Opening Gates

Sermon by Rabbi Benjamin Ross on Erev Yom Kippur 5784
September 24, 2023

Sermon Text:

I recently attended an interfaith silent meditation retreat. The entire time was silent except for right before each meal when the facilitator, Reverend Mark, would gather our small group in a circle, and share a short story.  (Rev. Mark Buzutti-Jones at Trinity Retreat Center) 

One day Mark shared the story of a woman who started a new job. On her first day of work, she joined her new colleagues around the conference room table for lunch.  One-by-one everyone around the table pulled out and unpacked their lunch. The newbie reached into her bag and extracted what appeared to be a sandwich.  As she peeled back the tinfoil, revealing a tired looking tuna wrap, the woman let out a long sigh of defeat, “ughhhhhh.” 

The strength of her displeasure toward the wrap caused her new workmates to peek around at each other. But, as she began to eat the sandwich, the negative energy dissipated and they launched into pleasant and playful lunch conversation. 

The next day, as the group reconvened for lunch, everyone looked over at the woman wondering what would come out of her lunch bag. To their surprise, the same theater repeated itself. Another tired tuna wrap was withdrawn, followed yet again by the audible sound of her disappointment. Once more, the woman looked crestfallen as she ate her wrap. No one quite knew what to do or say. 

This same sequence of events happened again the next day, and the day after that. The unpacking of the sandwich became an unraveling of her soul. By the 5th day, the mood around the table was deeply uncomfortable. The easy banter had been quashed by an uneasy energy that settled over everyone. 

Even though they did not know her well, as the scene played out once again, one colleague kindly asked, “Oh, it seems like you really don’t like tuna wraps. Did your..ummm.. spouse pack your lunch?” After a pregnant pause, the woman said matter-of-factly, “No, actually, I packed it myself.” Mark’s story ended, and as our group returned to silence, we had plenty of time to absorb this powerful message. 

Of course, the question that immediately presents itself is, “What is the lunch we pack for ourselves each day?” What narratives and barriers do we cook-up and consume that do not serve us, that may not be true, that we don’t even want… and most importantly, are in our control to transform into a more delectable meal? 

Our work, individually, and as a community, on Yom Kippur is to challenge ourselves out of complacency — to ask what needs to change, in our lives and our world. We are called  to look into the spiritual lunch pail of our soul and be honest, compassionate and rigorous about what we’ve packed, sitting right in front of us today, right here. 

But how do we do this? 

About Yom Kippur, Maimonides wrote, 

“What is perfect repentance? It is when an opportunity presents itself to repeat the same behavior, and while being physically able to do so, you nonetheless refrain, because you have had a change of heart and resolved not to behave this way.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot T’shuvuah 2.1) 

There is a deeply physical element to what change looks like. It is not simply a feeling, it is not limited to the quiet edges of our spirit, it is not ultimately a private internal affair. It is tangible, embodied. The internal troubling of our spiritual waters is manifested externally, in our relationships, in our aspirations, in our expectations, in how we see our own holy value, our very worth. 

For those of us who watch the TV series the Bear, we see this notion of transformation play out with the character Richie, known as Cuz. As the rest of the characters in the show work tirelessly to transform their sandwich shop into a high-level restaurant, Richie struggles with his worth; at 45 years old, he feels like a master of nothing who isn’t contributing value to his family or the restaurant. 

The show follows him as he is sent to stage. – a fancy French word for intern – at one of the best restaurants in the world. Over the course of a week in which his first three days are spent  shining spoons, he is transformed. Richie is inspired by the level of pleasure the diners experience as a result of the restaurant’s commitment to excellence. To the extra-ordinary attention given to every detail.And ultimately, he finds his purpose :  to elevate the art of service in order to elevate others. 

With that clarity, it turns out he is a service superstar, cool under pressure, creative and resourceful. And now that he sees himself differently, Richie becomes a more open and vulnerable friend and colleague. Richie’s story reminds us that it is never too late to change, and that small changes have ripple effects in our lives. 

It also reminds us that change doesn’t come about from dwelling in the past; it requires imagining a different future, one in which, as the motto engraved on the restaurant’s kitchen wall read, “Every Second Counts.”

Being a rabbi, of course, this reminds me of a story told by Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonne, who heard it from his teacher, the Ba’al Shem Tov.Rabbi Joseph shares that there was a king who wanted to test the industriousness and desire of his subjects. So he made a series of illusory walls, one within the next and each accessed by a different gate, to separate himself from his subjects. 

