Categorizing Our Way to Holiness (Yom Kippur 2019)

Posted on October 10, 2019

by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

The Thursday before Rosh Hashanah, I reminded our five year old that he would be going on a trip the next morning.  I said, “Remember?  You and Daddy and Gersh are flying down to Florida for cousin Nell’s wedding, and you’ll come back Sunday in time for Rosh Hashanah dinner.”

And he says, “Are you coming?”

And I say:  “No, kiddo. Since I’m a rabbi, I need to stay here this time, since it’s almost Rosh Hashanah.  I need to lead services Friday night and get ready to lead on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday.  But, you’ll get to be with all the cousins and be with everyone.”

And he says:  “But, not the girl cousins.”

So, I say:  “Why not the girl cousins?”

And he says, “Because, Ima, most girls are rabbis.”

 

So—we all live in our bubbles and make sense of the world as best we can.  And, it’s true that 100% of the girls that Rocky lives with [point to self] are rabbis.

Just like Rocky puts things in categories—girls, rabbis; boys, um, wedding-goers—we all need to figure out what goes with what.  From the time we are very, very small, we are making categories in our heads:  person I know; thing I want to put in my mouth; and, a little later, thing that will get a big reaction out of my brother. 

By the time we’re a little older, we’re making day-to-day, moment-to-moment category calls constantly, without even knowing we are doing so.  We’re assessing those around us as like us or not like us; figuring out what language to use to address the person standing in front of us—or whether to address them at all.

For most of us, making categories like this is a part of being human.  We are built to make distinctions.  If we couldn’t categorize, we wouldn’t be able to do basic things like naming objects, or knowing the difference between a table and stool (they both have legs and a top)—or a table and… a dog.  Categories help us figure out the right word for an object or situation, for what is right and fair, and for what is appropriate and inappropriate in any given setting. 

Categorizing is highly prized in Jewish story, law, and ritual.  The very first actions of God in the first story of Creation in Genesis are all about making distinctions:  separating light from dark and waters from dry land.  King Solomon is said to have been the wisest of all because as a child he asked God for the ability to “discern between good and evil.”[1]  Our Havdalah ritual at the end of Shabbat and holidays comes from the word “l’havdil” to separate and make distinctions between.  We categorize a night like to tonight as “holy,” in contrast to other nights that are just “regular.”

 

But, at times—and we all know it—categorizing gets in our way.  On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the categories we make in our heads that classify other people and ourselves on a civic level as “100%, absolutely right or as fundamentally wrong”—and, about how, through that, we miss out on the opportunity to imagine each other and understand each other’s vulnerability. 

This evening, I want to give us an opportunity through our ability to categorize, and think together about how, when we engage in Yom Kippur soul searching, we tend to categorize ourselves. 

 

We make several Vidui’ot, confessions, over the course of this 24 hours.  Some are personal, but most are communal.  “Ashamnubagadnu,” we say:  “We have been guilty; we have betrayed; we have stolen….” 

I think that there are several categories that we might put ourselves in, when we interact with the Vidui:  as good-doers, as wrong-doers, as something in between.  And, it’s with this that I want all of us to engage in some important work of cheshbon ha-nefesh, personal accounting, as we interact with this text throughout our day. 

If you are in the category of “I’ve never done any of these things”—or, “I’ve done them all and I don’t care”—this is not particularly the sermon for you.  But, I do invite you to come talk with me or my clergy colleagues sometime soon….

There are two other categories, though, that I think fit most of us each year—maybe some of us even go back and forth.  You may have other categories:  we are human categorizing machines after all.  But, come along with me and see if either of these fits you, and I’ll give you a rabbinic prize of a text just for you.

Category 1:  For some of us, when we read the communal Vidui, we think to ourselves, “Sure, I’ve done some of these a bit, but I pretty much think that these are about what other people in our community have done, not me.”  “I’m happy to confess,” we might think, “because I know that these are things people have done, and I know that all of our fates are wrapped up in each other’s.  What someone in my extended community has done, I bear some responsibility for, so, sure, fine, I’ll confess to that.” 

