The Perfect Day: A Sermon for When Yom Kippur Falls on Shabbat
How many people here have ever participated in a guided visualization? Raise your hands. My first experience with guided visualizations was – and this shouldn’t come as a surprise – back in the days when I served a congregation in California. Well, if you haven’t had such an experience up until now, after tonight you can proclaim to the world that you have done one.
For those of you who are uncertain about what a guided visualization is, let me explain. What I propose to do is take you on a journey, but not a journey in which we actually physically leave this building or even our seats. The journey I wish to take you on is one that will take place totally in our minds. I am going to try to help you to relax and open your minds, so that you can better imagine this journey as I describe it to you. I know that sounds very touchy-feely – very California – and it is not something the we reserved Midwesterners do easily, but I want you to give it a try nonetheless. I want you to drop your defenses and your scepticism, and open yourselves up to the possibility of such an experience.
So the first thing we need to do is relax. We need to put our bodies and our minds in a relaxed and open state. There are things that we can do to help bring that about, so here is what I want you to do. First of all, I want you to sit up. Uncross your arms and put them at your sides. Uncross your legs and plant your feet flat on the ground. Now close your eyes and keep them closed. I will tell you when you can open them. Now, we are going to do a breathing exercise. Bear with me. This will help. I want you to take a deep breath in, hold it, and now very slowly let it out through your almost closed lips. Let’s do that again. Take a deep breath in, hold it, and now slowly let it out. And one more time. Take a deep breath in, hold it, and now slowly let it out. Hopefully by now you are feeling somewhat more relaxed. You should be feeling little if any tension in your muscles.
Now that we are more relaxed, I will walk you through our journey, describing it in some detail. What I want you to do is picture in your mind what I describe to you. Not just seeing the scene, but experiencing the feelings as well.
It is a beautiful early Fall morning. The sun is shining and you can feel the warmth on your skin. It is warm but not hot. It feels nice. It feels very nice. You are walking in a forest. It rained the night before and you can smell the fresh damp earth. That luscious musty smell. The trees around you are green, but they are starting to change color. Some sooner than others. The green of the woods is speckled with oranges and yellows and reds. Ahead of you, you see that the trail opens up. You see the increasing light in front of you. As you continue to walk toward the light, you find yourself entering a lovely glade, with a pond. You stand there, looking at the pond. Its water is still. It is like a mirror. You gaze upon it and see the reflection of the glade and the sky in the water. You feel the warmth of the sun on your face. It feels great! You hear the chirping of birds in the background. As you look around, you see some hills in the distance. The sky above is blue with a few scattered puffy clouds. You are taking it all in. You are at one with the beauty. It is as if you entered a landscape painting and have become part of the painting. It is better than a painting. You are transfixed. You never want to leave. It is a perfect moment.
When you entered the forest, you were carrying many burdens in your heart; worries and concerns about money, work, family, friends. But as you stand in this glade, breathing in the sweet fresh air, with the warmth of the sun on your face, you begin to feel the weight of those burdens lifting. Your heart seems lighter, freer. You are at one with the beauty that surrounds you. You feel a connection between you and the beauty which surrounds you; between you and the glade; between you and the sky; between you and the chirping birds. You are filled with a certain sense of awe at how wondrous all this is; and a certain sense of gratitude. The pleasure of the moment is a gift and for it, you are grateful. In this grateful moment, you somehow feel a bit more connected to the artist; to the Giver of the gift; to God. You are happy as you realize that the One who would grant you such a gift must care for you; must love you; must want you to be happy. You stand there, filled with a sense of peace; a peace that comes from your connectedness to all that surrounds you. You sense that you are a part of something greater than yourself, and in so sensing, you never felt better.
It is time for you to leave the glade. You need to walk back through the forest, and back to your home and your life. You turn and start down the trail. But this time, you do not carry with you the burdens with which you entered the glade. Rather you carry the memory of the sun on your face, the fresh smell of the air, the song of the birds, the beauty of the pond. Your heart is light rather than heavy. Ahead of you, you see light. You are coming out of the woods, heading toward home. Your journey is ending.
You can open your eyes now. I hope that you permitted yourself to experience the journey, or at least parts of it, and in having done so, found it refreshing; an oasis of peace in a stressful life.
If you opened yourself up to the possibilities of this journey; if you permitted yourself to visualize being in the forest and the glade, taking in the warmth, the beauty, the peace of the moment; if you allowed yourself to become immersed in this imaginary sojourn, then whether not you realize it, you also allowed yourself to experience just a hint of what Shabbat can be like in our lives. For like the glade, Shabbat, too, can be an oasis of peace, beauty, relief, and connectedness; a welcome, blessed, and rejuvenating escape from our all too demanding and draining weekday lives.