At every gate he commanded that money be given out to those who passed through the walls. The more inward the wall, the greater the reward distributed at each gate. As the story goes, some people came to the first gate and took the treasure and went away, while others continued on to the second gate and still others to the third one. Only a very few truly desired to encounter the king, most just wanted the treasure.  

But for those who persisted, after much hard work, when they finally stood before the king they could see that there were no actual walls separating them from the king, for it was all an illusion. (Informed by translation of. a combination of Etkes, The Besht, p. 135 and Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, PhD)

There is much to unpack in this story. 

  • We have the King and his subjects – a metaphor for God and humans. 
  • We have the walls that keep us away, and the gates that allow us to pass through. 
  • There are the rewards along the way acknowledging our hard work, the treasures we are granted when we pass through the gates in pursuit of encountering the King. 
  • There is the question of motivation, what propels and motivates us to push through the walls that keep us from our deeper truths. 
  • And, there is the awakening, when we stand before the king, the coming into awareness that the walls are nothing but an illusion. 

Let’s be a bit provocative. Maybe flip the script, place yourself in the center. In fairness, this is how most of us move through the world, and imagine you are the one putting up walls around you, keeping friends and family at a distance. Maybe you are on the throne and place the Divine outside the walls, obscuring the location of the gates, making it near impossible for God’s presence to enter your inner sanctum. 

In the Baal Shem Tov’s parable we see God’s desire to test our yearning to be close. Is this not what is happening around us all the time, with ourselves and those we love? As humans, we inevitably erect invisible walls that keep others from being closer to us. 

We are testing each other, we are tallying up scores, we are judging if our beloveds truly love us, are doing the work to care for us, if they sincerely want to be proximate, to be close, or if they are satisfied simply to accept the superficial rewards they find when they approach our gates. 

The work of repentance is of creating gateways, the passages through the walls that we so desperately want others to pass through, to come closer to us. This insightful text about walls and passing through gates, and the tension it explores, reminded me of an encounter I had about a year and half ago with David, a congregant from my previous congregation. 

As we sat at a delicious Persian restaurant in LA, David told me about his life, and it sounded amazing. He was a successful professional who, like many of us, has lived several chapters, traveling internationally, fighting for the public welfare and more recently as an attorney in the private sector. 

After about an hour of engaging conversation David told me why he had asked me to meet. He was struggling with how to fully commit to the social justice organizing work that he was passionate about. 

On an intellectual level, he understood how important it is for community organizing leaders to share their personal narrative, to talk about why they care about what they do,  but he just wasn’t sure he could share his formative story.  

I was confused. David had just generously recounted a series of compelling and evocative vignettes about his life, career and family. He didn’t seem to have any hesitation sharing any of that.

But then, the warmth between us cooled, his body tightened.

David began to share with me that 20 years ago, he and his wife had an eight day old son who died. His name was Noah and he never left the hospital. Something was not right from the moment he was born. The doctors tried everything they could. Nothing worked. David and his wife were devastated. 

As we sat across from each other, David released the memory, first in a trickle and then it poured out like a flood upon the land. All the while, David remained in his strength, even as a cloud of grief seemed to overtake him. I didn’t know David well but I could sense the presence of walls surrounding him, walls keeping him from divine love, from connecting with others, from being compassionate with himself. 

I hesitated, and then I asked gently, “David, I’m wondering if you feel responsible, in some way, for Noah’s death?”

His body began to convulse softly and tears streamed down, he struggled to get the words out, almost whispering, “yes, yes I do.” 

For a while we sat together in the depths of his sorrow. He shared that he had carried with him the profound sense that he had failed his son, failed his family, failed himself. 

No parent should have to face this grief. But adding to David’s suffering was the sense that he could have done more, even as he knew it was impossible. 

There was no parting of the clouds, no divinely directed ray of sunshine, but I felt in my core a divine presence, holding both of us. 

I felt called to ask David to imagine his left fist holding the grief of Noah’s death and his right fist clenching his sense of personal responsibility around Noah’s death. 

I asked David what it would be like for him to retain his grip on the grief but loosen, even by a little, his grip on his sense of personal failure… 

if he could bring softness to his fingers and open his hand and maybe even explore letting go of that sense of responsibility…

if he could bring his full compassion to himself, to truly acknowledge what the doctor had said, “that there was nothing more that could have been done.” David exhaled.

