Heartbreak | Yom Kippur Sermon 5778
Delivered by Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner
As the waters were rising in Houston and a thousand lives were lost in the floods in South Asia, and the fierce winds were on their way to the Caribbean, an old friend in the Pacific Northwest wrote this about the fires ravaging the Columbia River Gorge:
“I’m watching my sacred place burn, and there is nothing I can do. I’ve spent the last [decade] on these Gorge trails. Hours and hours photographing these falls, splashing through the creeks, stopping, stock still, on the trail while a buck prances right in front of us on his way down to Tanner creek. The quiet after a winter ice storm, the roar of water in the spring, the leaves rustling hoarsely in the fall. The trees, in their mossy sweaters, sheltering me during rain. I learned to breathe deeply and tread softly. It was a true place of wonder, the Gorge. And now, how it burns. The flames licking and curling up the tree trunks, devouring the brush, exploding and crackling, and choking out the stars.” Her writing was accompanied with resplendent photographs of vibrant green forest glens and lush waterfalls, the loss palpable in the heartbreaking colors. One picture, of Metlako Falls plunging into a green gorge, had the title. “We will not see this waterfall again. This viewpoint no longer exists.” Looking at the image, you can see an entire universe of creatures, a world of birthing and dying, foraging and nesting, digging and burrowing. A refuge for hikers, those seeking the peace of wild things…The grief palpable. A world that was and is no longer.
Joanna Macy, author of Coming Back to Life, says, “There is a colossal anguish … the people on this planet are sick in our soul…People in every walk of life, from every culture, feel grief over the condition of the world.”
Within the lost worlds of rainforests and clean water, of glaciers, Pacific islands and polar bears, of biomes and ecosystems, there are human lost worlds. The bombed-out towns and villages that refugees come from – marketplaces and schools, neighbors talking, music, kitchen smells. Closer to home there are the vanished worlds of lost jobs – the place to go each morning, coworkers, identity, the purposeful bearing with which to make a day, not to mention the salary with which to make a life. Then there are the lost worlds of dissolved marriages and the lost lives of the people we love. Entire microcosms of voices, touches, gestures, comforts, dinners, bedtime routines. Each one of these a heartbreak over a world that is no more.
And then there’s the heartbreak that’s shaking our country. We are determined to end patriarchy and white supremacy, and as we begin to take those systems down there are millions of Americans who are clinging to those worlds, in a battle cry to defend them, horrified watching them fade. The patriarchal nuclear family, the Ozzie and Harriet, Father knows best, men in charge, women as wives and mothers in their place, kept at home or in low wage work, unequal. This still exists in much of our country. Not long ago, the story goes, boys were boys and girls were girls and men and women would marry each other, guaranteed. And a woman’s purpose was to be given from her father to a husband to serve. For centuries, when a woman would step out of line, she was burned as a witch, sent to an asylum, shunned, beaten, raped. So when a woman dares lead, when a woman dares run for president, the unleashed rage of dethroned men can strangle a nation, can take down a democracy. Rage that is really grief for a lost world. Rage that is a battle cry for a vanishing world. We see that rage in the rallies in Alabama and Arizona, Michigan and Ohio, we heard that rage in “Lock her up.”
The embattled world of white supremacy. White people in charge, controlling the lives of slaves and then former slaves, separate and unequal, kept down and penned in by ghettos, prisons, parole, police. And the Jews and the immigrants kept far away so that white children didn’t have to know those children, and are guaranteed superiority. For centuries, when a black woman or man would ever step out of line, she or he were lashed, tortured severely and finally lynched so that none other would ever dare follow step. So when Jim Crow was defeated, when a black man dares lead, when a black man runs for president and wins, the unleashed rage of deposed whites can strangle a nation, can destroy a democracy. Rage that is really grief for a world that appears threatened. Rage that is a battle cry. Derek Black, the godson of David Duke who has now defected, spoke recently to the New York Times about the scene after Barack Obama’s election. “It was pandemonium. People I knew were sobbing and saying there’s never going to be another white president again and the country is lost.”
Eric Ward, of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Western States Center, teaches that antisemitism is the centerpiece of white nationalism. The ideology is that black people and immigrants are inferior to whites. So how to explain the successes of the civil rights movement? How to explain growing equality? How to explain a black president? It must be, their theory goes, a Jewish cabal, a Jewish plot to enslave white people. Blacks, immigrants, LGBT people, Muslims, are all under the control of a Jewish conspiracy to strip white people of power in the United States. That makes Jews enemy number one for white nationalists, which is why we heard the chant “Jews will not replace us.” Their goal is to divide us from one another, to split Jews from blacks and Muslims and gays and lesbians and trans people and immigrants, using existing bigotries to defeat us and regain state power.
