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Rabbi Howard Cooper

Yom Kippur Shacharit 5781 

You can listen to Rabbi Howard’s sermon or read it below.

I remember around 20 years ago reading about an American rabbi who was also a member of the Society of American Magicians. It’s a kosher organization – founded in 1902 by Harry Houdini, the Budapest-born illusionist and escapologist, son of a rabbi as it happens, who found fame and fortune in America (once he’d changed his name from Erik Weisz).

And what interested me (and amused me) about this American rabbi – I think he was Reform, not that it matters – was his sermons, which would always be accompanied by stage magic, tricks he’d learnt: I suppose he did them to keep the congregation entertained – or at least awake. So if he was speaking about Moses and the burning bush, he’d suddenly create a fire on the bimah, spontaneous combustion, I am sure it was very dramatic; or if he was talking about the 10 plagues he’d go round the congregation and get frogs to appear from under people’s kippot – you get the idea.

So, why’s this been on my mind? Well, I’ve got a lot of competition now, in this sermon slot. You’ve seen how our High Holy Day services and events this year have been real multi-media extravaganzas, big screen drive-in services, here on Zoom beautiful videos, amazing music, we’ve got interactive participation through the chat facility, the FRS building’s been turned into a walk-through site for Yom Kippur contemplation and immersive experience. So what’s been created is multi-dimensional and filled with innovative ways for you to engage with what’s going on. This kind of creativity speaks to  head and heart, body and soul. It’s pretty amazing.

And then it comes to the traditional sermon slot and what I have got to offer you? No magic, no tricks, just words. That’s all I’ve got – words. And sometimes words feel like the poor relative – a bit down-at-heel compared to all the multi-media stuff. I wonder how words alone can reach into where you are in your lives? So many lives, so many faces and people on screens, rows and rows of you, our kehilla kedosha – our holy community – and those joining us from beyond the community: so many Jewish souls waiting to be touched, to be spoken to; and all I have, amidst all the razzamatazz – is words.

But words do have a power, they can have a power. That renowned and complex American Jewish novelist Norman Mailer once said that as a writer, “the real task was to enter your times and write your heart out and never settle for having the correct opinions.” As a Jew he was the inheritor of a tradition that took words very seriously and knew that words had power, and I take inspiration from that, along with his commitment to use words to reach in to where we are in our times, in our historical moment – I once asked him about being a Jewish writer and he was very diffident about acknowledging that, but that’s another story, for another time.

He knew, ‘Reb’ Norman, that words can stimulate the imagination – or send you to sleep. Words can provoke, they can inspire, they can soothe you, words can make you laugh – or make you cry, bring out the tears deep inside. Words can speak to the hurt we carry – that we all carry to a greater or lesser extent – and on Yom Kippur one of the themes of the day (although it’s never quite expressed in our liturgy like this) is: what are we to do with all the hurts and scars inside us, the pain we have had to endure in our lives, that we still live with? The personal upsets and broiguses and disappointments and losses, and sometimes despair, that sit nestled away in the crevices of our souls, hidden from sight; or sometimes visible on the surface for all to see.

I see (and have seen) quite a few tears here on the screen, over these High Holy Days, and before: your tears, and sometimes showing tears is okay for people, though sometimes I sense people feel embarrassed  – as if it’s not okay to cry, or be seen to cry. Which is a bizarre idea when you think about it, because tears are an essential aspect of our humanity, our humaneness (only psychopaths can’t cry, don’t cry). In reality our tears span a huge spectrum of emotions – we have tears of sadness of course, but also tears of rage, tears of laughter and tears of relief, tears of triumph or tears of regret, we can be moved to tears by something we see on a screen, whether it is a romantic comedy on TV, a dance routine, a piece of music, an old film; we can be moved to tears by a memory of something long gone from our pasts, or when experiencing an injustice in the present, or being part of an occasion that matters to us more than we realised, like a service; we can cry at other people’s tears, we can cry and we don’t know why we are crying, or what kind of tears they are, hot tears, icy tears, we just cry. To cry is have unmediated access to our inner lives. It is a wondrous part of what it means to be alive.

