sermon text from Yom Kippur 5776 (2015)
If you’ve ever been to my office over the years you probably know that I keep a cluttered desk. This is not something I’m proud of, it is just the way I do business, and for as long as I can remember, going all the way back to my boyhood, any desk of mine was filled with piles of papers, often books, pens, coffee mugs, and all of the things you would expect to see on someone’s desk – just more so. And I will confess that I am always a bit envious of those whose desks are totally clear – maybe one sheet of paper, perfectly centered, with pens tucked safely away in a drawer, and not a single item to be seen anywhere in the desk’s bare landscape.
When I open my office door every day that cluttered desk is the first thing I see, and it reminds me – as Becky will affirm – that I have a tendency to procrastinate. Things languish on that desk until the very last moment, and sometimes beyond that. Old letters that I should have responded to. Books I meant to look through. Old ‘to do’ lists, where often the first item is ‘clean your desk!’ I came to terms with my procrastinating tendencies many years ago, and have managed to adjust my life accordingly. And I’ve also learned over the years that I am in pretty good company, because everyone procrastinates to one extent or another, even those of us with clean desks – waiting and waiting to complete the tasks of our lives.
My complicated relationship with my desk always takes a turn around the High Holy Days. As Rosh Hashanah creeps closer I feel a sudden urge to try to straighten the piles, answer the letters, return the books. It may in part simply be another sign of my procrastinating tendencies – after all, if I am spending time cleaning my desk, I am not spending time working on sermons! But I also believe it has something to do with a sense of urgency I suspect we all feel in our kishkas when the holidays arrive. Just like blinking our eyes another year has come and gone! And it is really that sense of urgency, that stirring in our stomachs, that fluttering in our minds and souls, that voice quietly whispering in our ear – that I would like to speak about on this Yom Kippur Day.
I suspect you all know that the liturgy for the High Holy Days is unique. There are prayers we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that we do not say on any other day of the year. And the amidah – the central, standing prayer, is an example of that. The core section of our holiday amidah contains three paragraphs only said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that all begin with the same word – the word ובכן. That word is hard to translate, in fact in our Mahzor you will not find it translated at all, and instead they begin the English paragraphs with a transliteration of the word, just writing out ‘uvechein’ in English letters. If we wanted to translate it, we would say it means something like ‘and therefore’ or ‘and so,’ but what it really is is a phrase of emphasis, almost like a wake up call, and it clearly carries a sense of urgency.
The phrase itself – ובכן- comes from the Bible, and somewhat surprisingly, it is from the Book of Esther. The Megillah that we read on Purim, the story that we all know so well, about Esther and Mordecai, King Ahashveirosh and Queen Vashti, and the villain Haman. Not exactly the text that you would expect the Sages to reference in the core section of the amidah for RH and YK. It is a quote of what Esther says just after Mordecai asks her to go in to see the King, to plead for the Jewish people. And you might remember that Esther knows that to go in to the King without being invited is dangerous, possibly even life threatening. But she says ובכן – And so! אבוא אל המלך – I will go in to do what you ask. I will go in to the King.
I have always suspected that at that moment Esther might have felt the urge to procrastinate. Were I Esther, I might have said to my uncle “You know Uncle Mordecai, I am busy today. The whole King thing, I will get to it first thing tomorrow, I promise you!” And then tomorrow would have come, and I would have found myself busy with some other, probably less important task. The going in to see the King I would have put on my desk, and there it would sit.
And maybe that is why our Sages chose a phrase from the Book of Esther for the core of the High Holy Day liturgy. Because that phrase reminds us that we should have a sense of urgency about our lives. That another year HAS come and gone. That time is fleeting. That despite our best intentions, here we sit, tasks that we promised to take care of last year still unfulfilled. Phone calls we needed to make, conversations we should have had, people we wanted to connect with, emails we needed to answer, the list could go on and on.
But of course there are larger issues we grapple with today. And the uvecheins of the Mahzor remind us of urgent tasks we should all be engaged in, not only in our own lives, but in the world around us. The first is to live our lives in such a way that God’s presence will be more visible in this world. To me that means living with kindness and grace. It means being a forgiving and patient person. It means being sensitive to the needs of others, and living daily remembering that our Torah teaches us that all human beings are created in the image of God – and that includes me! ובכן – and so! I will determine to make the world a more Godly place because I am in it.
