Every other day of the year, people walk around feeling pretty good about themselves; Yom Kippur is different. We stand before God with a real sense of inadequacy. The Mahzor forces us to admit, again and again, all our mistakes and failures, as we confess “Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu” and literally beat ourselves up reciting “Al het sheh-hatanu li-fa-neh-kha.” Every other day we might be able to fool ourselves, and those we meet; today, there’s no pulling the wool over God’s eyes. It’s as if we’re going in for the most important job interview of our lives with a terrible cold, presenting a thin resume with a bad employment history, a wrinkled suit with mustard stains, and to cap it all, holes in the bottom of our shoes.
It used to be that if there was a hole in the soles of your footwear, you’d bring them to a shoe repair guy. He’d give you a ticket, and in a week or so, you come back and your shoes were like new- heels, soles, nicely shined. Today, if your shoes are worn, you throw them out, and order a new pair on line. If something’s not perfect- dump it; in the old days, you’d repair it. Ask why I’m wearing sneakers on Yom Kippur: My shoes are in the repair shop, being fixed. Because that’s what the Day of Atonement is all about: Fixing broken souls. S-O-U-L-S. I’m picturing God as a little old Italian guy. “What should I do with these souls?” I’m afraid he’s going to shake his head and tell me: “Nuttin’ we can do…” But instead, he says: “They’re still good. Let’s fix them…” God isn’t so quick to throw out things that aren’t perfect. Instead, He finds fixes them, and uses them. God probably thinks that way about shoes; I know God thinks that way about us. No need to be afraid of Him throwing us out; in fact, God has a history of using things that aren’t perfect. Let me give you three examples from the Torah.
Moses had a speech impediment; a stutter, maybe a lisp. But God chose him to be our Liberator, our Lawgiver, our Leader. He’s called “Moshe Rabbenu”- Moses, our Teacher, our Role model. God saw good qualities in Moses: He always stood up for the underdog. He was a compassionate shepherd. He was an advocate for his people even when God had had enough of the Israelites. Yes, Moses had flaws. He had a problem with anger management- he beat up an Egyptian taskmaster, and he struck the rock when he was told to speak to it. He wasn’t very good at organization- his father-in-law had to show him how to make better use of his time. And apparently, he wasn’t the best father, or husband. Yet despite these flaws, this is the man that God chose for the single most important job in our people’s history. God uses broken souls.
And take Moses’ brother, Aaron. He was broken in another way: On what should have been the greatest day of his life, the very day when he was appointed as Kohen Gadol- the High Priest-and his sons were designated as his assistants to minister to the nation and to offer sacrifices to God- tragedy struck. Two of his children, Nadav and Avihu were killed in a terrible fire at the altar. To lose two sons in such a horrible way was a crushing blow. The Torah reading for Yom Kippur picks up the story just after the terrible accident. Aaron takes his position as Kohen Gadol on the holiest day of the year- with a broken heart. Imagine where his head was at: He had the awesome responsibility of helping the nation atone for their sins, while he was dealing with unbearable sadness. Yet despite his grief, or maybe because of it, Aaron established himself as a man deeply concerned about other people’s pain. The Rabbis in the Talmud see him as someone devoted to Peace. According to the story, when Aaron heard of a broken marriage, or of a broken friendship, he dedicated himself to reconciling the parties. When Moses died, we’re told that “Israel mourned him.” When Aaron died, we’re told, “ALL Israel mourned him.” Why the difference in language, why the emphasis on “ALL” Israel? Moses was respected; Aaron was loved– because he cared so deeply for the pain in other people’s hearts. His loss made him a broken man, but God uses broken souls.
And then there was Miriam. She said some terrible things to her brother Moses; she criticized his wife because she was a Kushit- an Ethiopian. It’s possible that Miriam had a racist side to her. And she criticized her brother as well. Being the older sister, the one who saved him when he was a baby set adrift in a basket on the Nile River, maybe she was jealous of her kid brother; she questioned his qualifications to be God’s chosen leader. And yet, despite all this, she was chosen by God to be a leader of the nation. She is known as Miryam Ha-Neviyah, Miriam the prophet. She was the one who led the people in song after they crossed the Red Sea. It was because of her that the Israelites had a source of water during their trek through the wilderness. She wasn’t perfect; in her own ways, she was broken. But God uses broken souls.
