Everything in the universe that matters most is invisible to us, except for matter.*1*
Take matter itself. If we look into the most powerful microscope and magnify down to the subatomic level, the electrons disappear, and become simply energy. They are impossible to see.
We cannot see electricity.
We cannot see gravity.
We cannot see light. We can only see what light hits.
We cannot see time.
The forces that bind our universe together, and that make life possible, are all completely invisible.
When it comes to people, we can look at another person, but we cannot see past that person’s skin. We cannot see another person’s consciousness or thoughts.
Every time I leave on a road trip with my family, I experience a powerful feeling. The car is loaded up with the clothing and supplies we will need for the next few days. We lock up the house, and set out on the road. This feeling usually comes over me shortly after we get on the highway. I realize that the things that matter most to me in life are all right here in this car. If, while I am gone, my house burns down with everything in it, it would be ok. None of that stuff really matters. But what I care about more than myself are the people in the car with me. I realize that what matters most is love, courage, pride in my children’s growth, the memory of our history together, our hope for the future. It’s the relationships that matter, and you can’t see a relationship.
The things that matter most in life are invisible. But because they are invisible, they are easy to neglect.
Yom Kippur is a day that uniquely orients us to the invisible. If we are focused, it provides us an opportunity to realign our priorities to that which truly matters.
Maimonides opens his philosophical magnum opus, The Guide for the Perplexed, with a discussion on language. Whenever the Torah uses words that imply that God has a physical form, he says, it’s a metaphor. For example: God was walking about one day in the Garden of Eden. God took Israel out of Egypt with an outstretched arm. God saw. God spoke. God smelled. One might conclude, based on this language, that God has legs, arms, eyes, a mouth, and a nose.
Not so, says Maimonides. “The Torah speaks in human language,” quotes the Talmud. In our descriptions of the Divine, we fashion God in our own image.
And when it comes to worshiping God, we employ rituals that are based on those human images.
Ritual is a scaffolding that is built up around all of our God metaphors that allows us to come into contact with that which, in its essence, is completely beyond us.
During the High Holidays, our God metaphors are especially rich. Avinu Malkeinu. God is our father and our king, our judge and our shepherd. Each of us are placed on trial. Our deeds are read from a book. Our merits are weighed against our faults, and the Supreme Judge passes sentence on us for the year ahead.
All of this language is symbolic metaphor. To take the metaphor literally borders on idolatry.
But if we seek to relate to the hidden force that binds all creation together, we need the metaphor, and we need the ritual.
What is the purpose of ritual? The late Rabbi Alan Lew writes, “it is to render the invisible visible.”*2* What is invisible that must be made visible? Our sense of awe and wonder. Our fear. Our hopes. Our dreams. Our ability to have a relationship with God. Ritual enables us to express these invisible, intangible things.
In contemporary society, moderate religion is on the decline, while both fundamentalism and secularism are on the rise. Ironically, the person who embraces fundamentalism and the person who rejects religion altogether make the same mistake. They both take the metaphors literally. The former embraces them, and the latter rejects them.
What do we believe? Over the past week, has God been actually reading out of a book, judging us, and writing down our sentence for the coming year?
To have a mature faith in the post-modern world requires us to dive into the rituals knowing that they are metaphors, knowing that our finite selves are limited in our ability to connect with the infinite, and that it is only through ritual that our invisible spiritual longings become visible.
In ancient times, the central observance of Yom Kippur took place in the Holy Temple. The High Priest, supported by other priests and Levites, performed an elaborate series of rituals in which he made confession and sought forgiveness on behalf of himself, his family, his fellow priests, and the entire Jewish people. If he succeeded, he purified the Temple and enabled God’s Presence to remain amongst the people. It was a yearly restoration and reaffirmation of the relationship between God and Israel.
The ceremonies were quite elaborate. He stayed up all night. He washed himself and changed his clothes many times. He sacrificed animals. He transferred the sins of the nation on to a goat, which was then banished into the wilderness.
The High Priest also pronounced God’s proper name, in the hearing of all the people assembled on the Temple grounds. It was the only day of the year holy enough, and he was the only one pure enough.
The climax of these rites occurred when the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies. This was the only day when he was permitted to enter. The moment was so fraught that he would wear a rope around his waist so that, if he died, his body could be dragged out without anyone having to risk their lives by following him inside.
So what was inside the Holy of Holies?
One might think there would be an altar, maybe a menorah. Perhaps a table on which to place sacred objects. In fact, the room was completely empty. The only interruption in the rectangularity of the space was on the floor, where a rock protruded to a height of three fingers. This rock is the even sh’tiyah, The Foundation Stone – the point at which creation began, and the nexus between God’s realm and our own. This is where heaven and earth come together.
But in the room itself – nothingness.
