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The Pillars of Life

04/06/2015 08:21:00 AM


The Pillars of Life
Yom Kippur, 1999

The Pillars of Life values. Out of this shattering catastrophe would either come the death of a people and its faith, or its rebirth in a completely new form.

There is no historical record of this conversation. But I can imagine what he said. For over the past two years, VBS has created a pioneering outreach program, our Keruv Center. We've opened our doors and welcomed seekers, Jewish and non-Jewish, and offered them the wisdom of the Jewish tradition and the warmth of the Jewish community. Like the people who confronted Rabbi Yohanan, I have met remarkable people who have come here in search of a new vision of life, a new interpretation of faith and a new expression of values. Because of Keruv I can imagine what Rabbi Yohanan said. He offered them the teaching of his ancestor, Shimon HaZaddik who taught: Al shlosha devarim ha olam omed, The world stands on three things: Al ha Torah, al ha Avodah, v'al gemilut hasadim. On Torah, on worship, and on acts of loving kindness.

The Temple was believed to rest on evan ha-shtiya, the mythical foundation stone of the world. The Temple was axis mundi, the unmoved center of the world. For the Jews of the first century, the destruction of the Temple knocked the world off its foundation. It shattered their reality.

So they came to him and said, "We're lost. We have no place in the world. No home in the world. No where that we belong. Our promised land, our holy city, our sacred, ancestral shrines are in ruin and forbidden us. The world has become strange to us."

And he answered them: This is the human condition. Stripped of its illusions, this is the nature of human existence. Adam and Eve were sent from the Garden to struggle with life -- struggle to earn a living, struggle with children, and ultimately struggle with death. We are fragile, vulnerable creatures living in a difficult world. A world that is chaotic and random. The Temple's destruction has simply revealed to you the truth of being a human being.

We are wanderers, exiles, because all human beings are wanderers, exiles. But we not lost. Our lives are fragile, our dreams vulnerable. But we are not lost. And we of all people know this. For wandering is the career of the Jewish people.

Abraham was commanded to leave his home, his ancestral house, his city and his civilization. Isaac was separated from his mother, and after Moriah, never saw his father again. Jacob ran from his home, escaping from his murderous brother. Joseph was stolen by his brothers and sold into Egyptian slavery. Moses left the palace of the Pharaoh and lived forty years in Midian. David ran from Saul's jealous wrath into the desert. Elijah hid from Jezebel in the wilderness. All of them wanderers but none of them lost. Home is not a physical place. Home is not a location, a building, a piece of real estate. Home is not an accident of geography. There are people who own mansions, penthouses, and chalets but feel themselves strangers everywhere. And there are those who have nowhere to call their own, but yet sense that they belong. It is an illusion to think that a building, a plot of ground, or the political military control over a piece of land will give you the security of being at home, the assurance of belonging in the world, a sense of place.

We may wander, but are not lost. We have a place in the world, no matter where we are, because we know our story, and know where our story fits into God's story. When the Torah is removed from the Ark, we sing the words of Isaiah, Kee mee'tzion taytzay Torah, u'devar adonai mee'yerushalayim. From Zion will go forth Torah, and from Jerusalem the world of God. But there's no representation of Jerusalem in the sanctuary, no stones or relics from the Wall before us. In the mind of the Jewish people, Torah is our place. Narrative replaces, re-places, geography. Torah is your home in the world. Because Torah is your story.

And what is the Torah story? It is a journey.

The Torah's master story is the story of a journey. Our journey. We began in Egypt, we are moving through the wilderness, and someday we will end in Canaan. We are moving from the house of bondage to the Promised Land. From slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from servitude to Pharaoh to service of God, from building images of the Pharaoh in stone, to the image of God in the human soul.

That story is our place in the world. It shapes our identity, our ethics, our theology, and our dreams.

We are former slaves. We were fed degradation, humiliation and fear. And we have promised ourselves to remake the world so that none will suffer as we have. Because of where we come from, we forbid ourselves from looking upon any human being as an Other, as an Object. The brother who stands on the street corner begging change, he is ours. The sister struggling to raise children in a dangerous inner city neighborhood. She is ours. The immigrant family trapped in the downtown sweatshop. They are ours. Because we were slaves in the land of Egypt. And because we witnessed redemption, because we saw the Sea split, we understand that world's broken-ness, the power of evil, even the darkness of death is not history's last word. The world's pain, the world_s evil is not its permanent condition.

To be human is to know wandering. To be human is to know that this world is not much of a home. To be Jewish is to know that you are not lost. That you belong here. Al shelosha devarim haolam omed. Al haTorah. Our world still stands. Rabbi Yohanan taught. It stands on three things. The first is Torah.

