Heeding the Sacred Call: Yom Kippur 5778 (2017) Drash
by Rabbi Heather Miller
I attended a funeral last week for a security guard who served Temple Israel of Hollywood, a congregation where I have taught for the past 5 years. Manny died in a motorcycle accident. He was 26, and he leaves behind a girlfriend of 6 years and their 5 year old daughter. Each of us who spoke at the funeral did so to make meaning of his short life. Siblings noted how dedicated he was to his family, for whom he worked three jobs. His coworkers told various stories about how he always had their backs. One of the day school parents told a funny story about the time when Manny body blocked her friend from picking up her daughter from school because her name was inadvertently left off of the safe list. At the time, the friend was furious. In the end, they all appreciated his care, protection and commitment to safety.
Eulogizing Manny’s life reminded me that this is the time of year we each think about our own deaths. This is the time of year we stop and contemplate not how we best build our resumes, but instead how we best build our eulogies. We ask ourselves: How would people make meaning of my life? At this time of year, I will always remember Manny and how he was a devoted protector.
Edith Windsor died at the age of 88 earlier this month. You would remember her as the woman whose case went to the Supreme Court ultimately securing marriage equality for same sex couples. Many in this room directly benefitted from her cause. Prior to becoming a champion of LGBT rights, her life was defined by her role as a trailblazer for women’s rights, as she was one of the first and only women computer programmers at IBM.
No wonder Hillary Rodham Clinton, another trailblazer, ended a eulogy for Windsor with a quote from poet Mary Oliver, “Tell me what it is that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.”
And, so we sit here, at this season of introspection, thinking about these deaths, one young and one advanced in age, one west coast one east coast, one male one female, one straight one lesbian, and we see that our lives can be lived in various ways. The question is, how do we want to live our own life? Sitting here on Yom Kippur, Oliver’s question resonates: “Tell me what it is that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.”
Yes, today is the Day of Atonement. Yes, we repent and we lament and we apologize. Yes, this is the dramatic conclusion of the 10 days of repentance.
But above all, Yom Kippur is known as Shabbat Shabbaton— the Shabbat of Shabbats. And this is not only because today is actually Shabbat. Even if today was a Wednesday, Yom Kippur would be known as the Shabbat of Shabbats because it is a day that we sit in our deepest prayer, our deepest self reflection, and contemplate the meaning of our lives more earnestly than at any other time of year. We consider what we will do with our one wild and precious life.
Judaism encourages us to do this each year and at every age and stage because life is confusing and distracting and we need to routinely recenter to regroup, recalibrate and realign with our purpose.
A thousand years ago, Rashi affirmed that Rosh Hashanah is a day where we begin to contemplate this mikra kodesh/ holy calling, and he continues that this holy calling, is sanctified on Yom Kippur.1
Many of us come here, to temple on the holiest day of the year, looking for direction, for our purpose, for our calling. And this question causes anxiety. My senior year of college, I worked for my college’s Center for Work and Service. There, I saw all kinds of hurried and highly pressured seniors come in to talk with college counselors about their futures. Some came in determined to claim a position along the very clear career path that they charted out for themselves years earlier. Some were truly lost and floundered. We tried to direct them all to the alumnae databases, or to consult with their faculty advisors for industry-specific guidance. But, ultimately it was up to them to find their way.
At that time in my life, I was guided by some wisdom I learned from elders at a progressive think tank in Washington, DC. One of them advised us to always ask several questions when considering future endeavors: Is this something that will advance good in the world? Is it something that I am uniquely positioned to do? Does the activity align with my most cherished values such that this activity will be rewarding and meaningful?
I took his advice and I took inventory on my life’s loves: community building, striving for justice, diligent study, caring for the world, and the dorky excitement that I feel studying Jewish ethical inquiry. I had also, by this point, formally studied Hebrew for 7 years. All of these had given me hints of what I should probably do with my life. But then, one of those long and detailed career prediction surveys literally declared, “You should be CLERGY!” Of course I should. Thank you, test, for affirming that! In all of these things, I heard the clarion call of direction.
Torah is chock full of people who heeded their calling. We read over and over again that God is generally the one doing the calling. Most famously, Moses was called to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt by the voice of God emanating from a bush that was full of fire but not consumed by it.
But, the call can originate from anywhere; it doesn’t have to come from God. Esther heeded the call of her uncle Mordechai who implored her to reveal her Jewish identity to the King, and famously saved the Jews of Shushan.
Or, the call can come from a shofar blast. The book of Numbers tells us that while the Israelites were in the wilderness, they heard these sounds and were summoned to follow the path meant for them.2
But, for most people, a more subtle and quieter calling can be heard. We must simply engage in a practice of listening carefully for it.
In the Torah portion we read today, we are reminded to “shamata v’kolo….b’chol levavecha u’v’chol nafshecha”/ listen with all our heart and soul for our purpose.3 The calling is so close to us, we need only to sit in stillness to hear it.
This week’s Torah portion affirms,
“Surely, this command which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart.”4
Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama, in the Babylonian Talmud, 1500 years ago, tells us that if it was beyond the sea or in heaven you would be obliged to go find it.5 The Midrash tells us that Moses himself tells the people that it is not in heaven and nothing of it has remained there.6
What that means is that we don’t have to ascend a mountain to find it, we don’t have to cross an ocean to find it— it isn’t still up there on that mountaintop at Sinai. It is not only right here within the walls of this sacred sanctuary, but it is within the chambers our our own heart, it is embedded within our soul. The calling is here with us. We only need to open ourselves to hear it, and have the courage to heed it.
And what it says to us is to “choose life.”7 I would add to “choose the life you want to live.” This is the time of year, this is the season to get back in touch with who we are and who we want to be in the new year.
Today is the day to ask, as Moses did at the burning bush, mi anochi / who am I? And to listen to our calling. It is within our reach.
This doesn’t mean that you do what makes you happiest. It means that you do what is the most meaningful. To stop and consider, what is your life’s most fulfilling endeavor? What are you uniquely qualified to do? What brings about the most good in the world? What is calling you in your innermost recesses? This is a day to contemplate that.
And so I will end here as I began. With a quote from Mary Oliver.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”8
Perhaps the sound of the shofar that we hear many times this high holy day season is like the sound of these geese, or maybe even the very sound of God? It is calling us. All we need to do is listen.
1. Rashi on Leviticus 23:35.
2. Numbers 10:2
3. Deuteronomy 30:2.
4. Deuteronomy 30:11-14
5. Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 55a. “R. Avdimi bar Hama observed: [The text says,] “It is not in heaven… nor beyond the sea.” [It says,] “It is not in heaven” because if it was in heaven you would be obliged to go up after it. [And it says,] “it is not beyond the sea,” because if it was beyond the sea, you would be obliged to cross it in pursuit.”
6. Deuteronomy Rabbah 8:6. Moses himself says: “I hereby notify you that it is not in heaven, that nothing of it has remained in heaven.”
7. Deuteronomy 30:19.