But like this guided visualization, only those who are willing to open themselves up to possibility of the experience of Shabbat can benefit from it. I know that among you this evening there were some, maybe many, who resisted this experiment. They sat in their seats, refusing to engage in it, perhaps thinking to themselves, “What kind of narishkite is this? This is silly! This is a waste of my time!” But I expect, indeed I hope, that there were some among you, even if just a few, who were not as cynical and as closed; who were willing to engage in the spirit of the moment, and in so doing, did discover it to be a somewhat pleasurable experience. So it is with Shabbat. There are those Jews who choose to close themselves off from the Shabbat experience, perceiving of it as an inconvenience or even a burden. It, too, they view as narishkite and a waste of their time. But then there are those Jews who choose to embrace the Shabbat experience, and in so doing discover it to be not a burden but rather a relief; not a waste but rather a gift – a precious gift – one they look forward to receiving week in and week out.
When I was growing up, my parents would host a big family dinner every Sunday afternoon. After religious school, all sorts of relatives would descend upon our home. My mother loved to cook, so every Sunday was like Thanksgiving as we crowded round the dining room table, which was filled to overflowing with a variety of delicacies. One of those delicacies was sweet potatoes topped by toasted marshmallows. Everyone would devour them; everyone that is except me. I would have none of it. They would urge me on, saying, “Just try it! You’ll love it! It taste like candy!” But I was convinced that they were lying. It was just a trap, for nothing as orange and vegetable looking as that could ever taste good. So for years and years, I refused to let sweet potatoes touch me lips. That is until one day, at a Thanksgiving dinner, as an adult, I permitted myself to be persuaded to at least give it a try. So I placed as small a morsel as possible on a fork and put it to my lips. And you can guess the rest of the story. It was delightful! Everything that all those people at those family dinners said about sweet potatoes was right on the money. For all those years, I had denied myself that wonderful treat! Now that was a waste!
Shabbat is the sweet potatoes on the serving table of our lives. We can convince ourselves that Shabbat – as I had convinced myself that sweet potatoes – is something to be avoided. But in so doing, we deny ourselves a very special treat; something that can bring so much pleasure into our lives.
Now I know that there are among you those who are thinking, “Whose he kidding? I’ve been to Friday night services? Where’s the pleasure outside of the oneg?” But I strongly caution you. Do not equate Shabbat with Shabbat services. While Shabbat services are a part of Shabbat – an important part of Shabbat – they are not the totality of Shabbat. Shabbat is not just an hour and fifteen minutes on a Friday night. That’s right, an hour and fifteen minutes, shorter than even a Disney movie. Shabbat is a whole day. Traditionally, 25 hours. It is prayers – it begins and ends with prayers – but it is far more than prayers. It is the creation of an oasis of peace and beauty and freedom and love in the midst of what often can be a tempestuous week. That is why we Jews greet each other on Shabbat by saying “Shabbat Shalom,” may the peace of Shabbat embrace you. It is, or can be, a cherished opportunity to reconnect with our loved ones, our fellow Jews, our God, and with ourselves.
As many of you know, I am a strong advocate of sending our children to Jewish summer camps. Invariably, when you ask these children who attend these camps – who love attending these camps and go back year after year – “What is it about camp that you like the most?” they do not tell you it is the boating or the water-skiing or the water slide or the climbing tower or the horseback riding. They say, “It’s Shabbat!” When you ask them “What is it about Shabbat which is so special?” They will tell you about the special Shabbat dinner and the singing and the dancing that follows. They will tell you about being able to sleep late on Shabbat morning, and having an unprogrammed day of freedom and relaxation, in which there are activities available which they can choose, or choose not, to partake in. They like being off the clock. They like being able to take some control of their lives rather than having others control it for them. If they want to go swimming, they go swimming when they want to go swimming and not when someone else is telling them, “Now is the time to go swimming.” Yes. Shabbat is about freedom and leisure. The great theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, put it so well when he said that Shabbat is not a time “to do” but “to be.”
Many of you may remember our former congregant, Dick Gottlieb. Several years ago, Dick offered me some truly sage advise. He said, “Henry, you have to take time to sharpen the saw.” What is “sharpening the saw?” The analogy that he drew was with someone who is sawing wood. That person goes along, sawing and sawing, cutting more and more wood. But eventually his blade starts to dull, and the wood cutter discovers that even though he is expending more and more time and energy, the result is that he is cutting less and less wood as his blade grows duller and duller. So he invests himself longer and harder into his task, but contrary to his desire, his productivity continues to decline. What he needs to do is, rather than trying to continue to cut wood with a dull saw blade, he should stop his wood cutting altogether in order to take the time necessary to sharpen his saw. We all need to sharpen our saws. We need to break from the routines of our lives in order to refresh ourselves, so that, when we return to the tasks at hand, we can do so with renewed physical, mental, and spiritual vigor. Shabbat is our weekly opportunity to sharpen our saws. It gives us the chance to break with all the demands that drain us physically, emotionally, and spiritually during the rest of the week; to put them on hold and say, “Not today! Today is not for meeting your needs but rather, for meeting mine. It is for recharging my battery, so that I can better face you in the week to come.”