At the center of the Temple there was a sacred chamber, the holy of holies. In the Temple built by Solomon, this chamber housed the Ark of the Covenant, built by Moses in the desert and brought to Canaan by Joshua. By the time of the reconstructed second Temple, the Ark was gone and the chamber remained empty. Jews believed the Shechina, the Presence of God dwelled in that chamber. So powerful and palpable was God's Presence that that they would tie a rope around the leg of the High Priest when he entered the chamber of Yom Kippur, lest he die of fright during the ritual.

In the shadow of the Temple's destruction, I can imagine that the people came to Rabbi Yohanan and cried to him: We are alone. Our world is dark. God has abandoned us. God has abandoned the Temple, the City and the People. Now that the Temple is gone, where is God? How do we now seek the Presence of God?

And I can imagine Rabbi Yohanan_s response: God does not live in a building. It is idolatry to think that a building, our building, in our city, holds God. Where does God dwell if the holy of holies is no more? The prophet taught: Kvodo malay olam. The whold world is filled with the Presence of God. The whole world is now the holy of holies. But you must learn how to see this, how to sense it, how to know it. That's prayer. Prayer is the way we know the presence of God.

The Hasid was confronted by the Litvak. You Hasidim, you have no respect for the law, for the tradition. You always daven late. There is an hour set for the morning prayers, but you miss it. There is a time set for the evening prayers, but you let it pass. You're hopeless.

And the hasid sighed and confessed. You know, you're right. I'm always late. I'll tell you what happens. I get up very early, determined to fulfill the letter of the law, and say my prayers on time. I take out my tallis, my tefillin, my prayer book, and I go to window so I'll have light to read the prayers. And that's my mistake. I look out the window. I see the world come alive for the new day. The sun rises, the sky brightens. birds fill the firmament, families awaken, children on their way to school, adults on their way to work to market, I'm so taken with the glorious song of the new day, with the song of life, I forget to start my prayers until it's too late.

And then in evening, same thing. I get my siddur, stand by the window, and what happens? Children and adults coming home, families reunited after the day's tasks, the sky darkens, a soothing peace comes over the world, the stars come out...I hear the song of the evening, and I forget to start my prayers until it's too late.

But I've come up with a solution: Tomorrow, I will close the window!

God is close, but we don't pay attention. We are distracted. We are too busy.

My kids asked me why God doesn't talk to people any more. God talked to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon. Why doesn't God talk to us? And I found out: God refuses to talk to anyone who watches too much TV.

Television is made of quick images, quick laughs, quick insights. .But the really valuable things in life are slow, deliberate, and meditative. They demand mindfulness. You've got to slow down if you want to watch the growth of your children. You've got to slow down if you're going to really talk and to really listen to your husband, to your wife, your child, your mother or your father. You've got to slow down if you're going to experience nature. Slow down and pay attention. It doesn't come easy in our culture. You_ve got to slow down if you're going to know the Presence of God. Prayer is the opposite of television

Prayer is a spiritual discipline that teaches mindfulness. It is about learning to become aware of the miracles offered us each day. Prayer is about reawakening wonder, a sense of the mystery of life. Each one of us, at some moment in life, has felt the Presence of God, even if we haven't the words to describe the moment, or the concepts to explain it. Each one us has perceived the miracle that is life. But those moments are few and fleeting. Prayer is about holding and cherishing those moments. It is about learning from those moments and remaining loyal to them even when they fade into our past. And it can be done by us all.

We Americans are insane. Eleven PM every night, we snuggle up, ready for bed, and what's the last thing we do? We switch on the evening news. Thirty minutes of murder, brutality, corruption, catastrophe, moral lunacy, sports and weather. Good night. And then in the morning, we are awakened by a clock radio set to some news station. And we begin the day with...murder, brutality, corruption, catastrophe, moral lunacy, sports and weather. And you want to know why you're depressed?. Here's an alternative: Open your eyes each morning. Take a moment to gather yourself in, and say one line of prayer: Modeh ani lefanecha, melech chai v'kayam, Thank you, Source of Life, for returning to me in love, the gift of this new day of life. You take a moment to notice what a miracle it is to wake up, to remember that today is a gift, a fragile, perishable, infinitely precious gift.

And when you go to bed at night, stop a moment, and gather in your mind the miracles of your life: my wife, those you love, the things you've been able to see and enjoy in this world. And say the Shema. That's all. Two minutes a day. It will change your life.

All human beings seek the Presence of God. We all want to know that we are not alone, not abandoned. We want to know that reality is deeper and that life is more miraculous than the carpools and meetings and pager messages we wrestle with all day. To be Jewish is to be reminded daily that we are not alone and that our lives are filled with miracle. Al shelosha devarim ha olam omed, al ha Torah v'al ha Avodah. Our world is sustained. Taught Rabbi Yohanan. It is sustained by three things: The first is Torah. The second is prayer.

