A sermon for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days.
Preface I want to welcome any monitors who are with us today. We’ve been told that we’re likely to have guests who will listen to see if we endorse political candidates, which could deprive us of our tax-exempt status, so that your contributions would not be deductible.
We don’t endorse candidates.
But this is a free pulpit, a gift from Thomas Jefferson, one of our founding fathers and a Unitarian who, at the end of his life said he hoped to be remembered not for being one of the presidents of this great nation, but more importantly for writing the Virginia Statue of separation of church and state in 1786.
The Anglican Church—the established or legal church in Virginia–was not pleased with Jefferson, which is one of the reasons Jefferson turned to the Unitarians for the freedom he wanted for himself and which he was perfectly willing to grant to others.
It is my sincere hope that the voice of freedom will ring from this pulpit—freedom for women to choose; freedom for our embattled homosexual minority to have all the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as straight couples. We endorse freedom and justice; the candidates indicate their positions on these issues; we vote accordingly.
Last week, on my Sabbath—Wednesday—I visited a colleague in the City and he suggested that we spend some time together at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He moved to Manhattan a year ago, and he’s very excited about immersing himself in a City he’s loved from a distance for years. He said, “Let’s just walk through so I can show you some things I’ve discovered and come to love.”
One of the pieces we visited is the powerful sculpture by George Gray Barnard, who spent four years (1888 – 1892) giving form and substance to that line from Victor Hugo’s poem: “I sense two men in myself.”
We stood there together in respectful silence, appreciating and absorbing and beauty of Barnard’s work, The Two Natures of Man. The sculpture has two identical men, aspects of the same man, struggling with himself. One is dominating over the other; one is standing, victorious, the other is on the ground, defeated. Which one dominates? The higher, better nature—which Lincoln called ‘the angels of our better nature,’ or the lower, base nature?
Thoreau said; “The savage in man is never completely eradicated.”
The text for the sermon is a line from a poem by Victor Hugo: “I sense two men in myself.”
With this line on my mind, and my sermon ready to be printed, I read the New York Times on Saturday morning and a variation on the Victor Hugo line came to me: “I sense two countries within my country.”
Polarization of old friends:
A Republican friend recently asked me to read a book by Dinesh D’Souza, “What’s So Great About America.” He and I have gotten ourselves tangled up in a difficult discussion or debate about the war in Iraq; he being a adamant hawk and I being as adamantly opposed to it, putting the blame on our President and those who have been advising him. My friend had told me he had been reading things that supported my position, saying, “The liberal press is just Bush-bashing.” He said he felt that the liberals, who talked the talk, were closed-minded. So I read the book.
I found D’Souza’s analysis insensitive to racism, sexism and homophobia in America. He was an immigrant from India who cashed in on opportunities in America; I was a kid from the bottom of the economic barrel who also took advantage of the opportunities in my country.
I was glad that Dinash D’Souza ‘made it in America,’ and I was reminded that we’re all immigrants who arrived on these shores long after our forebears built the nation we now enjoy and handed it from generation to generation.
During my lifetime our task has been to dismantle racism—and we’re trying; to assure equal rights for women, including equal pay for equal work; and to end the reprehensible injustice against gays and lesbians
With my Yom Kippur sermon on my mind, using the line from Victor Hugo, “I sense two men in myself,” and the ongoing discussion with my dear friend of 50 years, I read yesterday’s paper, and thought about what I’ve been reading nearly every day since we began bombing Baghdad, I thought: “I sense two nations within my beloved America.”
We have become more polarized than at any other time during my life, though the anti-Vietnam experience is seared into my soul. My friend agrees that the accusations that Kerry, who fought bravely in Vietnam, (whatever else you think of Kerry), brought me right back to the late 60’s through ’75 when we finally extricated ourselves and could build a grave-marker in Washington where we could go and weep.
The wound of Vietnam is deep, and telling those of us who lived through it to ‘move on’ is like telling a mother or father who has lost a child to ‘move on.’
There are some griefs so deep that they stay forever; you don’t get over them, you learn to live with them, if you can.
There were things in the D’Souza book that sort of offended me—in addition to his insensitivity about what it’s like to be born black, homosexual or female in this country—to have to struggle against racism, homophobia and sexism in order to earn a place at the starting gate.
I don’t need a man from India who made it in America to tell me that there’s something ‘great’ about my country. If he’s going to do that he should be able to say what’s gone wrong in America and not suggest that people of color who were born in poverty here have a level playing field with him, a man who was born into privilege.
‘I sense within my country two nations:’ one for the wealthy, another for those unlucky enough to be born poor; one for white Americans, another for people of color; one for those who carry the load of hard, manual, low-paying work on their backs and another for those who—for whatever reason—are living in shameful excess.
