Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Do you know my name?" -Sermon - Erev Yom Kippur - October 11, 2016

     Have you ever prayed for rain?   Or, have you ever lived somewhere where the leaders of your city, county, state or country have encouraged you to pray for rain? 
      Turning to God to change the natural order, if only for a moment, is not so unusual in areas like ours where rainfall is hard to come by.   We see rain mostly as a blessing, except when it comes all at once or when it is accompanied by golf-ball sized hail.  In those times when we need rain, we might just go along with calls to pray for rain to fall in a manageable dose.          
     In one of the latest examples of public prayers for rain, Governor Rick Perry called on Texans in April of 2011 to appeal to God when their state was facing a long period of dry, hot and sunny days and many raging wildfires.   
    We don't know if asking God to affect the forces of nature actually works.  I have always believed that the most powerful aspect of prayers for rain is that they enable people living in affected communities to generate mutual support at a difficult time.  That camaraderie can bring some measure of blessing even if no rain falls. 
     In Judaism, we recite prayers that declare that God causes the wind to blow and the rain or dew to fall.  We ask the Eternal One to send rain in its season.   
    And we have stories in our heritage about prayers for rain.   We might think that their purpose is to teach us that those prayers work.  There is, however, usually a deeper meaning to those tales about praying for rain which may not be about praying for rain at all.    Here is one such story. 
   In a certain town, there was once a terrible drought.  No rain fell for many weeks, and the ground became very dry and hard.  Plants would not grow, and food grew scarce.  The wells had dried up, and people were becoming more and more thirsty. 
The rabbi at the local synagogue prayed for rain.  When there was no response to his pleas, he ordered a fast on Mondays and Thursdays, when the Torah was read in the synagogue.  Still, no rain fell.  Finally, the rabbi gathered the people together.  With their voices raised as one, the whole community offered up special prayers that might bring them, at long last, precious rain. 
    That night, the rabbi had a dream.  In the dream, a voice said to him, "All the prayers the community offers will bring no rain.  Only one man's prayers will succeed.   That man is Moishe the Shopkeeper.  He, and he alone, must lead the congregation in prayer."   
  When the rabbi awoke, he was troubled by the message in his dream.  "Moishe the Shopkeeper?  He knows nothing about prayers and rituals.  He should lead the prayer?"   The rabbi shrugged his shoulders and dismissed the dream as nonsense. 
      The next night, the rabbi had the same dream and heard the same voice tell him, "Send Moishe the Shopkeeper to lead the prayers, and rain will fall.  Otherwise your prayers will not be answered."  Again the rabbi refused to believe the dream.  
     The same dream came on a third night in a row.  At that point, the rabbi finally realized that he had to listen to what the voice was telling him to do.  In the morning, the rabbi called the entire community to prayer.  The people waited for the rabbi or one of their community leaders to begin.  To their surprise, the Rabbi called out, "Today, Moishe the Shopkeeper will lead us in prayer." 
      All eyes turned to Moishe, who was sitting way in the back. He didn't move.  The Rabbi said, "You, Moishe son of Yitzchak, please come up to the bimah and lead us in prayer."   Moishe shook his head and said, "No, rabbi, no, I can't do it!"   People could see him beginning to hide in his tallit as he tried to avoid eye contact with everyone so that he wouldn't have to fulfill the rabbi's request.  
    The rabbi walked out to Moishe's seat and pleaded.  "Moishe,  YOU and only YOU must lead us.  Then, the rain will fall and end our drought. I beg of you, Moishe, go up to the bimah and begin our prayers."  
     "Rabbi," whispered Moishe, "I'm so ashamed.  I don't know how to read properly, and I barely know the ALEF-BET.  How can I go up to the bimah and lead the congregation in prayer?" 
      "It doesn't matter that you don't know the prayers," the rabbi told him.  "Say whatever is in your heart, Moishe.  God will accept it."  
      Moishe slowly stood up...and left the synagogue.  Everyone was bewildered, but the rabbi confidently took his seat on the bimah as they waited in silence. 
       In a few moments, Moishe returned, carrying the balance scales from his shop.  People wondered what he was going to do with his scales in the synagogue.   Moishe turned to the congregation, held up the scales, and said, "God of all the Universe, I am not a learned man.  I cannot read your holy words, I cannot pray in the proper way. I have only my good name to show.  So hear me, God in heaven, and take my words for good and not for evil.  I brought my scales with me to remind you that I have always had honest scales.  I never cheated anyone.  I have never lied.  If I have fulfilled the commandment to be honest and to keep my scales clean, then hear my words and have mercy upon us and bring us rain."   