He drew in a deep breath and glanced up, looking a bit lighter. He thanked me, blessing the moment. David passed through the walls keeping him from divine love. 

David passed through the gate that brought him closer to his beloved son. The barrier of guilt, maybe even self-loathing, began to tumble down. 

I called David a couple months ago to ask permission to share his story. “Absolutely,” he said. He shared that since we spoke, he has been able to find a release in his everyday life by asking himself, “who is having this thought, who is having this feeling?” David said, “I don’t want to be defined by this one thing. It has been a journey to say “I’m not being absolutely controlled by grief,” to now be in another more expansive place. 

I know, that was a particularly heavy story. There is so much to honor and learn from David’s courage. 

What are the narratives we have about ourselves that control us, that we allow to define us? How do we construct walls that create distance between us and our beloveds? How have we put up walls so high, we don’t even remember what is on the other side? 

What are the gates we need to open to move through the walls which represent narratives about who we are that no longer serve us, the lunch we no longer want to eat, keeping us distant from our truest and bestest self? 

My presence with David that day at the cafe was a blessing for me. Today we are called to be present for each other. Our work, our spiritual soulforce, is about this, the collective enterprise of creating a holy container. 

Yom Kippur is not a self-help book read in a quiet nook by ourselves. It is a collective ritual, where our focus and intention both serves our own ends and supports our neighbors to find their gates. 

Do not discount yourself. Do not stub your toe on the wall of “this is who I am.” You are more. You are not fixed, you are ever changing. 

The magazine Scientific American notes, within each human, “About 330 billion cells are replaced daily, equivalent to about 1 percent of all our cells. In 80 to 100 days, 30 trillion (cells) will have replenished—the equivalent of a new you.” Just during this sermon you have replaced a couple billion cells! Mazel tov!

So, while we experience ourselves as mostly set, struggling to imagine being physically, psychologically and spiritually different, we are in fact changing all the time. And maybe more importantly, we have the capacity to change. 

I know this from my own life. In the summer of 2016 our family moved from NYC to Los Angeles for my first job as a newly ordained Rabbi. Our boys were 2 and 3 and half years old. Within two months of moving, right before Rosh Hashanah we learned my beloved wife Liz had breast cancer. After Yom Kippur we learned it was invasive and aggressive. 

In the early days of processing all of this, a dear friend called to check in. I recall walking around my neighborhood in that honeyed SoCal sunshine. 

She asked, “are you ok?” and with as much confidence as I could muster, I responded, “I’ll be fine.” She held the space and in that silence it all came tumbling down. I wept. It was not ok. Liz was not ok. I was not fine, not even close. 

Acknowledging that I was not fine was hard. I was supposed to be the pastoral presence, the caretaker, not the recipient. It took some work to be so vulnerable. To acknowledge my own fragility. 

But once I let those walls of false confidence crumble I was suddenly held by something bigger, a love without words or boundaries. My ability to move through, letting go of any sense of control, was the most important thing I needed to do. 

Without the artifice of being able to “do-it-all myself,” I opened up to others helping me. So many friends and family showed up for us. My new Temple community in Los Angeles brought 3-4 meals a week for seven months – they sustained us through Liz’s chemo, surgery and radiation. I was now able to focus on caring for Liz and the boys, instead of shopping, cooking and cleaning. It just felt amazing to receive, to be supported, to acknowledge my own limitations and allow others to care for us. 

Blessedly, most importantly, Liz is healthy and thriving. 

Ultimately, this is the work of Yom Kippur.  When the Bal Shem tov notes that, “After (much hard work) when the subjects finally came before the king they saw that there were no walls separating them from the king, for it was all an illusion,” we are reminded of our capacity to see everything differently – to transform, who we are, how we are, and even the world around us. 

That so much of what separates us from the divine and others is an illusion, ephemeral and impermanent. We just have to cultivate the will to keep passing through the gates, keep moving, and to open gates for others. 

So the question remains, what have you packed in the spiritual lunch pail of your soul? 

Are you giving yourself the equivalent of a tired looking tuna wrap each day? 

What are the walls that hold you back, what are the gates you need to pass through, and what are you going to do about it?

May this be a day of courageous, precious and holy moments. 

May this be the year in which we welcome an honest confrontation with the old narratives we don’t want to lug around anymore. 

May this be the Yom Kippur on which we find the gateways and begin to pass through them. 

Let us live like every second counts. 

Ken yehi ratzon, May it be so!