Rabbi EBC: Yom Kippur 5781 Sermon

Rabbi EBC

For many people in this country, especially for working parents with young children, these last months have been the fullest they’ve ever experienced—juggling childcare with conference calls; trying to meet professional deadlines and expectations while also Zoom-schooling and meal preparing; waiting for bedtime not as a break, but as the rare opportunity to focus entirely on career obligations or simply to fold the laundry, let alone finding time to be a spouse or a friend or a fully-feeling human being. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there are many who have experienced these past six months as the most spacious of their lives.  Their struggle has been with boredom, with loneliness, with painful silence.  And as folks have tried to bring structure to the abyss of their online work schedules and home-bound social lives, I’ve noticed—and I’m sure you have too—many emerging pandemic pastimes.  

From mask-sewing to reading new authors to sourdough bread baking and home renovations, people have been adopting new hobbies to fill this socially isolated time.  

I haven’t done a lot of hobbying these past few months, but on Shabbat afternoons while the kids are napping, I have come to really enjoy immersing myself in a puzzle.  I have a kind of ritual around puzzling that I imagine is similar to other puzzling routines out there.  

First, I sift through the entire box, piece by piece, finding each edge—bonus points for the corners, of course!  I push aside all the middle pieces for a bit, while I focus all my attention to those that will form the perimeter.  

I then sort those according to color or size or pattern, and begin snapping them in one-by-one.  This part is often exhilarating, because with every connection made, I feel a little rush of endorphins, egging me on to find the next piece to fit just so.  

And it’s not until the whole outer edge is complete that I begin to fill in the center, usually one cluster at a time.  Maybe the cluster stems from an edge piece, or maybe it forms around a prominent image, or maybe it gathers around a uniqueness or idiosyncratic element of the puzzle—like the green pickles featured on the otherwise yellow and orange cheese platter, or the one person wearing red in a sea of blue sports fans.  Slowly, slowly, the pieces all find their places, and I get to appreciate the nuances each one offers—the subtle ways in which it fits right here, and not over there.

As I was puzzling one Shabbat afternoon, I began to wonder, what would it look like if we built our community in the same way that we put together a puzzle—What would it mean for us to metaphorically start at our edges?

Some of you learned with me over Rosh Hashanah about the mystical notion of tzimtzum.  As kabbalistic teaching goes, before God created the world, God was Ein-Sof (literally, without end), meaning that God took up every millimeter of space imaginable.  So, in order to create our world, first, God had to contract God’s self, pulling away from the edges of infinity to make room for new creation.  Within this imagination, creation itself emerged forth from the edges.

But rarely in life are the edges the starting point.

Take a peanut butter sandwich, for example.  I’ve been serving a lot of these to my three year old recently, and a couple of weeks ago he announced “I’m not into crust anymore.”  “What do you mean you’re not into crust?” I inquired.  “I’m just not into it,” he repeated.  Feeling a flood of dread for the payback inevitably coming to me from my years of insisting on crust-free sandwiches, I caved.  “Okay, eat the rest of your lunch.  Tziona will eat your crust,” I said, as I handed my eager one year old the bits of bread.  

A few days later, I served him a grilled cheese sandwich instead, with gooey cheese oozing from every side.  He couldn’t get enough, and as he devoured it, he proudly proclaimed “Imma, I’m into crust again!”  

While at first I wrote this off as a typical fickle 3-year-old moment, upon further reflection I noticed that his aversion to the sandwich’s edge was never the crust itself.  Rather, it was that in a typical peanut butter sandwich, all the good stuff is at the center, with only a thin layer of filling reaching the crust.  But when the edges were well-resourced, they were just as enticing as the rest of it.

When we think about community, the same is true.  Who is at the edges?  How are those edges resourced?  Who is just barely in the door, or perhaps just outside it, waiting to be let in?

I want to share one example from the edges of our community.  On Yom Kippur, we’re called to account for our failings as individuals as well as those that are done on behalf of a larger whole.  We name our sins communally—saying “we” rather than “I”—as a way of sharing responsibility and inviting collective accountability.  So I share this story as one example of our institutional need for teshuvah.

As you know, in 2018 we completed a multi-million dollar construction project.  Our beautiful new building is fused perfectly with our historic architecture; the stained glass and artistic detailing of the sanctuary comes to life with fresh paint and new carpet.  We have updated AV systems, enhanced security, a stunning social hall with glass windows stretching floor to ceiling and an atrium with skylights that beckon our eyes to the heavens.  Our new home is so gorgeous and the community we’ve brought to life within its walls is even more moving.  As we pray together by Zoom this morning, I’m sad not to be there with all of you, pews full and kids running through its hallways.