In the course of my life, I have observed many Shabbatot. I have observed them in Iowa and New York, all over the country and in many places around the world, including in Israel. But the most perfect Shabbat for me was – believe it or not, not in Jerusalem, nor was it at camp – but rather it was a Shabbat that our family spent with our traditional cousins in Minneapolis, Joyce & Robert Warshawsky, one Thanksgiving weekend several years ago. To me that Shabbat stands out in my mind as an ideal; as a goal to strive for in Shabbat observance. As I describe it, some of you may find yourselves surprised, for it was not what you might have expected to hear from me.
The Shabbat started, of course, on Friday night, with a typical traditional Shabbat dinner, replete with flowers, candles, Kiddish and challah, the blessing of the children, along with the “Eishet Chayil,” the praise of the women, and a luxurious meal. There was singing and schmoozing around the dinner table long into the evening. Believe it or not, we did not go to services that night.
We did, however, go to services the next morning. It was a rainy day. So our cousin, who belongs to both an Orthodox and a Conservative synagogue gave us a choice of where to pray. When we put the ball back into his court, he chose the Conservative one because we could drive there, while we would have had to walk to the Orthodox synagogue without even being able to carry umbrellas. The service was nice. Long, like most traditional services, but it was followed by an excellent luncheon. Besides, it felt good to spend the time with other Jews – even though, aside from my family, they were all strangers to me – praying familiar prayers, singing familiar songs, strongly sensing that we shared something special with these people which we shared with few others in our lives. On top of all that, the rabbi’s devar Torah was a good one, providing much food for thought.
By the time we got back into our car, the rain had stopped. We drove back to our cousin’s house where we spent most of the afternoon lounging around. We took naps, read books, sat around and talked, and much to my surprise, considering our cousin’s traditional leanings, even watched a movie; if memory serves me correctly, “The Mask” with Jim Carey to be precise.
Later in the afternoon, we went for a walk around a nearby lake. We walked, we talked, we sat on benches. We simply enjoyed being together and being outdoors.
We went back to the house, hung out some more, until it was time for Havdalah. We held that brief service with its powerful symbolism, and as we doused the candle into the wine and sang “Eliyahu HaNavi” our Shabbat drew to a close.
Now that may not sound like much, but it was so peaceful. Nothing was forced or demanded, one way or the other. No pre-torn toilet paper or lights on timers. It wasn’t about prohibitions but rather about relaxing and being together. It was about centering ourselves and disengaging from the hectic pace which can overwhelm our lives. In its very simplicity, that Shabbat was truly an oasis of peace and rest for the body and the spirit.
I share all this with you because tonight and tomorrow we celebrate Shabbat as well as observe Yom Kippur. Contrary to what some might think, that is no small thing. It is a big thing. For Shabbat, the most frequent of Jewish holy days is also the most sacred of Jewish holy days. Even more sacred than this High Holy Day of Yom Kippur. Not only is it the only holy day mentioned in the Ten Commandments, but its very frequency significantly contributes to its sanctity. For one can never dream of nurturing a healthy spiritual life by merely dedicating one or two or three or four days a year to matters of the spirit. Our souls, and our relationship with God, and with our Jewish identity and our Jewish people requires more continuous and consistent care. And that is where Shabbat comes in.
On Yom Kippur, we are called upon to confront our sins and seek to repair them. We consider ourselves a community of sinners. One of the sins we need to confront is our neglect of Shabbat, and in so doing, our failure to foster our own spiritual lives. In so doing, we not only sin against God and the Jewish people, but we also sin against ourselves. Each and every one of us, whether we recognize it or not, needs Shabbat. We need the peace that it brings and the healing that it brings and the unity that it brings.
On this Day of Atonement, may we truly repent our neglect of Shabbat and sincerely commit ourselves to atone for this sin by striving to make Shabbat a part of our weekly lives, by not only attending services – though that would be nice – but also by electing to break with our weekly routines on this day, setting it aside for the refreshment of body and soul and for the renewal of our relationships with our loved ones, with our Jewish people, with God, and also with ourselves.
Tags: Dick Gottlieb, Family, Gail Karp, God, Guided Visualization, Helene Karp my daughter, Helene Karp my mother, Henry Karp, Holidays, Jeiwsh Summer Camps, Jerusalem, Joyce Warshawsky, Robert Warshawsky, Samuel Karp my father, Shabbat, Shira Karp, Spirituality, Sweet Potatoes, Thanksgiving, Yom KippurYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.