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Sermons at First Parish Church

Yom Kippur Readings

In order to appreciate the readings today which are for Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and the holiest day in the Jewish liturgical year, we need to have a little bit of introduction.

Our first reading is by the 13th century Sufi Poet Rumi and in it he refers to Jonah “cooking in the whale long enough.” The book of Jonah is the reading for Yom Kippur. Just to refresh your memory, Jonah is the very reluctant prophet. God supposedly tells Jonah to go and prophesy to the people of the city of Ninevah who have been worshipping Golden calves. Jonah is supposed to tell them that if they don’t repent, things are going to go badly for them. Jonah isn’t interested in taking on this mission and runs away, getting on a ship headed in the opposite direction. A huge storm comes up and all the sailors are terrified. Jonah confesses the storm in his fault – he has made God angry -so the sailors throw him overboard and he gets swallowed up by a whale. This is what Rumi has to say about it:

Sometimes people don't see the signs
that are so close, even how their homes
are unlit! The way you're living now is like
living in a tomb! There's none of God's light,
and no openness.
Remember that you're alive!
Don't stay in a narrow, choked place….
Your Jonah has cooked long enough in the whale!
Have you forgotten what praise is?

— Rumi, 13th century Sufi poet

The second reading is an adaptation of the Kol Nidrei prayer by my colleague Rev. Mark Belletini. The very first prayer of Yom Kippur, the prayer that opens the first of several worship services on Yom Kippur is called the Kol Nidrei. Kol Nidrei means “All Vows.” And it refers to the retraction, the taking back of vows – not the vows that one has already made but the vows that one will make in the year to come. It is a strange, concept – that we would pray for God to release us from our vows before we have even made them though rabbis hasten to point out that the taking back of vows does not refer to vows made between individuals such as marriage vows. It refers to the vows that people make to themselves and to God. Mark Belletini speculates that the practice of Kol Nidrei came out of the times when Jews were forced to convert to Christianity, particularly in Spain in the late middle ages and so this prayer is a way to undo those forced conversions, those false promises that were made but were not really vows of the heart. Belletini has written several versions of the Kol Nidrei prayer that, to me, reveal something so deep and true and universal about the prayer and about the meaning of Yom Kippur.

Gone are the promises we made
because of pressure or praise.

Gone are the promises we made
because of shame or guilt.

Gone are promises and vows we made
because of habit, because of custom, or
because of confusion.

Gone they are, vanished! I see them no longer. They are no more.

Gone the excuses for why I can't.

Gone the vows I made to confirm my vanity.

Gone the dreams I dreamed that cut me off from everyone else's dream.

Gone my vow to never have dreams, so that I could carry my future in my dark little pocket.

Gone, vanished, just like that!

As magically as sunset, as wondrously as moonset,
it disappears, this habit of refusing to live on the edge.

The paper is blank, the field is empty, the map has not been made. The guarantees are gone. And, thus, now I can begin to set down my burdens, and define myself no more by my failings.

And now The breath of my life will bless, the cells of my Being sing in gratitude, awakening!

— Mark Belletini

Out of the Narrow and Choked Place: The Power and Promise of Yom Kippur

Sunday, September 23, 2007
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Somewhere I heard the story of a rabbi who wanted to teach his congregation about the meaning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in a way that they wouldn’t soon forget. So on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year which takes place ten days before Yom Kippur, he gave out clear plastic bags and potatoes to everyone in the congregation. During the service, the rabbi asked the members of the congregation to sit there and think about every person they had not forgiven. He asked them to think about every incident, every insult or hurt or grudge that they had not forgiven, that they had not let go of, that they still thought about and worried at and felt wronged by and to take a potato for each one of those things and put it into their plastic sack. And not just the grudges they were holding against other people, but the grudges they were holding against ourselves – all those ancient shames and secrets, all the failures and mistakes and sorrows they had never truly forgiven themselves for. The rabbi told them to put potato in the bag for each one of those as well. He asked them to be honest and also to be gentle and kind to themselves and to each other about the number of potatoes they had in their bags – no judging, no commenting, no shocked expressions or raised eyebrows.

