Kol Nidre Sermon by Rabbi Joel M. Mosbacher

5777 - I See You

October 11, 2016


Sikona. I am here to be seen.

I was at a seminar recently where the facilitator asked the participants to join in a greeting shared by the Zulu people of South Africa. 

The facilitator urged us to look directly into the eyes of another person, and speak the two parts of the greeting. One person says to the other: Sikona, which means “I am here to be seen”; and the other person responds: Sawubona, which means “I see you.” 

This is a really beautiful greeting I considered teaching you this evening, but then I thought, we’re not in South Africa. We speak Hebrew here. Hineini, would be Hebrew for Sikona, I am here to be seen, and Rayiti would be Hebrew for Sawubona, I see you. Perhaps you could greet everyone you meet this way.

But then I thought, we’re not in Zululand. We’re in New York City, and one of the many pieces of advice folks have offered me since we moved here 3 months ago is that I should not to talk to or even look at strangers, and certainly not make eye contact on the street or on the subway. 

Imagine, for a moment, though, greeting your family, your colleagues, and your friends, or even perfect strangers with the conscious intention to see them, and to be seen, rather than relying on the default American greeting: “How you doing?” and the automatic response: “Fine,” which feels like the rote, brush-off things we say but don’t really mean. 

Let's be honest: when you ask another person “how are you doing?” are you really looking for or expecting a deep answer? And when they say, “Fine,” like you do, are you confident that they really mean that?

Can you imagine the power of a different kind of greeting-- a greeting where we present ourselves to be seen in our fullness and complexity, and where others truly see us? A greeting which says, “In order for you to understand me, I need to be fully present, to share my story with you. And in order for me to understand you, I need to truly see you, to listen to your story.” 

Think what effect it would have to greet everyone you know with this conscious intention.

This is a season of connecting and reconnecting. We are called upon on this Sabbath of Sabbaths to reconnect with our own souls, with the Holy One of Blessing, and with other people in our lives. To do it right, the work of Yom Kippur, the work of repentance, is really difficult work, because it involves us facing our true selves, unvarnished. 

The rabbis ordained that we not wash on Yom Kippur, that we refrain from food and sex and fancy clothes. Why did they instruct us to do these things? Why not dress in our finest, and enjoy all the greatest pleasures of the world, on this day of days?

I think this is because the rabbis sensed that, if we want to be better people in the coming year, we need to strip our souls down to their rawest materials, to see ourselves as we truly are, not only as we wish ourselves to be. 

And while we’re being brutally honest, open, and raw to ourselves, we don’t do that alone in the forest somewhere; we do that by being together with hundreds of other raw and unvarnished souls, longing for someone to truly see them, longing for connection, longing for repair.

For me, the bracing and guiding principle-- both of Yom Kippur specifically and more generally in what it means to live a life of meaning, connection, and purpose-- is Bryan Stephenson’s idea of proximity. Stephenson, author of a book called Just Mercy, reminds us that when we get close, we see things that can’t be seen from afar. We see things that can’t be unseen. And sometimes that makes the difference between acting justly and unjustly in our relationships, and in the world.

If we are not proximate to the people and challenges around us, we cannot make change. 

We need to get beyond “how ya’ doin? Fine.” We need to be prepared to say these words and really mean them: Sikona. Sawubona. Hineini. Rayiti

Tonight, I am challenging us all to think and feel about what that might really mean in our families, in our congregation, and beyond. 

The trainer I learned this exercise from suggested that the first step in really meaning it when we say hineyni; rayiti is that we must look into the eyes of the person we are saying it to. When we are face to face with each other, we can make deep connections. When we can’t see the face of another, on the other hand, from the safety of Twitter, for example, it is too easy to lash out at each other, to tear total strangers down, to destroy reputations, to paint all people of a certain race or religion or ethnic background with the same brush, to burn bridges, and to deface the Godliness of others, all while remaining safe in our living rooms in our bathrobes. 

How has it worked for you-- leaving a voicemail apology when you know the person isn’t home, sending an email in the middle of the night with all of the snark you’re feeling in the moment, or telling your friends how angry you are at some 3rd party instead of telling that person? 

I’ve tried all of these strategies myself; I know that while they might feel good in the moment, and while they're easier to do than confronting the person directly, they don’t work if what I want to do is resolve the challenges in my life.

If we want to actually change things in our lives, we might have to look into the eyes of a person we disagree with. We might need to present ourselves to someone who we think is completely wrong. We might need to get face to face with a problem that seems much simpler and less intimidating and less threatening through the lens of our cable news channel of choice. 

