Erev Yom Kippur Sermon
10 Tishri, 5778 – September 29, 2017
This is the most sacred of nights. The gates of heaven are wide open as God is sitting in judgement over us. God is listening to our prayers and hoping, even praying (yes, God prays for us) that we will make teshuvah, that we will return to the purer and better parts of ourselves. God wants us to become more sensitive, caring, kind and loving human beings. God wants us to stand up for justice and to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. Rabbi Tzvi Freeman once wrote, “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and how ugly it is, then it is yourself that needs repair.”[i] There is so much wrong with our city, country, nation and world. Yet it is filled with beauty and goodness. It is important to be acknowledge the truth for if we are not honest with ourselves, who are we really fooling?
Just one story about being honest and then on to some serious business.
There were four college seniors taking microbiology. All of them had an “A” in class so they decided to take a road trip to New Orleans and party for the weekend before the big final exam. They were having such a good time that they delayed leaving until Monday morning and missed the exam. Not a big deal, they collectively decided. They would tell the professor they were visiting friends and had a flat tire on the way back to campus. The professor listened to their excuse and allowed them to take the exam the following day. The four seniors were excited and relieved! They studied all day and night for the exam. The next day, the professor placed them in separate rooms and gave them each a test booklet. They quickly answered the first question worth five points. Each one, in a separate room, thought this was going to be an easy exam…then they turned the page…on the second page was written…
For 95 points: Which tire?
God wants us to be honest with ourselves and honest with others. God does not want us to be perfect but God does want us to be righteous. God wants us to live as if we were one of the lamed vav tsaddikim, the thirty six righteous ones. Let me tell you about them.
The source of the Jewish legend of the Lamed-Vavniks is in the Talmud (Sukkah 45b): Rav Abbaye declared, “There are never less than thirty six just men in the world who greet the Shekhinah [God’s worldly presence] every day, for it is written in the book of Isaiah 30:18, “Blessed are all who wait for Him.” The word “him” in Hebrew is spelled “lamed-vav.” The numerical equivalent of lamed is thirty and that of vav is six. Hence we have thirty six righteous people. Although Abbaye does not explicitly say that these thirty six people keep the world from destruction, his statement implies that they have the power to ward off the harshness of God’s judgment.
What is the source of Abbaye’s statement? This question was addressed by Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism who wrote “The Tradition of the Thirty-Six Hidden Just Men” in 1962. In this essay, Scholem speculates that the number 36 “originates in ancient astrology, where the 360 degrees of the heavenly circle are divided into thirty-six units of ten, the so-called ‘deans.’” Scholem explained:
“A dean-divinity ruled over each segment of the divided circle of the zodiac, holding sway over ten days of the year…. In Egyptian Hellenistic sources, the deans were regarded also as watchmen and custodians of the universe, and it is quite conceivable that the number thirty-six, which Abbaye read into Scripture, no longer represented these cosmological powers or forces but rather human figures.”[ii]
Abbaye was Judaizing a pagan concept by turning its thirty six personified astrological powers that determined the world’s fate into thirty six righteous Jews on which the world’s fate depended. If you have ever been to the fourth century synagogue at Beit Alpha in the Galilee, you have seen the mosaics that depict the twelve astrological signs. It seems our people, under Greek influence, took astrology very seriously. Despite its origin, the legend of the lamed vav tsadikkim has immense power, especially for us on this night of nights.
These thirty six righteous ones are not aware of their status and do not know the others. They are oblivious to their own righteousness. They are kind, giving, and compassionate human beings- so much so that the Tradition tells us that the world exists on their account. God will not destroy the world because they are its pillars. Through their merit the world survives. When one dies, another is born. Any of us could be one of the thirty six. He or she could be the most humble of people or the most exalted. There is no way to tell. All we know is that they are the most selfless of people. Many a righteous Gentile during the Shoah saved Jews at his or her own peril. There are some who devote their lives to work with refugees or to bring food to the starving. Others strive at all cost to change unjust laws, to champion the cause of the oppressed, and to bring comfort to those in emotional or physical pain. There is a story told about the Baal Shem Tov who heard that one of the thirty six lived in a small village in Galicia. He traveled to the village and looked and looked for the righteous one. He talked to everyone he thought might be the righteous one- a wise rabbi, a charitable merchant, even the smartest student in the Yeshiva. He still wasn’t sure. Then, when he slept at night, he dreamt. He saw an image of an older man who cleaned the public latrines during the day but at night told jokes at weddings and in the local tavern. His vision told him that this most simple of men was the one he was seeking. When the Baal Shem Tov awoke, he went to find this man, only to learn that he left town during the night. No one knew where he went. The Baal Shem Tov was ashamed of himself. He did not imagine that this unpretentious person could be a lamed vavnik. Yet this person ensured that the people of this town stayed free of disease and were able to laugh at themselves and one another. He helped make them happy. The Baal Shem Tov understood and went home.
When I was twenty four years old, I was sitting in the waiting room of Hadassah Hospital’s ER in Jerusalem. I don’t remember why I was there but I do remember what happened next. I saw a small Arab woman come into the ER with her son. He might have been in his late teens or early twenties but was so emaciated it was hard to tell. She was crying and screaming for help while holding up her son. I, like most people there, could have ignored her, yet something made me get up and go to her. I literally picked up her son in my arms and carried him to the nurses’ station where I put him on a gurney. I don’t remember if his mother thanked me or not. It is not important. I realized afterwards that perhaps for the first and only time in my life I did something selfless, something for which I would receive no gain, no thanks, and no reward. This one act certainly does not qualify me to be a lamed vavnik, I have too many faults for that, but I do understand how selfless a lamed vavnik must be. I also learned that God wants us to live as if each of us is a lamed vavnik.
This past year, over 150 of us participated in the backpack program in which we fed hundreds of hungry, homeless children in Baltimore City. Not one of us expected to receive a thank you note. We just did it, and continue to do it, because it is the right thing to do. Thousands of others are giving of themselves as we speak in Texas and in Florida, aiding those who have been impacted by the recent hurricanes. There are countless others among us who do discreet good deeds that make the lives of others so much better. I am aware of some of the acts of gemilut chasadim done by you, but what is important is that God knows.
That, dear friends, is the moral of this sermon. God wants us to live as if each of us is a lamed vavnik. God does not expect us to perfect, for that is impossible. God, however, wants us to strive with all of our being, to become more giving, compassionate, and loving human beings. In tomorrow morning’s Haftarah, from the Book of Isaiah, God tell us what we need to do to earn God’s favor:
This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to make to take the wretched poor into your house; When you see the naked to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin…If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand and evil speech, and you offer your compassion to the hungry…Then shall your light shine in darkness and your gloom shall be like noonday (Isaiah 58:6-7, 9-10).
Each one of us, no matter how young or old, healthy or infirm, can do more to lift the yoke of oppression that burdens others. Let us in this New Year of 5778 devote ourselves to healing some of the hurt around us. Let us live as if we were lamed vavniks. We shall avert God’s judgement and, when our time comes and we stand before God, we can truly say, “Adonai, I may not have been a lamed vavnik, but I tried my best. I truly tried my best.”
Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova
[i] From Moments of the Spirit, compiled by Dov Peretz Elkins
[ii] Forward, May 22, 2008