Detours (Yom Kippur sermon)

Posted on September 27, 2021

Rabbi Jordana Schuster Battis
Erev Yom Kippur • September 15, 2021 • 10 Tishrei 5782

I was listening to back episodes of Radical Candor recently.  It’s a podcast I like, by the authors of a book by the same name, about leadership and workplace dynamics.  As I worked my way through Season 1 of the podcast and moved on to Season 2, I heard the podcast hosts reach spring of 2020.  Ironically, a previous week’s episode had been about remote teams, answering the question:  How do you stay connected when your team or boss doesn’t work in the same location as you do?[1]  But, in April 2020, the team has just come back from a broadcasting hiatus, and you can hear in their voices that they are frantic.  They are trying so hard to offer wisdom and advice from within the midst of the immediate trauma after the shutdown, and they make nervous jokes about use of Zoom for meetings, since they are supposed to be experts in that, right?  They are embarrassed that their children might walk in while they’re recording—because they’re at work, and children don’t walk in in the middle of work!  And they make comments like, “If you are listening to this later, we are recording this episode while we’re still in the pandemic.”

It is painful to listen to, because:  they have no idea.  It is uncomfortable to hear their frenzy and panic as the world has just ground to a halt, because those are feelings that we all worked through ourselves not so long ago and it’s far too recent to be able to feel much sympathy for people who don’t know what we know yet.  It’s equally uncomfortable to hear what now sounds like extremely naïve optimism from them, as they assume that all will be back to normal in just a few weeks’ time.

They think that they are on a detour from the real story of their lives.  They don’t know that the detour is the real route after all.

I found it uncomfortable in an itchy kind of way to listen to these episodes because:  oof, I remember that feeling; I was saying those things too.  And looking back:  how could they not have known?  How could we not have known?

(I couldn’t make it through the episodes.)

I am sorry, by the way, if there is anyone here to whom I ever unwittingly offered false hope or if I in any way discounted your fears.  I don’t remember exactly, but I imagine that I said things back in April of 2020 like, “I can’t imagine that by June we won’t to celebrate your child’s Bar Mitzvah in a normal way….”

It’s painful to remember that too.

The fact is that we are still in the middle of a story that we don’t know what it is yet.  We may feel like we’ve gone off our route, but we don’t actually know what route we are really on.

 

There’s a famous cartoon—well, famous in rabbinic circles at least—showing the Israelites in the Wilderness, with Moses shouting to the assembled crowd in the background, “This way! Follow me!”, while in the foreground a woman is discreetly talking to someone while holding a map.  The caption reads:  “After 39½ years of wandering in the desert, Mrs. Moses secretly asks for directions.”

We will remind the cartoonist that Mrs. Moses does have a name of her own:  Tziporah.  But, the cartoon inspires a laugh not only because of the unfortunate gender stereotype about who in a family might be the most likely to rely on their ego while driving around in circles and who will humbly go ahead and ask for help, but it is also funny because:  it’s true that it simply does not take 40 years to walk from the land of Egypt to the land of Israel, even if you go the long way around through the Red Sea, and take a good sized camping break at the foot of a mountain along the way.  It’s just not that far.

It could be easy to read the Torah—all the way from the middle of the book of Exodus right after they leave Egypt through nearly the end of Deuteronomy, as a long, circuitous, disoriented detour, in which all the Israelites are trying to do is to get from Point A (Egypt) to Point B (Promised Land).  But later rabbinic tradition, and even Torah itself, has a lot to say about why the Israelites needed to spend 40 years in the Wilderness, rather than just getting better directions and a taking a more direct route.  They weren’t lost, the rabbis say.  It wasn’t circuitous.  The meandering route was the point.  The Israelites needed that full span of 40 years to learn how to be a people and develop a new set of relationships in covenant with God and with each other—and that takes time; and on top of that, the generation who left Egypt were too stuck in the mindset of being slaves and too afraid of the risks ahead to be able to be the founders of a new way of life in the Promised Land.  Each incident that’s described in the Torah about things that happened along the way bears significance—the rabbis say—that helped define the Israelites, and ultimately the Jewish people, us, as who we have come to be, even if 39½ years in, Tziporah and the rest of the crowd, maybe even Moses himself, had some doubts about why things were taking so very long.

It’s only after you get to the end of the Torah and beyond that you can look back at it and know what any of it was really “all about.”  And Moses by that time is… dead.

Which all seems to say that the journey that we take is less about the destination we are intending to reach—back to “normal” from the pandemic; on to the Promised Land for Moses—and more about what we experience and learn along the way and what we do with the moments that are granted to us.

This is nothing new.  We all know that Dorothy starts at home and ends at home, which is her goal, but that she is transformed by her journey such that “home” has come to mean something new.  Without the journey, the actual destination never even really exist.  At the same time, it can’t mean we’re supposed to stop trying to reach our goals.  There’s no journey without an intended endpoint—even if the endpoint might sometimes change in time or location as we go along our way.

