and the same well of meaning and feeling is here.
In that moment, 16 years ago, my heart broke with the feeling of being so small, so subject to the winds of chance and change, so longing for a world of safety and justice. And through my brokenheartedness I felt compassion for myself and for every single person around me, and around the world, whom I understood so viscerally in that moment was in the exact same boat. From that place where our hearts are tenderized by the truth of our shared humanity, our great vulnerability and our great strength, the categories of “us” and “them” make very little sense. With that kind of open heart, your pain is my pain.
It may be that this kind of openness is simply too raw, too tender for us to sustain for any length of time. And so it is that Yom Kippur comes around every year to remind and reopen the hearts that have been covered over with scar tissue. And so it is that we hold and support each other in this opening process by assembling together, by all turning inwardly and outwardly in the same direction, by chanting the words and melodies that have accompanied us and our forebears for generations, and by bringing innovation and fresh creativity to enliven the heavy lifting of opening our hearts.
And it may be that this year, this Yom Kippur, opening our hearts to a world that seems to be hurtling toward destruction through greed, fear, and division, feels especially fraught. I invite you, I urge you, to do it anyway! You have all of us and this DAY, Yom Kippur, to catch you if you falter. And you have your own brave human heart.
In about an hour, we will open the ark and we as a community will stand before the Torah, repository of wisdom and human limitation, and we will sing together the familiar words:
Adonai Adonai, el rachum v’chanun, erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet, notser chesed la-alafim, nosey avon vafesha v’chata’ah v’nakeh.……
We will invoke the qualities of mercy, of kindness and compassion, and truth with which we hope to be met. And then we will sing Avinu Malkeinu, the music of which, though this is not a direct translation of the words, proclaims our brokenhearted yet endlessly hopeful plea that somehow, despite all our contradictions and missteps, the goodness in us, the goodness in life, the goodness in God will prevail.
Perhaps, when you listen with your open heart today, you will hear in that singing the plaintive call of a people, a group of human beings, who recognize that the task before them, of returning themselves and their world to a state of wholeness, is both beyond them and entirely the reason they are here.
You may hear the beseeching tones of a people that know they need the help of each other and the compassion of the Mystery that is within and beyond them. You may feel within yourself this exquisite, impossible plight as you balance on the knife’s edge of the inescapable vulnerability and radiant nobility that is your birthright as a human.
You may want to sing out the awe, terror, and wonder of your own heart, surrounded by your fellows singing out theirs.
It is Yom Kippur. I hope you will.