You can imagine that some people had a pretty full bag of potatoes. Some people even had a second or third bag. Then the rabbi asked them to carry their bags of potatoes around with them during the next ten days. He asked them carry the potatoes throughout the span of time called the Days of Awe that lead up to Yom Kippur. He asked them to carry the bags everywhere they went, like those high school courses where you take an egg or a baby doll everywhere with you to learn about the responsibilities of parenting. The rabbi asked them to carry their potatoes to work and on their errands, into the barbershop and the hardware store and the supermarket and the dentist chair. He asked them to lay the bags down with them in bed at night, to bring them into the bathroom, to take them into the shower, to put them on the passenger seat in their cars, to eat with them on their laps at the dinner table or in restaurants. And then to bring them back to synagogue on Yom Kippur. “I want you to really feel the weight of what you are carrying,” the rabbi told them.

A lot of the members of the congregation did it, just as I imagine many of you would if I asked you to. They wanted to understand; they wanted to learn the lesson of forgiveness in a new way. I suspect they yearned, as perhaps do many of us, to be free from all that hurt. They longed to be able to relinquish something. They wanted the lesson to work.

You can imagine what those ten days were like. You can imagine how heavy those potatoes must have gotten – how awkward, and uncomfortable the potatoes were, especially in bed and at the dinner table. You can imagine the energy, the effort it must have taken to lug those things around everywhere. And of course, by the end of ten days neither the bags nor the potatoes were in great shape. They had been going in and out of the shower and the rain and the car and time was taking its natural course.

So the congregation returned, somewhat worse for the wear ten days later, with these ripped, dirty bags of slimy, rotting potatoes. “I am guessing you are ready to put your potatoes down,” the Rabbi told the congregation, passing around a huge garbage pail. “Let the potatoes go,” he told them. “Toss them away. Every hurt, every slight, every bitterness – put it all down.” And amidst much triumphant yelling and hooting and hollering, the bags of potatoes were hurled into the trash.

This is precisely the point of Yom Kippur as I understand it. This is precisely the power and the promise of Yom Kippur as I understand it. Every year we get this new chance to throw away our rotting potatoes. Every year we get this new chance to put down the weight of the hurts and the grudges and the miseries we have accumulated and are lugging around with us. Every year, a new chance to set down these burdens we are carrying, burdens we are so accustomed to carrying that we don’t even notice them anymore. As Mark Belletini writes: Now I can begin to set down my burdens, and define myself no more by my failings. Or as Rumi puts it, Don’t stay in that narrow and choked place, you have cooked in the whale long enough. We have been stuck in our dark prison, in our whale bellies long enough.

The part of the story about Jonah getting swallowed by the whale has always been my favorite part of that odd and dramatic story. I have always felt like I understood that part on some deep level that I cannot explain. Maybe it is because I suffer from such severe sea sickness but there is something I can easily imagine about being stuck in the whale belly, being stuck in this dark, fishy, heaving place for three days. Jonah repents while in the whale belly and decides to go to Ninevah and do what God has asked him to do and God forgives Jonah and causes the whale to spit him out. Jonah gets thrown up onto the shores of Ninevah, he gets thrown up into another chance. Jonah gets thrown into another chance at life, into the light of the morning. But how does this happen for us? How do we get out of our own whale bellies? How do we do it? What makes forgiveness possible?

Sometimes people come to me to ask if what they have done is unforgivable. Maybe they have realized that they have caused great pain to a person they love or they have done something that knowingly or not caused harm to another. Sometimes people tell me the painful, terrible stories of what has been done to them by others and they ask me “How can I ever forgive this person?” Do I have to forgive them?. I don’t know how. I don’t even know if I want to.” At these times, what I believe we are truly asking is Do I get to have another chance. Do I get to come out of the whale belly? And if I do, how do take that new chance? How do I come out of the narrow, choked place, especially when I am so afraid?

In truth, I don’t know exactly how we forgive, how it happens. I don’t know exactly how we lay down the bag of potatoes – how we break out of that dark and painful place. I just know that it does happen, that I have seen it happen time and time again.

The poet Marge Piercy writes this about the process of forgiving:

We forgive those we firmly love
because anger hurts, a coal that burns
and smolders still scorching the tissues
inside, blistering wherever it touches
so that we bury the hot clinkers in a mound
of caring, suffocate the sparks with promises,
drown them in tears, reconciling.

