Tonight, with Kol Nidre, we stand in the heavenly court.
On a bench, to our right, sit the Crown’s prosecuting attorneys. To our left, our court-appointed defense attorney. Between them dance our witnesses: all our deeds, whirling and spinning and showing their every side. In front of us sits the Ultimate, Ineffable Judge. The Judge sits near us or far from us, responding to our level of fear. In the Judge’s hand already lies our confession.
This is how our machzor, our Yom Kippur prayer book, tells it.
Tomorrow night, during the Ne’ilah service, we stand outside the gates of heaven, with a crowd packed so tightly we can barely move. We pray, sing, and cry in unison, begging for another chance at a trial.
Again, this is how our machzor tells it.
Yom Kippur is an invitation to travel to heaven.
I have accepted this invitation. And, since you are here, it looks like you have also accepted.
But I have to tell you the truth about my acceptance. I am not travelling to the heaven of fear. Instead, I expect to travel to some other heavens.
Do you believe in heaven? Have you thought about what it means to “believe” in heaven?
Maybe you believe heaven is a place. Maybe you believe it’s a state of consciousness. Maybe you use the word “heaven” easily and don’t worry about its definition.
That’s what some of my friends did, when I recently shared with them a dream about my father, who died eleven years ago. In the dream:
I am visiting an elder, someone I don’t know well, in the hospital. The unit is a wide room with lots of beds. I notice my father and an old friend of his lying in a nearby bed. I am glad to have found them. The next day, I come back to the hospital to join my father for a special event in the auditorium. He is alert, sitting between two friends. One friend is wearing a diving mask and a snorkel. My father glances at his friend and then playfully rolls his eyes at me. I am ecstatically happy that my father has moved to Vancouver and that he is in the company of two close friends.
When I woke up from this dream, it was still dark. But I was too uplifted to fall back asleep.
My friends said I had dreamed of heaven.
If so, I hope to travel to this heaven of consciousness during the Yizkor memorial service. A place where time has no meaning; where decades of healing happen in a flash; where the person I miss so desperately reaches directly into my heart and lets me know, just for an instant, that they are at peace and all is right with the world.
I hope to travel to other heavens as well this Yom Kippur.
Our Talmudic teachers spoke from time to time about their visits to heaven. Their accounts are called Ma’aseh Merkavah, Mysticism of the Chariot, and Heichalot, Mysticism of the Heavenly Palaces.
Sometimes we hear the word “mysticism” and we think it refers so something way beyond our experience. But the mysteries of Merkavah and Heichalot are no more and no less beyond us than the mysteries of Yom Kippur. The rituals and prayers of Yom Kippur are our chariots, and the palaces of heaven are the places our chariots bring us.
In the Talmud, tractate Chagigah, professional wrestler turned scholar Resh Lakish says that he has found seven concepts of heaven expressed in the Tanakh, that is, in all of the Torah, prophets and writings.
The rituals of Yom Kippur bring us to all of them.
Number One: Heaven as Shechakim: Where righteous people gather their spiritual food.
Self-reflection and self-improvement are the somber themes of Yom Kippur. Obviously, Jews love self-reflection and self-improvement. Just look around you at the number of people gathered here to be inspired in these practices. Seeing this gives me emotional fuel to get through another year on our crazy planet.
Number Two: Heaven as Maon: Home to the singing choir of musical angels.
Here we are, inside a fairly generic room. Yes, we have Torah scrolls, and wall hangings, and flowers. But mostly it’s our own music that draws us into an altered state of consciousness, takes us out of the framework of our everyday beliefs, and makes it possible for us to see ourselves differently. So, open your ears, open your heart, and open your mouth. Who cares if you don’t know the tune? Everything blends into a cosmic harmony.
Number Three: Heaven as Vilon: Heaven is the bright daytime sky, the familiar atmosphere that encircles our planet.
