Yom Kippur commentary (following our Stories of Transformation: “Paperclips” and “Gene Wilder”)
“We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams.” If there was ever a Humanistic Jewish line, that’s it! The purpose behind the Stories of Transformation is to inspire us to make our own music, to dream our dreams and, of course, to make them reality. Yom Kippur is traditionally understood as a day to repent for one’s sins so that one may be written in the Book of Life. We prefer to see it as a day to reflect, not repent, and to express who we hope to be and what we hope to achieve in the coming year. This way, we author the next year’s chapter in our book of life; not a mystical book, but the metaphorical story of our lives and our collective impact as individuals and as those in the Jewish community.
There is an old Jewish joke about Yom Kippur. There is a man in an Orthodox synagogue who is fasting. He disrupts the service constantly, calling out: “Oy, am I toisty! Oy, am I toisty’!” Partly because he is disruptive to others, and partly because of compassion for the man, the rabbi tells him he is permitted to drink some water in order to continue with his prayer. The man drinks. A few minutes later all in attendance hear a resounding shout: “Oy, was I toisty!”
Like all good Jewish jokes, this pokes fun at both Jewish convention and Jewish stereotype. The convention is that we suffer on Yom Kippur. The stereotype is that Jews never suffer in silence.
Suffering is an interesting concept when it comes to repentance. The idea is that on Yom Kippur one “afflicts their soul” so that they may feel truly sorry. But this sorrow should be about those we have wronged or hurt in some way. It seems to me that afflicting one’s soul does nothing for these others. Is not the whole idea to focus outward? To worry about others we’ve harmed or hurt and how we can do better? The more one experiences suffering, or affliction, the more they simply concentrate on themselves. Perhaps this is a wasted opportunity on this special day.
It isn’t wrong to focus inwardly; it is necessary. But the overall goal must be to find the tools that help us behave better, act according to our values, in the year to come. Sometimes, as the joke highlights, what goes on in services doesn’t meet that need. This was me many years ago in a synagogue.
Teenage Denise would be thinking: “I’d love to connect to the spiritual and somber themes here; I believe in reflection for personal betterment. But oy, am I toisty. And also there’s a lot in here that sounds pretty suspicious to me. A book of life? I just didn’t believe in it. I’ve been pretty bad this year and yet I still plan to be around for next year’s Yom Kippur. I wonder if I’ll be less hungry then. I wonder what’s being served at the breaking of the fast.” None of this was particularly helpful in bettering my outlook or behaviour. Don’t get me wrong, there was also much in those services that touched me. There are good reasons to fast. This isn’t to disparage the way Jews around the world and through the centuries have marked Yom Kippur. Rather, I want to focus on the point of tension where we look inside ourselves without getting lost; how we use introspection to better our outward action.
It’s hard for us to get out of our own heads at the best of times. Once we add hunger, thirst, a long Torah service (if this feels long to you, I get it. The most traditional thing you can do this Yom Kippur is be bored when the rabbi speaks), once we add all that, who can pay attention to anything lofty? Not so conducive to personal and communal transformation.
I don’t believe in suffering as a tool of soul-searching. So, what do I believe?
It’s my hope that we try as much as possible to define ourselves according to what we do believe, rather than in opposition to that which we do not believe. Rather than asking you to suffer, and certainly than to suffer in silence, this Yom Kippur, I’d like you to consider three aspects of your life and what you do to foster them. They are easy to remember – think of the 3 Bs: Belief, behaviour, and belonging. For these 3 Bs comprise who and what we are.
Research suggests that, in a religious or cultural context, it is these three things that lead to affiliation and fulfillment. We are shaped by we think, what we do, and where we go. And these become mutually constituting and reinforcing factors. If I attend a great lecture or service, it might change my thinking, which might influence my actions, which might affect the next choice I’ll make in attending a lecture or service at that same place.
White supremacist groups, of which we’ve seen a rise if not in their existence, certainly in their expression, offer the 3 Bs. If we are serious about opposing them, we need to be serious about the 3 Bs too. Today in Peterborough Ontario, where I have lived and where I work, Jews must choose between Yom Kippur services and counter-rallies against a permitted white supremacist demonstration. This Yom Kippur and this year I want us to use the 3 Bs to enhance our strength as individuals and as a community so that we are poised to take on these challenges.
So let’s free ourselves from the traditional model, even the traditional Oraynu model, of a Yom Kippur service. We are going to look inwardly and connect outwardly. I’m asking you in a moment but not yet, if you are comfortable (but feel free to be brave and get outside your comfort zone), to take a minute or two, introduce yourself to someone sitting near you who you don’t know and answer the following. If you can’t think of answers to all of these, that is just fine. It means it’s a good question for you to ponder over the year to come. But, you may just have these answers. I’ll be asking you to share: 1 thing you believe, about anything. It could be a belief that Game of Thrones is the best show ever made. A belief that humanity can solve climate change. Go anywhere you wish. Then say 1 thing you do that you are proud of, be it a hobby, social service, your job, a role in your family, etc, again, anything goes. Finally, name 1 place or community where you belong, be it Oraynu, an online community, a gym, your family, anything, any place where you feel you belong. Again, please turn to someone and share a belief, a behaviour and a site of belonging for you. You’ve got about two minutes to both share your 3 Bs and hear someone else’s. And… go!