Too often people have been told, growing up, or in adult life: “Don’t cry”, “You mustn’t cry”, and maybe sometimes we worry that others might judge us critically – as if crying is a character flaw, a weakness, rather than a gift and a resource. And yes, sometimes other people see your tears and feel concerned for you or worried about you but that’s okay: inevitably tears evoke a lot in the one who cries, and the one who witnesses the crying. Our vulnerability is part of our shared humanity.

But today being Yom Kippur I want to focus on our feelings (and maybe tears) of upset and hurt – because even if we don’t show it or share it, no life is without its suffering, its distress, its failures – in love or work or with our plans or our relationships, or our failures in relationships; and Yom Kippur exposes us and our sadness like no other time of the year. Part of the catharsis of these 10 days is that it offers a time to reflect on our lives: yes, with all the joys and the successes, but also with our disappointments and mistakes and our hurt.

These 10 days are called, traditionally, the Days of Awe – and while our first association with awe is maybe with majesty and power and experiences that are ‘awesome’ (which often contain reminders of how small we are in the scheme of things), the word awe in Hebrew – Yirah – combines, as it does in English, ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’. Sometimes things for us are awful – events in the past we carry for years, decades; or events in the present that bear down on us, drag us down; we can carry a sense of guilt, or dread, or loneliness, or fearfulness – particularly in our current Covid times with all the limitations we face, and the losses (not just people who have gone but a life that has gone),  and the worries about the future, maybe cut off from family members, or having to let go of hopes we had; or maybe we lose a sense of purpose. We can and do feel ‘awful’ sometimes, and how is Yom Kippur supposed to help us with that? Don’t we have to just grin and bear it – alone? Our grief and sadness and hurt? Yes, we might reveal it on the screen, but who really knows, who can look into our hearts and know us as we need or want to be known?

Well, the mystery of Yom Kippur – maybe I should say the magic of Yom Kippur, or the trick of it – is that if we are honest with ourselves, with our true feeling life – and that means everything from our loving feelings to our hateful and aggressive feelings; our gratitude at life along with our upset feelings – for example with those who have hurt us and we want to forgive, but can’t forgive, and then feel bad that we can’t; if we are honest with ourselves on Yom Kippur about who we are with all our limitations and failures (they used to be called ‘sins’ and still are in the liturgy, but we don’t need to get hung up with that word), if we are able to face those feelings in ourselves and feel regret for our inability to overcome our pettiness and jealousies and narrowmindedness and grudges, if we are true to what lies unsettled inside us, (including our lies, our lies to others and our lies to ourselves), if we have the courage to be vulnerable and own up to our failures, if we have the honesty to do this inner work, inside ourselves – which is psychological and spiritual and mental, and is the heart of the religious journey of YK – if we can do this (and nobody else can do it for us and nobody else can see us doing it) then the promise of Yom Kippur, the mystery of Yom Kippur, the trick, the magic, is that we end the day forgiven, vayomer Adonai: s’lachti kidvarecha:  that which is Eternal  enables us to feel forgiven and understood, and we end the day inscribed in the ‘Book of Life’, so called.

Through our honest self-assessment and self-judgment we will have written ourselves  into the fabric of Life itself. Our own Book of Life may be filled with tear-stained pages that nobody else can read, and nobody else need to read, but it is our route, through our work this day, to something new happening in ourselves. When we go through the gates of Neilah, into Life, we go forgiven: forgiven for what we have done – and what we have failed to be able to do.

