Nina (Meigs) Bennett: Sermon for Yom Kippur

This is what Brent House alum Nina (Meigs) Bennett preached on Yom Kippur at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California:

Thank you for being here. Yom Kippur is exhausting. We confront over and over again how fragile we are, how broken. It’s hard to face that. It really does help to know that we’re a whole room full of fragile, vulnerable people.

Especially because, I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten really good at coming up with ways to avoid thinking about the whole sin and atonement thing.

My month of Elul – when we’re supposed to be reflecting and asking for forgiveness– looks like this:

I procrastinate.

I sign up for, and then ignore, those daily inspirational Elul emails.

– let me know if any of this sounds familiar –

And then, finally, at the last minute, I “tackle” my “shortcomings” as if this were a job performance review. “Identify areas of unmet potential, and map out a strategic plan for future implementation.” AKA, I make lots of resolutions.

It’s easier to think about how awesome I’m going to be next year than it is to sit and look hard in the mirror. But resolutions are poor preparation for the intense vulnerability that we’re called to experience.

When I was in college, the quote from Isaiah that we read in our HafTorah was my favorite.

“Do you call that a fast,

a day when Adonai is favorable?

No, this is the fast I desire:

to unlock fetters of wickedness,

and untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break every yoke.”

No joke, I had it (somewhat sanctimoniously) posted on my facebook profile. (This tells you when I went to college!).  I grew up a U.S. diplomat’s daughter in West Africa, and I had resolved that I was going to spend my life actually doing stuff, untieing the cords and all that. I could almost see myself turning up my nose at campus activists circulating petitions and volunteering.  Do you call that a fast? I’ve lived in Africa, I’ve seen real poverty, and I’m going back to do something about it.

You can guess where this is going. I got a grant to do independent research on an aid project in rural Mali. I walked in proud and eager to fulfill my “unmet potential,” … and left broken…lonely.

I wish I could say that I was as thoughtful as Menachem was about his recent trip to Ghana, and returned motivated to step up and pitch in.

I spent much of the trip alone, and isolated, with no instructions, no guidance, uncertain of what I was supposed to do.  Somewhere in that wandering, I met myself… and I wasn’t terribly impressed.  When I was put in an isolated place with no instructions, where my past accomplishments didn’t matter… I was just another young, useless, fragile, and overly self-impressed kid.

It was a really hard trip.

Yom Kippur is a whole day where we are asked to let ourselves be truly vulnerable. To look at who we are. To set aside all our safety blankets and our distractions and allow ourselves to feel small, and temporary. For most of us, this is unbelievably hard.

And since this isn’t Hollywood, there’s no promise that we’ll “live happily ever after” if we go through this process. Today’s Torah portion doesn’t pretend that we can undo last year’s mistakes. Aaron is able to purge the Shrine of the impurities of the Israelites using blood sacrifices, but deliberate sins are indestructible and can only be sent away in the hope that they may never return. The idea is that intentional acts of wrongdoing, once committed, can never really be undone. And before we can send our sins away to Azazel, like Aaron we must acknowledge them. “confess over the goat all the inequities and transgressions of the Israelites.” We can hope for closure, but only if we can face our shortcomings.

We’re asked to face ourselves, but mercifully our tradition understands how difficult this is and doesn’t demand that we do it alone.  The Torah gave the Israelites clear and detailed instructions, and our Machzor has translated those into a liturgy that supports us every step of the way.  The melodies are serious, helping us to feel the awe and solemnity.  The prayers are repeated over and over, confessions, pleading for forgiveness, giving us the words when we’re too overwhelmed to know what to say, and pulling us back to the task at hand even though we’re so easily distracted. These rituals demand – force us to stay in this awkward space for longer than is comfortable, because most of us will do anything to avoid the experience of feeling vulnerable.  Our job today is to be present and live with our vulnerability; but we don’t have to do it alone. The liturgy creates the space, gives us the words, keeps us focused, and gives us company.

Two months after I came back from Africa, I walked into my very first yom kippur service. I was accompanying the man who would become my husband.  I remember being so moved that he – who is not practicing – would pushed himself out of his comfort zone and show up, along with everyone else, every year. That on the day of atonement, every Jew is welcome – every Jew is needed. No matter who we are, or how we spend the other 364 days in the year, we’re all vulnerable, we’re all going to die, and we all need help facing that.

Years passed after that first Yom Kippur. We graduated and left the bubble of campus life. We moved. As well-intentioned but clueless young things, we crashed some well-buttoned shul’s Yom Kippur services, not realizing you needed tickets.

They were gracious and let us in.

We moved again. Another year, some well-intentioned but also clueless new friends graciously invited us to a Yom Kippur  Break Fast… that was accidentally scheduled for right after Kol Nidre services.

We were trying. They were trying. In our awkward, stumbling, inappropriate ways, we were trying to be present and in community on that day.

After Isaiah tells us that our fasts and our attempts at reconciliation aren’t good enough, the HafTorah promises that “when you call, Adonai will answer; when you cry, He will say: Here I am.Here I am is the translation of the word Hineni. My understanding the word conveys attentiveness, alertness, and readiness to respond to instructions. Think of it this way, Hineni is what Abraham said when God called to him and was about to instruct him to sacrifice his son; and hineni is what Abrahram said again when the angel called to him to stop. Hineni is what Moses said when God called to him out of the burning bush. This spot in Isaiah is the only place in the Hebrew Bible where God says Hineni.

Today, if we’re able to be present and vulnerable,

if we’re able to let go of all that makes us feel safe,

and we cry out because we encounter things about ourselves we’d rather not see,

if we can let ourselves be here,

then God says, Here I am. I’m here and ready for whatever you need.

My wish for you is that you are able to be present today. That you can let go of all your masks… let go of all the mental tricks that we use to feel safe even when we’re uncomfortable…and just experience what it feels like to be fragile.

If we can do that today, then maybe, just maybe, tomorrow we will be able to be more gentle with ourselves and those around us.

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