Rabbi Lew calls it a “charged emptiness.”*3*
When the Temple stood, the High Priest served as our proxy. With the destruction of the Temple, the metaphors have shifted. Now, we have to do it all ourselves. Each of us becomes a High Priest. The elaborate service of the Temple is replaced by an equally elaborate set of expectations. We are asked to do a lot – to engage in cheshbon hanefesh, deep self reflection with brutal honesty, to repent for our sins, to apologize to those we have wronged, to perform additional acts of tzedakah and kindness, to pray, to fast.
If we perform all of the rituals correctly, we reach a point at which we are able to enter the Holy of Holies, a place where all of the metaphors fall away. We come face to face with ourselves, face to face with God – not that God has a face. There is no longer a Father and a King, A Judge and a Shepherd. There is only a charged emptiness that is at once all around us and within us.
This ecstatic moment of infinite connection with nothingness is the moment of revelation. This is what I long to experience each year. I wonder if you have ever caught a glimpse of this charged emptiness.
For me, Yom Kippur reaches its peak during Neilah, the final service that comes at the very end of the day. When we are lightheaded from fasting, but have gone beyond hunger and beyond thirst. When we have been inspired by the people around us who are taking those last moments to heart. Praying with a special fervor, the entire room is vibrating with individuals yearning to be heard. Individuals who are relying on one another to be elevated, to help each other connect with our shared essence. And then – ecstatic joy.
We emerge from that moment with a clean slate, transformed…
…bringing us to the next step. Now what? Is the moment over? We’ve entered the Holy of Holies and faced the charged emptiness of our souls, so now it’s time to eat lox and bagels and drink apple juice? Do we just resume our everyday lives and forget about those invisible moments we just experienced?
There are two Hebrew terms for us to consider, ikar and tafel.
Ikar means essential, or primary.
Tafel means extraneous, or secondary.
The Talmud warns: shelo y’hei tafel chamor m’ikar.*4* “Do not allow that which is extraneous – tafel – to become more important than that which is essential – ikar.”
What is ikar and what is tafel in our lives? Let’s play a little game. I call it: Tafel or Ikar: You Make the Call!
Your daughter or granddaughter joyfully asks you to push her on the swing. Just then, you feel your phone buzz in your pocket with a text message. You think it might be your boss.
You could check the text, or you could play with this bright eyed, eager child. Which is tafel, which is ikar?
You receive an email from the synagogue announcing a shiva minyan for someone who has just lost his mother. You know this person, but not that well. The season opener for Breaking Bad is on tonight. You’ve been anticipating it all summer long.
You could go to the shiva minyan, or you could watch TV. Which is tafel, which is ikar?
Your work group has a big product launch coming up. Your supervisor has informed you that for the next month, you should plan on being at work until late into the evening, and coming in on weekends. You and your partner have been going through a rough spot, and have recently decided to schedule regular times to work on communication. The crunch time at work overlaps with the time you have set to be with your partner. Which is tafel, which is ikar?
The things that are ikar, most essential, tend to be invisible. Spending uninterrupted time with a child, supporting a member of the community, being there for a partner. These are precisely the things that are easiest for us to neglect because we devote most of our attention to the visible world. There are so many tafel things calling out to us, distracting us from what really matters.
All of the rituals of the High Priest prepared him to encounter God’s ikar – to encounter God at a level beyond metaphor. Our High Holidays give us that opportunity as well – Yom Kippur especially. On this day, when we deny our physical existence by fasting, and when we do everything we can to embrace the invisible, we have a rare opportunity to refocus our lives on what truly matters.
In a few minutes, we will turn to the Yizkor service. This is another special time when our consciousness shifts exclusively to the invisible. We remember friends and relatives who are no longer with us. With their passing they are no longer tangible, yet that which matters most remains, invisibly, in our memories. What do we remember? What is the ikar of who they were to us?
I hope we don’t just remember the stuff they had, or the things they left us. We honor their memory when we remember the time spent with a sibling, the ideals that inspired a parent, the feelings we had when we were with our spouse. All invisible. But all ikar. That is what matters
This Yom Kippur, as we engage in deep soul searching, fasting, and prayer, may we be blessed to enter the Holy of Holies. In stripping away all that is extraneous in our lives, may we gain an awareness of standing in the Presence of God, in the charged emptiness around and inside us. May we emerge from Yom Kippur with a renewed focus on the ikar, those invisible things in our lives that matter most.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May we all be sealed for a year of blessing.
*1*I got some ideas for this opening from a Ted talk by John Lloyd at http://www.ted.com/talks/john_lloyd_inventories_the_invisible.html
*2*”Celebrating and Revealing the Invisible,” by Rabbi Mark Greenspan, in Yom Kippur Readings, ed. by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, p. 131.
*3*Rabbi Alan Lew, This is Real and Your Are Completely Unprepared, p. 221.
*4*BT Menachot 8a