Maybe today we do come to see our limitations about what can change and say: I can’t do it, I can’t forgive, I haven’t the strength, the hurt is too much. In the end it’s the honesty with ourselves that counts, that helps transform guilt into forgiveness and acceptance – and a new lightness of being. But it can be a hard journey. Yet the promise of Yom Kippur is that our failures, our fractures, our brokenness – sometimes we feel in pieces – all of this is being held within something greater than ourselves. The jagged, disjointed pieces of our lives, the fragments – when honestly laid out inside us – allows something new to happen, even if we feel underserving, so we emerge more whole than we started.  And it is a mystery, and it is like magic, but it’s not an illusion: it has a reality beyond our understanding.

And what I want to compare this journey of Yom Kippur to, is something from a different tradition, a different process of repairing. It’s the Japanese practice of kintsugi, which is the craft of repairing pottery and ceramics.

Let’s look at some examples:













Kintsugi art curtsey of Morty Bachar 

When a piece of pottery breaks, the kintsugi artists put powdered gold into each crack, so they don’t hide the cracks, they do they opposite, they emphasise where the breaks occurred. You can see that the fractures are exposed rather than concealed, the fault-lines are laid bare, the repair occupies a central place in what the object has become.

It is made whole, and more beautiful,  and actually more valuable, because the damage is made visible. Made visible and integrated into the whole.

There is an extraordinary line repeated in our Yom Kippur liturgy where we ask God to “pierce our hearts, cut into our hearts, so that we can feel love…then we shall return to You with a new sense of our truth and with a lev shalem – a repaired heart, a whole heart, a heart at peace” . That’s our Jewish equivalent of the art of kintsugi: we pierce our pretensions, we face up to our brokenness, we raise it to the surface – we make it visible, our heartache, the hurts, the fissures, the  cracks in our being, our woundedness, our psychological scars, all we have failed to do, all that we can’t fix, all that we can’t get right, all the falsity and disappointments, the times we were disappointed and times we disappointed others . On Yom Kippur we expose it all and we let the language and music of the day act like the gold powder and do its work on our broken-heartedness; and the mystery, the magic of the day, as we reach the end of the day, and emerge from Neilah, is that we do return to our lives with a lev shalem. A more whole heart.

That’s the work today, and we do it alone, inside ourselves, and we do it with each other, in community, in solidarity with each other. Each of us is like a fractured vessel and we need delicate handling. We need to be kind to ourselves as we undertake this spiritual journey, and we need to be kind to each other. We are sureties for each other.

And we do this work in endangered times. And I haven’t spoken about that at all today. That’s because you already know about these times we are living in, and struggling through, and sometimes barely surviving. Today our focus is on something else. We are trying to save our own souls, because to save the soul of the world we have to start with, and in, our own souls. We know what threatens us – our lack of national solidarity and any commitment to the value of transnational community, we know the precarious nature of modern life – yes, with Covid, but also larger than Covid, we know about the hollowing out and selling off of essential services, the costs of globalization, the pollution  in the air and on social media, we know all this, along with the poverty, the injustices, the inequalities, we are complicit with all this, whatever our politics, and on Yom Kippur we need the honesty to say that the whole system we are held in is creaking, groaning, breaking up; some of it has already broken and gone forever, but there’s such a lot left still, and we can play our part in repairing it. And making something new out of it. But we can only play our part in tikkun, the bigger repair, by starting inside ourselves to repair who we are, each of us, precious, each of us, loveable, each of us with the capacity for compassion and kindness. Each of us.

We can change ourselves and we can change how things are. We can choose empathy over anger, we can choose to be humane and caring rather than callous and tribal. Through brokenness to wholeness, through hurt to healing, we can escape – Houdini-like – from what might seem a lost cause, weighed down by anxieties and helplessness and fearfulness, we can – through the work of Yom Kippur and what comes after it – create something new from the wrecked hopes within us and around us, we can turn our disjointedness into wholeness. We can discover our lev shalem:  our hearts don’t have to stay broken, they can become whole again.

Sun, 26 June 2022 27 Sivan 5782