I could, of course, go into detail about the great things we’ve accomplished both at home and abroad; I could talk about the greatness of a compassionate America–a land of freedom and justice for all, theoretically.
I’ve traveled a good deal, I spent a month in the Soviet Union behind the infamous ‘iron curtain.’ I went behind the scenes, speaking enough Russian to get myself in trouble, and I got a taste of tyranny; reminded of the benefits of our freedoms.
But I also know that when it comes to justice in America there’s a high end justice available for those with the money to buy it—where a celebrity murderer goes free–and the cheap, bargain-basement version, where innocent men have been convicted of capital crimes, and if it wasn’t for DNA some would have been executed for the crime of being poor and black.
But enough of that. As you can see: ‘I sense two sermons in myself.’
I’ll go back to my original opening, before truth broke in on Saturday morning like a level 5 hurricane. To bend the sermon toward the High Holy days, I’ll ask a question:
Have you ever felt like giving up on humanity? It seems more and more tempting these days. Really.
To give up on humanity would be to become a complete cynic and to come to believe that it’s all about having ‘power over’ the other guys, about being king of the hill, having the most money, the biggest weapons, and claiming to have God on your side, exclusively, like the furry four-legged predators with whom we inhabit the planet.
A question more appropriate to Yom Kippur:
Have you ever felt like giving up on yourself? Have you considered your personal flaws, faults and failures and generalized and called the flaws, faults and failures ‘you?’
We are in the midst of the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah—the new year: 5765, and Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement. This is the season for turning inward for some personal house cleaning, which is the ingredient that makes it sacred. The task is to go inside and take stock, to acknowledge the faults and failures, and the hope is to come out the way the poet Antonio Machado describes it in some lines from his poem, “Last Night, As I Was Sleeping”
Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt — marvelous error! –
that I had a beehive here inside my heart
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey from my old failures.
This, I’ve come to realize, and to appreciate, is what the High Holy Day season is about. Not to go to sleep hoping to find the honey made from ‘old failures,’ but to wake up—to become more fully awake—to realize that you are who you are, flaws and all; and those imperfections require your inner worker bees to dig in to the ‘old failures’ and extract what can become the sweetest thing of all.
For years I’ve been trying to understand the religious and spiritual meanings of this annual ten-day observance—more especially since marrying into a Jewish family eight years ago.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no specific set of meanings, but the meanings emerge—they’re not the same for all Jews, of course; there are differences among the various denominations—the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Humanistic, and so forth.
The meanings of the High Holy Days emerge and evolve for each person who stops to think about it. Each of the religions of the world is like a poem which is available for your to read and interpret for yourself. When you get some meaning it comes as much as a feeling as a rational thought.
And that’s precisely why we’re here.
We’re not here to promote any particular candidate for any particular office; we’re not a political coalition; but we care about politics because politics is people…you and me. It comes from the Greek word for citizen, politikos.
What we do here on Sunday is what our observant Jewish family and friends take time to do during the High Holy Days—to observe the Sabbath by stopping the usual routine: the Sabbath is simply a time to stop trying to alter the universe; to fix the world. It’s a time to stop trying to change the people around you, as if you had to convince them that you are right and they are wrong, and to go inside to do your own mending.
There’s a line in Frost’s Mending Wall, where the neighbors pick a day to mend the wall, each one staying on his own side of the wall — “…to each the boulders that have fallen to each.”
At the risk of over-simplifying, the High Holy Days serve to remind the observant Jew that it’s a good idea to take some time to stop and think about her life; to recall the year that has just past, and to think about the coming year; to recall what he’s done, and to ask herself how she wants to spend the next chapter of life, the coming year.
Isn’t that why you and I are here today? Didn’t we come to this place in order to step off the track where life seems to be in charge of us more than we are in charge of our own lives?
Putting it all in Perspective:
I listened to a survivor of hurricane Ivan, a young woman who lived in a house trailer who said that four or five of her neighbors were killed, her home was completely destroyed, and she stood there, on camera, and said, “I feel badly for my neighbors who lost their lives, but I’m still here, in one piece…I’m alive, and it puts everything else in perspective. We’ll start over; we’ll get a place…I’m getting married in three weeks…I have a partner and we have one another, and I now realize that’s so much more important than all the material stuff. That can be replaced…”
It was a sober statement; it was stunningly sincere. She was standing in the midst of the rubble that had been her home. One could say that she was ‘re-minded’ what is important. Maybe she didn’t really realize it before; I don’t know. She knows it now, and she’ll never forget; she’ll never be the same.