So—we’re supposed to pick a destination, work toward it, trust that our detours are not really detours but are actually the point, and trust that we will be able to create meaning looking back on it all in retrospect!?  From a Jewish point of view:  Yes.  That’s it exactly.  That is exactly what Jewish tradition says.

I, for one, understand this much better in theory than I do in practice.  It is hard to live simultaneously accepting the gifts and lessons of the moment while working toward a goal that might also keep shifting, all the while knowing that I won’t know what any of it has really meant until I’m able to look back on it all in retrospect.

 

Earlier in Moses’s life, there is a seminal moment about the importance of going off the path.  He’s recently left the road he thought he was on as a prince of Egypt, raised by Pharaoh’s own daughter.  He’s become a shepherd instead in the land of Midian, and he goes with a flock of his father-in-law’s sheep up into the hills.  There, already on this grand life detour, he goes off route again:  he sees a bush aflame in the wilderness and says, “I must turn aside to look at this great sight.”  From that moment of going off the path, which of course turns out to be his first encounter with God, Moses’s journey is redefined.  When he goes home to Egypt again, it is in the new role as the Israelites’ champion and leader.  The detour redefined him, redefined home, created new goals for him, and set the Israelites on their journey as well.

The author Parker Palmer writes in a poem[2]:

Sooner or later, everything falls away.
You, the work you’ve done, your successes,
large and small, your failures, too. Those
moments when you were light, along-
side the times you became one with the
night….

Everything falls away, except the thread
you’ve followed, unknowing, all along.
The thread that strings together all you’ve
been and done, the thread you didn’t know
you were tracking until, toward the end,
you see that the thread is what stays
as everything else falls away….

It’s the great lesson of Yom Kippur, isn’t it?  Our acts define us, but we don’t know all of their meaning and significance until much later, if at all.  We don’t always know which of our actions most “count”—or, as John Lennon famously put it, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”  But then we look back at the road we’ve taken thus far and see:

….Your life never was the solo turn it seemed to be.
It was always part of the great weave of
nature and humanity, an immensity we
come to know only as we follow our own
small threads to the place where they
merge with the boundless whole.

There are throughlines that have been with us all along, that connect us back to ourselves at every stage along the way and that also connect us outward, onward, upward, to the immensity of everything.

It’s incredible permission, actually, to be allowed to be wherever our journey takes us, as off-course as it may sometimes seem.  Shabbat reminds us that it is right to rest along the way, even when we are set to move forward on our journey.  The Book of Jonah, which we’ll read tomorrow afternoon, reminds us that Jonah is who he is because of his journey into the belly of the whale.  Like Esther, perhaps it is precisely these detour moments for which we were created.

We may think that our destination is a return to normalcy, back to the way things once were.  But we know, at the same time, that “normal” will need to mean something new when we get there.  If we don’t transform through this journey, with “normal” coming to mean something new, then I think it’s fair to say that the destination we thought we were heading towards actually never really existed.

And this is t’shuvah, right?: the “return” that this Yom Kippur day calls us to:  not returning to the way we were but returning to ourselves in a new understanding of what it means to be whole.  In the words of rabbi and therapist Rex Perlmeter, “T’shuvah is accepting who I am now while aspiring to who I might be.”

The story is told of a rabbi who is asked by his students, who are eager to be discerning in the right way of following Jewish law:  “Master, how should one determine the hour in which night ends and day begins? Is it when a person can distinguish a sheep from a dog in the distance?  Is it when one can distinguish a date tree and a fig tree from afar?”  “No,” the rabbi says, “It is when you look into the face of a stranger and see your sister or brother.  Until then, night is still with us….”

We are still “one with the night.”

 

We are still in our journey through the night of this pandemic.  We are still on our journey of facing the ramifications of our deep interconnectedness with each other, across lines of home, state, and country; wealth, race, environment; red and blue; haves and have-nots; justice and injustice.  In the words of activist Sonya Renee Taylor

We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends.[3]

We wish it were as simple as asking for directions, but perhaps the directions will only make sense anyway when we are even farther in.  When we can look at each other and care for each other in new covenant.  We will not return to the way things were—we cannot, and we should not—but wherever we end up, we will find that we have kept ahold of our own small thread, following them alongside each other until we find each other again, not as strangers but as kin, not with discomfort about what we didn’t used to know or with upset about who we have been but with acceptance that the journey from there to here was no detour after all but has meaning that we will eventually make of it—in the end.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

[1] Radical Candor podcast.  See episode Season 1, episode 10 (2017), and the first episodes of Season 2 (April-May 2020).

[2] Parker Palmer, “Everything Falls Away” (2020).  See full poem on Palmer’s Facebook page (https://m.facebook.com/parkerjpalmer/photos/a.448150067077/10157031297237078/?type=3&source=57&__tn__=EH-R).

[3] https://www.instagram.com/p/B-fc3ejAlvd/?hl=en.