And Number Four: Heaven as Rakia: Heaven is the black sky sprinkled with dazzling lights, the galaxy made up of moon, sun, and stars.
On Yom Kippur, I find myself completely encircled by the reality we create in this room. Each time I step outdoors, I’m astonished to remember the everyday world of 41st Avenue. The air is so crisp, the sky so dramatic. Cambie Street becomes a wondrous thing, sudden and amazing, as magical as emerging from the woods on Mount Seymour to a 360-degree view of the Fraser valley.
Number Five: Heaven as Zevul: Site of the heavenly Beit Hamikdash, the heavenly Temple in the heavenly Jerusalem, where the angel Michael personally puts our offerings on the altar.
Our prophets say that the spiritual blueprint of the Temple can never disappear. It hovers over our lives, giving shape to our spiritual yearnings. It offers cosmic celebration, release from troubling forces, reassurance of the daily order, and a place where we can do good and really know that it balances our wrongs.
During tomorrow’s Torah service, when we read about the Yom Kippur offerings, I will allow myself to believe that the heavens celebrate my joys with me, that all creatures understand my sorrows, and that my emotional offerings, whatever they are, are received and held precious.
For reasons I could never fathom, my mother liked to sing me a version of the last line of Vernon Dalhart’s “The Prisoner’s Song.”
If I had the wings of an angel
Over these prison walls I’d fly
To spend one moment in the arms of my beloved
And then I would gladly die…
Each time she sang it, I would cry, and she would laugh, saying “You’re so sensitive.” And she was right — it broke my heart to imagine loving anyone so much. But now I know she sang because she loved my brother and me that much.
I think I need at least a moment of cosmic love in the Heavenly Temple each Yom Kippur in order to gladly live.
Number Six: Heaven as Makon: Where storms form, although, as Resh Lakish says, some people think storms form closer to home.
On Yom Kippur, storms always form in my heart. Usually, when I read the vidui, the confessional prayer that lists the sins we have committed, I completely ignore the spirit of the prayer. Instead of thinking about what I did wrong, I think about what other people did to me. My temperature rises. Then I feel angry at the machzor for suggesting that I, the victim, am supposed to confess to these things. And my thoughts swirl. But suddenly, one word jumps out from the machzor, and helps me name a mistake I made. I understand what I did and I can make a specific resolution. Suddenly, I find myself in the motionless eye of the storm. And in a passing moment of inner calm, I can see clearly.
Number Seven: Heaven as Aravot: Heaven is the source of our ideals: Righteousness; Justice; Tzedakah; Treasures of life; Treasures of peace and blessing; Good souls; and innocent souls.
I’m acutely aware that we are all mixed beings, and that the hands we are dealt in life are mixed. Every time I allow myself to imagine a perfect world, my mind raises an objection. “Yes, but it never works that way, does it?” Every time I stumble upon a good quality in my own soul, I raise an objection, “but you aren’t always like that, and anyway, it’s immodest to congratulate yourself.”
My mental noise around this can be unbearable.
It’s as if I live the last verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah:
I did my best; it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel; so I tried to touch.
I’ve told the truth; I didn’t come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong;
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song;
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
But just yesterday, I had another dream. In this dream:
I’m at Or Shalom on Shabbat, and my husband Charles is about to sing a healing song. He is going to sing something to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. I wait for Chas to start…and I wait…and I wait. And all I hear is the gentle sound of quiet, rhythmic breathing.
Maybe this last heaven is in the silences.
I will allow my chariot to park there as well.
As Mufasa says, “Remember: You are more than what you have become.”
Use the chariot of Yom Kippur to travel to possibilities of love, healing, memory, community, harmony, awareness, reflection, appreciation, self-knowledge and silence.
And maybe this is what Resh Lakish meant by the highest heaven of Aravot, where the possibilities of all heavens await.
May the treasures of life, peace and blessing that you find here be with you all year long. May you be inscribed in the book of life in all the worlds of consciousness. Gmar chatima tova.