      The people waited.  Suddenly, the heavens grew dark, and, in a few moments, the rains began to fall.   The people enthusiastically thanked God for answering their prayers.  
    And then, at least some of them understood the true meaning of Moishe's words.   When the merchants in the town returned to their stores later that day, they all made a small, subtle adjustment to their scales.   From that time on, the rains always fell according to their season.  And the people prospered. 
      So, yes, the prayer for rain worked for Moishe and his fellow townspeople.     What is it that makes this story meaningful, especially for Yom Kippur, this day of atonement?    This tale presents a central teaching of our heritage:  that the sincerity and integrity of one person can make a difference for a community or, even, for the world.   It demonstrates the power of honesty and a commitment to the truth.   Moishe's declaration led the merchants in the town to change their ways, to be more forthright in their business dealings.   The power of the example of Moishe the Shopkeeper was not that only his prayers could bring rain.  It was that he set a standard for everyone to follow.    And once they did,  the collective character of the townspeople moved to a higher level.   The community members treated one another with greater mutual respect and trust.    
    Of course, honesty in business and greater regard for personal integrity are issues with which we continue struggle in our time, as we watch some public figures attempt to explain their own questionable practices and behavior.  
    In the story of Moishe the Shopkeeper, prayers intended to bring a change in the natural world brought into focus the need for introspection to bring about personal growth. 
      The same could be said about a familiar High Holy Day prayer.  This reading that we know well began its long, long existence as a simple prayer for rain.
    It comes straight from this passage in the Talmud:
    "At a time of drought, Rabbi Eliezer went down before the ark and said twenty-four blessings, 18 for the daily T'filah/Amidah and six more prayers for a public fast that could be recited to bring rain. But his prayers were not answered.    
   Rabbi Eliezer's great student, Rabbi Akiva,  led the people in worship right after his beloved teacher.   He said this before the congregation: “Our father, our king, AVINU MALKEINU, we have sinned before You. Our father, our king, AVINU MALKEINU, we have no king other than You.   Our father, our king, AVINU MALKEINU, for your sake, have mercy upon us.”
And the rain fell.
   When they heard this story, the rabbis shouted and complained that Rabbi Eliezer's prayers were not answered.  
    But a heavenly voice called out and said:  'It is not that one of these two rabbis is greater than the other.  Rather, Rabbi Akiva's prayer was answered because Akiva  is more relaxed and forgiving, while Rabbi Eliezer is more exacting and demanding.  God responded to each of them according to his personality.
  (Talmud, Ta’anit, 25b)”
      So, yes, the origin story of Avinu Malkeinu featured a conflict between two rabbis, two prayers for rain, and an appearance of the ever elusive and mysterious heavenly voice, the BAT KOL.  That voice could come out of nowhere in the Talmud to a settle short-term disagreement or a long-term debate. 
    In this story of Eliezer and Akiva, as in the tale of Moishe,  the central lesson was not necessarily about praying for rain.    We should, however, still ask, why did Rabbi Akiva's prayer bring rain?
    Rabbi Larry Hoffman, in his book NAMING GOD, collected commentaries from a wide range of scholars about this Talmudic passage and about the Avinu Malkeinu prayer that we recite today.  Some of the scholars and rabbis featured in NAMING GOD explained why, in their view, Akiva's prayer successfully brought rain.     One reason given was that Akiva avoided reciting conventional, prescribed prayers.   Instead,  Akiva offered a spontaneous and sincere public meditation.  Perhaps he felt that he might be able to influence the very processes of creation if he himself was creative, if HIS prayer emerged straight from his heart. 
       This story also presents an important character study of these two Rabbis.  Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, in his contribution to Rabbi Larry Hoffman's book, explained that Rabbi Eliezer made known to everyone how disappointed he was that Rabbi Akiva, his highly intelligent student, wasn't more accomplished and insightful.  The problem was that Rabbi Eliezer never really understood how much his brilliant student Akiva had learned from him and how much Akiva appreciated his teacher's guidance.  Eliezer lacked the capacity to see the good - or the best - in other people.  He was a harsh and cruel teacher who was eventually banned from entering the rabbinical academy.  Akiva was different.  He had gained the respect of others because of who he was and how he acted.   In describing the character of Rabbi Akiva, this Talmudic story implied that he was relaxed and forgiving, but the Hebrew actually said of Rabbi Akiva - MAAVIR AL MIDOTAV - "he passes over his character traits.".    