Meanwhile, the heartbreak on the other side is a different kind of heartbreak. It is grief for the world of our dreams, a world promised in the garden of eden, where we all came from the same two humans so that, the Mishna teaches, no one could say my parent was better than your parent.1 Of a world yet to be, where we live out that truth of infinite human dignity and infinite equality, where it is evident and known that each human being is created b’tselem Elohim, and each shall sit under his vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. This anger is at the loss of that birthright, the indignation of finding one’s humanity degraded. This is the heartbreak of a dream deferred, of justice delayed which is justice denied. To see all of the beauty in your children’s faces, wrinkled into a furrowed brow: black, Muslim, Sikh, Mexican, Jewish, female, asking “Why do they hate us?”
This happened recently at CBE. A child asked me, “Why do they hate us so much? I mean, what did we do?” Why indeed. For so many generations we have been despised, scapegoated, and again it’s on the rise. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents in the US surged more than one-third in 2016 and were up 86 percent in just the first quarter of 2017. There have been bomb threats to Jewish institutions, defacing of Holocaust memorials and Jewish cemeteries, acts of hate on college campuses, and a doubling in the anti-Semitic bullying and vandalism at non-denominational K-12 schools. Antisemitic incidents have multiplied globally. According to the World Jewish Congress, in 2016 there were 382,000 antisemitic posts on social media, 31,000 calling for violence. Most frequent were calls to gas, burn or kill Jews. I just learned that our high school students face antisemitism at school. Kids throw pennies at them and make jokes about gas chambers. One kid says I hate Jews and everyone else says I hate Jews too. And then our kids just laugh in the hope that it will stop. What is happening? If you let it in, the immensity and profound injustice of antisemitism hurts. It breaks your heart.
Many here are grieving the vision of a United States that could learn to honor difference and become ever more equal. In the first week after the election, and long after that first week, tears flowed in this room, it was a sanctuary full of weeping. Just last week, I overheard CBE members talking about Hillary Clinton’s book coming out, triggering a whole new wave of rage–at the theft of the election, at the racism, at the misogyny, the defilement of Hillary’s reputation, the blatant lies, the ridicule and belittling of her, the merciless critique at a standard not known by any man ever.
Then there’s the heartbreak for many in this sanctuary who’ve been facing white privilege, the grief of seeing the reality, intricacy and hegemony of white supremacy, of realizing that so much we thought we earned was actually stolen on our behalf, no matter how hard we worked, no matter how we played by the rules, no matter how much merit we really do have, it was a rigged system all along and we’re part of it and we benefited from and continue to benefit from other people’s suffering.
The grief of most black people of never having had that shot, and then at another and another and another innocent black life lost/killed/murdered, and millions of lives stunted by prison and parole. The heartbreak of looking in the eyes of a child and knowing all that is stacked against them, all that imperils them each day. The heartbreak of immigrants who’ve given everything to make this their home, who feel they know now where they really stand – that they will always be foreigners, other, scapegoats.
I received an email this week from an old friend who is now the CEO of a major national Jewish organization. She wrote:
“All year I have known that I would need to build my endurance, and I had known that my job would include supporting other people to strengthen their endurance … too. But in my imagination, I had assumed it would be an endurance to face uncomfortable conversations about racism, or endurance to take more risks, or endurance to not normalize the unacceptable.
What I didn’t imagine, and wasn’t prepared for, was how much this year- for me- has been learning how to endure deep grief.
I have cried each day for months… it’s almost as if I am hyper- feeling… my pain, others’ pain… as well as the joy and love. There is goodness, small kindnesses feel especially precious, and there is also intense, immense pain.”
I know that many people in this sanctuary can relate. You have shared with me in so many ways that you have been living in heartbreak for our country. Others don’t relate, but you likely have your own grief, your own anger, your own heartbreak for losses personal and familial, for sins and brokenness in the most intimate places in your life. How can we help each other? What do we do with all this heartbreak? How do we become whole?
Over these High Holy Days, Rabbi Katz and I have spoken about hope, love, fear, and today it is heartbreak: for our earth, for collective suffering, for our people, for the personal grief in each of our lives.
The Hasidic tradition of Judaism has great wisdom for us about the broken heart. The Hasidic movement began in the 18th century in Eastern Europe as a kind of spiritual revival. In its first two centuries, the movement was revolutionary, creative, personal, and emotionally aware. Building off of kabbalah, it focused on God’s presence in all things, on the inner life, and the holy within the every day.
