Yom Kippur – A World of Clarity

Here’s the drasha I gave at Ezra Bessaroth in Seattle on Yom Kippur Day:

About fourteen years ago, we received a call toward the end of the week saying that the yishuv (BetEl) where we lived at the time, was making a fundraising video and they needed to capture a family “making Kiddush” on Friday night. Of course, the filming could not take place on Shabbat itself – so it would have to happen before Shabbat. Our mazal, the Meyers family was picked as the feature family! Since candle lighting was slated for 7 pm that week, I asked that the videographer come at 6:45 pm. “He needs at least an hour,” came the reply. “Please be ready by 6 pm….”

Now, most Friday afternoons we worked down to the wire…showering up to candle lighting time. Once we heard that the video man would be there at six o’clock, we rushed to cook and shower – and were waiting by the door by five minutes to six!  When Hashem needed us to be ready by a certain time, we’d been waiting till the last minute, but when a human being says be ready by six, we’re early…

This incident helped me appreciate the tendency of our sages to say, “If you would respond this way to an earthly King…how much more so to G-d, the King of Kings…”  I have since made an effort to understand my relationship to G-d based on simple daily experiences.

In the past, a few of our discussions have been triggered by sporting events.  I am not going to presume everyone is interested in or follows sports, but something happened on Monday night – less than 24 hours before Yom Kippur, that got me thinking.

Seattle’s football team, the Seahawks, were losing by five points to the Green Bay Packers.  It was the last play of the game and there were eight seconds left to play in the game.  Seattle’s Quarterback, Wilson, in an act of desperation, hurls the ball to the end zone, in – you’ll excuse the term – a “Hail Mary” pass – over the goal line of Green Bay. The Seattle receiver, Tate, surrounded by three members of the opposing team, gets his hand on the ball and thereupon engages in a furious struggle with one of those defenders. As the two fall to the ground, one referee, one judge – signals that the pass was intercepted by Green Bay; the other referee has the opposite reaction, he signals that Tate had caught the ball, scoring for Seattle.

After the dust had cleared, the referees upheld the view of the second judge, and – a touchdown for Seattle.  One of the rules of NFL football is that a simultaneous catch goes to the offense.

Now, if you look at the replay, not only was there lack of clarity and confusion between the referees, but it seems that the final decision was actually incorrect:  It seems that the defensive player had full control of the ball.  Many have attributed the poor call to the fact that the NFL has locked out the permanent staff of referees due to a contract dispute.

The game, and its timing led to several Pre-Yom Kippur discussions on the internet. Someone designed the following e-card: 

Another blogger wrote: “Good thing Yom Kippur starts tonight: NFL owners can atone for their sins.”

Even President Obama took time off from his busy schedule Monday night to relate to the game; according to Bloomberg Business Week,

President Barack Obama said a controversial ruling by officials at the end of last night’s National Football League game was “terrible” and shows why the league should settle a dispute with the union representing referees. “I’ve been saying for months we’ve got to get our refs back,” Obama said ….

The message for Yom Kippur?  The fallibility of human judgment.  Angry as some are with the replacement referees, a similar incident could have taken place with the permanent referees.  We are mere flesh and blood.

On Rosh Hashana, G-d’s judgment is exact. Before G-d, all is clear, precise, transparent.

We have an opportunity to have our judgment held in abeyance until Yom Kippur, but today, Ne’ila marks the end of the period of grace…

We have been given a Torah with clear directives, and with clear priorities.  For Rabbi Shelomo Wolbe in his book, “Alei Shur”, the Jew has been gifted an  עולם ברור – a world of clarity. The Torah establishes clear values and priorities that at times may not necessarily jibe with the those of the society around us.  In fact, the Talmud (Pesachim 50a) tells a story of Rav Yosef ¸who became ill “fainted and his soul departed. After some time he returned to life.  His father R’ Yehoshua asked him what he saw. He replied, “I saw an upside down world. People who were considered important in this world are not held in high esteem in that world, and people considered lowly in this world were elevated in that world.”  A follow-up midrash (Ruth Rabba 3:1) records that Rav Maysha, the son of R. Yosef,  was dead for three days!  (Maybe the reference is to a coma, and not literal/clinical death…) Rav Yosef asked his son what he’d witnessed in the World-to-Come; he offered a similar report.

So not only does G-d have an objective, clear assessment of our actions, He allows us to partner with him in the process by giving us His Torah.   Our Torah’s system of values and the accompanying mitzvot present us with a way of life that has ultimate meaning; these values are clear and constant, whether or not they are completely embraced by broader society.

This theme of “birur” – clarity is very prevalent in Jewish sources.  A well-known verse in the 24th chapter of Tehilim,  reads,

“Who shall ascend to the mountain of G-d? Who shall stand in His holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart.”  In other words, only an honest person can forge a close relationship with G-d.  The midrash, however, has a different reading of the Hebrew term בר לבב; instead of someone with a “pure heart”, the midrash understands the term בר as associated with the word ברור – clear.  It cites Moshe Rabeinu, our teacher Moshe, as a prime example of someone who strove for clarity.  Instead of jumping at the opportunity to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, Moshe politely insists that G-d clarify the many details of this mission: “When they ask who sent me, what should I tell them?”  Moshe’s predisposition towards clarity continues with his appreciation of the value of transparency for leaders.   According to the midrash, Moshe heard murmurings after collecting donations for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the desert; some began to accuse Moshe of diverting funds for his own personal use instead of investing them in the building of the Mishkan.  What did Moshe do? He immediately appointed Itamar to run an audit; guiding Moshe is a love of clarity and transparency.   Upon hearing G-d’s plan to eradicate Sodom and Gemora, Avraham asks, “Will the Judge of the entire world not act justly?” Avraham surely believed that G-d is just – but needed to internalize, to “own” the Divine logic for himself. Before he could accept the decision, he needed to have the logic clarified.

This focus on clarity and transparency has important ramifications for our Yom Kippur experience: What are we doing in Kahal on this, the holiest day of the year?

I would like to submit to you that we must look at Yom Kippur as a day of self-audit.  Our Torah has given us clear guidelines in both the realms of Ben Adam L’makom – laws between Man and G-d, and Ben Adam L’chavero – laws between man and his fellow. 

This internal audit may include the following kinds of questions: “Have I engaged in conversations this past year in which I allowed myself to be drawn into discussions about others that could be classified as Lashon Hara, gossip that reflects poorly on others?  Am I still perhaps holding a grudge against someone else; have I allowed difficulties with certain people to percolate under the surface, with no closure in sight?

In the realm of laws between myself and G-d – we regularly mention the centrality of the two cornerstones of Shabbat and Kashrut observance:  With all of the resources available teaching us how to connect to Shabbat – are we making an effort to join the Kahal for Shabbat Tefilot; are we careful to recite Kiddush and prepare a meal in honor of Shabbat on Friday evening and Shabbat day? When it comes to Kashrut, the Torah has provided us with clear guidelines on permitted and forbidden foods; just as we must take care of what comes out of our mouths, we have to ensure that we are more aware of what comes into our mouths – both at home and outside the home….

We have a tradition that emphasizes the value of clarity and transparency; let each of us use the time that we have left on Yom Kippur to engage ourselves in this personal, private self-audit!

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