Sealing the Gates of Heaven

sealed_gate

According to an order from the most high
the first day of the month shall be a sacred occasion
when the shofar is sounded the gates will be sealed
and all roads will be closed to you.
You shall not you leave your homes
nor work at your occupations.
lest you and your kin be put to death.

Like fires lit on ancient mountaintops
the announcement spread throughout the land;
when the new moon came the wall was locked tight
so the people could gather in their houses of prayer
to greet another new year.

And the Chazan sang:
As a shepherd numbering his flocks
passing his sheep under his staff
thus I count you off one by one,
marking your every move, noting your every thought
writing you down in my Book of Life
that I may decree
who shall live and who shall die.

Day after day they sent out
fearful prayers into the dark dread
of a year they did not yet know,
desperately hoping their lives would be spared
by the merciful judge on high.

For today it is written
and in ten days it will be sealed
who will be taken in the dead of night
and who shall sleep until morning
who will die and who will be born
into this cruel and pitiless world

When the festival came to an end
the great shofar was sounded
and a still small voice was heard:
The gates of heaven are sealed;
they do will open to your prayers.

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Wrestling Our Way Home: A Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5773

From my Erev Yom Kippur sermon last Tuesday:

I’ve often thought that there’s (a different Torah portion) that is just as appropriate – perhaps even more appropriate – for Yom Kippur.  I’m referring to the famous episode in the 32nd and 33rdchapters of Genesis, when Jacob wrestles on a riverbank with a mysterious stranger the night before he meets up with his estranged twin brother Esau.

Anyone who’s read or studied this text will attest that it’s a phenomenal story with deliciously rich spiritual symbolism.  Indeed, I often find myself returning to this portion for its insights on forgiveness, reconciliation and personal transformation.  All of which, of course, are central themes to the Yom Kippur holiday.

So on this Yom Kippur eve, please allow me to submit this story as an alternative Torah portion for your spiritual consideration. I hope its lessons will help us all engage more deeply in the spiritual work that lays ahead this coming new year.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

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Jacob Gets His Blessing

he tells him let me go the sun is rising but
jacob doesn’t hear all he hears is esau the elder esau the
stronger esau his father’s favorite who had eagerly
entered his father’s tent he’s hearing those awful
cries don’t you have a blessing left for me bless me
too father bless me too the words bursting out of
the tent please please bless me too
father over and over and over their bodies are writhing the
dark water splashing against the cold night air please bless
me too father bless me
he pins him against the slope of
the riverbank now jacob is screaming please bless me father he
shakes him like a limp rag doll sobbing i will not
let you go until you BLESS ME
the sun peeking over the jabbok jacob
looks down at his face and sees
his father beaming with love and pride at
long last his mother saying
it is safe to come home now my son his
brother saying seeing your face is like
seeing the face of god jacob blinks water
from his eyes the river is silent still mirror
clear he stands up sees the sun
and slowly limps his way across
the water

(Genesis 27:38, 32:25-27)


Locking Our Children Away: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5772

Cedric Cal was born to a single mother, in a family that lived below the poverty line on Chicago’s West Side. His father had left the family, married another woman and had very little to do with him. His mother Olivia worked constantly, doing her best to keep her family together. As the oldest of four, Cedric became the de facto father of the family and was entrusted with protecting his younger brother, who was legally blind.

Cedric’s family moved around a lot and he learned very early on how to make friends quickly. He liked sports, particularly baseball – and when his family lived on the West Side, he played sports in the local Park District. When they moved to the South Side, however, there were no Park District services available, so sports were not an option for him. Still, no matter where they moved, Olivia became very adept at finding ways of getting Cedric and and brothers into decent public schools. From 5th to 8th grade, he attended Alcott Elementary. Minding his younger brother, he took the public bus every day on a long trek from the West Side to Lincoln Park.

Cedric’s mother taught him how to fill out applications and interview for jobs, but there really weren’t any to be found. And those that were hiring certainly weren’t hiring African-American teenage boys. He was never really successful at finding a real job,  but when he was 14 he learned that he could make money dealing drugs. He knew that his mother would be beyond furious if she ever found out, so he made sure to keep his drug dealing and his growing gang activity secret from her. Cedric never, ever, brought his earnings into their home – his mother had made it clear that drug money was not welcome anywhere near her house. Even when he bought a car, he parked it far away from their home.

I met and spoke with Cedric two weeks ago at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. He explained to me that as he continued to sell drugs, as he continued the gang life, little by little, he became “desensitized to the things my mother had taught me.” It was quite poignant and sweet to listen to Cedric speak about his mother. “My mother,” he said, “has a lovely spirit,” adding: “I was scared to death of my mother.” He told me of one instance in which Olivia confronted drug dealers on a street corner with a two by four in her hand. Cedric laughed and said that could scare even the toughest gang members in the neighborhood.

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For Elul: Robi’s Letter

Some more Elul reading material for you:

In March 2002 Robi Damelin’s 28 year old son, David, was shot and killed by a Palestinian while serving in the Israeli army. Robi has since become a leader in The Parents’ Circle, a group of Israeli and Palestinian families whose lives have been torn apart by violence and now work together for reconciliation and peace.

As part of her own work, Robi decided to take the courageous step of writing a letter to the mother of the man who killed her son.  I can think of nothing more appropriate to this season of our reconciliation than Robi’s profound words.

An excerpt:

After your son was captured, I spent many sleepless nights thinking about what to do, should I ignore the whole thing, or will I be true to my integrity and to the work that I am doing and try to find a way for closure and reconciliation. This is not easy for anyone and I am just an ordinary person not a saint I have now come to the conclusion that I would like to try to find a way to reconcile. Maybe this is difficult for you to understand or believe, but I know that in my heart it is the only path that I can chose, for if what I say is what I mean it is the only way.

Click below for the entire text:

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