New For Yom Kippur: Isaiah 57:14-58:14 Reimagined

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Stop for just this moment
and consider:
the roads you are traveling
will not lead you to my kingdom.
You journey so proudly
so blindly
through this barren land
and I can abide it
no longer.

Your false piety
has become unbearable to me.
You look up to the skies,
you say all the right prayers
yet somehow you cannot see
that the world is coming apart
all around you.

You look for me endlessly,
you ask me to show you the way;
how can you be so eager to know me
yet so unwilling to see my face
in the one who is standing
right next to you?

You fast on this holy day of yours
while children go hungry in your own city
and families line up for bags of grain.
You pray for your martyrs,
you recite Yizkor and Kaddish
then sell handguns and Apache helicopters,
and profit from the blood they spill.

You call for inclusion and compassion
while you build a system of racism
and oppression that grows
without end.
You march for peace
but refuse to see the difference
between the hollow peace
of domination and control
and the true peace
of justice for all.

You advocate for human rights
in far off lands
and yet you lock up and shoot down
black and brown bodies
in your own backyard.
You chant from your holy texts:
“do not oppress because
we were once oppressed”
while you occupy another people.
You wield your legacy of victimhood
like a weapon
as you expel and expropriate,
build checkpoints and demolish homes.

You preach of freedom
and democracy
and yet you treat the world
as your personal fiefdom.
you topple governments of nations
that refuse to serve your interests,
prop up tyrannical regimes
to ensure your hegemony.

Your fast today is meaningless to me.
Do you really think this is the fast I desire:
to forgo food for one day
to intone the same prayers
to your confess the same sins
year after year?
Do you believe such a fast,
will make a difference?

No, this is the fast I desire,
dismantle your systems of oppression
open wide your prisons,
tear down your separation walls,
destroy your weapons of death
let justice rule in your streets.

Open wide the vaults and
share your abundant wealth so that
all are fed and clothed and sheltered.
Bring in the immigrants,
let the refugees return home
at long last.

These are the sacred sacrifices
I have been asking of you all along.
Do you think you are up to the task?
Will you offer them to me?
Will you let go of your old ways,
your hollow meaningless rituals
and find the courage to worship
with offerings that I truly require?

Are you ready to spread my healing
across this broken bleeding world,
to stop looking forward and behind,
and venture into the dark places
you would never dare to tread,
only to realize you yourselves have been
dwelling there all along?
Do you have the strength to say
to the ones whom you find there:
hineini
here I am, here I am,
here I am.

These sacrifices you offer up to me
cannot possibly be sustained.
Your well will run dry,
the source of your very lives
will be depleted and soon
you will have nothing left to give.

So let these wells dry up,
seek out the springs that give forth
life giving waters without end.
Restore the foundations of my world
Tear down the walls you have built,
Rebuild the homes you have destroyed
Erase the borders that you have drawn.

Open your sidewalks and pathways,
your roads and highways,
clear the way for all
to find their way without fear
and you will discover a place
you never dreamed could
ever possibly exist:

the place where the low is brought high
and the high is brought low:
the kingdom of heaven
that dwells right here
on earth.


Yizkor and the Rhythms of Remembrance

As we do every year, JRC just observed a Yizkor (“Memorial”) service to mark the end of the Pesach holiday. This particular year, I introduced our memorial prayers by saying that mourning itself is something of an open-ended journey – and one that rarely unfolds in a predictable manner. I also pointed out that more recent research in the psychology of grief tends to reject the linear “Stages of Grief” approach made famous by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.

From a recent piece in The New Yorker:

Though Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, new research suggests that grief and mourning don’t follow a checklist; they’re complicated and untidy processes, less like a progression of stages and more like an ongoing process—sometimes one that never fully ends.

I do believe that the notion of grief as an “ongoing process” is at the heart of the Yizkor memorial observance. It often feels to me that there is a powerful rhythm to the practice of saying memorial prayers during major four festivals of the year (Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot). Since each festival has its own unique spiritual themes, the process of ongoing Yizkor observance drives home the truth that grief is a cyclical – rather than linear – experience

Here is my own take on how this process resonates through the Jewish holiday season:

Yizkor of Yom Kippur – “Dwelling in the In-Between:” the Day of Atonement is, if you will, the spiritually rawest time of the Jewish calendar. It is the time in which we acknoweldge our mortality and look into the coming year with a potent emotional mix of awe and trepidation. The tenor of Yizkor for Yom Kippur thus resonates with the pain and uncertainty that inevitably comes with grief. In the juncture between a year past and a year yet to come, we allow ourselves to dwell in that “in-between place” between the past we know and the future we have yet to experience.

Yizkor of Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret – “Preparing for Winter:” Immediately after the harvest festival of Sukkot comes the observance of Shemini Atzeret, which marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. Our Yizkor prayers are recited during our preparation for winter – the season in which we construct the necessary protection and defenses for these cold, dark months. Yizkor for Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret honors these defenses – as well as the spiritual work we know we must do in order to make it through the long nights ahead.

Yizkor of Pesach – “Inevitability of Life Renewed:” On Passover we begin to see the green shoots of new life sprouting up from the previously hard, fallow earth. The natural world around us testifies to the inevitability of liberation – and we come to understand that this rebirth is indeed woven into the very fabric of creation. So too, with our own lives as we walk the path of the mourner: the Yizkor of Pesach comes to remind us that there is life after grief as surely as Spring follows Winter.

Yizkor of Shavuot – “Celebrating the Fruits of our Labor:” On Shavuot, we bring in the harvest. As Spring moves in to full bloom, we now begin to reap what we’ve sown. We now affirm that all of the hard work (and bereavement is nothing if not hard work) does indeed pay off if we do it in a spirit of openness and love. On this Yizkor, we celebrate the fruits of our labors – and rededicate ourselves to the journey ahead.

It’s a shame that the observance of Yizkor tends to be falling off among liberal Jews. I truly believe there is great spiritual resonance in these rituals – which cycle outward over the seasons and throughout the years. Even for those who are not traditionally observant Jews, there is real meaning to be found in these rhythms of remembrance.

The next Yizkor will occur in several weeks, on Shavuot. (May you reap a bountiful harvest…)