This first video is the recording of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei by David Davis (cello) and Amy Mitsuda (piano). There follows the full text of the homily and the first ten minutes of the video of the homily. The camera inexplicably stopped working after that.
Oh, it is getting a little tight here in the temple. All around the outer gates I hear the Roman soldiers coming. The fine, ornate furnishings, the art magnifying the splendor of the Divine, show how truly awesome the power of the Divine is in the life of those of us who worship and praise in this space. Oh yes, the temple is something to behold, but it will not hold much longer.
But what to do? Are we not in the holy of holies, the sanctum sanctorum? What of the divine protection so clearly present in favoring our lives, of our lives of faith we live together? What kind of message would it send my fellows, my family, my students, if I choose this place, this time, to stand and fight and likely die protecting this place? After all, they call me Rabban, more than merely Rabbi. It means master, not merely teacher. Is this my time?
I wonder, if in his coffin, Yochanan Ben Zakkai thought these thoughts. What does a city’s destruction, what does a temple’s toppling and burning, what do these things sound like through the walls of a coffin? It would be hard to say, that is, unless you were Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the Rabban of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in year 70 of the common era. Because rather that make a stand as a martyr in that sacred place of worship, his brother, a member of the group called the Zealots, loaded him up into a coffin to slip him through the battle that raged outside the temple walls and that soon would infiltrate and destroy the great temple forever.
This story from the Babylonian Talmud about Ben Zakkai’s dramatic escape doesn’t end there. If you read on, it goes from the merely heroic to the somewhat fanciful, with his further exploits including convincing the future Roman Emperor to give the Jewish people a city where they could live free from trouble, among other wondrous accomplishments, including living for 120 years. And these might be true stories in some ways, but even classical Jewish scholars refer to the epic of Ben Zakkai more as a legend than as something that really took place.
But humans are like that, right? There are those among us perhaps here that never really let truth get in the way of a good story. I mean, after all, is stretching the truth a little to make something more impacting and meaningful really a bad thing? I hope not. If so, I might have something I need to set right, which is perfect. Because today we remember together that time in the Jewish calendar called most often the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
In Hebrew, Yom simply means “day.” And Kippur finds it root not so much in a state of being or a state of mind, like Atonement can feel. No, Kippur’s root is in the verb for “to atone.” So one way of looking at Yom Kippur is to think of it as the Day to Atone. But even this way of thinking of this day is relatively new. Imean it only started about 2000 years ago.
See, before the second temple was built in Jerusalem, the large, ornate temple Ben Zakkai barely escaped with his life, the Day of Atonement was really a day for the priests. And yes, that was the more accurate name for the religious leaders of Judaism at that time. It was a day for the priests to cleanse the temple of all of the impurities brought in by the folks coming to services, because another meaning of “kippur” is to cleanse. In some cases temples were literally fumigated on this day, and they were expurgated of other impurities, both visible to the eye and not.
This was a special, more private act of the priestly class in ancient Jewish worship—nothing that the followers of the Jewish faith had to worry about…because they couldn’t. Yom Kippur was one of the strictest days for observing the Sabbath. It was the “OK, we really mean it” Sabbath day. Jewish people were not supposed to do really anything on that day.
But over time something started to change. With the new Temple, the first Temple built in Jerusalem, worship together became more and more involved for the people present. The rites of Yom Kippur took on participatory parts for the followers, not just the priests. There were songs to sing. Some of those were the psalms. Many scholars agree that the psalms were actually songs sung in worship. And it makes sense. The psalms are filled with things you really can only get away with saying if you sing them. They’re really dramatic. In fact the only place the “Book of the Living” is mentioned in Hebrew Scripture is in one of the psalms.
And more and more over time, the ritual, the involvement, the tying to the place of worship, the temple grew and grew in the hearts of Jewish worshipers. The Second Temple, huge and ornate, was built on this very idea, of bringing people into a space to commune even more closely with the Divine in their lives.
