Think of some specific areas that particularly make you want to cry – maybe its our nation’s current treatment of immigrants – thousands of lives ruptured; or climate change with its myriad manifestations; or refugee crises around the world; or any of a number of other catastrophes unfolding daily in our newsfeed. Each of them just a chapter heading in a global book of things that are in need of teshuvah, each with a thousand subpoints, scrolling before our eyes daily. Feel your reaction to that, the reaction you have every day, or perhaps on those rare occasions when you have the breathing room to let it in.
Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk was one of the great early Chassidic masters.
One of his students, after studying with him for years, came to him shortly before High Holidays one year and told him:
“Rebbe, I’ve learned so much from you. The only thing I haven’t learned is how you prepare yourself for the High Holidays. Please show me.” Rabbi Elimelekh told him “The truth is, there’s nothing so extraordinary about how I prepare for the High Holidays. If you want to learn something interesting, go to Moshe the innkeeper.”
He went to Moshe the innkeeper and asked him to show him how he prepared. Moshe invited him to return on the day before Yom Kippur. When he returned, he found Moshe sitting in his living room in front of a roaring fire. On the table in front of him were two books. Moshe motioned for him to approach. He leaned over his shoulder. “These are the books of Teshuvah,” he said simply, the books of repentance. Moshe opened the first book. Only one page was written on. Moshe carefully read the page out loud and began to weep. The young student listened as Moshe read a rather short list of fairly minor sins he had committed during the previous year. When he finished reading the list, Moshe took the book, swung it over his head, and threw it into the fire.
Moshe took a deep breath and then opened the second book and repeated the ritual. This time, however, he read a rather long list of sins that God had committed in the previous year. Once again, he wept as he
read. After he finished reading, Moshe swung the second book over his head and threw it into the fire.
The innkeeper was now ready for the High Holidays.
Let’s update that: It won’t be hard.
Instead of Moshe, imagine it’s me, you, most of the people we know.
In one book, or laptop, or journal, each of us probably also has a relatively short list of relatively modest personal failings.
In the other book – which in our day we call the newspaper – there is a daily chronicle of devastating failings with consequences on all levels, from individual lives to the entire human community to the earth itself. We’d probably throw that newspaper in the fire, too, if we weren’t reading it on our computers, and if it weren’t a no-burn day.
Take a moment to connect with that list. Think of some specific areas that particularly make you want to cry – maybe its our nation’s current treatment of immigrants – thousands of lives ruptured; or climate change with its myriad manifestations; or refugee crises around the world; or any of a number of other catastrophes unfolding daily in our newsfeed. Each of them just a chapter heading in a global book of things that are in need of teshuvah, each with a thousand subpoints, scrolling before our eyes daily. Feel your reaction to that, the reaction you have every day, or perhaps on those rare occasions when you have the breathing room to let it in.
So why are we talking about that second book, that newspaper? Aren’t the High Holidays about us? Shouldn’t we focus on our failings, even if they’re relatively modest? How can we point the finger at God or at the state of the world? Shouldn’t we turn our gaze inwards? Well, yes, they are about us, and it’s probably not a time to point fingers, at least not at other people.
In that vein, Rabbi Doniel Hartman points out that we say Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu, etc... We have wronged, we have betrayed, we have stolen... and strike our own hearts. He points out that we don’t lean over to strike our neighbor’s heart and say “You have wronged, you have betrayed,” etc...
And he’s absolutely right.
But here is this story, and I think this story is also right in the way that stories can be “right” – in that it points at a truth that’s hard to express. First of all, this story isn’t about our neighbor. It’s about Heaven’s “sins,” or in my contemporary version, what we might call the state of the world. And there is something very appropriate to the High Holidays about that.
That piece that does feel very appropriate to the High Holidays, I believe, is in our reaction to the state of the world, that newspaper we just want to chuck in the fire.
That reaction is heartbreak.... Heartbreak shows up differently for each of us. We experience it with different levels of intensity, each according to our own style. Some cry often and out loud, some rarely or only to ourselves. But at the root, no matter how it shows up for each of us, the underlying response to the state of the world is heartbreak.
And these days, it is relentless, and it is exhausting. And it produces a kind of cognitive dissonance, because we continue to go about our daily lives, which in most cases haven’t changed much in the last couple of years, but as we check the news over breakfast, or on the way to work, or after the dishes are done at night, we know it’s there, the devastation. And underneath it all, the heartbreak, usually barely noticeable, always present.
I would feel bad reminding you about it on a holiday eve, but I know it’s already with you, it’s already with all of us.
And heartbreak is, on one very important level, exactly what the High Holidays are here for.
The Ba’al Shem Tov was the founder of the original, radical Hasidic movement, back when Hasidism was in fact a very radical, totally joyful, spiritual movement.
