Kol Nidre Sermon: Finding God in the moment

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Kol Nidre 2020

Last week, together, we celebrated Rosh Hashanah. From our own mikdash me’at, our own small sanctuaries, the sacred spaces we created in our homes and the larger sanctuary here, we came together. We prayed. We cried. Occasionally, we might even have laughed. As the Cantor led us in traditional melodies, we realized that it was still the High Holidays. Even amidst a world of tumult and change; even with some of us together and most of us apart, we were spiritually present. Rosh Hashanah had come. A new year was born, we found the birthpangs of a new eternity. As I said last week, the possibilities are endless. We have eternity ahead of us. We have light. We have possibility. We have HOPE. We have one another--Congregation B’nai Israel, our Kehillah Kedoshah, our holy community.

Even as we have been physically distant, we have been united together. We have gathered for prayer. We have gathered to celebrate. We have gathered to mourn. We have gathered to study. Yes, those gatherings have largely been in little black boxes, but they are no less vital. They are no less important for their lack of physicality.

Our tradition speaks of our relationship with God in much the same way. Many Jewish philosophers and rabbis deny the physicality of God. When Yale professors discovered the Dura Europas synagogue in the 1930s, they saw the hand of God was visible in some of the paintings. This third century synagogue had an image of the literal hand of God! 

The discovery of this ancient synagogue surprised academics and rabbis. How could they show God in that way? Weren't we taught that God was devoid of physical characteristics? Weren’t any descriptions of God a violation of the Aseret HaDibrot’s prohibitions of images? Were we not supposed to see God as transcending above all that?

Yes, and no. Among modern Jews, the Rambam’s view, Maimonides' vision of a philosopher’s God, a distant God, a God that we could not anthropomorphize, that we could not turn into a human, has been dominant. Yet in the Jewish world, his view was never exclusive. The Ashkenazi world of the Middle Ages felt he was a heretic for trying to erase God’s physicality. The Kabbalists used Talmudic allusions to try to measure God’s body. They saw and see God as something we can deeply connect with, that our choices in this life draw us closer or push us further from the Holy One.

For some, the idea of connecting to God seems impossible. It does not match their conception of the Holy One, yet I believe the experience of the mystical is universal. As Jews, we have particular ways to attempt the connection, yet all of us can see the power of the world around us. Prayer in this room can be a moment of connection to that which is greater than ourselves. We may not feel it each and every time, yet many of us can pinpoint those moments when we DID feel it and we keep trying to rediscover those moments of power and beauty. Every rainbow is a potential moment of connection. Sitting on the beach is a moment of connection. Looking from the top of a mountain is a moment of connection. Breathing clean air, looking at the stars, being present in the moment of birth or death are moments when we feel different, when we feel the weightiness, the kavod, the holiness of the moment.

Tonight we ponder the words of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the master of the good name, who lived from 1698-1760, teaching a joyful, powerful Judaism, one where each individual could discover their souls and connect to God. The Besht, as he is often called, did not write anything himself, yet his teachings, parables and Torah were collected by his students and brought down over the generations of Hasidim. In our own community, these teachings resonate, too. They remind us of the words from the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah--that the Torah is not in heaven--but here with us at every moment.

Tzava'at Harivash, The Testament of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, 127
Whenever you are afraid of something, or love it, you should consider: “From where does this present fear or love come? After all, everything derives from [the Holy One], blessed be He, who put the [aspects of] fear and love even in bad things, such as wild beasts. For at the time of the ‘breaking [of the vessels]’ (ha-shevirat) something fell from all the attributes. The fear, therefore, is from [the Holy One], blessed be He. Why, then, should I be afraid of a single spark of His which is [vested] in that bad thing? It is better to attach myself to the ‘great fear’! The same applies to love, and so, too, with all the attributes, to extract the spark [of holiness] from there and raise it to its root. For this is the ultimate desire of our soul, to raise [the fallings of] the ‘breaking [of the vessels]’ to their source.”
The same applies to your speech: do not think that it is you who speaks. Rather, it is the vital force within you, which derives from the Creator, blessed is He, that speaks through you and raises the speech to its source. This [attitude] compounds also the [notion of] equanimity, because the faculty of speech is the same in another as it is with you, for all derives from Him, blessed be He.
Likewise when eating, your intent should be to extract the vitality [from the food] to elevate it to Above through the service of the Creator, blessed be He. And so, too, with everything else. Your intent in everything should be to effect that you attach yourself to Above.