We might have to open ourselves to the possibility that situations and issues aren’t as simple as we thought they were, as simple as we wish they were. And that’s hard-- really hard work. If we want to make change on this Yom Kippur, we have to start by showing up. We have to see each other as Moses saw God-- face to face. 

Getting proximate also means sharing our stories with others. I believe that each of our narratives is sacred Torah. But how often do we really share them? Not our analytical, talking-head infused analysis, but our sacred story about why we care about what we care about.

Telling our stories-- about what keeps us up at night, about what brings us joy and pain-- can make us vulnerable. When we share the sacred Torah of our lives, we are offering it up in hopes that another will truly listen. We take a risk, hoping to be truly heard by another human being. But if we are to feel the power of what it means to be fully present to another person, this is a risk we must be willing to take.

According to the Zulu tradition, saying “I see you” offers an intention to release any preconceptions or judgments so that “I can see you as God created you.” 

To hear the words “I see you” from another is an affirmation that you do exist, that you are an equal, and that you have a person’s respect. If we listened to each other in this way, we might be strengthened in our resolve to be more authentic and visible in our lives.

How affirming is it when you feel truly heard, deeply listened to by another person? And how good could it feel when someone shares their sacred story and you respond, rayiti-- I see you; I understand. I honor your sharing, and I will treat your story as sacred text?

But how often do we take the time to truly hear the sacred story of another? How often do we slow down enough to let their story, their Torah if you will, break through our defences, our assumptions, our well defended understandings of how we believe things to be in the world? 

The great American essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson once wrote:

Community consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know, or who we know very slightly. 

Not imaginary love, but imaginative love. Love born and bred by imagining my way into someone else’s circumstance, with the humility to say, ‘I actually don’t know what you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing, how you see the world, but I am going to engage in an imaginative journey to see if that brings me to a place of empathy.’

Truly listening to the sacred Torah of another human being makes us vulnerable, too. In order to actually listen to the story of another, not just passively hear it, we have to lower our defences. We have to put down our technology and our work and our hectic life for a moment. We have to be willing to hear sacred truths that might differ from our own. This is hard stuff. 

And, it’s the only chance we’ve got if we’re not going to be alone, if we’re not going to leave others to be alone. Saying hineini, and rayiti and really meaning it is the only way we can truly experience each other as having been created, as Genesis teaches, b’tzelem Elohim-- in the image of God.

This is all very well and good in theory, in a Yom Kippur sermon. Who could argue? Yes, face to face conversations. Yes, share yourself, be authentic. Of course-- listen to the stories of our fellow human beings. 

On this Yom Kippur, I want us to go deeper though, to challenge ourselves to get proximate in ways that might well make us downright uncomfortable. If we are willing to do that, to take these risks, though, we might just come to next Yom Kippur feeling like we had made inroads in our personal lives, in our Jewish community, and beyond the bounds of the Jewish people as well. Tonight, I will explore the first two spheres; come back tomorrow to hear more about what it means to be proximate to one of the great challenges our country faces.

Let’s start with the hardest challenge: being proximate with ourselves, and with our family and closest friends.

Too many people I know seem to feel like no one is hearing them; no one is seeing them. If what you need to do is unload your frustrations, your pain, your anger-- all of which can be legitimate and real-- my prayer tonight is that you find friends, significant others, colleagues, rabbis, cantors, and therapists to process that hurt with, people to whom you can say hineini, people who will say rayiti.

Feeling these feelings is hard enough, but if you additionally are feeling alone, our clergy team stands ready to help you find the support you need and deserve in making your way through the dark nights of your soul in a healthy way, finding a safe space to share your sacred story of brokenness without taking out your feelings on your family, your loved ones, your friends, or your co-workers.

And what of our relationships with those closest to us?

When I do pre-marital counselling with couples, one of my favorite exercises to do with them is called “assertiveness and active listening.” I’ve never thought about it before, but it is the hineini and rayiti work of being in relationship. 

Assertiveness, of course, means being able to express your feelings and ask for what you want from someone else. Active listening is the ability to let another person know that you’ve heard them without interpreting or over reading what they say. 

I often say to couples that one of the fun things about relationships is that you can start to read the mind of another person. And one of the most dangerous things about relationships is that you think that you can read the mind of another person. 

I challenge couples and families and co-workers: next time you are beginning to disagree or fight, stop for a minute. Check in. Say, “can I make sure I’m understanding what we’re disagreeing about?” 

My wholly unscientific study indicates that many misunderstandings happen because people aren’t actually saying what they mean, or because the listener isn’t truly listening; they’ve already jumped to conclusions that may have no relationship to what the other person actually intends to say. In short, they’ve forgotten to say hineini. They’ve forgotten to say rayiti.