However, until just months ago, entrance ramps led to doors that could only be opened manually.  While someone in a wheelchair could get to the door, they wouldn’t be able to enter without someone else there to help.  So I ask again, who is at our edges?

A number of years ago I had the privilege of learning with Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, a professor at Georgetown and advocate for disability justice.  She urged us to shift the lens through which we see disability inclusion from one of chesed—kindness—to one of chiuuv—obligation.  

When something is obligated of us, we do all kinds of things to make it happen.  “Take kashrut,” she explained.  “When we plan a Jewish communal gathering—a wedding, a gala, a conference, a kiddish lunch—many of us go out of our way to ensure that the food will be kosher.  We do this, even if most of those eating don’t keep kosher or if they’d be fine eating a vegetarian meal.  We spend more money, we inconveniences ourselves with limited options in caterers and menus, and we do this because it says something about our values and who we want at our tables.”  

But when it comes to disability inclusion, it’s easy to pat ourselves on the back when we get it right (noting how kind we are—what a chesed we’ve done), while in seemingly the same breath, we quickly point to added cost or logistical challenges as preventing us from literally opening our doors to those hoping to enter.  When something is in the realm of chesed, we can feel exempt from it as soon as it rubs against something else.  But when we take our obligation (our chiuuv) to inclusion seriously, we lean into creativity that finds a way to open doors, both physically and metaphorical.

And guess what?  When we did go to the edges, when we allowed ourselves to hear the stories and experiences of those outside our doors, we found a way to open them.  And in doing so, we not only opened them to those in wheelchairs, but also to those pushing strollers, those with muscle weakness or arthritis, and those with hands full of Family Table donations.  When we start at the edges, empowering them with empathy and resources, our entire community benefits.

So as we begin to fill in the pieces making up our perimeter, you likely don’t need me to tell you who is there.  You probably already have an image in your mind of the faces on the edge—those who are black and brown, those who don’t fit into norms or binaries of gender or sexuality, those who have chosen Judaism rather than being born into it, those suffering with the disease of addiction, those for whom family looks different than a mom, dad, and a kid or two, those who know the isolation and burden of caring for aging parents, those in the throws of infertility journeys, and so many more.  What would it look like to build community that started with these pieces of our puzzle?  What teshuva do we need to do—what accountability do we need to take—for the ways we’ve left those at our edges alienated, under-resourced, disempowered, and pained?

While this is a message we could stand to hear any year, as I reflect on where we are individually and societally right now, many of us who have otherwise enjoyed being part of the inner core have found ourselves on the edges, perhaps for the first time.  

We’re on edge socially, as we’re desperate to be close to loved ones for the holidays, to go out for lunch with a group of friends, to have causal encounters in the hallway at the office.  

We’re on edge emotionally, as we try to hold on through increasing mental health needs (especially depression); as we grapple with questions of identity, race, and privilege while injustice abounds around us; as we anxiously await the terror that will inevitably be revealed in the next news cycle while trying to comprehend the current one.  

And we’re on edge spiritually, as our lacking ability to gather has interfered with our ability to access the Divine, and our physical and mental exhaustion have made it nearly impossible to hold onto that which nourishes our spirits.

It’s easy to feel a sense of paralysis by this, or perhaps self-pity.  It’s overwhelming to look outside ourselves, and at the same time it’s devastating to really sit with the grief we feel inside at this moment.  

But our heightened sensitivity to the suffering of others brought about by this pandemic is exactly what we need to motivate us in our obligation to creating a more redeemed world.  

Let me be clear about that—doing this work of justice, of nourishing and empowering those at our edges, isn’t just something we do for extra credit or for a pat on the back…it’s our obligation, our responsibility, our Divine calling.

Our tradition tells us that the gates of teshuvah are open to us right now.  We have the opportunity to acknowledge the role we’ve played in keeping our doors closed to others.  We have the chance to bear witness to the pain we’ve caused, and the choice to use whatever power we might have to transform ourselves, our community, and our society into one that honors the sanctity of the Divine image in all of human life.

So my blessing for us this morning as we move forward with our year ahead is that we not only extend kindness, but that we have the courage to embrace our obligation to those on the periphery of our community.  May we be blessed with the tenacity it will take to shift systems that have left our edges under-resourced and disempowered for far too long.  May we learn to take time in examining and appreciating each piece of our complicated puzzle, working together to find the unique spot for each one to fit just so.  And in doing this, may our entire community draw strength in the honoring of our interlocking parts.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah.