In these past few weeks I have greatly enjoyed learning stories about the congregation in general and about so many of you in particular. I am grateful to have shared my story with you on Rosh Hashanah.
Speaking of stories, here is one that I love:
A religious man who had reached the age of 105 suddenly stopped going to synagogue. Alarmed by the old fellow’s absence after so many years of faithful attendance, the rabbi went to see him.
He found him in excellent health, so the rabbi asked, “How come after all these years we don’t see you at services anymore?”
“I will tell you, Rabbi,” the old man whispered. “When I got to be 90, I expected God to take me any day. But then I got to be 95, then 100, and then 105. So I figured that God is very busy and must’ve forgotten about me…and I don’t want to remind him!”
The logic of this man may not make sense but his desire is understandable. He wanted to hide from the inevitable. And we must admit there are times when we would all like to hide.
Many of us are fans of the Harry Potter stories and movies. Remember Harry’s Invisibility Cloak? When he throws it on he disappears during critical moments in his magical adventures. He cannot be seen by anyone and can do whatever task is required in secret.
Wouldn’t such a cloak come in handy at times? How about when watching a really embarrassing movie or TV show? With our kids? Or when we ask someone out and they reply, “Let’s just be friends.”
Or when we make a joke and nobody laughs. Sure would like that invisibility cloak then!
Apparently science may be catching up with Harry Potter. Researchers have shown they are able now to cloak three-dimensional objects that redirect light around them. The light waves are deflected and the objects look invisible.
But becoming invisible is not the message of Yom Kippur. Today we are given the opposite charge: become visible. Reflect God’s light. Live in the light, not the shadows. Bending light and hiding ourselves is bad. Reflecting light and being visible is good.
Think of Yom Kippur as our Visibility Cloak. It reminds us that we wrap this day around ourselves like the tallit we wear only one night a year — tonight — so we remember to show ourselves to the world. God does not want us to hide. God wants us to move from darkness to light, from invisibility to visibility, from an undercover existence to an elevated station in the world.
But exactly what does it mean for us to live in the light? To don our cloaks of visibility?
First and foremost it means to see ourselves as we truly are. This is not easy. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has a painting by Picasso entitled, Girl Before a Mirror. It shows the painter’s young mistress in profile, gazing at her reflection in the adjacent mirror. But here’s the thing: her reflection does not look like her. She doesn’t see herself as she truly appears!
Most of the year we are like that girl. We see a distorted image of our authentic selves. On this day we don our cloaks of visibility and we see the true image.
I know that seeing ourselves as we really are is not easy. Most of us have done things we regret. We have made mistakes, hurt people, failed to live up to the expectations of others.
Mario Puzo, the writer of The Godfather novel that became a smash motion picture, later admitted he did not try very hard when writing the book. He wrote the book for the money, not for art’s sake. Ruefully looking back, he once declared, “If I’d known so many people were going to read it, I’d have written it better.”
Living in the light mandates that we engage in that tough soul accounting, what the Rabbis called “cheshbon ha-nefesh”. It means we are honest about the choices we have made, and that we hold ourselves responsible for the wrong choices.
The idea that we are defined by our choices has not been too popular in the last few years. Somehow, as a society, we imagined differently. We thought we could do whatever we liked. It’s like people on a diet who think they have discovered a way to eat whatever they want and not get fat. Such diets never work because there are always consequences to the choices we make.
Likewise, there are consequences to the moral choices we either make or avoid. To put it another way, as much as we don’t use the old word “sin” very much anymore, it is still a useful way to remind ourselves that some of our deeds are wrong. We come to this Holy Place, reminded that we stand before God. “Know before Whom You stand” is written in Hebrew letters before the Ark. They are words that matter. They remind us that our actions carry consequences.
But in our daily lives all too often we allow ourselves to live by another ethos, namely, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
We pick and choose our ethics. We are hypocrites. We tell our kids one thing while practicing its opposite. We cheat on each other. We lie with aplomb. And all the while we pull our Invisibility Cloak tightly around us, imagining our lives are impenetrable to God’s light.
But even though we don’t like old-fashioned terms such as “sin” we cannot deny the fact that we are untrue to our higher selves, to God’s expectations for us, and to each other.
To live in the light means to see our lives for what they are, sins and all. And to stop pretending that the acts we perform have no bearing on the state of our souls.
And so I say, on Yom Kippur, let in the light.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, that wise man of the early 19th century, once taught that “truth is the light by which to find your way out of darkness. Turn on that light.”
And this is the very message I wish to share with you tonight. Let the light in and see the truth. For we cannot improve if we don’t start with the truth.
The road towards redemption only goes one way: through our being honest about our true selves. This is the night for that honesty. We can wait no longer.
Let in the light.
Yom Kippur has a more traditional name: Yom Kippurim, the plural version. But it sounds like “the day that is like Purim.” Actually it is the opposite.
On Purim we wear masks. On Yom Kippur we take off our masks.
When it comes to light, of course there is more to it than seeing our true selves. In addition to seeing ourselves clearly, I believe living in the light means reflecting God’s light by our actions, personally and communally.
It is the communal reflection of light I want to address tonight.
Remember as kids when we had a night light? I sure loved mine. It was in the shape of an owl.
The comfort of night-lights is something we cherish as children but tend to forget as adults. The world can truly be a dark and scary place. But by the time we are grown, both our eyes and our hearts have often become so accustomed to the dark that we forget the warmth and radiance that light can bring to our soul.
Our theological ancestors remind us that one of the primary ways God has made the divine presence known on Earth has been through revealing glimpses of the divine light.
For example, Moses begged for a glimpse of God. Once he was honored with a back-view peek; God said you cannot see My face but I will position you to see My back. Afterwards Moses found his face forever emblazoned with God’s radiance which he had so briefly glimpsed (Exodus 34).
Shortly after arriving at Temple Sholom I noticed the official logo of the congregation: a flame. I think this is the perfect image for Temple Sholom moving forward. Our task is to let in the light of God, the light of goodness and truth, into our world.
Now, how does light enter a dark place? Through windows of course. And we have some beautiful ones here, don’t we? I am so grateful to the leadership of Temple Sholom for supporting the creation of our decorative windows. Taken as a whole they represent the great heroes and events of our collective Jewish past. Norman Schwartz, Rolf Achilles and Dianne Burgis created a beautiful booklet that describes them. And sign up for a temple tour, led by our very own Monroe Roth.
But windows and light are not so simple, especially these days. So let’s consider the challenge before us.
I believe that the answer to our moving forward as a congregation is found in our windows.
Let me be more specific: In addition to the various and beautiful windows we have here, we need three other kinds of windows at Temple Sholom.
First, we need Windows That Face Outward:
Ever notice which way the beautiful stained-glass windows of our sacred spaces are directed? Most stained-glass windows only tell our stories to those already safely inside the illumined interior of the sacred community.
To those trapped outside in the dark world, our beautiful windows are nothing but hazy, multicolored blurs, a visual cacophony of confusion incapable of casting meaningful, penetrating light on anything.
One of the biggest barriers to being relevant in the twenty-first century – and relevance matters more than I can say — is that the synagogue or church often seems to be a closed community. An invisible “For Members Only” sign is found on too many of our places of worship.
It’s time to figuratively turn our stained-glass windows outward, to tell our stories to the world. Temple Sholom stands for so much that is good. And I am grateful for the efforts at outreach. But I believe we can do much more to share our light with the world.
Of course, if people can see in then it is important that we have passion, excellence and warmth when they check us out. In a word, we have to be relevant. We have to matter. We have to make this a place where we want to be. Why? Because Judaism IS relevant, and we have a sorely needed tonic for the world. But we can do a better job engaging others. That is our task.