Moses had a physical disability; Aaron an emotional one; Miriam an ethical one. Yet God chose these three to become our Rabbi, our High Priest, and our Prophet. God uses broken souls.
This crucial idea goes beyond these siblings. It’s at the heart of the Yom Kippur Liturgy. The single most important prayer in the Mahzor is U’netaneh Tokef: “On Rosh HaShana, it is it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” The prayer is attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mayence, who lived in Germany, in the 11th century. He wrote those haunting words after his arms and legs were chopped off by the enemies of the Jews, and was near death. Like Moses, he suffered a physical disability. But God used him to teach us the seriousness of the High Holy Days. This is not merely a time for wishing each other “Happy New Year!” This is a moment when we are taught to consider that Life and Death are on the line- and to adjust our behavior accordingly.
The single most emotional moment on Yom Kippur for most people is Yizkor. A thousand people stand together, and yet you can hear a pin drop. We are united by grief for loved ones we have lost, and miss terribly. For ten minutes, they are here, with us. Our grandparents, parents, siblings, spouses, our friends, and in some cases, even our children. We are like Aaron, tears in our eyes, pain in our hearts, a knot in our stomachs. Yizkor is our promise that we will not forget them, or what they expected of us. And it is their reminder to us that Life is fleeting, and can’t be taken for granted.
The single most important ritual of the High Holy Days is the Blowing of the Shofar, whose message is about Brokenness. We start with a Tekiah, which symbolizes wholeness. But then we move to Shevarim, which means “Broken.” The one whole note turns into three broken notes. And then everything falls apart with Teruah- nine staccato notes that convey shattered pieces. We begin life whole, but along the way, stuff happens. We spend this day in shul, struggling to figure out how to pick up the pieces, and put “Humpty Dumpty” back together again. Hopefully, after twenty-four hours of fasting, prayer and repentance, we go home to the final blast of the Shofar- a Tekiah G’dolah, one, long, note. The Shofar leaves us with a message of hope, and of what might be: Wholeness.
I can tell you all about Bible figures, or about Holiday prayers, but let’s talk about us: All of us, in one way or another, are broken. We might not be willing to post about it on Facebook, some of us might not even be willing to admit it to ourselves. But that’s the truth. We stand before God today with broken souls.
Some of us are broken physically. People needing wheelchairs, walkers or canes. Some who can’t take steps without feeling pain in their knees, or hips. Some whose hands shake terribly. Those with hearing aids; some who don’t see as well as they used to (Count me among them.) Some with stomach troubles, some plagued with Diabetes. Kids with food allergies. Some whose minds aren’t as sharp as they once were, who have trouble remembering things. And some are fighting cancer, or trying to heal from a heart attack, or trying to regain what a stroke took away.
I recently got a notice from Ford informing me of a recall. It’s very annoying, but I understand it: Assembling an automobile is very complicated, and if one small thing goes wrong in the factory, the car can break down. Sometimes, on my way to the doctor’s office, I feel as if I‘ve received a Recall Notice from God. Now, I get that a robot may have screwed up when putting in my airbags; what I have trouble understanding are imperfections in God’s handiwork. How did that happen? Even if we eat right, work out at the gym, don’t smoke or drink too much, sooner or later our bodies break down. If it happens when we’re younger, we’re bitter, because it seems that we, alone, have been afflicted. If it happens when we’re older, it scares the living daylights out of us, because it reminds us of our mortality.
