Behold, I take upon myself the mitzvah of the Creator...
The Mishna teaches that "for transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until you appease your fellow-person." If we have hurt one another, we have to reach out to each other, or else Yom Kippur won't work. The Sfat Emet turns that teaching into something even more radical: on the day of Yom Kippur, he says, all Israel -- the whole community of God-wrestlers -- is meant to become one.
We are naturally close (the Sfat Emet continues) to one another and to God. Our sins -- the places where we miss the mark -- create separations between us and God, between us and each other, and between us and our deepest selves. Yom Kippur is a chance to repair those separations. To choose unity over division. To become one with my whole self, with my God, and with my fellow human beings.
Jewish tradition teaches that after the people sinned by worshipping the Golden Calf, Moshe smashed the tablets he had just brought down from his mountaintop encounter with God. And then Moshe went back up the mountain and spent another forty days with God, and when Moshe returned, he was holding the second set of tablets. Yom Kippur is the anniversary of the day when he came back down the mountain -- when the whole community of Israel was assembled to hear God's words. The tablets were given on the day when the community assembled as one, when the community became unified in love.
On this teaching from the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Art Green writes:
Torah could not have been given without unity among Jews; it cannot exist in the absence of its most basic principle: "Love your neighbor as yourself." How, then, does Torah exist in our day? Perhaps it does not exist at all. New and convincing readings of the texts elude us because we do not love enough. Until we can all open our hearts to one another, crossing all the lines defined by "Orthodox," "Secular," "Reform," "Zionist," and all the rest, there will be no revelation for us; we are not yet singularly "encamped" at the mountain.
Responsibility for this division falls heavily on the heads of "leaders," each of them so committed to an intractable position that nothing is allowed to change, no new Torah can be received. But for how long can Jewish souls be nourished by mere repetitions of teachings or translations (even one such as this) of old sources? God will bring about the real renewal of Judaism only when we put down our loudspeakers of division and hatred long enough to listen.
(That's from The Langage of Truth, R' Art Green's translation of and commentary upon the teachings of the Sfat Emet -- several of the Sfat Emet's teachings about the festival of Yom Kippur are included in this book, and this is one of them.)
This Saturday, during the afternoon service on Yom Kippur, I'll be reading Leviticus 19:9-18, a reading which culminates in the verse which is most central (both literally and figuratively!) to Torah: ואהבת לרעך כמוך, "And you shall love your neighbor / your Other as yourself." Before and after that service I'll sing a round which I love -- hareini m'kabel alai, et mitzvat ha-Borei: v'ahavta l'reakha camocha, l'reakha camocha. "Behold, I take upon myself the mitzvah of the Creator: to love my Other as myself."
The Sfat Emet says that Moshe returned with the tablets on the day when all Israel was connected in love. Rabbi Art Green adds that the new revelation we need in our day won't arise until we can love one another across all of the various boundaries which divide the Jewish community. I want to take the teaching even further. Not only do Reform Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews, Zionist Jews and anti-Zionist Jews, secular humanist Jews and Hasidic Jews need to find a way to love one another: we also need to find a way to love our "Others" across religious and cultural lines. Jews and Muslims, Christians and Jews, theists and atheists, Democrats and Republicans, those who staunchly support Park 51 and those who strongly oppose it -- when all of us can embody the "mitzvah of the Creator," that's when the Torah we need in our day will emerge.
May it happen speedily and soon. And may this Yom Kippur open our hearts to deeper and broader love.