Can we share our truth with our spouses, significant others, parents, children, family and friends, our co-workers? And can we tolerate openly hearing their stories, looking them in the eye? Can we say hineini to those close to us, and prepare to say rayiti when they share their truths, no matter how challenging that can be at times? 

This is hard to do and yet, this is precisely the work that Yom Kippur calls us to. It can be deeply challenging to push through old defenses, old hurts, grudges, and painful and festering slights we inflict on our loved ones. But if we do, if we can be honest with ourselves and those we love, and if we can truly hear and see the stories of our loved ones, I believe we can break new ground even in relationships that are decades old.

And how might this apply in our spiritual home? As Jesse Berger taught us so powerfully on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, there are so many sacred stories here in this space-- stories of joy and stories of pain. Within this sacred community, will you work with our caring committee to help people in your own congregation feel connected and cared for in the most joyous and difficult moments in their lives?  

Will you attend a Shabbat morning service even if you don’t know the kids who are becoming bnai mitzvah, just because you recognize the importance of personally welcoming the newest links on the chain of our sacred tradition? 

Will you attend one shiva minyan in 5777 for someone you don’t know? Will you see the needs of your fellow congregants, and respond from your heart? 

In order to do so, I have to warn you: you have to make yourself vulnerable; you have to being willing to show up even though your only initial connection might be that you are a fellow traveler in this synagogue. 

But if we do-- if we show up for each other in this congregation, if we get proximate, we will deepen our relationships and connections with each other; we will make this 1100 household congregation feel like an ever warmer, more haimish place than it already is. If we take this risk, getting proximate by sharing our stories, we will become more connected to each other. 

As our concentric circles of openness and vulnerability grow, are you willing to come to serve food to our neighbors at the soup kitchen one weekday at lunchtime here in our congregation, and sit with our neighbors, and hear their sacred stories? 

Will you join with Rabbi Wajnberg and I as we hear stories about the ways in which NYCHA-- once a model of public housing for the country-- is no longer serving our neighbors, including at least one member of this very congregation? Will you share and listen to stories about the ways in which our public schools do and do not serve the special needs of our kids?

Will you share your sacred story about what you’d like to change about this city, and then listen to the stories of people across lines of race, faith, and class, and then work to use the power of all of our sacred stories to make those changes a reality? 

If you do, I have to warn you: sharing your sacred story takes risk. Hearing the sacred stories of others will challenge your assumptions. You risk learning that we are not so different from the other people we share this island with. You risk being agitated into action. And you risk finding yourself a part of making powerful change here in New York. 

And, lastly for now, I'd like to invite you to come with me to Israel next summer to explore our sacred homeland with your congregational family. 

Together, we will experience Israel as a miraculous place-- the place we longed for for 2000 years, the place we dreamed of. 

We will see the great sights of Israel, enjoy the feel and smell and taste of Eretz Yisrael. 

We will experience a blooming desert and the home of some of our favorite technologies; we will walk the land where King David and David Ben Gurion walked. 

We will say hineini together on Mount Scopus as we overlook the modern and ancient city of Jerusalem. 

We will get proximate to Israel in ways you never can just by reading about it or watching a documentary. 

I have to warn you though: if you join us, we will get proximate to Israel in its fullness. We will meet with Israelis and Palestinians from both sides of the green line. We will say rayiti to their sacred narratives of joy and pain. And we will feel the power of deeper relationship to our sacred homeland when we hear them say rayiti to our stories.

If you join this spiritual journey, I can guarantee you two things. Whatever your experience and knowledge of Israel is, you will be more in love with her when you leave after this trip than you can possibly imagine. And secondly, whatever your view is on Israel, you will be challenged and uplifted, inspired and agitated by being proximate to her in all of her beautiful complexity.

My friends, we are commanded at this season to hear the sound of the shofar. The Talmud, a 1500 year old code of Jewish law asks this question: If you hear the sound of shofar reverberating from the dark depths of a pit [some distance away], have you fulfilled your obligation to hear the sound of the shofar

The Talmud answers its own question: if you’re in the pit with the person who is blowing the shofar and hear its call, you are yotzei-- you have fulfilled your obligation. But if you hear it from the edge of the pit, you’re not.

If the Talmud were written today, it might say: we need to hear the sound of the shofar directly-- not via Facebook or tweet or snapchat or email, not by news report or viral video. 

To say hineini, to make ourselves known to others, we must be present with them. And to say rayiti, to claim to know the joys and pains of another, we must actually be present in the well with them.

That is what the shofar calls us to. That is what Yom Kippur calls us to. Let us say hineini, and rayiti, and begin to repair ourselves, our relationships, and our world.

Gmar chatimah tova. May we share and listen to sacred stories this day, and in the years ahead.