What's Behind the Curtain? Yom Kippur Evening

Tonight I ask, what is behind this curtain, the parochet that opens to reveal the insides of our holy ark?

Lawrence Kushner, the fantastic kabbalist and author, tells a story from his days as a pulpit rabbi at Congregation Beth-El located in Sudbury, Massachusetts.

A Religious School teacher brought her pre-school class into the sanctuary to meet with Rabbi Kushner. Rabbi Kushner went over the things we find in a sanctuary, such as the ner tamid, the bimah, the prayerbooks, the pulpit and pews. He wanted to show the students the Torahs that were inside of the ark, but time was growing short. The teacher had to give the rabbi 'that look' (you know the one I mean).

But when they got back to class, the children kept asking, What is inside the ark? . The teacher had each of her students guess what mysteries lay inside the ark.

This adorable group of 5-year olds gave quite the collection of answers. One student, clearly a burgeoning skeptic, raised his hand and said, Nothing. A precocious girl waved her hand in the air and emphatically announced her answer, A brand new car! Another child ventured to guess that what was inside the ark is something really, really, really, really old. Lastly, one of our pre-schoolers said, I bet it's a giant mirror.

From the mouth of babes ... On the one hand, these answers could come from a High-Holiday-themed episode of Kids Say the Darndest Things. But on the other, all of these answers are true. These answers remind us of Rabbi Chanina's dictum, I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students. - (Ta'anit 7A)

I'd like to go through each of them because on this day of Yom Kippur, they can help us understand the value of our Torah and our Judaism.

Let's start with the nascent historian. What's in the ark? Something really, really, really, really old!

...

Just last week we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, often called Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. Jewish history is profoundly important, as we respect and honor our traditions. We want our matzah balls the way that our bubbe made them. We are proud that our synagogue, Congregation Children of Israel, has been enriching Jewish lives since 1872.

This plays itself out theologically as well; Rabbinic Judaism teaches a concept known as Z'chut Avot, the reward of our ancestors. We are blessed because of our lineage. This is evident during the beginning of our most sacred prayer, the Amidah, in which we remind God, Hey God - I'm about to pray to you. And I want you to really listen to me, because I am descended from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

Judaism is really, really, really, really old. Our history is paramount to our identity.

Pirke Avot opens with history: Moses received Torah from Sinai and gave it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets transmitted it to the men of the Great Assembly. So yes, when we open that ark we gaze back into our history. By examining our history, we become an important part of that history. On this day of Yom Kippur, we look intensely at our past year, so that we can make better choices during this current year. When we recite Avinu, Malkeinu, we remember that hundreds of generations have stood before the open ark as we do now. Today, those generations are with us, as our Torah portion this Yom Kippur starts: You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God--you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all of the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer. In some ways, Yom Kippur even transcends history. We are here today with our ancestors, with our history. They are a part of us.

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A brand new car!

...

Sorry to disappoint anyone, but there is not a car inside of our ark.

But I do want to take this response seriously. Although there is not a shiny automobile behind the curtain, we do look to the Torah for blessing. Today and tomorrow, we want to be forgiven for sins. We yearn to be inscribed in the Book of Life. These are certainly more noble desires than the wish for a new shiny toy, but I think it's fair to say that we want something out of Judaism. For me, some of these rewards include the chance to study and learn, a dedication to acts of love and kindness, and the blessing of serving this wonderful community. Were it not for Judaism, I would not be getting married in just a few short weeks. So yes, Judaism has 'rewarded' me, as I hope that Judaism will continue to bless and reward each of you.

But being Jewish is not enough. There's a quip about a guy who complains that he's never once won the lottery. After hearing his friend kvetch time and time again, he finally told him, You know, if you want to win the lottery, you really should buy a ticket.

Paraphrasing John F. Kennedy, Ask not what Judaism can do for you - ask what you can do for Judaism. Being Jewish is not enough. Living Jewish is enough.

Repentance, prayer and charity and temper the severe decrees of life. This is our reward. This is what is behind the ark.

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Nothing.

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There's a joke, and admittedly, it's a groaner: There's a synagogue dealing with a rat problem. Exterminators are called in, but with little success. After weeks of struggling to find a solution, the rabbi calls the board together and says, I know what to do. Let's gather all of the rats on the bimah. I'll give them a bar mitzvah. Then, they'll never come back!

For some Jews, there is nothing inside. They don't see a point to all this, the fasting, the praying, the commandments, the holidays.

Going back to this morning's Torah portion again, God puts a choice before us: See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity . . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.

It is a choice whether or not we glean meaning from Judaism. We can open the ark and see nothing, or we can see blessing, holiness ... life. The choice is yours. But the choice to choose life takes constant effort and work. It's not a question of attitude or intention; it's a question of action. As one of my teachers said, Being Jewish is tough ... but it's worth it.

David Foster Wallace told this story at a commencement address: There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes 'What the heck is water?!'

Our Torah can be the water of our lives. It can also be completely taken for granted. The choice is up to you.

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A giant mirror.

...

Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said of the Torah: Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.

He emphasized this turning to remind us that the Torah reflects our lives back to us. The Torah is history, but it is much more than his story or her story. It is our story. The Torah is not a biography of the Jewish people, it is our autobiography.

At each Bar or Bat Mitzvah, there invariably comes a moment when the student will think that his or her Torah portion was meant for them. What a coincidence! And yet ... it is the perfect portion, because the Torah reflects their lives.

When we read about Cain and Abel, we can read it as history. We can read it as a fable. We can read it to learn about the the zeitgeist of the ancient near east. But we can also study it in order to become our brother's keeper.

When we read about Moses and his stutter, we can marvel at this historical figure who overcame adversity to become a great leader, or we can understand that each of us has a stutter to overcome, an adversity in our lives, a severe decree of our lives. We can believe that Moses was not chosen despite his stutter, but precisely because of it. Armed with this inspiration, we can lead ourselves out of our own kind of slavery.

On this day of Yom Kippur, we see that our Torah is indeed a giant mirror. It reflects our true selves and at the same time, reflects our future selves. It reflects a world that can indeed come to be; a world of peace, wholeness, and compassion. Turn it, and turn it, for everything is indeed inside of it. But before we turn it, we must make concerted efforts to first take it and hold it ... study it ... learn from it.

...

Today, each of us should ask ourselves the same question posed to the pre-schoolers: What is in the ark? ... What is Jewish life? What are the important traditions in your life? Why is our synagogue important? How does Judaism enrich your life?

These questions are difficult to answer. But just as this torah portion gives us a choice, it also inspires us to find meaningful answers that will show us what is really inside the ark:

Surely, this Instruction which I give you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea ... No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart so that you might do it. - (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

G'mar Tov and L'shanah Tovah.

My Homeland of Israel: Yom Kippur Morning

Judaism & the Dark Side of the Subjunctive: Rosh Hashanah Morning