A story is told that several disciples of Rabbi Nahum of Tchernobyl came to him and wept and complained that they had fallen prey to darkness and depression and could not lift up their heads either in teaching or in prayer. The tzadik saw the state of their hearts and that they sincerely yearned for the nearness of the living God. He said to them: “My dear sons, do not be distressed at this seeming death which has come upon you. For everything that is in the world is also in us.…. ‘the falling is for the sake of the rising.’ As it is written, “Adonai God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept and from his sleep he arose a whole human being.”
We might be tempted to feel that our pain, that our distress is a problem we must defeat. But what Nahum of Tchernobyl teaches here is that sometimes we need to go down in order to go up, that sometimes the seeming death of despair is actually the rebirth we need.
Joanna Macy says: “… We have pathologized pain. We have made it a wrong thing… In American culture, we are conditioned to try to keep a smiling face … We have been treating [our broken hearts] as some kind of enemy to our cheerfulness…. Paradoxically, by allowing ourselves to feel our pain for the world, we realize that we’re not alone.”
Rabbi Elliot Kukla writes of his time serving as a chaplain in a hospital, when he cared for a woman named Maggie in the last weeks of her life. “In those long, painful days in the hospital, Maggie was constantly surrounded by her three childhood best friends. One day [Rabbi Kukla] asked what it was that has kept them so connected. “Well,” sighed one of her friends, “we are so close now because she broke our hearts many years ago.” The friends had been inseparable since grade school. In their last year of high school, Maggie had become pregnant and shortly thereafter suffered a painful miscarriage. Paralyzed by shame and sadness, Maggie was unable to share her grief with her friends. Instead, she withdrew completely. The friends were deeply hurt, but they refused to let her go. They kept calling, kept wanting a relationship. Slowly Maggie began to share her pain with them and they rebuilt their shattered friendship. It was in healing the brokenness of their relationship that made the friends so close. And it was clinging to the heartbreak within Maggie that allowed them to build a relationship so strong that it could last a lifetime. This healing of past hurts is the process of teshuvah, continually moving closer to one another and to [God] by living by our values.”
In Hasidic thought, there is a dramatic difference between heartbreak and despair. Despair and dejection are to be avoided, whereas heartbreak is the very goal of the spiritual life. Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotsk famously said, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”
Rabbi Simcha Bunam expounded:
In the psalm (147) we read, [God], “Who heals the broken hearted.” Why are we told that? Because it is a good thing to have a broken heart, and pleasing to God, as it is written, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.” And further on in the psalm it continues. “and [God] binds up their wounds.” [Bunam says,] God [binds up but] does not entirely heal those who have broken hearts. [God] only eases their suffering, lest it torment and deject them. For dejection is not good and not pleasing to God. A broken heart prepares [a person] for the service of God, but dejection corrodes service. We must distinguish carefully between the two… they are so easily confused yet are as far removed from each other as the ends of the earth.” [in Buber, Late Masters, p. 263]
What is the distinction Simcha Bunam is making? Dejection is giving up hope, giving up on life. A broken heart, instead, is feeling fully the pain of the world, embracing the pain of our lives, so that we can serve what is greater than we are.
Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav taught that we should pour out our broken hearts to God every single day. He devised a specific practice called Hitbodedut, by which a person goes off alone, into the forest, on a rooftop, in a private room, and pours out her heart to God, all of the sorrows within, all of the worries, the heartache, the pain. Nahman taught that we should set a specific time each day to be heartbroken, so that the rest of the day we can be only happy. One simply speaks to God, stream of consciousness, expressing whatever is in your mind and heart, and then before you know it all of your troubles come tumbling out and you are released from them and feel lighter.
Nahman of Bratslav faced serious depression in his life, so he placed great emphasis on techniques for managing depression and finding joy. “Once depressed,”Nahman taught, “a person leaves off the service of God. Rather one should seek to serve God in joy.”
Last night we spoke about the beating of the heart as a knocking away of protective armor, as removing the thick layer of fear. Today, let’s consider another, related idea. The Sages taught in the Talmud that beating one’s breast is a sign of grief. (BT Sanhedrin 68a) Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin suggests that beating the heart is a way of symbolically breaking the heart and preparing it to be an offering to God. The Talmud tells us (BT Sanhedrin 106 b) Rachamana liba baei “The Compassionate One desires the heart.” Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the founder of the Masorti or Conservative movement in Great Britain, says that the beating of the breast “denotes that God accepts the broken heart and the heart that is responsive to the cry of the oppressed.”
