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Talya Gillman delivered this d'var to Congregation Beth Shalom (Seattle) on Yom Kippur 2011. It seeks to amplify the message of Isaiah's Haftorah, which asks us to turn our ritualistic fast into action by fighting injustice, cruelty and selfishness in the world. The d'var calls on us to consciously dedicate ourselves to empathy and "activated" compassion.
As a child I used to imagine, sitting in services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, a scene out of something like the Ten Commandments film. Year after year, as the shofar blew, I conjured, and was so moved by, the image of us, humble Jews in Biblical times, being roused from our tents to rally around some important cause or development. The sound of the ram’s horn felt so holy, and for a long time I imagined myself standing amongst our people, back in the times of Moses and Joshua, when animal horns really were used to mobilize the community around spiritual and practical causes. The shofar’s cry, for me then, invoked sensations of responsibility, diligence, integrity, and action, as I imagined our assembly around some sacred matter.
I was an earnest little girl. I understand now that even as we hear the shofar today, our lives will go on tomorrow; the echo of the horn will fade, and we’ll each delve back into our respective status quos. Inevitably, the responsibilities of our lives will call us back into the patterns and behaviors to which we’ve become accustomed.
But in a couple of moments, we will read this morning’s haftorah, words written by the prophet Isaiah. What he voices in this piece is truly the crux of Yom Kippur in and of itself, beyond the mere rituals we partake in on this day. Indeed: he will question our motives for engaging in such an overwhelming fast, he will challenge the idea of praying so intently, he will chastise us for our disingenuousness in behaving one way today and returning to our norms tomorrow. “Is this the fast I desire?” he asks. “For you to merely abstain from food? Is it acting solemn and humble? Praying and behaving more righteously, just because the day has been labeled as holy? Do you call that a fast? Being virtuous because God is watching today? No, this is the fast I desire,” he continues. “Fighting injustice, cruelty and selfishness. Shedding your complacency and paralysis. Embedding empathy and humility into your lives. Honoring others with behavior marked by kindness and generosity.”
The seriousness with which we pray today, is merely grease between the links, in a chain of actions it takes to “wipe our slates clean”. In fact, everything we do here today is worthless -- unless our actions tomorrow, and the next day, and the next after that, are shaped with renewed intention, integrity and compassion. Let us not forget that today is a symbol, an act of aspiration for every other day of our lives. Our behavior in the world is prayer. Our creation of the future that we’re asking for, is prayer, is holy.
I stand here to amplify, to shout out this truth that Isaiah prophesied so long ago. As we listen to the melodic notes of his writing, we each have a precious opportunity: to tap into the distilled essence of this day. If you read along in the English, you will discover that Isaiah’s words are themselves the articulation of each of the shofar’s blasts.
Hearing the shofar is not the mitzvah. The mitzvah is understanding Isaiah’s words. The mitzvah is channeling the shofar’s plea into developing an awareness of the dignity of others, of taking action on their behalf, of working in collaboration with others to create the world we pray for. The mitzvah is activating the compassion that lies, sometimes dormant, in each of us.
Tonight, when Neilah is coming to a close, and we’ve communicated all that we can to ourselves and to God, and we’re at the edges of being able to bear the hunger that we’ve imposed on our spirits and our bodies, let us not rush forward towards the break fast that will feel so welcome. Let us not delight in the alleviation of our hunger. No. Let us deliberately slow our steps towards the food in the back. Let us intentionally place our hearts near to those of the individuals who are experiencing starvation as a result of East Africa’s famine, or of the poverty that lurks on the streets of our city, here. Let us honestly recognize, and reflect on, the social ills that we witness, experience -- cause -- in our every day lives. And let us each take a serious moment, to commit to a change that we are going to create, moving forward from this day; a change that will benefit another human being. What specific, concrete action will I take, that will truly improve the experience of another, in this world? What will my ongoing prayer-action be, after I leave this place tonight?
When we listen to the last moan of the shofar this evening; when we once again hear Isaiah’s desperate call to us, let’s commit to substantiating and validating our presence here in this room. Let’s mobilize around this sacred cause of repairing our broken world. Let’s together create the righteous assembly that I imagined as a little girl.
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