sabato 11 ottobre 2008

Teshuvah - our Jewish journey

There is a tale, a legend, that it is present in every culture. It is the story of the journey of a hero who is looking for a treasure. There are many versions of this story, but the topic is basically the same. The hero is a common, ordinary man, or woman, who receives a call. He sees a burning bush or hears a voice saying: lekh, lekha, you go!
In his travels the hero meets friends, overcomes obstacles, survives to battles. And the journey ends on the threshold of an unknown world, a mysterious cave, a Promised Land. The hero goes over the threshold, thanks to his ability or fortune, and enters into the new Land, in which a treasure is waiting. But in this land, which has gorgeous landscapes as well as regions of perennial darkness, there are new rules, friends and enemies are confused. The hero reaches the goal -or makes the conquests- the treasure, and then begins on the way back, to the ordinary, common world. And just before returning to family, on the threshold, the hero usually has a moment to rethink: Why did he have to get out of the New World in which he is beginning to learn the rules? Why such a trivial return to everyday life? But something pushes him permanently out: the purpose of the trip was the search for the treasure that, once discovered and conquered, must be shared with humanity.
We find this theme in medieval ballads, in Indian legends, also in several texts from our tradition: it is the history of the journey undertaken by each of us, to discover who we are, and the deepest meaning of our life. Yom Kippur is part of such a journey that we make together with other Jews, the other Jewish Communities, or Congregations. It is the day when the world takes a step back to help us focus on our journey that is Jewish, personal and collective at the same time.
The journey begins, even for us, with a call. Be it the E-mail with the schedule of the functions, the telephone calls from friends or relatives who asks us: so, this year, where are we going for Yom Kippur? Or the shofar on Rosh ha Shana, whose piercing sound reminds us of our common ancestor Abraham, and his calling: lekh lekha, go to yourself.
There is then the solemn evening of the Kol Nidreh, during which we stand facing a celestial court; we take an oath to say only the truth, nothing but the truth. We are confronted with ourselves, without the fear of others’ judgement. We are asked not to pay attention to the needs of the daily life: drink, eat... The world, for this day, is silent.
Awakening in the morning without newspapers and without coffee, for me it is very hard. It is the time when the daily requirements are felt. And then we join the people of Israel, our fellow Jews, our companions in this private and collective journey.
We gather per fare Kippur, to make Yom Kippur. Whoever asks us: where do you go? We answer: to pray. But the Jewish prayer is a curious issue. Prayer in Hebrew is tefillah. It is a reflective form of the verb lehitpallel, to judge, so prayer means also to judge ourselves.
Avraham Heschel explains that prayer is meaningful only if it is subversive, if it is the bulding of an interior Temple, with moments of devotion, times of meditation, in the place of the Pyramids and monuments built by the slaves.
We found a strange treasure, at Sinai, just as we left the Kingdom of the Pyramids and the condition of slavery. There our ancestors learned that God has no forms, neither physical aspect. God has never been seen, so we cannot create images of God. However, we can feel the presence of God in our life, which pushes us forward, towards the world.
Our God is the God of life: any image of God is fixed, is dead. Our God is before us and asks us to follow in His ways. On Yom Kippur as well repentance, teshuvah, forgiveness, are not controlled, or even ordered. God indicates and shows us through example, His particular relation with each of us. God first forgives each of us and invites us to follow the spiritual path of the noble soul, away from meanness and selfishness, a path guided by the Golden Rule: You shall love your neighbor as yourself, i.e. You shall love your neighbor because your neighbor is like you.
Truthfully, this golden rule, that the neighbor is like us, is not such a great discovery. It is already part of our lives, but it happens that we usually misuse it. It becomes a tool for us to win.
For example, to accuse other people of the same failures we feel in ourselves. We are all aware of the unpleasant or even internal evil parts. We would like it to get rid of them. And the more they disgust us, the more we want to throw them away. This way reality assumes the character of that which we deplore, and this increases our bitterness and misbehavior. What we do not accept in ourselves becomes something unbearable in others. It is like the tax evader, who steals from the public, the one who asks for punishment harsher for the thieves, or the one who takes the law into his own hands. And he calls it justice.
These psychological mechanisms are well known. Our ancestors on Yom Kippur practiced the rite of the scapegoat: to load our own failures on something other and send it away, out in the desert. These are the dark lessons that we learn in our collective journey: the regions of perennial darkness, in which we feel lost, and even the distinction between right and wrong blurs. We are like the prince in the Midrash: he left the family home, because of anger, or boredom. Along the way he encounters friends that ask him to return, but he says he has not the power, he is too weak. And his father, the King, sends to him and says: at least, come part of the way back. Begin to make the journey, I will do the rest, I will you meet halfway. Return to me and I will return to you.
Rabbi Kook explains that teshuvah is not a regression. It is a return. When a society is devastated by idolatry, when the structure of power is generally reputed holy, to return to the Golden Rule, that you shall love your neighbor because he is, like you, created in the image of God, is truly a revolutionary commandment, says Rabbi Kook.
This is the inspiration of Sinai, this spiritual treasure of the Jewish people, that we Jews have the task to share with humanity: to overcome dark impulses, idolatrous and oppressive, that are part of each human group, of every human being, of each of us. The Golden Rule pushes us to discover, the treasure our ancestors uncovered centuries ago in their journey. Their journey was the prototype of the journey that we make together each year on Yom Kippur.
I want to share with you one journey, the journey of Elazar ben Durdaya, a man who liked prostitutes. This story is told in Babylonian Talmud, in Avodah Zarah. Elazar one day heard talk about a beautiful courtesan who was, let’s say, not only beautiful, but also very skilled. He collected information about her price, picked up the sum and went on his journey to find the professional.
The Talmud says that Elazar ben Durdaya crossed the proverbial seven seas, the mountains and rivers. At the end of the meeting the prostitutes said to him, You will be remembered only for this trip. You will never be admitted to the olam habaa, the world to come. And Elazar became aware of having committed a serious aveirah, having reduced a person to a thing. He also realized that that money could be spent for more worthy purposes. A different trip could have had a more worthy purpose. Elazar ben Durdaya, desperate and afflicted, sat to the ground. The Talmud says that the mountains were moved for him, and he asked them to pray for him, but the mountains answered: we cannot pray for you, we are praying to stay firm. Elazar then turned to heavens, and asks them to pray for him. But the heavens answered that they have much to do, they must pray so the planets can continue in their orderly courses and the universe remain more or less stable. And then, the Talmud reports, that Elazar ben Durdaya understood his forgiveness, his teshuvah, depended only on him. At this point Elazar ben Durdaya wept and his soul ascended to heaven. He was received by a divine voice saying: In the olam habaa there is place for Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya
The Talmud comments that there are those who take their all lifetime to enter olam habaa, and there are those, like Elazar ben Durdaya, who earn the olam habaa in a single hour. The name of the person who does teshuva is not only recalled, but also honored with the title of Rabbi, Maestro, because he who does teshuvah is as a pathfinder, a great traveller who has much to teach.
Humanity, we know, has an extraordinary capacity for renewal and rebirth. Each of us has an opportunity to remind ourselves of darkhei Shalom, the roads of peace, that we travelled from Sinai up until today.
It is said: an aveirah is a transgression of one commandment, but cannot cancel out the Torah, which remains the light. May our teshuva, our journey forward, be illuminated by the light of Torah.

Congregation Shir Hadash, Florence, Yom Kippur 5769

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