We forgive mostly not from strength
but through imperfections, for memory
wears transparent as a glass with the pattern
washed off, till we stare past what injured us,
We forgive because we too have done
the same to others easy as a mudslide;
or because anger is a fire that must be fed
and we are too tired to rise and haul a log.

— from How Divine is Forgiving? by Marge Piercy

Maybe it is as simple and as unspeakably complex as Marge Piercy says – we forgive because we are too just to tired to rise and haul the log of our anger. WE forgive because we look up and realize that somehow we can see past what has injured us, because we have realized that we too have done the same. I do know this: I know that the Universalist side of our tradition insists that all of us will be saved in the end, that no one is hopeless, that the love of the God of our understanding is universal, beyond limits, including the limits of what we can comprehend. I also know that if we try to keep our hearts open to the possibility, human beings are capable of more mercy and compassion than we may have ever imagined. I know because I have seen it.

The big pivotal moments of our lives often provide opportunities for forgiveness, weddings, birth of children and grandchildren, serious illness, death – these events can create a longing in us to offer and to receive forgiveness, but these events come rarely if at all. And while I don’t think it is ever too late and I know from experience that we can keep working on relationships with loved ones even after they have died, why wait? Yom Kippur is an annual reminder, an annual invitation to set down your burdens, to define yourself no more by your failings. It is an annual invitation to leave the belly of the whale, to put down the potatoes and to come out of the narrow, choked place and into more light, more openness, more freedom.

I think I have told some of you the story of a wedding ceremony I performed a wedding for a young couple some years ago now. In our meetings before the wedding, the couple and I went over the wedding logistics of course, including how the bride would be walking down the aisle . She had a terribly difficult relationship with her father, who had left the family many years before. Her father drank a lot, and sometimes he showed up drunk and mostly he didn’t show up at all for the important events in her life. But the bride really wanted her father to walk with her down the aisle on her wedding day.

I have to say that I did not like this idea. Her father had disappointed her so often in the past and I didn’t want her to have more sadness and anger on such an important day. I was skeptical he would be able to come through. I asked her to think some more about it. “No,” she said quietly. “I don’t want to think about it anymore. I am ready to forgive him now. I want him to walk with me down the aisle. If he doesn’t show up, I’ll go by myself, but it is time to forgive him.” Well, she did ask him and he did show up, early, in fact, and sober and also very nervous and very proud. I got to watch them come slowly down the aisle of the church together; he was beaming and crying at the same time, so was she.

And I was humbled in the face of that powerful, healing walk down the church aisle. I was humbled and reminded that it is never up to me to decide beforehand what transformation is possible. It is never up to me to give up on the possibility of forgiveness. And it is my challenge, and our challenge as a community of faith, to keep believing in those possibilities and also to create a welcoming place for the tenderness and vulnerability of those among us who come here seeking a place to try again.

Another one of Mark Belletini’s adaptation of the Kol Nidrei prayer is this:

We vowed, not so long ago to live lives that added, not subtracted.
We promised not so long ago to live lives that matched our words,
Lives not hard and brittle with anger but soft with letting go.
We made an oath not so long ago to live lives that reached for the stars,
and did not consist of strings of little disappointments,
or fragments of the shattered dreams we once used as mirrors to see how good we looked.
The days have flown by quickly and they will flow quickly in the year to come.
Circumstance, stress and brokenness come to all – it’s the human condition.
And thus I say before the witness of the blue sky bending above,
And before the nodding blue chicory flowers of early autumn still growing here below,
And before the clear eyes of children not yet born,
Children who will inherit the world from us,
That all the vows we will make not long from now,
All the promises we will make,
All the unspoken oaths we will declare,
Are hearby canceled, annulled, voided and made unbinding.
We are free, not to promise to be good,
But simply to get on with loving each other.
We are free, not to vow great transformations, but to engage life with tenderness and understanding and outpourings of kindness.
We are free, not to swear oaths of everlasting loyalty and righteousness,
But to continue to be generous to each other, to ourselves, and to the common good.
At the start of the new year, we begin again in love.
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Most recently updated 2009-06-06