The second uvechein reminds us that we are part of a larger community, of Am Israel, and that that should also carry a sense of urgent responsibility. To raise Jewish children and grandchildren. To stay involved with community institutions – the Associated, the synagogue, the JCCs, Israel bonds, to visit Israel, to read Jewish books and take Jewish classes and visit Jewish neighborhoods when we travel. And so! I will determine to make the Jewish people stronger, more connected, and more sacred because I am a part of it.
And the last uvechein is a reminder that as we look outward, at the world, at the Jewish people, so we must also look inward on this day. To search our own hearts and souls, to see our own faults and frailties, to come to terms with our own limitations, to acknowledge the clutter in our own lives, to be aware that our own hearts in the course of a year or a life might become hardened, and homes to jealousy and festering anger, racism and intolerance, cynicism and deceit, violence and stubbornness. ובכן – and so! I will make myself more the way I know I should be, and more the way God intends me to be, in this new year.
The question, of course, is how do we get from here to there. How did Esther find the courage, the sense of urgency that she needed, to open that door and walk in to see the King. How do we stand today before the מלך המלכים – the King of Kings – and find the courage to do the things we need to do so that this year will truly be a sweet one for us and our families?
And to try to answer that question, let me turn to another area of clutter in my life. As you may imagine, I get quite a bit of email, so much so that it is virtually impossible to keep up with it. So I am keenly interested in any article I see that offers suggestions in terms of coping with ‘inbox overload.’ And recently I read an article written by a young woman who at one point had over 30,000 unread emails in her inbox. 30,000! But she figured out a way to take care of it. She deleted all of them! In one fell swoop, her inbox was empty. And I suppose I could clean my desk the same way. Bring a large box, set it at the edge of my desk, and sweep my arms over the top. Just imagine – all of the papers, the books, the notes, the reminders – they would drop gently into the box, I could close it up, tape it shut, and simply put it away. And for a day, or at least a few hours, my desk would actually be clean!
But of course life doesn’t work like that. You can’t sweep your arms over the clutter of your life, magically making it disappear. You can’t press a delete key to suddenly find a clear conscience, or to remove bitter memories or sadness. But there is another way to clean a desk, which might help us more in the real world, in our real lives. So allow me to take you to just one other place of clutter, this the closet in my childhood bedroom.
That closet was filled with all kinds of interesting things. My father’s old army jacket was in there. Seashells that I had collected during summer trips to the beach were in a worn bag. My baseball glove hung in the inside of the door. Old models I had made were tucked in the back. But at a certain point, when I was 7 or 8 years old, I became convinced that the closet had something else in it – a monster. And I remember for a time that after my parents would shut off the lights, I was terrified that if I moved – even slightly, the littlest bit – the monster would come out of the closet, and that was not something I wanted to happen! So each night I lay in bed, barely daring to breath, for fear of that closet and what it contained.
And then one night I determined, regardless of what would happen to me, I was going to open that door and look inside of it. To see for my own eyes what my mind was imagining. The lights went out, my parents said goodnight. As my eyes adjusted to the dark I could see the outlines of the closet door, just across the room, barely 10 feet from where I lay. I mustered all of the courage I had, and I moved, sitting up in my bed. And that very instant my fear vanished. I didn’t even have to open the door – I just had to take one step.
And it is always that way. The first step is the most difficult by far. Once Esther began to walk to the King’s door there was no doubt in her mind she was going through. Once you pick up the phone, chances are you’ll make the call. If you can just get yourself to walk into the hospital you’ll make the visit. And of course that is the second way to clean a cluttered desk. The piles are impossible. But that one piece of paper, that I think I can manage. But I have to pick it up.
Our desks may remain cluttered in the year to come, but our lives do not have to. The High Holy Days remind us that there are things we need to do, things we’ve waited too long to attend to. But the holidays also remind us that we can do those things, and that the time to take the first step is now! May our steps be firm, our minds clear, and our hands ready to do the work of this new year –