That line from Cummings came to me: ‘…i who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birthday of life, and of love, and of wings…’
I’m not sure about you, but I know that any moment when I truly feel a sense of appreciation for life is a sacred moment.
Any time I actually succeed in stopping that constant noise that dominates my mind—or the constant chatter—when I have at least a fleeting sense of renewal, a chance to begin again—well, that’s a holy moment…a high and holy moment.
The High Holy Days:
Also called the Days of Awe—(Yamin Noraim) are set aside as a time for introspection; they are about the inner life; the spiritual aspect of life whose foundation is imbedded in a deep sense of appreciation and a genuine sense of humility.
Tradition says that on Rosh Hashanah God takes out his big book in which he writes the names of those who will live and who will die in the coming year; who will have a good year and who will have a bad year.
That’s the source of the common greeting during this time is “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”
The idea is that during the ten days when the book is opened, the Days of Awe, you can influence God’s decision so that He will write your name in the book of life. You do that by performing acts of repentance, prayer and good deeds, or charity.
This, of course, is a metaphor, at least for those of us who locate God inside ourselves—we want to perform acts of charity, and of repentance and prayer simply in order to be a good person, to live a good life.
The Talmud, the Jewish book of instructions composed of the writings of the rabbis, maintains that Yom Kippur atones only for the sins between man and God. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, somehow righting the wrongs you have committed against the other, or in a more complicated moment to acknowledge that the other person believes you committed a wrong, whether you think you did or not.
There are liberating moments–when we’re able to shake off the yoke of our imperfections–there are even special moments when we’re able to realize that our imperfections are a blessing. Where do you think humility comes from? And isn’t humility the central ingredient to spirituality? Humility is the royal road to appreciation, and without a sense of appreciation, without being able to say,
“i thank You God for most this amazing day,” we’re burdened with that yoke and become like the oxen who go round and round, pulling a heavy load of stuff which we ought to get rid of.
Still, it takes courage to look those imperfections in the eye; Paul Tillich called it ‘the courage to be.’
Looking in the eye of our own imperfections gets us thinking about our relationship to other persons, especially the people with whom we live and work—even the people with whom we share this wonderful country, this nation of ours, flaws and all.
Emerson summarized it when said to the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School in 1838:
‘Who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled; who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts of impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then insofar is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being.’
Victor Hugo summarized it: “I sense two men in myself.”
Recall the famous Biblical myth about Jacob who had tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright, then he ran away to hide with his uncle Laban, for whom he worked for twenty one years. He married two of Laban’s daughters, and with their maidservants he became the father of twelve sons.
When Jacob decided to strike out on his own he had to come to terms with his twin brother Esau, who he believed was still out to kill him. (Esau and Jacob, twin brothers, represent the ‘struggle of the two natures of man’.)
I love the famous passage in Genesis 32: “And Jacob was alone and he wrestled with a man all night long.”
Because he refused to let go, the God within himself with whom he was striving, gave him a blessing, and his name was changed to from Jacob to Israel. Thus, we refer to ‘the twelve tribes of Israel,’ meaning Jacob’s twelve sons.
The High Holy Days acknowledge the struggle of our two natures.
Life is a struggle. It’s not easy being a person, especially when we pay attention to what’s going on around us, and within us.
The rabbis invented the High Holy Days as an annual reminder of the struggle with which each of us is engaged; the struggle of our two natures.
Now we’re in the high intensity days of the political process of electing a president for the next four years—we’re immersed in the struggle in response to 9/11…we’ve become saturated in fear.
In 1851 Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear,” an assertion made more popular by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first inaugural address in March of 1933, at the beginning of the great depression, when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
It’s a sober, serious time, symbolized by that woman standing in front of the ruins of her home and taking stock.
The religious or spiritual life is, to a great extent, a function of the exterior life: our relationship with other persons, and our relationship with the natural world.
But ultimately the spiritual life is the life of the soul; it is the internal process of sensing the two persons within the self—the two parts of the self which are sometimes in conflict.
Chief Yellow Lark’s prayer summarizes it well; it seems appropriate to close with his prayer:
I come before you one of your many children,
I am the small and weak.
I need your Strength and Wisdom.
Let me walk in Beauty, and make my eyes ever
behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect
the things you have made
and my ears sharp
to hear your Voice.
Make me Wise
so that I may understand
the things you’ve taught my people,
the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
I seek Strength, not to be greater than my brother,
but to fight my greatest enemy, myself.
Make me ever ready to come to you
with clean hands and straight eyes,
So when life fades, as the fading sunset,
my spirit may come to you