I am reminded of a story about Yankele, who was walking from Minsk to Pinsk, wearing a heavy backpack with all his clothes and goods. As he continued walking, the backpack seemed to grow heavier, and Yankele became more and more tired. Along came a wagon, and Yankele decided to see if he could hitch a ride.
Fortunately the driver looked kindly on him, and asked if Yankele wanted to get into the wagon. Yankele eagerly climbed up — and since it was the kind of wagon without any seats, Yankele stood by the edge holding onto the side of the wagon.
After a while the driver turned to Yankele and said, “Why don’t you put that backpack down? Don’t you know that the wagon is carrying you?”
And so it is with us. When we get tired of carrying our baggage, God says to us, “Come, I’ll send you a wagon. But if you want relief, you have to put down the backpack of worries and negative thoughts you are carrying.”
Those of us familiar with Twelve Step teachings have heard the saying, “Let go and let God.” Easy to say, but not so easy to do. Our ego-self thinks it can manage on its own. And sometimes it is not until we are really down and out that we are willing to ask for help and receive help from a power greater than ourselves.
Sometimes negative emotions serve a good purpose. Remorse can lead to making amends. Fear can lead to asking people for help. With God’s help, any negative emotion or trait can be purified and lifted up to a higher purpose.
Judaism is a tradition that has no pictures of God and no exact words for God, but we sure have a lot of pictures and a lot of words. They are all metaphors. God as a wagon is a metaphor.
One of the most beloved metaphors for God is that of shepherd. Moses was a shepherd, chosen to be leader because of his kindness and caring for his flock. King David, too, was a shepherd. Shepherds are nurturers. Shepherds watch out for their flock, leading them to food and water, and keeping them safe. In Psalm 23 we read (and please say the first verses with me if you know it):
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.
The Unetaneh Tokef prayer of Yom Kippur paints another picture of God as Shepherd. This Shepherd not only nourishes but watches, counts and loves each sheep as it passes under the Shepherd’s staff. Unetaneh Tokef offers an image of God who makes note of each of us, of all our deeds, and influences what will happen to us. How much God decides and how much we decide is a mystery. But I like to think that we, by our choices — choices for goodness or choices for failings — have a large influence on how our path unfolds.
The choices we make affect how we are inscribed in Sefer HaZichronot, the Book of Remembrance. From another perspective, we might say that the choices we make affect how we inscribe ourselves in the Book of Remembrance. And so we pray on Yom Kippur for God’s help in making good choices. We pray for family, friends and a congregation that will stand by us and help us make good choices. No one — absolutely no one — can succeed in this life alone.
As we ask to inscribe ourselves for life and blessing and peace — or to be inscribed in God’s Book of Remembrance for life, blessing and peace — so we inscribe in our shul’s Yizkor Book, our own Book of Remembrance, the names of our loved ones who have died. We inscribe their names for everlasting life, for blessing and for peace.
It is never too late to bless someone and help their soul soar, or to ask someone for a blessing– someone on this Earth or someone in Heaven. It is never too late to try to repair a relationship, even if that person is no longer here with us. We have that choice. We have the choice to remember and forgive, and to remember and appreciate.
And as we remember and forgive, so may we ourselves be granted forgiveness — forgiveness in our human relationships, and forgiveness from on High. Keyn yehi ratzon: may it be so for us and all whom we love.