Before Yom Kippur
Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5775)

Longing and belonging (a sermon for Kol Nidre 5775)


Do you know what it's like to feel out-of-place? Have you ever walked into a room and felt uncomfortable? Or maybe you can remember, or imagine, standing with a cafeteria tray in your hands and realizing you have no idea which table to sit down at. Maybe it's an experience of walking into a cocktail party and noticing that everyone else seems to know each other. Or you show up at an event in your finest suit, only to discover that you're the only one who didn't know it was a jeans-and-sandals affair.

There is nothing easy or comfortable about feeling as though you don't belong. And it's hard enough to walk into a room full of strangers and feel out of place; it's even more painful to walk into a room of people you know and feel out of place there. To feel like the square peg in a round pegboard. To feel isolated by invisible circumstances, depression or illness. To feel as though you just don't fit.

We have all felt that way.

Have you ever traveled far from home and felt lonely? Been away from your family, or away from familiar settings, and felt alien and alone? Maybe it was your first night away at summer camp. Or a business trip where you found yourself in an anonymous motel. Or your first time traveling abroad in a place where you didn't speak the language and couldn't find your way around. Have you ever been far away and thought, "I just want to go home"?

Or maybe you've felt that way without even going anywhere. Maybe you've yearned to return to childhood when everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you've wished you could return to the time when your parents or grandparents were still alive. To a moment when things seemed easier. To the time before you had experienced sorrow. Or maybe you've yearned to return to the childhood you didn't have, the one where everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you've sat in your own home and felt distant from your surroundings, distant from your family, lonely in the midst of a crowd.

We have all felt that way, too. The poet William Stafford writes, in his poem "Great Blue Heron:"

Out of their loneliness for each other
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
We live by faith in such presences.

It is a test for us, that thin
but real, undulating figure that promises,
“If you keep faith I will exist
at the edge, where your vision joins
the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,
feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”

Not only everyone, but every thing, in the world feels "loneliness for each other." And, Stafford teaches, if we keep faith -- if we believe -- real connections will exist, "at the edge," rooting us down "in the mud where the truth is."

Many years ago I went on my first week-long Jewish Renewal retreat at a place called Elat Chayyim. I spent my mornings practicing Jewish meditation, and my afternoons studying tikkun olam, the Jewish imperative to heal our broken world. I tried "interpretive" morning services in a white yurt, a little round house where we sat on the floor barefoot and chanted pearls from the morning liturgy. And then came the Friday morning when we were starting to get ready for Shabbat.

My meditation teacher, Rabbi Jeff Roth, assigned us a walking meditation after the practice of the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. We were to walk in the fields and speak quietly with God as we went. I dutifully walked out to the meadow and as I walked slowly through the wildflowers and high grasses I murmured out loud. I felt a little bit ridiculous, but I did it anyway.

You need to know that at that time I had been feeling alienation from Jewish community for some years, ever since I became engaged to a man who had Jewish heritage but did not consider himself Jewish, and rabbi after rabbi said no to sanctifying our marriage with their presence. We did eventually find a rabbi who would officiate for us, but the experience left me feeling deeply wounded. Alienated. Unwelcome.

So as I walked in the fields, I said quietly to God that it had been really nice spending this week together; that I hadn't realized I had been thirsty for Jewish community or for Jewish prayer; that I had loved learning these new ways of opening my heart to connection with my Source.

And then I said, "I'm really going to miss You when I go home," because I knew that once I left the magical grounds of that retreat center I was going to be spiritually alone again.

And suddenly I knew, as clearly as if the words had been spoken right into my ear, that God was saying "I'll be there. I was always there, even when you felt most alone." The weave of my bat mitzvah tallit, which I was clutching around my shoulders, became God's embrace. My heart's outcry at having to bid farewell to God was the key to my realization that God had been with me all along.

And I walked in the meadow and I wept, shaking, because I suddenly knew that I was not alone; I had never been alone. I realized that God had loved me, even when I felt as though my community didn't.

By the time I went home on Sunday, I also knew that I had found a community of spiritual seekers who would accept me where I was. I knew that even with all of my quirks and unorthodoxies—my intermarriage, my feminism, my politics, my yearnings—I could be part of Jewish community, and I could be in relationship with God. I knew that there was a place at the table for me. That there was someplace where I belonged.

The High Holidays are a season of coming home to where we belong.

Some of us haven't been inside these walls much since last year's high holidays ended. Some of us have been here so often that it's come to feel like another place of workday volunteer obligations. In either case, these awesome days offer us an opportunity to return, either literally by stepping inside this room again, or emotionally and spiritually by shrugging off that workday consciousness and entering into this as a different kind of space, a spiritual space.