And what happens when we find that our broken heart, our grief at the state of the world is compounded by our own role in creating suffering? By our own sins, our hurtful actions against ourselves and the people we love, the ways that we have contributed to the cry of the oppressed and the despoilment of the earth?
Here is where it matters what the Kotsker Rebbe taught: that there’s nothing so whole as a broken heart. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says, “On Yom Kippur we reexamine the evil we have intended or done, not to excise it as an alien growth but to discover its deepest motivation—the holy spark within it. Once we’ve done that we can raise it, sweeten it, take it back into ourselves, redeem it. For example, we hoard material possessions because we imagine they will secure us in life and in happiness. [Wanting to be alive and happy are good things.] We live on the internet because we have forgotten how to maintain living relationships. [Wanting living relationships is a good thing.] At the bottom of each of our sins is something holy, something divine.”
Rabbi Yosef of Polnoye said: The essence of the finest teshuva is that deliberate sins are transformed into merits, for one turns evil into good…
Kushner continues, “There is not a bad part [of us] and a good part. There is only one part. We say, ‘I acted that way because I meant to. I’m not proud of that. I wish I’d never done it. It hurts to even recount it. But I did it. And since it will forever remain part of me, I own it, I accept it. It too, is me.” [That way,] the confession of sins is not about self-rejection or self-flagellation but the healing that can only come from regret and then self-acceptance.
“Such a confession of sins,” he says “accepts our evils as our own deliberate creations—long banished children taken home again at last. And that, of course, is the only way to truly transform them. A whole human being remembers all of [their] past and accepts everything that [they have] done. And that is why when we recite Al cheyt or ashamnu, we don’t hit ourselves, we hold ourselves and cry.”
In our tradition, each sin is like a spiritual death, a move away from life. In the words of Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, “teshuva then becomes a rebirth of the soul.” We have to grieve what has died in order to birth what must next become.
As Joanna Macy says, “When we can feel the pain, we can then feel the joy, and recommit to life…. Our grief is covering over the love we have for the world….If you want to open to life….you have to be willing to feel pain. When we tell the truth about [our grief] something beautiful and freeing happens…. The key is not being afraid of our pain for the world, not being afraid for the world’s suffering. If you’re not afraid of it then nothing can stop you…[Doing this with other people] restores a deep faith in life. There is a strong sense of coming home at last to one another, so that we face this together.”
Isn’t that what Yom Kippur is? Facing our broken hearts in the company of others? Our broken hearts for our own sins and limitations, our broken hearts for the sins of the world.
The Rav, Shneur Zalman of Lyadi … said that when you feel as though your heart could break on Yom Kippur, your heart and mind are wide open.
And then anything becomes possible: any kind of change, any kind of healing, any kind of teshuva, any kind of new beginning.
This is where our pain becomes useful. It is through our heartbreak that we know where our work lies. Of all the brokenness in the world, all the issues and suffering in our country that trouble us, the shard that hurts most, the shard that pierces us, is the one we’re called to act upon. That heartbreak is where we have a role to play in healing the world.
And, just when the white supremacists want to divide us, to keep us apart from one another, to turn us against each other so that they can gain power, it is our very pain that unites us. What we have in common with black people and immigrants and Muslims and Sikhs and LGBT people and women is our heartbreak for the world. When we admit our grief to one another, when we find each other with our broken hearts, we can unite for the vision of one nation, indivisible, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
My colleague, Rabbi David Stern, pointed out that the haftarah we read this morning from the prophet Isaiah (58:8) declares “then your light shall break forth like the dawn,”2 and the word “break forth” in Hebrew is yeebaka – the same root as vayivaka atzei olah, when Abraham breaks the wood for the altar to sacrifice his son the same root as bokea yam lifnei Moshe, the breaking open of the sea when we left Egypt; The breaking of our hearts over the pain of the world, is the same breaking over the pain of our lives, is the same breaking as the sea opening so that we can become free, is the same breaking as our light bursting forth like the dawn.
רחמנא דעני לעניי ענינא!
רחמנא דעני לתבירי לבא ענינא, ענינא!
O Merciful One who answers those in need, answer us!
O Merciful One who answers the broken-hearted, answer us!
Keep our hearts broken wide open, so that we feel not only the pain but also the joy; break the sea before us so that we become free, so that our light bursts forth like the dawn and all can know that a new world has just begun.
1 Mishna Sanhedrin 4:1
2Thank you Rabbi David Stern