Some of us are broken emotionally. Overwhelmed by depression, or by anxiety, or suffering from post-traumatic stress- survivors of violence or abuse. Maybe we’re victims of substance abuse, or an eating disorder- the causes of which are buried deep in our psyche, or our history. Maybe we’re dealing with a break-up of a relationship, or maybe we’re attempting to navigate our dysfunctional family dynamics. Suddenly, we find ourselves unable to function normally or move forward. We feel paralyzed, with every mundane task seeming like a major obstacle that has to be overcome. Others may look at us and see that our parts seem to be intact and working; what they can’t see is what we feel in our hearts, and in our guts. We become like a kid wearing a mask at a costume party, or like an actor on the stage, playing a role. The outside world thinks everything’s fine, but we know that there’s something very much amiss- and broken- inside.
Some of us are broken ethically. We’ve lied to people who trusted us. We’ve stolen things we had no right to. We’ve cheated-in business, or on a test, or on our vows to those we love. We’ve deeply hurt other people, either by physical violence, or with sharp and hateful words. We’ve disappointed those who brought us up, or taught us, or mentored us. We’ve failed those who were counting on us. More significantly, we’ve disappointed ourselves, leaving us with self-loathing.
So here we are on the Day of Judgment, standing before God- broken souls. We fear that God will decree: “You are physically Damaged! You are psychologically Defective! You are ethically Deficient!”- and judge us accordingly. But God doesn’t toss away broken souls. God tells us to fix them; God uses broken souls.
How do we know? Is it because God is, (as we say again and again in the Mahzor), “El Rahum v’hanun…” “Merciful, Kind, Long-Suffering, Patient, and Forgiving”? That’s the traditional Rabbinic answer, and all of us on this day want it to be true. But there’s another answer- one that comes from Jewish Mysticism: God, Himself, is broken.
According to Kabbalah, at the time of Creation, there was a cosmic accident. God emanated Divine Light, which was supposed to be contained in Holy Vessels, which would give shape and stability to the Universe. But the Vessels were shattered, and the Light escaped. God Himself was torn in half: The masculine Kadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy One, Blessed is He) and the feminine Shekhinah (the Divine Presence). With a handicapped God, Evil came unchecked into the world. It is left for human beings to engage in Tikkun Olam, the unification of God’s two halves, and thus, the Repair of the World. This is accomplished by the performance of Mitzvot; each good deed we do gathers some of the scattered Divine Light, and brings us one step closer to making God whole, to the coming of the Messiah, and to the redemption of the universe. God has Rachmonis -Compassion- on us, because He, too, is broken.
So we stand before God with all our faults. He tells us: You don’t have to throw away shoes with broken soles and I don’t throw away people whose souls are broken. Fix them as best as you can, because I use them.
The first step is a Heshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul. We need to review our relationships and give ourselves a grade: What kind of Child have I been to my parents? What kind of Sibling to my brothers and sisters? What kind of Friend? What kind of Spouse am I to my husband or wife? What kind of Parent am I to my children? How do I measure up as an Employee, or as a Boss? What about as a Citizen, in these challenging times?
The second step is to create a plan for the new year, for the new “us” that we want to create. We establish what our strengths are, and resolve to maintain and strengthen those qualities. We admit what our failings are, and decide to change how we act towards others. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of having a plan, and sticking to it. Sometimes, the things that are broken in us require outside help- maybe medical, maybe psychological, maybe spiritual. There are plenty of people out there who can help us repair our broken souls.
As the High holidays end, our work begins. Stop the bad behavior, and begin to do good things. Or, as the Jewish mystics would say, “Do Mitzvot. Bring about Tikkun.”
As you all know from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant was boxed up and placed in some government warehouse somewhere outside of Washington. If you had the precise location, and the proper clearance code, you might be able to find the Ark. If God would let you open it up without turning you into dust, what would you find inside? The Two Tablets of the Ten Commandments, of course. But you’d find something else: Also inside, are the pieces of the first set of Tablets that were broken by Moses. Why did the Israelites bother to keep the shattered stones along with the whole second set? Though now broken, they still were considered sacred. And that’s a reminder that we don’t trash things- or people- who are broken. Instead, we fix what’s broken- as best as we can. Because God Himself uses broken souls.