That's what teshuvah is. We usually translate the Hebrew word teshuvah as "repentance," though it comes from a root which signifies turning around. Teshuvah is return. "Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul."

This is a time of year for coming home to who we truly are. A time to set aside our usual occupations and expectations, the scripts we write in our minds about who other people expect us to be.

This is a time of year for coming home to a place where we belong. I don't just mean belonging to the congregation, as in, you sign up, you pay some amount of dues to help us keep the building standing and the driveway plowed, your name appears on our roster. I mean belonging in a deep and unshakeable way.

This is a time of year for coming home to the One to Whom we all belong. The One Who is always with us, even when we feel most alone. The One who waits, with infinite patience, for us to stop blundering in the wrong directions of unkindness or gluttony or hardness of heart or insincerity or abuse of power. The One who yearns for us to make teshuvah, to re/turn in the right direction again.

The great halakhic thinker Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote:

When man sins he creates a distance between himself and God. To sin means to remove oneself from the presence of the Master of the Universe. I was standing before You and Sin came and estranged me from You and I no longer feel that I am "before You." The whole essence of repentance is longing, yearning, pining to return again. Longing develops only when one has lost something precious. Sin pushes us far away and stimulates our longing to return...

To sin, he says, means to remove oneself from God's presence. Our misdeeds estrange us from God and make us unable to feel that boundless love and limitless welcome and deep sense of home.

This may not be how most of us think about "sin," but I find his interpretation both beautiful and powerful. When we miss the mark, we alienate ourselves from our Source.

And teshuvah, he says, is longing, yearning, pining to return to that Presence. The good news is that the very acts which pull us away from God, away from home, stimulate the beginnings of our longing to return. The missteps which pull us away from home contain within them the seeds of our yearning to come home again.

When we realize that our misdeeds have pulled us away from connection, far away from love and peace and belonging, our hearts break. And it is through that brokenness that we can become whole. As the great Jewish sage Leonard Cohen has written, "there is a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in."

In the Talmud (Taanit 26b), we learn the following:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, "[in the old days] there was no holiday in Israel like Yom Kippur... The unmarried girls of Jerusalem would go out to the vineyards dressed in white to dance, and invite the unmarried boys to join them."

Why was Yom Kippur a day of dancing and joy? Because, our sages say, this is the anniversary of the day when Moses returned from atop Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets. Maybe you recall that while Moses was up there the first time, receiving the Torah for forty days and forty nights, the children of Israel panicked. We demanded a god we could see and touch, and we formed a golden calf and began to dance around it. When Moses came back down the hill and saw the depths to which the people had descended, he shattered the first set of tablets: maybe in anger, maybe in heartbreak.

One way or another, on the tenth day of Tishri -- that's today -- he returned from the mountaintop with the second set of tablets, a sign of God's forgiveness. That's why this was a day of white dresses and dancing for joy: because it's the day when we remember that God forgives us, and we experience our bond with God anew.

This is our day of repentance and return.

This is our day of knowing that there is a place where we belong, a home in which we are always welcome, a loving embrace which is always open to us. No matter how alone or out-of-place we may have felt at other moments in our lives. No matter who we are, or what we've done wrong, or where we've fallen short of who we meant to be. No matter how we've been hurt, or how we've hurt others in turn. This is the day when our longing to belong is most completely and wholly filled.

We can't return to childhood, but we can return to our Source. We can't undo our misdeeds, but we can be forgiven for them. We can't erase our experiences of alienation, but we can bring them to an end. This is our day of coming home.

The poet Mary Oliver writes:

Coming Home

When we are driving in the dark,
on the long road to Provincetown,
when we are weary,
when the buildings and the scrub pines lose their familiar look,
I imagine us rising from the speeding car.
I imagine us seeing everything from another place--
the top of one of the pale dunes, or the deep and nameless
fields of the sea.
And what we see is a world that cannot cherish us,
but which we cherish.
And what we see is our life moving like that
along the dark edges of everything,
headlights sweeping the blackness,
believing in a thousand fragile and unprovable things.
Looking out for sorrow,
slowing down for happiness,
making all the right turns
right down to the thumping barriers to the sea,
the swirling waves,
the narrow streets, the houses,
the past, the future,
the doorway that belongs
to you and me.

"Looking out for sorrow, / slowing down for happiness / making all the right turns[.]" May our prayers and togetherness today prepare us to enter this new year as Mary Oliver has described. May this be the day -- may this be the year -- may every moment be the moment -- when we know that we are not alone; when we know that we belong; when we can feel that we are home.