Is this you?  Is this your category?  It’s isn’t bad thing at all.  You are acknowledging a fundamental Jewish understanding that kol Yisrael aravim zeh ba-zeh, we are all reliant on each other and mixed up with one another.  You are understanding that our human categories sometimes need to blurred so that we can understand communal impact and support each other.

And, I want to give you a text to contemplate as you work your way through the rest of our Yom Kippur day. 

The Torah teaches us,

Atem nitzavim ha-yom:  all of you stand here today, in the presence of Adonai your God—your tribal heads, elders, and officials; every man, woman, and child… and the stranger in the midst of your camp; from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water—to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God.[2]

That is, to those of us in Category 1:  our Torah teaches that every single one of us is in conversation with every single part of our covenant, with every single mitzvah, positive and negative, with every single action we might take.  All of us are capable of doing right and wrong.  For those of us in this category, I want to offer us the chance to think about how we individually are acting in relationship to our list of confessions, and where we each can place ourselves within each one.  What metaphor can allow us to see where we have strayed in each of these ways.  Not other people:  us.  Not to beat ourselves up, but to do an honest reckoning and find our way back to our right path.  If we work this day to find ourselves in the text, we can use it as a jumping point for furthering our understanding of ourselves as capable of return and of truly holy actions.

Category 2:  For some of us, when we read the communal confession, and we say, “We have been guilty; we have betrayed; we have stolen,” we think, “You’re right:  I am terrible.”

As Rabbi Ari Hart writes,

Some people don’t need Yom Kippur to list their shortcomings.

They do it every day.

[Our Vidui can cause harm to those of us] struggling with depression, anxiety, and all the illnesses that live deep inside our minds, our hearts and our souls that say: “You’re not good enough… you’re a failure… you can’t get anything right…you might as well give up.”[3]

Is this you?  Is this your category tonight? 

If so, I want you to know something.  We all want you to know something, and we want you to know that we believe it, and that the Holy One believes it.  Whatever is whole and holy believes it.  This confession we say is in the plural because we are in this together, and we believe in you.

A text for you for this day:  U-vacharta ba-chayim, “Choose life.” 

That is to say, when you can, choose to know that you are whole and you are holy and you are alive.  We are all whole; we are all holy; we are all alive even when things go wrong.  And things do go wrong, because we are human.  But we are loveable in our humanity. 

As Rabbi Hart writes,

When you get out of bed, even if you’re an hour late—you are choosing life….
When you reach out—you are choosing life….

When you get [the help and] treatment you need—you are choosing life.[iv]

We are here for each other to support each other in choosing life.

Our communal confession is an expression of the pain of the world:  that we are all capable of doing things that cause harm and pain. 

Our ability to categorize actions as right or as missteps is our gift as humans, through which we can strive to better love ourselves and each other.

Our two texts are the same text, both from our Torah reading tomorrow from the end of Deuteronomy.[v]  We stand here, all of us, in our covenant, in one category of seekers and meaning makers and holy people—and together we get to choose life.  Each of singly, and all of us together.  We are holy.

So, how do we do it?

It is not only through the big sweeping gestures.  It is through our smallest, often unthinking acts of kindness that we can give to one another.

The poet Danusha Laméris wrote in her poem “Small Kindnesses”[vi]—and you’ll forgive this rabbi on Yom Kippur for mentioning in it something from the category “shellfish” which she might otherwise have left to a conversation about the pros and cons of keeping kosher.

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by.  Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead — you first,” “I like your hat.”

May we go forward into this day, our day of confession, turning our confessions around:  we have categorized ourselves and our actions, but we are holy and we are capable of incredible kindness and goodness.

In a world where most girls are rabbis, we are capable of reaching for the stars.

[1] I Kings 3:9.

[2] Deut. 29:9-11.

[3] Ari Hart, Facebook post, 10/8/2019.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Many congregations in the Reform movement read from Parashat Nitzavim on Yom Kippur morning.

[vi] Appeared in the New York Times, 9/19/2019.