Until it happened. Until the unthinkable happened. Until Ben Zakkai heard what destruction sounds like outside a coffin’s walls. And I bet it was painful for him to hear. It is hard to imagine anything more painful, really.
Except perhaps, hearing things like, “I’m not mad at you, I’m just disappointed in you.”
Or, “You really let me down.”
Or, “Where were you when I needed you?”
Or maybe the worst: [beat] silence…when we reach out to someone for help.
For these are the hardest to hold, these hurts. As they come from that mysterious category of wrongs: “What we have left undone.”
Most people know what they’ve done. They know when they have spoken in anger. They know when they have taken what is not theirs and failed to return it. They know when they tell a story that’s a little more a lie than a legend. Making these right has a long and storied tradition.
It’s what we leave undone, unsaid, unspoken, that we don’t—sometimes we can’t know.
Who knows what would have happened, if at the heart of the most sacred place in the center of Jewish life, one of the greatest masters of that faith stayed, fought, and died a martyr? Would it have damaged or diminished Jewish religious life? Or would the power and meaning of that death propel the Jewish faith into a way of believing in the importance of sacred people in a sacred place? We will never know, for that is not what came to pass. It was left undone.
Some say, that the choice Ben Zakkai made that day was the choice to say that a person’s faith, their belief in those about them has a dwelling place not in the great chambers of a palatial temple, but in the chambers of a faithful heart. That is very beautiful. And some say, his brother stuffed him in that coffin and shut the lid tight.
Now, as a Unitarian Universalist community, we do a lot. And I know how much some of us don’t like to hear that there are things we have left undone. I know how frustrating it feels to know that we might not complete all there is to do in the world in our little lifetime. I know how it feels to begin to accept that we might have to leave saving the world undone. And feeling this way can start to make us overwhelmed, distraught, or maybe even like we are about to come undone, And that is when we must remember that a story becomes a legend for a reason: because a legend helps us find our way. It unlocks the mysteries of the maps we have in our life.
Because the noble death of one person was left undone, a faith of millions upon millions lives today. The space left open is space where the newest seeds take root. In this month when we look at the theme of Harvest, we must start with planting, right? And sure, we can keep planting in soil we know, in the ways of life and living we know well. There is a lot of merit to that.
But in these days of awe, in the time of asking deeper questions about how we want to be in relationship with one another, making room for what we haven’t tried yet, for what we may not even know needs doing, literally to wonder what we might do for our sibling, or what we might do for our self when someone wronged us good, and it’s sticking in our brain, and no matter what we do, they will not make it right, what we have left undone: letting it go.
I know. It’s not always as easy as that. We aren’t all in a temple beset by villains, faced with the question of staying and possibly dying or leaving and letting go. But I remember a time for me I’ve spoken about before while standing right here. It was a time during a heart procedure many years ago—I’m 100% fine now, don’t worry—but there was a dicey moment during that procedure when I didn’t know whether I’d be waking up from the anesthesia they were administering so they could get the paddles out. And the last thought that went through my head, before electricity was passed through my heart, was, “God, I am so grateful I let go of the worst things anyone ever did to me and forgave them.”
But friends, the good news of sowing a future together, is that we don’t have to wait until they’re warming the paddles up for us. We don’t have to wait for a ride in a coffin past people who want us dead. What we have left undone is ours for the taking, ours for the making and remaking, ours to go from suffocating to breath taking.
The beauty of the Kol Nidrei David and Amy gave us wasn’t when they lifted the bow off the strings and the hands of the keys. That’s when it was done.
Music is what happens when a song is undone.
Hope for an end of suffering is what happens when a psalm is undone.
And surpassing peace is always possible, now, here, together—peace is what can happen so long as our lives are undone.
For what we have done is written in one of the books, but what we have left undone remains merely a story, or maybe a legend, where we are protected by our family of faith, as they guide us safely, carrying us home once again, to the place we know less by the structures that grow, and more by the compassion, justice, and joy we sow.
And may it ever be so. Blessed be and amen.
NOTE: The camera quit about 10 minutes into the sermon. We apologize for the inconvenience – Rev. T. J.