    That phrase meant that Akiva was able to overcome his worst impulses and his internal weaknesses in order to show the best he had to offer to his family, friends and colleagues.   Rabbi Kaunfer asserted that we are like Rabbi Akiva when we ensure that our strengths can overshadow our faults,  when we successfully act based on our own innate kindness and goodness, and when we refuse to allow hatred and anger to fester inside of us. And as we try to pass over our faults, we ask God to do just that in our High Holy Day prayers.  We hope that, as we confess human sins and ask for forgiveness, we will gain the inner strength we need to move beyond our flaws, to use our memories of errors in judgment for the purpose of self-improvement, and to enable our better nature to shine through.   We ask God to show us mercy and to help us set ourselves on a path towards personal change.    And we ask the same of each other, so that we will treat one another with compassion and offer mutual  support, not only during the High Holy Days, but throughout the year. 
     The prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind us that it is our choice to move towards kindness, love, peace, and hope.  We voice our intentions to exert self-control so that the net result of our behavior will be for the good.  We pray that we will be able to fashion a year filled with blessing.   
     The individual lines of AVINU MALKEINU express many of those same sentiments about the New Year.     Still, the question remains, why did Akiva, approach God with the names AVINU MALKEINU, Our Father, Our King, or, if you prefer, Our Parent, our Ruler?  
    The 103rd Chapter of the book of Psalms may answer that question.   Listen to these verses from Psalm 103 and try to pick out its references to God as a Parent, a Ruler, and a source of Mercy:  
The Eternal One is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
As the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is God's steadfast love toward those who revere the Eternal One.
As east is far from west, so has God removed our sins far from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Eternal One has compassion for those who revere Adonai….
The Eternal One has established a throne in heaven,
God's sovereign rule is over all people.
Bless the Eternal One, all God's works,
through the length and breadth of God's realm;
bless the Eternal One, O my soul."
In this ancient song, the quality of compassion was associated with God as Parent.   God as a Ruler was characterized as loyal to those who demonstrate a commitment to God's teachings.  In Psalm 103, God is a  merciful magistrate, parent and sovereign who leans towards grace and provides for us love and support when we most need it.  
     Beyond calling God AVINU and MALKEINU, our High Holy Day prayers in our new prayerbook, MISHKAN HANEFESH, direct us to address God with additional names like our Creator, our Rescuer, our Provider, our Refuge, our Healer, our Helper, Almighty One, Merciful One, the One Who listens to us, Our support, and the One who gives us life.  Naming God with those titles has the potential to make us feel that we can strive for perfection even when we make mistakes, that we can change ourselves for the better when necessary, and that we are never alone.   And every one of those names for God -- healer, helper, one who listens, support, rescuer, and provider – is significant because each one points to what we need to be for each other if we hope to create strong relationships that will last a lifetime.  
     Every year, we write our own stories about who we can be, about how we can maintain our own integrity while being loving and forgiving towards each other, ready to lift up those who find themselves in despair.   Like Moishe the shopkeeper, we can set an example of honesty that can raise the bar for the type of person we should strive to be.  Like Akiva, we can bring out the best in us, approaching others in a way that is loving, supportive, and forgiving.  
     One version of Avinu Makleinu  in the new Mishkan Hanefesh prayerbook mentions some of the dilemmas that we encounter in our lives.  This reading reminds us that a sense of God's presence can inspire us to stand at each other's side so that we can discover the right path together. Let us join in this new meditation that can help us find the answers that can lead us along the way towards a sweet New Year to come. 
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ, הָאֵר לָנוּ אֶת דֶּרֶךְ חַיֵּינוּ.
Avinu Malkeinu, Ha-eir la-nu et derech chayeinu. 
Avinu Malkeinu - Illumine for us the path of our life. 
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we find the strength to take the road less traveled by? 
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we come to know the purpose of our existence?  
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we learn not to live life in vain? 
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we get out of our indifference? 
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we distinguish between truth and falsehood?
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we find the answers to our questions? 
Avinu Malkeinu - How shall we gird ourselves with strength to seek answers?  
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ, חָנֵּֽנוּ וַעֲנֵֽנוּ חַזְּקֵנוּ וְאַמְּצֵנוּ, כִּי בְךָ וְעִמְּךָ הַתְּשׁוּבוֹת.
Avinu Malkeinu, choneinu va-aneinu, 
chaz’keinu v’am’tzeinu, ki v’cha v’im’cha hat’shuvot. 
Avinu Makleinu - Be gracious and answer us, empower us, and give us courage,for the answers are both in You and with You. 

And may we find those answers within ourselves and, perhaps, within each other. 

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