5777 Yom Kippur Day

Posted October 13th, 2016 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
Yom Kippur Day
Rabbi Catharine Clark @ Congregation Or Shalom
October 12, 2016 ▪ London, Ontario
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Gmar hatimah tovah.  May you be sealed for a good year.
A broken shard.  Withering grass.  A passing breeze.  These are the phrases from Untane Tokef used to describe what it means to be human.  The unknown poet who composed this prayer might have done better with phrases like “the fluttering heart,” “the jittery leg,” “the sleepless toss and turn.”
Yes, to be human is to be mortal.  Even more so, it sometimes seems, that to be human is to be anxious.
In fact, the High Holy Days in general and Untane Tokef in particular seem designed to heighten our anxiety.  The central idea for Yom Kippur is that we are judged and inscribed (or not) in the Book of Life.  Just before Untane Tokef describes us humans as fleeting, it lists in question form the fates that might bring about our end.  Who by flood?  Who by plague?  Who shall wander?  Who shall be tormented?
Of course, we are anxious!
Our anxiety could be global, personal or both.  The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and the hatred unleashed in the election south of our border are just two of the societal forces that might be keeping us awake at night.  On the individual level, our anxiety arises perhaps from illness or economic insecurity.   Awaiting test results from the doctor or plotting which bill to pay first with limited funds are perfect recipes for tossing and turning.
What then should we do with our anxiety?
First, let me say, some anxiety is clinical.  For this type of anxiety, the answer is: get treatement.  If you think you might be clinically anxious, get professional mental health treatment.  Just as someone with advanced diabetes should take insulin and regularly consult with her doctor, so too someone with an anxiety disorder should take prescribed medication and regularly meet with his therapist.
But not all anxiety is so acute or prolonged, and our options for coping with it are varied.
Some of our anxiety arises from situations susceptible to change, but far beyond our personal control.  No one of us alone can solve a refugee crisis.  No one of us alone can counteract the hatred fomenting in the U.S or here in Canada.
This is hardly, though, an excuse not to act.  Shimon Peres, zichrono livracha, who passed away just before the Days of Awe began, said that we Jews are “a nation born to be discontented.  Whatever exists we believe can be changed for the better.”  During his long life, Peres encountered much that exists to make him anxious.  Rather than tremble, he marched, literally and figuratively, to change for the better.  He acted on his convictions, and we too are empowered to act on ours.
Other anxieties cannot be controlled by us, or anyone else.  No one has the power to make the test result come back from the lab in your favor.  When you are sick, we include you in our weekly Prayer for Healing.  But the mishebeirach list is not the same as God’s to-do list.  I wish it were, but it isn’t.  So too, we can’t know where the next natural disaster will hit, and we can’t prevent accidents no one could foresee.
We can and should pray about what makes us anxious.  There is relief in unloading our anxieties even though we can’t make God answer our prayers.  Over certain anxieties, it is all in God’s hands, and we have no lever on the divine.
With these anxieties, all we can do is manage them.  We are anxious because we are vulnerable.  Untane Tokef calls our attention to the ways in which we are vulnerable – natural disasters, political unrest, disease – in order to heighten our anxiety.  The High Holy Days are designed to put us on edge, so that we will do teshuvah in earnestness.  Repentance is hard.  Untane Tokef is meant to make us realize that the stakes are high, so that we will do the hard work of repenting.
The High Holy Days are not, however, the sum total of the Jewish year.  Other emotions are on the calendar too.
God demands that we rejoice and be happy on Sukkot and gives us the tools to meet this demand.  A beautiful etrog, fragrant myrtle, red meat, wine, and pretty clothes are all commanded (yes, really commanded) on Sukkot.  (That’s why Sukkot is my favorite holiday.)  The joy of this holiday soothes the anxiety of the Days of Awe that precede it.
Passover gives us hope, reminding us that the ills of the world can be redeemed.  At seder, we relive the journey from slavery to freedom and learn that no problem, even one on a national scale, is unsolvable.
On Shavuot.  Well, who really attributes great things to Shavuot?  But cheesecake is a good once-a-year way to ease anxiety.
Shabbat is a weekly restorative.  Disconnecting once a week from all electronic sources of global and personal news gives us a break also from new sources of anxiety.  The restrictions on what we can do on Shabbat give us time to do what most of us do not do nearly enough: sleep.  A good night’s sleep works wonders on our perception of anxiety and our ability to cope with it.
Anxiety that is not clinical is not all-consuming.  The cycle of the Jewish year helps us live this reality so that we can manage our anxiety at the High Holy Days and other times.
The most tempting strategy to deal with anxiety is to hope for resolution.  Sometimes, our hopes will be rewarded, or at least appear to be so.  November 8th will be here and gone eventually.  Test results come in and, at least some of the time, the doctor gives the all clear.  Sometimes a new job or a lucky break untangles a financial mess.
More often, this seeming resolution, however, is just that: “seeming.”  No matter where or when in the election cycle, there will always be some portion of the population who hates.  In the long-term our good health is not, and cannot be, guaranteed.  The economy changes in unpredicted ways, and its effects are sometimes personal.
Our anxieties cannot be resolved completely, and for this we are fortunate.  Yes, fortunate.
We are fortunate because Judaism associates being anxious not just with being human but also with being righteous.
In his commentary on the story of Jacob, Rashi brings a midrash in which God says, “Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the World to Come?  Why do they seek to settle in tranquility in this world too?!”  To the Sages, only for the wicked is everything settled.  Only for the likes of Esav or the generations leading up to the Flood is everything known.  For the righteous, like Noah or Abraham, there is drama and therefore, there is anxiety.  If you are feeling anxious, it is because God finds you good and takes enough interest in your outcome to have not decided it already.
We are fortunate too because Judaism associates being anxious not just with being human or being righteous but also with being alive.  Untane Tokef puts its questions of fates before us because our fates are still in question.  Those for whom a particular fate is known with absolute surety have already passed away.  If we are alive, then our fate remains uncertain.  We agonize over this uncertainty – fire or plague, peace or torment, riches or poverty – because we have a future.  We are alive, and we are fortunate to have a future about which to be anxious.
With this future, we can act to change what in our lives and our world makes us anxious and is susceptible to change.  We can get involved with the social movements we think will make a positive change.  We can donate to the organizations that are working for the change we want to happen.  Anxiety should not paralyze us.
With this future, we must also make room in our lives for joy, hope and rest.  Soon Yom Kippur will be over.  We have Sukkot on which to rejoice and Shabbat on which to rest.  We have good meals to enjoy with friends and family and new friends to meet.  Anxiety need not be our only emotion.
Gmar tov.  May we be sealed in the Book of Life for this year and may the ending of each of our books remain unknowable.
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