There is an old tradition of cleaning out our homes as well as ourselves before the High Holy Days.
A story: Shmuely decided to begin with the basement, because that’s where he thought most of the dirt had accumulated. He looked through his garage and found his biggest and strongest broom.
Descending to the basement, he swept and swept and when he had done as much as he thought necessary he called in his wife. “Rivka, come and see how clean our basement is now,” he said. Rivka came quickly, and said, “Shmuely, I can’t see a thing but it sure smells dusty. Before you start sweeping, you should turn on the light.”
It is no accident that on Yom Kippur, our final day for sweeping out our failings of the past year, tradition advises us to wear white. Here in our shul, we have taken the beautiful blue velvet covers off our Torahs and replaced them with pure white ones. Your clergy also are wearing white. White is not only a symbol for light, it is the color that allows the light to radiate out most easily.
I love colors, and I also love to wear black. Colors, and lack of color, have their purpose. But light is the foundation of the universe. Torah tells us that on the first day of creation,” God said “Vayehi Or, “Let there be light.” Gen. 1:3. This wasn’t the light of the sun, because that was created on the fourth day. This was the primordial light that to this day penetrates all creation.
Our Torah — and note that the sound of Or, light, is in the root of the word Torah — is white parchment with black letters. Black on white. White holding the black. Both are needed.
Let’s look at how we clean out our faults. Psalm 36:9 gives us a direction,
כי עמך מקור חיים: באורך נראה אור
Ki imcha m’kor chayyim, b’orcha nireh or.
“For with You is the source of life; in Your light we see light.”
We began our service this Kol Nidre evening by lighting candles, by lighting lights. These lights symbolize both the light of God and the light of our souls. Perhaps this is why lighting Shabbat and holiday candles is such an important mitzvah. Without the light of transcendent wisdom, without the light that love brings to life, without the light of justice that shines on communities, peace cannot flourish.
We read Torah – we study Torah – to inspire us and to remind us of what holiness is really about. Tomorrow afternoon’s Torah reading is from what is called the Holiness Code (Lev. 19:1-18). Here are some of its declarations:
- You shall be holy for I your God am holy.
- When you harvest your field, you must leave the corners for the poor.
- Do not curse a deaf person nor put a stumbling-block before the blind.
- Judge everyone with justice.
And the most important of all:
- V’yahavta l’rayecha kamocha / Love your neighbor as yourself.
Tomorrow morning’s Torah reading gives a similar message but with a different take. It tells us:
“You stand here today — all of you — before the Lord your God: your leaders, your tribes…every man, woman and child in Israel, the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water… for the purpose of establishing you in covenant with Adonay…This is for whomever is standing here today and whomever is not here with us today” (Deut. 29:9-12).
The light of God – the holiness of God – is found in our relationship with the Divine, and most especially with the relationship we have with all people, wherever they may be.
Our High Holy Day theme this year is Belonging. Rosh Hashanah evening I spoke about our relationship to all parts of our selves — our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits. They need to work together to make a harmonious and holy whole. The next morning, Reb David spoke about the need to consider our relationships with those around us. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Reb Eva shared the intense belonging she feels to the people Israel and especially to the country Israel. In all of these – body, heart, mind, spirit, community, relationships, Israel – it is the Jewish purpose to brighten the divine light flowing through.
None of us is perfect; all of us have the potential to be holy. When we act in holy ways, the presence of God flows into and through us. This holy day, in the light of the lights of our candles, and the lights of our tradition, let us look at how all these relationships intertwine in our lives.
We cannot do that without first acknowledging that just as there is holy light, there also is unholy darkness. Each generation faces the darkness of its own challenges. This year, rabbis worldwide are sounding the shofar, the trumpet blast of warning, against the resurgence of global anti-Semitism. Israel has paid a high price for defending her right to survive over the decades. Tides of anti-Semitic hatred have spread around the world and washed onto shores near and far. Even in our own New York area, where Jews are more numerous and Jewish culture thrives, there has been a marked uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. Even our own Shul by the Sea has seen the broken glass of senseless violence.
The battle against senseless hatred takes many forms. Some forms are peaceful. As we recall from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, who marched with Jews for the cause of equality and tolerance, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Other forms of battling hatred, regrettably, sometimes require force to save lives and defend the principles of freedom and tolerance – principles whose blessing that we Americans are privileged to enjoy.
Israel deserves those blessings no less, as Israel also has given those blessings to so many. So even as we grieve for innocents on all sides of the Mideast struggles, it is right to remember that the future of the Jewish people depends on a strong Israel capable of taking in refugees when their lives and safety are on the line. Just this year alone, over 3,000 Jews of France – the same France that like America stands for freedom and equality – felt the need to leave their homeland and make aliyah to Israel.
We Jews have never said we are perfect as individuals or as a people. On the contrary, these High Holy Days rouse us to penance, admitting that we are far from perfect. Our teachings and our leaders call us to the highest standards of moral behavior. No army is perfect, but never in world history has any army ever attempted the high moral standards of the Israeli Defense Forces. No people is perfect, and yet Yom Kippur challenges us – dares us – to reach as high as we can.
What might reaching that high look like? To me, it means supporting a strong and ethical Israel, and a safe and secure Jewish people around the world. Personally, I increased my donations to organizations that promote fairness to Israel, advocate fairness to all those living in Israel, and stand against anti-Semitism worldwide. It means staying informed and resolute. It means doing all we can to ensure justice, even and especially when it’s hard. It means interacting kindly with people of all faiths as cousins of a large family that must get along if our world is to heal. It means to pray with the fullest and most open heart that we can.
Reaching that high also means doing our part to visualize the healing we wish to see in the world. Visualization is a powerful tool for evolving reality – not enough by itself, because we must act on what we visualize – but often seeing the future in our mind’s eye can help bring that future into being.
I want to share a powerful visualization technique that I learned through an Israeli teacher whose family were descendants of famous Kabbalists, Jewish mystics. Mme. Collete Aboulker-Muscat of blessed memory devoted her life in Jerusalem to teaching the use of imagery to bring about internal change. There are some people who are not able to see images; if you are one of those, just say the words to yourself and the effect will be similar to seeing the images. This experience works best with eyes closed, but it also can be done with eyes open.
This is the visualization. See with your inner eyes a glowing, golden ball of light, representing the hidden light of the Universe, also called the light of God. Ask that it get larger. Now ask that it get smaller. Look inside yourself and image the ball of glowing light in your heart and another one in your forehead. Now try to image the golden light expanding until it fills this entire room. You may play with this image. You might want to see a wave of light coming out of the ball, circling around, and surrounding anyone you wish to bless. This light can be used with people, with places, and with events. When you are ready, bring your attention back to the room.
The light of God can never hurt. It is itself a blessing. When we fill ourselves with Divine light, it is easier to accept our flaws and to let them go. When we fill others with Divine light, we offer them the possibility of higher level behavior. On Yom Kippur we pray not only for ourselves, but for all Jews, and all humankind.
Paraphrasing the prophet Habakkuk (2:14), “May the light of God fill the earth as the waters fill the seas.” And may this year, please God, bring us peace