And just like the Jew in the joke… it’s hard to get you quiet! 🙂
Here’s the thing: at Oraynu, we are a community of believers. We are often seen by others as a community of non-believers. But that’s not true. We are completely united, and influenced, by what we believe.
We are approaching the 50 year anniversary of our community. Five decades of people coming together to do Jewish in a way that feels right to them. Here is what has connected all of us: we wish to be music makers, we are dreamers of dreams. It is such a beautiful affirmation of life to publicly declare by participating in a community like ours that we courageously face the challenges of our world and pledge to try to meet them; to affect change because we are the ones who both create and solve the problems of the world. And we need each other to do it.
I have said to you for many years that the Stories of Transformation service is my favourite of the year. I love thinking about the small differences individuals, like Gene Wilder, and communities, like the one in the Paper clips story, make. I love the focus we place on taking what we believe: that humans and humanity are worthy of a better world and that humans and humanity can create it. We take those beliefs, and we translate them into behaviour. Here is an example:
This past spring we held a program called the Blanket Exercise, which takes participants through an experiential walk through Indigenous Canadian history with an Indigenous perspective. It is followed by a talking circle for people to share their reflections.
We had a full house. More than a full house – we were pretty crammed together standing on those blankets. I knew this community would show up for something so rooted in education and justice, for we believe in both. In the talking circle, people pledged one after the other their desire to help make change in Canada for Indigenous folks. We have signed petitions, we have contacted our MPs, we have written letters, we have educated our friends and family about their misconceptions. We have done this all because we know that, for any sense of integrity and authenticity, our beliefs and behaviours must align. So many of you wrote or spoke to me after that program to express how much it meant to you. The learning, of course, but, more than that, the opportunity to do that learning in the safety and comfort of our Oraynu community. We hold each other up at Oraynu; listening to one another, respecting one another, even if we disagree, and affirming one another’s individual goals and whole selves. Belief, behaviour, and belonging. We got it covered.
Why is this important? Precisely because I don’t want for this service to be an exercise in thirst: literal thirst or a thirst for something more inspiring. I want you satiated today and all year long. The way to become so is to engage your beliefs, to align them with your behaviour, and to find communities of belonging that will reinforce your values and affirm who you are. Belief, behaviour and belonging are important for individual growth and happiness. To me, this is a worthy goal in itself but it is not the only goal. It is my goal that we take our collective beliefs, behaviour and belonging and turn it outwardly, so that we can affect broader change.
The stories we just heard exemplify this. Gene Wilder was persecuted for being Jewish, and then he found like-minded Jewish comedians to work with, be in relationship with, and create work with that would be affirming to others. He took his belief in comedy as a healing force, and applied it through his work and community, behaviour and belonging, to help create cancer support and fundraising groups. Belief, behaviour and belonging for a higher purpose.
Similarly with the school group we heard about in the Southern U.S. They believed in education for social betterment. They did something about it. They did it with their peers. Their small group achieved a lot: they united a global village of those wanting to learn about the Holocaust to ensure similar genocides are prevented in future. Belief, behaviour, belonging.
Not all of you are Oraynu members. Perhaps one day you will be, but for now those who aren’t are our treasured guests. And we wouldn’t encourage you to join until you knew us well. You don’t get married on the first date, as it were. We want you to engage with us, see if we are a good fit for your beliefs, see if we can impact your behaviour, see if we can give you a sense of belonging. But if it isn’t with us, I hope you’ll find another group, or several groups or communities, that fulfil the goals of the 3 Bs. I hope you are able to find your people in achieving your own personal goals.
Today marks the conclusion of what we call the Days of Awe. Ten days at the start of the Jewish year set aside for personal reflection, for making amends, and for goal setting for the next year. I am in awe of the concept itself. What a gift, what an opportunity, to consciously and mindfully set a course for our year.
I am in awe of our movement and community. The founder of our movement, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, over 50 years ago, sat down with members of his Reform community for an honest conversation. He said, not only do I not believe most of what we say in our prayer service, but I’m convinced many of you don’t believe it either! Together they founded the Birmingham Temple in the Detroit area. A movement was born. 10 years ago Rabbi Wine died. He left a legacy of a movement, an educational arm, many congregations and communities, and a way of putting philosophy into action. If our movement can be summed up in one sentence, it is: We say what we believe, and we believe what we say.” Communities were established and thrive today around the 3 Bs: belief, behaviour and belonging. We are living examples of what can be achieved when we have all three cohere.
So, this year, be the music-maker of your own life. Dream your dreams, articulate them, make them happen. As much as we can, let’s try to shift our focus from our own suffering to that of others.
Let’s try to consider how to practice our beliefs, how to find the people who can help us do that, and how to be our best selves, to the best of our ability, at least most of the time. The goal is never perfection. The goal is transformation. And we have the power to transform our own lives and those of others. To all of you here today, I thank you for being with us in our close and courageous community, and I wish you all a wonderful year ahead.