by Reb Jamie Hyams, Student Rabbi, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, October 8, 2019
Last week on Rosh haShanah, I commented on the idea “May we be inscribed for a good year.” I explored the idea that in the coming year there will be things over which we will have no control, and other things whose outcome we can affect through our actions.
This week folks are saying “G’mar hatimah tovah, may you be SEALED for good year.” So again, I ask you, who is doing the sealing? Is being sealed a passive act that is bestowed upon us, or is it a call to action…that WE through our actions, seal ourselves in the Book of Life for good?
We have reached the last day of the 10 days of t’shuvah (of repentance, of turning our ships, of seeking our answers) – as they say, “the Gates are closing”, the opportunity is passing… That is an ominous metaphor meant to spur us to action… but do the gates really close? Can we not change the course of our lives at any other time? Of course we can…. Perhaps encountering the idea that at the High Holidays, that we as a community are held accountable for our actions, will spur us on to change, though it may not be actualized for months…. But the SPARK of change, whenever it comes, was IGNITED by our process these past 10 days.
When Rabbi Mintz lights Shabbat candles, she makes 3 big circles with her hands, scooping in the space and bringing it in closer to the candles. With each circle, she recites “Baruch hu o’varuch shemo” – “Blessed is He and Blessed is His Name.” I had never heard someone chant this saying intermixed with candle-lighting. When I asked her to explain what she was doing, she said that the first circle was to bring near her family, children, grandchildren and now, greatgrandchildren; the second was to bring near our community; and the third was to bring near the world. With each circle of affiliation she brings in before the candles are lit, she is articulating/gesturing for all to see her hopes for a good future. By articulating our hopes, even to only ourselves, with the spark of the match that lights the shabbat candles, we begin the process of change and making real our hopes for the future.
Like lighting Shabbat candles with concentric circles of affiliation, at Yom Kippur the Jewish people have concentric circles of accountability.
Like the first of Rabbi Mintz’s circles, the first circle of accountability is interpersonal – to family and as Mr. Rogers used to say, “to the people in your neighborhood, the people that you see – each – day.” We read in Leviticus 16:30, “From all your sins before God you shall be cleansed.” Commenting on this text, the first century sage, Eleazar ben Azariah said “for sins between man and God Yom Kippur atones, but for sins between man and his fellow Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases his fellow.” Missing the mark, “sinning,” messing up, between people is considered much more severe than sins between man and God. You can’t just “pray” or “atone” away when you have hurt someone. You have to look them in the face, apologize, and then, the next time you are faced with the same situation that caused you to “miss the mark, handle it differently the second time around. Unless we make things right with the people who we see daily, intimately, our lives will be built upon shaky foundations.
The second of Rabbi Mintz’s circles is our community, the Jewish people.
At the time the Torah received, the Israelites relationship with God was as a nation…. the idea of individuality or a personal relationship with God did not exist… The sacrifices at the Temple were communal. Yes, individuals brought sacrifices on behalf of their families, but the behavior of the Israelites was judged by the collective behavior of the nation. On YK, the high priest atoned for the sins/ for the missed marks, of the nation…If this sounds like an antiquated concept, it isn’t….
On today’s world stage, the actions of a nation as a whole are reflected on to the individual citizens. In the political area, the actions of the US government reflect on us as Americans, for better or for worse. As Jews, the actions of high profile public figures, reflect on our community, for better or for worse. Broad strokes and generalizations, yes, but this is why we atone as a nation – because we are held accountable as one people – We atone as a people because though not all of us will have gossiped, or slandered or disrespected our teachers, but some of us will have… and when one of us does, we are all lessened and tainted by their behavior. How often do we hear of some horrific crime or example of bad behavior and we cringe when we hear the name as clearly Jewish – Madoff, Epstein, Weinstein? Of course, on the flip side, we have our share of Einsteins, Streisands, and Berkleys. We are proud when our “homie” makes good, but we are judged in the court of public opinion, and by God, as one people.
And the last of Rabbi Mintz’s 3 circles is to the world, and in this case, to the future; to the future Jewish people and the future inhabitants of this planet. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the prophets of ancient Israel “remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” We Jews, as members of a global society, as members this great nation, are missing the mark on saving this planet, and we will be judged by future generations, and by God, and by nature herself if we do nothing to respect and protect and nurture this fragile globe that sustains us. The climate is changing, whatever the reason, and there are things that we can do to return Earth to the healthy climate that our grandparents enjoyed and that we intend to leave to our grandchildren.
What is a Jewish response to climate change on the world stage? One response was the establishment of Shomrei Breitshit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth. Shomrei Breitshit is international, multi-denominational network of rabbis and cantors providing a Jewish voice on climate change and environmental justice to which I have added my name. Echoing Rabbi Mintz’s concentric circles to ignite on Shabbat the spark of the flame that spreads out to make change, in 2014, the rabbis and cantors of Shomrei Breitshit stepped forward to call upon world governments to transition to non-carbon based energy and act on a new climate change treaty. They called for our Jewish institutions to advocate for strong national and international climate legislation and to review investment portfolios and redirect funds to sustainable energy investment and to advocate for meaningful climate-change legislation in local and national governments and international bodies.
Rabbi Tarfon (Pirkei Avot 2:15-16) taught that even though the time is short, the work is great, and we are not obligated to finish the task, neither are we free to absolve ourselves from it.
The challenges we face are large, and the solutions are immense, beyond the ability of one person to complete alone, but when we come together as a people, when we hold ourselves accountable and we act upon the values embedded in our tradition, we have an impact of the world.
Lastly, when we light candles for Shabbat and for the holidays, and we bring together our inner circle, our community and the world, we remind ourselves that we are a part of something greater. Without the individual, there is no community…. And without the community’s awareness and ability to act to address large challenges – wars, flooding, climate issues, there would no individual There is a reason that all three circles lead us into one blessing – Baruch ata haShem… who commands us to IGNITE the lights” …. To kindle the spark, to begin a process that makes things different for our inner circle, for our community and for our world.
As we stand before the Gates of Heaven, the time of opportunity, may we be ignited to make change, and may we be sealed, and may we seal ourselves for a good year.