Sermon for Yom Kippur Day 2020 ~ Return us to our Path

This past Tuesday I took a nice three-mile walk from my house to the end of Orienta Avenue and back. I was reminded of the words of Henry David Thoreau reflecting on why he left his cabin at Walden. 

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels.”

I walked the path from my back door to the rock wall at the end of Orienta and back so many times from March until August that I half expected to see a path worn in the sidewalks and the asphalt from my steps. In March and April it was eerily quiet. In May and June many more people were out walking, kids playing who should have been in school, people exercising because they had hours that were once filled with work or commuting. 

On Tuesday I learned I could walk every step of the way without giving it a thought; my legs know the path better than my mind. My mind sometimes didn’t even register the path, rather it was on other things – contemplating realities for which we were not prepared, trying to think forward into what felt like an unknown void, learning to live with limitations and boundaries and fear that were previously (thankfully) unfamiliar. Each walk, over and over and over again. Unlike the path to Walden Pond, the asphalt was unmoved by my feet, but I fear the effects on “the paths that the mind travels” may be more permanent.

What does it mean for us to live with this new heightened level of dread? To be ever haunted by the anxiety that forces completely beyond our control could upend our very existence in an instant? These are the new ruts in the paths of our minds and they are terribly difficult to escape. Answers to questions once simple and obvious now take us to dark places – should I send my kids to school? Should we be with friends? Should we visit mom and dad? Am I making the right decisions?

Fear, anxiety, regret for what we have lost, and pressure to “get quarantine right”– these feelings are walking the paths of our mind over and over and the ruts are getting deeper. How do we pull ourselves off that path and back to a path where we can again walk confidently with a spring in our step – a path of gratitude, beauty, fulfillment and holiness? 

Maybe we can’t…at least not on our own. Maybe the lesson of all of this is that we cannot “pull ourselves” back onto the path. We may need a little help, and that is why we are here today observing Yom Kippur. Part of Yom Kippur is humbling ourselves and recognizing that we can’t get to where we want to go, who we want to be, on our own. It is acknowledging our need to turn to our higher power.

In some of the most poignant moments of our prayers on these holidays, when the ark is open and we are about to recite God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy, we have a call and answer with the Cantor chanting, “Hashiveinu Adonai Elecha v’Nashuvah Chadesh Yameinu K’Kedem. – Return us God to You and we will be returned, Make our days feel fresh like they used too.” Hashiveinu is the same word as teshuva – return, return to our best selves, return to the path that God meant for us. But we can’t seem to get there ourselves. We cry out to God, Hashiveinu! Return us God and we will be returned – it’s the only way. I can’t get there myself. I may not even be sure where there is. But I know I want to feel better. I know this path I am on is not the one you meant for me, so return me so that I can feel good again, feel like I did Yameinu K’Kedem, like I did a long time ago.

And, it is no coincidence that this quote is from one of the saddest books of the Bible. Hashiveinu is a quote from the Book of Lamentations. The book has just laid out in gory detail and terrible lament the story of the destruction of the Temple and the sorry state in which the Jews and Jerusalem find themselves. Something terrible has just happened and their lack of control has become apparent to them. It is a feeling with which we are all too familiar today.

We turn to this quote, to this lament, today because Yom Kippur itself reminds us that sometimes the only way to break out of the negative path we find ourselves on, the only way to break bad habits or negative ways of thinking, is to give ourselves over to a wisdom and a power greater than ours. Yom Kippur is a day of admission – a day to admit that not only have we lost our way, but also to concede that we cannot get back without help, a day to admit that we cannot control everything, even our own destiny.

The holiday of Yom Kippur itself is not only the recognition of the difficulty of staying on the path God meant for us; the holiday also holds the answer. The first step of teshuva we have already discussed – it’s Hashiveinu – look at the path you are on and decide if it is the path you are meant to walk or the path you have gotten stuck walking. Then, admit that you may not be able to get back to, or even find, the right path without help.

The next step is dedication – dedication to responding to God’s answer. Of course this answer doesn’t come in the form of words, it comes from deep inside of you – your neshamah steering you in a direction, vibrating at the frequency of your destiny. We need to open ourselves up to those messages and dedicate ourselves to following through. That may mean deciding to help others in a new way, giving tzedakah to a cause that needs you, seeking help from friends or a therapist. And if you cannot find the path you are supposed to dedicate yourself to, come and see me, or at least make an appointment to Zoom with me. We’ll try to find the path together.

Which brings us to the most important piece of wisdom we can glean from Yom Kippur and it is also locked in that same pasuk – Hashiveinu Adonai v’nashuva – Return us Lord and we will be returned. Not only this verse, but so much of the High Holiday liturgy is in plural, even our very personal confessions are in plural Ashmanu, We are guilty, Bagadnu We have been treacherous. Why are all these personal moments in plural? The message is clear: This is not a solo journey.

When we are trying to find our way back to our path, the path God intended for us, the place to start is here, in community. Our ability to be a community has been tested by this pandemic. What is a shul if we are not able to gather for services and learning? But with a burst of creativity, commitment and caring, our community has shown that it is stronger than this pandemic and that we can still be here for each other, guiding, learning, pushing, encouraging each other forward on the paths we share and even the paths we walk alone.

And maybe that’s why we say Hashiveinu as a call and response in our prayers. It is the communication and sharing between people that helps us return. During this crisis, WJC has called and responded. We had a call from members who couldn’t get out to buy Passover food, and we responded with several families shopping and delivering food to them. We had a call from those who were feeling lonely and we had a response with our bikkur cholim committee and WJC Pen pals who reached out and became a new friend with phone calls, emails and even deliveries of freshly made challah. And we had a call from those having to deal with the doubly difficult situation of the loss of a family member without our traditional method of in-person shiva and we responded with meaningful Zoom shiva gatherings and opportunities to gather ten people, first via Zoom and later through carefully crafted in-person minyans, so Mourner’s Kaddish could be said.

These are just a few examples of the myriad ways our community has found our way back to some of our well known positive paths and creatively built new ones. With these paths of connection and mitzvot, we are drawing each other out of the ruts of negative thinking and onto the paths that resonate deep within us. Will you walk this path more closely with us? I know that some of these new ways of engaging are different from what we’ve known, let’s commit to trying, not only for your sake, but for all of our sakes, because we walk a truer path when supported by more helping hands.

Hashiveinu Adonai Eilechah v’Nashuva – Return us to our sacred path Adonai and we will be returned – that is not only a prayer to God; it is also a cry to each other. May we open ourselves to take this journey together and in so doing, Chadesh Yameinu K’Kedem – discover our purpose, walk our path and find the sense of joy, gratitude and satisfaction that we experienced before.

And let us say, amen.

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