In addition to windows that bring the light outward, we also need Windows That Let in the Light of the Outside:
Some places of worship eschew stained glass windows and have instead erected great panes of frosted, glazed-over, or intentionally crackled glass to obscure any view of what lies outside the walls of the sanctuary.
A story: In the early 1700s, when the imperial English colonized the wild Welsh, English travelers who went from England to Wales used to close the curtains of their carriage to shut out what they considered to be the “horrid scenery.” They didn’t want to be disturbed by the reality of the outside world.
And I have to ask, How many of our religious communities are using frosted glass for the same reason? For us to see the outside world as it is rather than through our rose-tinted glasses would mean that we must come to terms with the fact that it’s a different world out there.
How people see themselves, see life, see the world and see the synagogue has changed and is changing.
It’s time to open the curtains.
What realities are we hiding from behind our frosted-glass windows?
How can we offer light to the world when our view of what that world is like is filtered through frosted, tinted glasses?
In addition to windows that let out the light as well as help us see the world, we need a third kind. The third new window for this world out there is a new stained-glass window, the stained-glass window for the 21st century – the computer, tablet and phone screen.
The published book had a great run but things have changed. It is not the 20th century anymore. Today the way people carry on the fastest communication and obtain their most important information is no longer from the pages of a book. Instead, our postmodern culture has turned toward a new kind of stained-glass window for one of its sources of light. There is a very good chance that you look at that “window” many times every day.
Judaism is part of this shift. Our image of images must be altered. The image, not the word, has become the primary unit of cultural currency.
We will have to change to address this shift and to capitalize on it.
It used to be that people went to synagogue because they were Jewish.
Later, for many reasons, it became more the norm to go to synagogue to be Jewish, to “do” Jewish.
Now, we have to bring the synagogue to you. And I pledge to do whatever I can to bring the light of Torah to you, where you live, where you work, on your electronic device, whatever.
Shortly after we began live streaming our worship services in Miami, a rabbinical colleague said we were making it too easy for people. And I replied, “There is no such thing as too easy.” Our competition for people’s attention has never been more challenging.
Our task is to bring the light.
Questions for our future:
Will we be a synagogue that pokes new windows in the darkness?
Will we see ourselves for who we truly are?
Will we be honest?
Will we be relevant?
Will we let in the light?
Will we reflect God’s light?
Let me ask one more question: is Temple Sholom a tunnel or a cave? A cave is an underground area where one goes in and comes out at the same place. A tunnel, on the other hand, is where one goes in and comes out in a different place.
I am hoping we see this place as a tunnel and not a cave. If we come out of Temple Sholom after these days in particular at the same place we went in, then something is wrong.
We should come out to face a darkened world with more light, inside our hearts, and driving our deeds. We should accept nothing less!
In the original Olympic games in ancient Greece, the greatest event was a race up and down mountains. Speed wasn’t the most important issue, because the runner ran the race with a flaming torch. The winner was not necessarily the first person to reach the finish line. It was the person who crossed the line with the flame still burning. The moral of this story: We need to run the race in such a way that we don’t put out the flame. We might be later in crossing the line, not only because we are protecting our own flame but also because we are lighting the torches of others whose flames have gone out. Winning, as someone has said, is about finishing well, not just finishing first.
Winning is about bringing more light. And we cannot wait another day to begin.
A little girl was working very hard and could not be induced to stop and rest. This was before the day of electric lights.
When asked, “Why do you not stop and rest?” she replied, “I have just one little candle, and it will soon be burned out. I wish to do what I can while the candle burns.”
So it is with us. Our little day will soon be gone. May we do what we can while the candle burns. Amen.[I appreciate an insight on windows in Homiletics Magazine, February 22 1998, that helped me formulate this sermon.]
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg serves as the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, is the coordinating editor of the forthcoming CCAR Machzor, and is the author of five books including, Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most and Love Tales from the Talmud.