By Rabbi Shohama
Gut Yuntif. Welcome to this holy day of Yom Kippur.
Tonight begins the Shabbat of all Shabbatot, the Highest of the High, the Holiest Day in the Jewish year. Within that holiness is the darkness and pain we feel at exploring the ways in which we, singly and as a collective, have missed the mark.
The Hebrew word is chet, usually translated as sin. Al chet shechatanu, we will say – for the sin which we have sinned – but what it really means is for the marks we have missed.
This holy day season we have been looking at the Journey of the Soul, the five levels through which Divine energy flows. On Rosh Hashanah we explored Nefesh, the Soul-Flow of Action; Ruach, the Soul-Flow of Emotion; and Neshamah, the Soul-Flow of Mind. Tonight we rise to explore the realm of Chayah, the Soul-Flow of Life Force which animates creation in everything – humans, animals, the earth and planets, even the angels.
The Jewish songwriter-poet Leonard Cohen of blessed memory sang of the complexity of the Life Force that brings light and darkness:
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah.
Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah.
Poets, physicists, and mystics understand this. Holiness and wholeness, and holiness and brokenness are an inherent part of creation. Kabbalists, Jewish mystics, tell of the birth of the universe in images very similar to the theory of the Big Bang. When God began creating, God created light. The light was so strong that the vessel that held it shattered. This is why every person and every bit of creation contains a spark of the original Divine creation.
On Rosh Hashanah we focused on the sparks of light in creation. For Yom Kippur our intent is to lift up the sparks of light of redemption for every word we either misspoke or didn’t speak. Those words too have light in them. That light is in our prayers this holy day. That light is in our actions however dark, real, or imagined. That light is in our feelings of unworthiness. It’s our calling now to lift up THAT light. We can understand that light as the animating force in life— Chayah.
I am reminded of a story I heard from Ron Yuval, a world musician and peace activist. It addresses the challenge of how we prime the flow of Chayah, the flow of Life Force.
Once there was a small town that could only afford a rabbi one Shabbat a year, so that Shabbat was always a very special occasion. In that town lived a young man named Shloimie who had gotten badly burned shortly after birth. His face was so deformed by the burns he incurred that he was ashamed to be seen in public. But Shloimie yearned to listen to the inspirational words of the visiting rabbi, so he climbed on the roof of the synagogue and lay down to drink in the holy words.
This year the Rabbi’s talk was about the beauty in each piece of God’s creation. When he finished speaking he looked up and saw Shloimie through the spaces in the roof. Horrified by what he saw, he shouted, “What is that monster?”
Shloimie was so hurt he ran away. The Rabbi was appalled by what had burst out of his mouth, and ran after Shloimie to apologize. When he caught up with him Shloimie said, “First God has to apologize for allowing me to look this way. Then I’ll accept your apology.”
I’m going to interrupt the story here. Shloimie’s question is a poignant one. How many of us have had lived through tragedies and asked, “How could a loving God allow this to happen?” There is no simple answer, but let’s see what comes next in the story.
The Rabbi called his wife and said, “I can’t come home. I said something very bad to a young man and he won’t accept my apology.” His wife said wisely, “Let me send our daughter, Shayndel. She will know what to do.”
So Shayndel came to Shloimie and said, “We are so sorry our father said something to hurt you. Won’t you come to Shabbos dinner at our home?” And he did. That began the relationship between Shloimie and the Rabbi’s family. They invited Shloimie to dinner every Shabbat, and every Shabbat he joined them at their home.
After six weeks of being with the Rabbi’s family for Shabbos dinner, Shloimie said, “Now I’m ready to accept God’s apology, and I’ll accept yours as well. I see that the spark of beauty that God gave me at birth is still within me, since your family wants to be with me just as I am.”
What can we learn from this story about what will prime the flow of Chayah, Life Force, when it gets stuck through negativity? We learn that every piece of creation, no matter how ugly or debased, still contains the Divine spark of life. Just as important for our focus this Yom Kippur, this story of Shloimie tells us that forgiveness is the key to releasing the flow of Chayah, Life Force.
The Rabbi’s daughter Shayndel modeled how to gain forgiveness. She knew that Shloimie needed to be treated kindly and lovingly before he could forgive God, and then forgive her father. Her invitation to him was an example of the flow that comes through Nefesh-Soul, the realm of Action. Her heartfelt outreach was in the realm of Ruach, Emotion. The family’s continued invitation to Shloimie for Shabbat reflected the realm of Neshamah, Mind-Soul, as they understood that repeated outreach was necessary to convince Shloimie of their sincerity. All these pieces primed the flow of Chayah, Life Force, and Shloimie was able to forgive not only his Creator, but the rabbi, the human perpetrator of hurt as well.
As it was for Shloimie and the rabbi, so it is for many, perhaps most of us. It is a challenge to feel fully alive—to feel the full flow of the Life Force. To do that we may need to forgive God (or whatever concept we use for imaging the Source of Life) for creating a world of dark and light, good and evil, joy and sorrow. Especially when a loved one dies through suffering or at an early age, those left behind may be stuck in anger.
To feel the flow of Chayah, life, it helps to forgive those who have hurt us, or if their actions are not forgivable, at least release the anger in us that blocks the flow. Most of all, it helps to forgive ourselves, for past mistakes, and for falling back into habits that do not serve the upward flow of life. The prayer Kol Nidre, which we heard so movingly chanted earlier, acknowledges that the vows we make tonight will not hold. And so we ask for forgiveness in advance even as we seek to activate the holy sparks of creation that are at our core.
Now that we have heard Kol Nidre, why don’t we just go home and celebrate? Because forgiveness is a process, and all the prayers and practices of tonight and tomorrow are here to help us transform by opening the flow. Transformation is not easy, but if we work the work we can emerge from Neilah, the final prayers, with new hope, new vision, and new strength for the year ahead.
This Yom Kippur, let us use Chayah, that holy Life Force within each of us, to cleanse and release that which blocks us from sensing the holy sparks within us, or as much as we are able to do this day. The truth is the Gates of Forgiveness are never really closed. These gates are an allegory meant to inspire us to use this time together to gather the strength to do what we cannot do alone. To do as much as is possible for us.
Let us support each other to do the lifting of the light that Yom Kippur offers. Then we will have not only a Gut Yuntif, a worthy holy day, but a Shanah Tovah, a whole year of goodness.
May it be so.