Each morning and each evening, a sacrifice was offered on the Temple's altar. The sacrifice conveyed to God the community's needs. And in return, they brought God's benevolence into the world. The libation offering on Shemini Atzeret brought the rain. The Tal offering on Pesach brought dew. The world well being depended upon these offerings. But when the Temple was destroyed the sacrifices ceased. And the people came to Rabbi Yohanan and cried: We were the servants of God, responsible for delivering Divine benevolence into the world. And now, with the Temple in ruins what is our mission? Our lives have no purpose, our struggles no meaning.

And at this point, I think that Rabbi Yohanan just sighed. He looked around him. From the ruins of the Temple, he had built an academy. From the shards of that shattered world, he had rescued the wisdom and imagination of his ancestors. From the ashes of that Holocaust, he offered hope and vision. What other answer, what better response, had he to offer?

A couple mornings a week, I daven with the Day School kids. On Thursday mornings, we take a few minutes for questions and answer. I invite the kids to ask any question, any question they always wanted to ask the rabbi. Usually, I get wonderful questions: Is the Bible true? Does God answer our prayers? Will the Dodgers ever win? Wonderful questions. And then there's a wise guy in the fourth grade who will raise his hand and giggling loudly ask me: Rabbi, what's the meaning of life?

It's a wonder to me. We live in a culture where asking about the meaning of life is considered the ultimate stupid question. Even if you're asking your rabbi! Someone taught this ten year old kid that this question is funny, foolish. I don't want him to believe that. I want him to know that it's the deepest question that can be asked. So I answer him:

When God created the world, the world was not finished. The world to this day is filled with pockets of uncreated chaos. Disease, want, violence, hatred. These are all evidence of the uncreated corners of the world. When God made us, God asked us to be partners in the work of creating the world. That's the purpose of your life: L'taken olam b'malchut Shaddai, to mend the world into the image of Oneness. There is a corner of the world with your name on it -- a corner that only you, with your unique abilities and talents, can put right. You have the power in your hands to make a difference in the life of another human being. You have the power to recreate the world. God has shared that creative power with you. Learning to use that power with wisdom and with vision is the mission and meaning of your life.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that the reason graven images are forbidden by the Torah is not that God has no image, but because God has but one image: that of every living breathing human being. Therefore, you may not fashion an image of God in any medium other than that of your entire life.

The task of life is learning to make my ears the ears of God so that I can hear the world's cry for help. Learning to make my eyes the eyes of God so that I can see the opportunities to relieve the brokenness. Learning to make my hands into the healing hands of God so that I can complete the work of creation.

This year, teach a child to read. Magnificent project, Koreh LA -- the brochures are in the hallway. This year, join the walk against cancer on Mitzvah Day, the brochure is in the hallway. This year, take an hour a week to visit a hospital -- be our VBS person at a hospital near you...we'll teach you how. This year, give of yourself, find the power in your own hands. It's the only way to stave off the creeping futility of your life. A new car won't do it. A vacation won't do it. A new outfit won't do it. You've got to give of yourself. Give of your time. Give of your heart. You've got to let your eyes see the world's suffering and feel your own hands reach out to heal.

And don't tell me you're too busy. Because today you're too busy. Today you've too much to do. Today you're jammed up. Today you're swamped. And tomorrow, tomorrow you complain that you life is so futile, so empty, so weightless. This is how Jews save souls. Our own souls. The souls of our children.

When you doubt the existence of God, or the compassion of God, taught the hasidic master, Shnuer Zalman of Ladi, then go perform an act of lovingkindness. In that way, you will feel in your own hands the power of God's compassion, for yourself and for the world.

Al shelosha devarim ha olam omed, al ha torah v'al ha avoda v'al gemilut hasadim. The world, taught Rabbi Yohanan, persists because of Torah, of prayer and acts of human compassion.

To be human is wander, to be an exile. To be Jewish is to know that I'm never lost.

To be human is to be lonely, separated from God. To be Jewish is to know the presence of God, the miracle of life at every moment.

To be human is to fear that my life has no purpose, no meaning. To be Jewish is to feel my purpose in my hands.

To be human is to wonder if the world isn't falling apart. To be Jewish is to always hope.

We have no Temple. No sacrifices. No priests. But we have Torah, our prayer, the compassion we share with one another and with the world. We have something to say to the world, something to say to humanity in answer to its deepest questions.

This Yom Kippur, let us feel again reborn, renewed, refreshed. This Yom Kippur, let us dance!

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