The Ba’al Shem Tov compared God – especially on High Holy Days – to a ruler living in the innermost chamber of a vast palace. The inner chamber is accessible only through many other chambers, each with locked doors. There are special intentions and learnings and holy
thoughts you can hold in your head during the prayers of the High Holidays and during the shofar blasts, and these are keys that unlock the doors to the chambers, each one different.
But there is one axe that quickly breaks down all the doors to all the outer chambers and brings you straight to the inner chamber. That axe is a broken heart. This is so he says, because of what it says in Psalms: “God is close to the broken-hearted.”
Remarkable. Connection to that which is most sacred and precious and vital is not only in our peak moments when everything is feeling just right, but in our most vulnerable, difficult moments.
But in fact this notion shows up a lot in our tradition:
Also from Psalms, “God will not reject a contrite and broken heart,” and God is “the Healer of the broken-hearted.”
From the Talmud and the Zohar: “God desires the heart.”
And, perhaps even more remarkably, from another Hasidic master, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk:
“There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”
So what do these teachings mean? On one level, they constitute a message of hope – Our hearts are always already broken to one degree or another, and these teachings come to tell us that that does not need to be an occasion for feeling estranged from Love, but that Love pulses through a broken heart at least as strongly as through another.
It’s also normalizing. Our society doesn’t tolerate broken-heartedness very well.
To pick just one stark example, we scarcely get any time off from work even for the death of a loved one. We have a lot of time and energy for the pursuit of happiness, the worship of youth, and above all work, but not a lot of time and attention for a broken heart.
So with these teachings I mentioned, our tradition is providing a powerful antidote. It is saying, don’t cover it over – try to heal it yes, but know that it will be broken again, and when it is, know that that is a vital experience, too, not one to be gotten around.
Recall that the broken heart is what unlocks God’s chamber. And the High Holidays is when we desperately want to unlock God’s chamber, to connect to the sacred core that we sense pulses within us and within each other and within the heart of the universe. On the High Holidays, we bring our broken hearts, let them break open a little more, and yearn to connect.
There’s another connection between the broken heart and the High Holidays, and this is where we loop back from our broken-heartedreaction to the state of the world to that familiar High Holiday trope of introspection and working on our own failings. The connection is that we are not only broken-hearted at the state of the outside world, but the tradition also imagines us being broken-hearted at the state of ourinternal world. Remember that Moshe the innkeeper wept not only when reading the list of God’s sins, but also when reading his own paltry list. Part of the work of High Holidays is coming to grips with the messiness inside ourselves, facing that, evaluating it, and hopefully
trying to clean it up. And all these things we want to do better ourselves – everything we want to make teshuvah for – also break our heart. Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, described “Heartbreak [as] precisely the feeling that we have done our best, we have given it our all, but it hasn’t been enough.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pointing a finger and saying that your heartshould be broken. I’m just saying that when we do confront our own failings, as modest as they are, on some level we all simply are broken- hearted.
And these are in fact two sides of one coin – we are broken-hearted at the state of the world and we are broken-hearted at our own failings, as modest as they may be. We bring our hearts – twice broken – to High Holidays and with them seek to break down the gates, to connect, to be close.
And because they are two sides of the same coin, I think their redemptive power is connected, too. Part of our broken-hearted response to both our own failings and the state of the world can and should be to want to fix ourselves and the world. The first we call teshuvah. The second is tikkun olam. But they are connected. Tikkun olam begins with teshuvah. Change begins with us.
The first step is spiritual and personal. The next steps are practical and social. They are connected. The High Holidays are about teshuvah, and ultimately I think they point to tikkun olam. But both begin with a broken heart.
Which brings us back, finally, to a teaching I quoted earlier. Somehow,paradoxically, our broken hearts are the key to connection, and torepair, and therefore to wholeness – “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”
L’Shanah Tovah UMetukah!
The Torah is usually terse and concise, but this week's parasha, Chayei Sarah, centers around a long story that is anything but! All 67 verses of Genesis chapter 24 are devoted to a single narrative: the tale of Abraham sending his servant on a journey to find a wife for his son Isaac, and returning with Rebecca, a woman of great agency, strength and generosity.
We Jews know how to wait. That is, we deeply understand humanity's imperfections, and that the presence of injustice or cruelty in our world cannot undermine our steadfast focus on trying to achieve our vision of a more perfect, more just future. We have lots of historical experience to draw on, and much language for this kind of spiritual resilience. One line that's been swimming through my head this week is from the prayer "Ani Maamin": "v'af al pi she-yitmameah, im kol zeh achakeh lo." Translating loosely here (and transposing what we're waiting for from a messianic figure to a time characterized by messianic ideals), this means: despite the fact that it's taking a long time for the world to change in the ways we believe it should, still, we are undeterred; we will wait - and work - until we arrive at an era of peace and justice.
Yesterday was the second anniversary of the violent attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Its memory casts a long shadow for me, and this year, the anniversary feels like a powerful reminder of the very high stakes of next week’s election.