Day of Judgment
Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment.
But in real life, every day is the Day of Judgment.
Every day God places a new challenge in our paths.
Every day we get to decide how we are going to respond.
Every day is the Day of Judgment, but some days are more the day of judgment than others.
Some days little shofar toots are sounded, but some days a great shofar blast is sounded.
You are familiar with these great blasts.
Your spouse is diagnosed with COVID-19.
Your brother loses his home in a wildfire.
Your niece survives an overdose and enters rehab.
Your cousin seeks refugee status but borders are closed.
These are great shofar blasts.
These are Big Days of Judgment.
This IS 5781.
The shofar blast is a wake-up call.
But what are we supposed to wake up to?
I make a lot of impulsive vows. I don’t usually say them out loud. But if I did, they would sound like this.
“I’m never going to work with her again.”
“If that cat wakes me up at 3 am one more time, I will put him outdoors for the night.”
“These people are not COVID-safe. I can’t believe we were friends. I won’t have them in my life anymore.”
But, underneath each one, there is a hidden prayer.
“God, please help me understand her work style, so that we can cooperate, and both get what we need.”
“Please God, it’s so hard to sleep these days, But without a good night’s sleep, I’m exhausted and depressed and I have no energy to care for others. Please help me stay in balance.”
“God, I pray for the health of our community and everyone in it. Please keep us safe.”
When I chant Kol Nidre, my kavannah, my intention, will be to pray that, this year I can discern the hidden prayers behind my fierce vows.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan says:
It was God who showed us how to pray for forgiveness, when the Divine goodness passed by Moshe.
God said, “Before you sin, I am Yod Hey Vav Hey, Eternal Being, God of compassion and grace, patient and very loving.
“After you sin, I am [still] Yod Hey Vav Hey, Eternal Being, God of compassion and grace, patient and very loving.
So, when you say these words, you will know that I forgive you: Yod Hey Vav Hey, Eternal Being, God of compassion and grace, patient and very loving.”
That’s the essence of tonight’s Selichot service.
A service that I deeply need. Because, in my own life, I sometimes I feel like a failure. More often than you might think.
And when I feel like I can’t go on, I remember.
I may be a failure, but someone has loved me.
My mother, my father, my brother, my husband, my children, my cats have loved me.
Not because of my good points. Not because of anything I’ve done. But just because I exist.
And that, says Rabbi Yochanan, is why God loves us. Just because we exist.
I want to tell you about a book called “Talking Back: A Handbook for Combatting Demons.”
It’s not written by a witch or a wizard. It’s written by a 4th century monk. His demons are negative thoughts. And he talks back to them in Bible verses.
It’s a really personal book, about the author’s own demons and his favourite verses.
But I’ve started using his method with my own demons and my own verses.
Like when I lose my train of thought, and my mind goes blank. And I’m tempted to fill it with social media doom-scrolling. That’s when I whisper the second verse of Bereisheet-Genesis: The earth was chaotic & void & the spirit of God hovered over the waters. Because I don’t want to over up my own emptiness anymore. I want to pause and feel the spirit of God.
When I wake up in the middle of the night and all my self-doubts crowd in, I block them with a verse from Psalms: Walk around Zion, circle it, count its towers, take note of its ramparts. Because I just want to wall off the doubts long enough to enjoy a healing sleep.
When I worry that we’re all going to die, which happens a lot these days, I whisper a verse from the prophet Ezekiel: Can these bones live? Because I know Ezekiel finds out they can.
When I’m afraid to speak up, I remember a verse from Megillat Esther: The King extended to Esther the golden sceptre. Because Esther, who was afraid to speak lest she die, spoke anyway. And it saved lives.
When I judge someone harshly, I think: May the LORD bless you and keep you! Because it stops my anger before it even starts. This may not save lives, but it has probably saved a soul or two. Including mine.
And it has helped me see my negative thoughts, as they arise. And talk back to them, before they can sabotage me.
These are the short teachings I shared on the High Holidays at Congregation Beth Israel and Or Shalom Synagogue, 5781.