I told a story last night that I want to expand upon this morning. For those of you who were not here for Kol Nidre, I will give you a thumbnail sketch. R. Levi Yitzchak has been informed that the people of Israel are about to be inscribed for a terrible year and only he can intervene with the heavenly court. First, he tries to reason with G-D, but his arguments only reach the gates of heaven. Then he tries sincere prayer and repentance, but his prayer only beats upon the gates of heaven without entering. Finally, he begins to recite a long list of the acts of justice and loving kindness performed by different individual Jews. This final plea reaches the heavenly court, routing the adversary, the prosecuting attorney. The people of Israel, along with the whole world, are inscribed and sealed for a year of blessing.
There is a clear lesson in this story. What counts in the end is the way we treat our fellow human beings. It is how we act that averts the severe decree. But why did R. Levi Yitzchak go through the first two pleadings? Why did he not just jump to the third? R. Levi Yitzchak was not only a man of great saintliness, but also a man of extraordinary wisdom. Surely he knew what his ace in the hole was, his most powerful argument.
I was thinking about the order in which R. Levi Yitzchak performed his pleas to heaven. I suddenly realized that the pleas formed the later part of chiasmus. A chiasmus, for those of you who did not spend the summer in R. Barth’s class on psalms, is a poetic structure that reverses itself. R. Levi Yitzchak’s pleas go in the order of reason, repentance and attachment, and action. For there to be a chiasmus, there must have been earlier action followed by repentance and attachment leading into reason.
When we are children, we are taught what is right and wrong by our parents. We are told what actions to take and what is forbidden. Sometimes, we are taught some reasons for what the rules are. Often we are told Hillel’s dictum, what is hateful to you, do not do to another. Or, in a more likely form of address, “Well, Timmy, you wouldn’t want David to take your toy, would you? So you shouldn’t take David’s toy.” Even this sort of reasoning requires the child to
believe what the parent says and to deny his natural egoism.
Eventually, some sense of religious identity and belief develops. This belief is unquestioning and emotional, built off of the faith of the parents. There can be great and passionate attachment to the religious ideas and ideals we adopt when we are children. There can also be crushing guilt for failures of, sometimes, in small infractions of religious or perceived religious rules, followed by repentance, which, while completely sincere, may be fleeting.
The child enters adolescence and adulthood. Suddenly, faith is not enough. Just because mommy and daddy said so is insufficient. Young adults begin to think carefully about issues they once took for granted. Sometimes faith is lost, never to be regained. Sometimes, faith remains but must be transformed to a deeper more refined, more profound form in order to deal with the questions and issues raised by careful thought and reasoning. Sometimes faith is lost but one is forced back to faith by perceived limits to the power of pure reason and a merely physical understanding of existence.
So it is we rejoin R. Levi Yitzchak where he takes up the plea of argument and reason. For a person in this stage of the process, the problem of evil has raised its head, along with the belief that if G-D is worth worshipping, then G-D must have the attribute of mercy and forgiveness. So, sometimes we seek to reason with G-D in our prayers. But, at last, we can also see that if we were to adhere merely to reason and argument and a rational level of mercy, we are all surely doomed, for everyone is flawed and falls short of the ideal.
We return to the path of attachment and repentance. This is no longer a child’s faith or the easy repentance of one who has not experienced the world. This is the deep faith that is comingled with doubt and an awareness of the abyss of meaninglessness that sits just out of sight. This is the repentance one who has repented before and failed; the repentance of one who begs for needed help, knowing that merely human strength is not always enough to make changes that will last beyond the sighting of three stars after the concluding Yom Kippur service.
I have sinned!
I have done wrong!
My imperfection knows no end.
Help me to do better.
Help me to be better.
Finally, comes the understanding that faith and repentance without action is meaningless. It is seen only in serving others can we can concretely serve G-D. Religious belief, holy ethics, the whole panoply of theology, doctrine, and religious philosophy is nothing but blowing wind unless it leads to action. Reason is vain and prayer is empty unless it informs how we treat our fellow human beings.
What we did as a child out of obedience we now do as an adult out of an understanding that this is how we can truly be our best selves. We understand Hillel’s dictum of treating others as we would be treated, because we have striven to make our egos transparent so as to be illumined by the holy will.
We cannot reach the place of right action with proper kavenah, proper intention, unless we first find our hearts broken and we are forced into the mystery of faith. Not the simple child’s faith, but the hard won faith of an adult battered with the knowledge of suffering and the evils and imperfections of the world. It is from a place of mature faith that we can cry out from our innermost selves in repentance and reach the conclusion that having a broken heart is not enough. We come to understand that a broken heart must be accompanied by a helping hand, a kind word, and truly being present to those around us.
So too, this mature faith can only be obtained through wrestling with doubt. When reason tells us faith is foolish but some inner drive and intuition tells us there is more to the world than what we can measure. This is a faith that has lived through the dark night of the soul when nothing seemed to have meaning or worth. Then, out of the pain and wrestling with our mind and heart, we come to a place where faith can grow again.
On this Yom Kippur, reflect. Recognize that we must serve G-D with our minds, our hearts, and our hands. We cannot leave our faith unexamined or it will never grow and deepen. We must delve truly in to who we are and what we have done and how we wish to improve in order to fully repent of our errors and wrong doings, to adjust the aim of our lives to a better course. Finally, to repent is not merely to promise, no matter how sincerely to do better. No. To repent is to act in accordance with that promise in a myriad of small acts every day; acts of justice, acts of loving kindness; speaking words of encouragement and words of love.
May you become the kind of person you wish to be and, in that, for this year, may you be sealed for a blessing.