Trying to deeply connect to God is a universal principle. It is found in Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and so many other traditions. When we look at mystical movements, they sometimes have more in common with each other than to their parent faiths. Mystics speak of moments of nullification of the self, of realizing that they are truly part of the entire universe, that boundaries disappear, and they are ECHAD, ONE.

Yet those esoteric moments are hard to reach and we cannot live there continuously. The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches us that within all of us, we can try to take those holy moments and spread them throughout our lives, that the mundane, ordinary tasks we do can be filled with sparks of holiness, sparks of life, sparks of joy.

The Prayers of Simple People (The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov: Buxbaum):
The Baal Shem Tov’s disciples were once amused at overhearing a common laborer mangle the words of a prayer. The Besht later said to them, "The essence of prayer is that it be from the heart; that is why the prayers of simple people, who pray with great faith and a broken heart, are valued so much in heaven. Although they may not understand the Hebrew and mispronounce the words, God judges their prayers according to the faith of their heart. When a small child, whose father loves him very much, asks for something and babbles the words, his father still gets pleasure from what he says and may grant him whatever he wants. So when a simple person prays sincerely, would his heavenly father, who loves him so very much, be strict with him or care if he mispronounces the words?"

Over the course of this day, we will say many words. We will offer many prayers. Some of them will have deep meaning to us, while others will go in one ear and out the other. How can we open our hearts to the Torah? How can we open our hearts to our own prayers?

You may have to ignore us periodically! My teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, of blessed memory, used to remind me about P’sukei D’zimrah. Those prayers open the morning service with psalms and verses designed to help us focus on God and prayer. The order of the verses themselves are not terribly important. Yet as we daven them, sometimes a word or phrase catches our fancy. It draws our attention. He would teach us to accept that distraction. Stop. Don’t move forward. Don’t turn the page. See what it is trying to teach us. What are we feeling at that moment? Are we feeling joy, peace, anger, frustration, sadness, or something else entirely? The same is true over Yom Kippur. We will beat our chests and acknowledge our sins repeatedly. If there is a word or phrase that catches you off guard, sit with it, stand with it, meditate upon it, breathe with it. What is it trying to tell you? What are you trying to tell yourself?

Yet it is not only in formal prayer that we can find holiness. Every moment has potential. Washing the dishes has potential. Taking out the trash has potential. Writing in a journal or reading the newspaper has potential. Eight hundred years ago, Ramban, Nachmanides, an important sage who helped rebuild the Jewish community in Jerusalem after the first crusades, offered similar advice.

Ramban (Nachmanides, c. 13th century) on Deuteronomy 11:22
...it is plausible that the meaning of "cleaving" is to remember God and His love constantly, not to divert your thought from Him in all your earthly doings. Such a man may be talking to other people, but his heart is not with them since he is in the presence of God. And it is further plausible that those who have attained this rank, do, even in their earthly life, partake of the eternal life, because they have made themselves a dwelling place of the shekhinah."

As we enter this Yom Kippur, let us strive to connect to God and one another in all that we do. Let this time of repentance not end tomorrow night, but be part of our regular actions. Let this time of awareness, of awe, of power, not end with Neilah or with the shofar blast, but live within us all year. The Torah is not in heaven. It is within you. G’mar Tov!

Below is my sermon as delivered. As usual, it is based on the words above, but is not word for word.