Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on Yom Kippur 5781 (Sept. 2020)
י-ה אנא אמצאך?
מקומך נעלה ונעלם
ואנא לא אמצאך?
כבודך מלא עולם
בכל לבי קראתיך
God, where can I find You?
High and hidden is Your place.
And where can I not find You?
Your Glory fills the world.
I sought Your closeness,
Calling out to You with all my heart.
And in going out to meet You,
I find You coming to greet me.
(Yehuda Halevi – c. 1075-1141)
Yehuda Halevi’s beautiful poem, found in our machzor on page 231, expresses the dream and the surprise – delightful and humbling, both – of the spiritual seeker. God seems elusive and hidden; then, suddenly, the seeker, rushing out to look for God some more, is brought up short by finding God coming straight toward them.
This reciprocal movement is, itself, part of the wonder of the encounter. The magical revelation of God’s rushing forward at you is suffused with an electric charge. The poem’s ending gently but firmly holds that charge in suspension.
The forward rush is paused. What will happen next? Will the two seekers, Divine and human, keep approaching each other and meet to embrace? Or does this reciprocal image of movement bring us up short? Does it stop us in our tracks to reveal that we are actually looking in a mirror? There is a figure coming to meet me because the mirror shows me my own reflection rushing toward the mirror’s surface, toward myself.
Which encounter is truly the more unsettling? To discover the requited desire of the besought Divine Lover, or to be forced to look at one’s self in the mirror, to engage in self-reflection?
Perhaps this is one way of understanding the mystics’ image of God’s Presence – Shekhinah – as a mirror – throwing us back at ourselves.
So, on this day of Atonement – of finding God rushing toward us – let’s look at ourselves just a little.
Here is a short excerpt from a story by Anzia Yezierska, a Jewish woman who came to the USA from Russia, right before the turn of the 20th Century. After a rough start here, she grew to become an admired author. Here are parts of the beginning of her autobiographical story, “America and I.”
As one of the dumb, voiceless ones I speak. One of the millions of immigrants beating, beating out their hearts at your gates for a breath of understanding.
Ach! America! From the other end of the earth from where I came, America was a land of living hope, woven of dreams, aflame with longing and desire. […]
In the golden land of flowing opportunity, I was to find my work that was denied me in the sterile village of my forefathers. Here I was to be free from the dead drudgery for bread that held me down in Russia. For the first time in America, I’d cease to be a slave of the belly. I’d be a creator, a giver, a human being! My work would be the living job of fullest self-expression.
But from my high visions, my golden hopes, I had to put my feet down on earth. I had to have food and shelter. I had to have the money to pay for it. […]
My first job was as a servant in an Americanized family. Once, long ago, they came from the same village from where I came. But they were so well-dressed, so well-fed, so successful in America, that they were ashamed to remember their mother tongue.
“What were to be my wages?” I ventured timidly, as I looked up to the well-fed, well-dressed “American” man and woman.
They looked at me with a sudden coldness. What have I said to draw away from me their warmth? Was it so low for me to talk of wages? I shrank back into myself like a low-down bargainer. Maybe they’re so high up in well-being they can’t any more understand my low thoughts for money.
From his rich height the man preached down to me that I must not be so grabbing for wages. Only just landed from the ship and already thinking about money when I should be thankful to associate with “Americans.” The woman, out of her smooth, smiling fatness assured me that this was my chance for a summer vacation in the country with her two lovely children.
My great chance to learn to be a civilized being, to become an American by living with them.
So, made to feel that I was in the hands of American friends, invited to share with them their home, their plenty, their happiness, I pushed out from my head the worry for wages. Here was my first chance to begin my life in the sunshine, after my long darkness. My laugh was all over my face as I said to them: “I’ll trust myself to you. What I’m worth you’ll give me.” And I entered their house like a child by the hand.
When we look through this misty glass held up for us a hundred years ago, what do we see? Perhaps, just a world that has vanished? Or, perhaps, as we look into the glass, are we brought up short to we see these figures rushing toward us? Do we recognize ourselves in this looking glass? Are we the poor immigrant seeking work and sustenance? Or, do we, perhaps, see ourselves in the comfortable couple who have forgotten their own mother tongue? (Need I mention that they never pay her wages?)
“What I’m worth you’ll give me.” What are our workers worth? We have come to recognize that some workers are “essential” to us. Does “essential” also mean that we will give them what they are worth?
Here is another looking glass to take in hand, given to us by our tradition, that mandated that we read the words of Prophet Isaiah on this day.
In our haftarah (p. 285 in our machzor) Isaiah reports a dialogue between God and Israel. Israel complains – “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we afflicted ourselves, You did not answer?”
And God answers – “Indeed, you are so pleased by your fast day, while you oppress your workers!” (Isaiah 58:3)
Let’s look in the mirror for a moment, not as a nation, but as Congregation Shomrei Emunah. We shrink from identifying with the materialistic couple who refuse to pay the poor girl who scrubs their floors. We pay our custodians, after all!
But – how much? Anzia Yezierska says – “I had to have food and shelter. I had to have the money to pay for it.”
Let’s face the ugly truth – we do not pay our custodians a living wage, a wage that allows a person to pay for food and shelter – to live.
All day long we pray to God to give us the gift of life. But we make choices based on the belief that there just isn’t enough life to go around.
“You are pleased with your fast day!” says God. And we should be pleased. So much hard work and money has been willingly raised and expended on making these Days of Awe so awesome! This is a special achievement!
So let’s look in the mirror and ask ourselves – what else we are willing to stretch for?
As far as I know there is no blessing for going to a zoom session. But there is a blessing for going to the bathroom. It is clear to us that we must stretch to pay for zooming. Is it not equally clear that we must stretch to pay for cleaning our bathrooms?
“What I’m worth you’ll give me.” Or shall we pay what we can get away with? What is our safety and the safety of our children actually worth?
I want to express my thanks to our President, Miriam Haimes, who has welcomed my raising this issue in our community. I believe that this is a tough challenge that calls for just as much collaborative discussion, brainstorming, creativity and problem-solving as what we have so gloriously shown ourselves to be capable of.
If we just look in the mirror, we will see that we can do this!
May we all have a meaningful fast. Shanah Tovah!