A version of this sermon was delivered on Yom Kippur Morning 5782 at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation in Wantagh, NY.
Let me tell you about the sermon I had planned for today. It was going to be glorious. It was going to be powerful and hit all the right notes. It was going to be a meditation on the moving words of Psalm 122, the Psalm for the ascent to Jerusalem. I was going to connect our feelings of returning to our house of worship to those of the Psalmist returning to the rebuilt Jerusalem. Then Cantor was ready to sing a beautiful rendition of the Psalm for us to herald our triumphant return to congregational worship. My friends, that is not what you are going to hear today.
As with so much over this last year, plans had to change. New ideas had to be considered. And I’m going to be honest with you, because this day demands it. I’m angry about it. I’m angry in part because so many are not here with us today. So many are not able to be, because we are still mired in this pandemic and living through the difficulties and the stresses of the day to day. I’ve been angry about it for a while, and I want to apologize for those times my anger at…all of this…got the better of me and infiltrated the work I care about so deeply.
A year ago, I put all my cards into the hope that by this day, The Day, Yom Hakippurim 5782, we’d be in our new normal. The vaccine was coming. Hope was on the horizon. The reality of 5781 was temporary. There was no way we’d still be dealing with spreading cases and overwhelmed hospitals turning patients away. Now we’re back to accounting over 1,500 deaths a day. A year ago, the delta variant was not on our minds.
And yet, here we are. Yom Kippur 5782. In many ways much better off than a year ago, to be sure. My vaccine status, yours, and my family’s has allowed us to resume some of our normal life. But in other ways, we’re still deeply in it, and we can feel it. We’re still experiencing the weight of all of it, and you’re still not all here with us to plead for and then to celebrate God’s loving forgiveness.
It’s traumatic. And it’s ok to say so and to acknowledge how we are feeling, what we’ve been through, and what we are still going through. It’s ok to acknowledge the exhaustion. We’re tired. Extraordinarily tired, in unprecedented ways. It’s ok to acknowledge the ways we’re not our best. It’s ok to acknowledge the things we miss, and the experiences we won’t get back, and the ways we feel not ourselves, even if much of our lives has gone back to how it was. Just as Yom Kippur asks us to acknowledge our failings of action and thought, today, and this year, let us also acknowledge our failings due to emotion. The difference is our emotions are not always up to us. What is up to us is how we react to them.
Trauma is not something we talk about too often, though it’s clear we’re all going through it. According to psychologists, trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms our ability to cope. Trauma often causes feelings of helplessness. It diminishes our sense of self and our ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences. Does this sound like you over the last number of months?
Often a trauma, like a loved one’s death or a natural disaster is a one-time event. We experience an urgent response in our brains that attempts to alleviate the situation. Then, once the event is done, a different part of our brains activates, more rational, more measured, less reactive. Trauma limits our normal access to ourselves and our emotions. Often, we can feel highs and lows, but our baseline normal is missing, hard to settle into, hard to calibrate.
What we’ve been living through, over these past 18 months: this is more than that. It is relentless. Every day, more bad news. Every day more deaths. Every day new guidelines and new regulations and new fights over those guidelines and regulations in our communities. On top of that, the nation is in turmoil, we’ve experienced wars and insurrections, and the climate is a catastrophe…And our lives continue, with carpools, and errands, and masks. We are living through a period of ongoing trauma as this pandemic continues, peppered with additional traumatic moments, and it’s no surprise how we’re all reacting.
If we think of our brain like a muscle, we can imagine the quick response area tensing and relaxing when encountering something difficult or traumatic. In ongoing trauma, that part in our brain doesn’t get a chance to relax. It doesn’t give way to the rational, thoughtful part. Our brains’ traumatic response areas have been in constant tension. This, then, never allows us to relax, to reset, to move forward. We’ve been at high alert for 18 months. That’s why we’re so tired. That’s why we’re not thinking as clearly, and why we may seem more impulsive, and less measured than usual.
We’ve all heard about PTSD, about post-traumatic stress disorder, wherein a trauma leads to intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. It is terrible and important to understand. What we don’t talk about all that often, however, is its corollary, post-traumatic growth. Now these are not opposites, nor are they stages. They are two distinct reactions to trauma. Sometimes people will experience both. But one is much more common than the other. According to David Kessler: “Pain, death, and loss never feel good, but they’re unavoidable in our lifetime. Yet the reality is post-traumatic growth happens more than post-traumatic stress.”
Post-traumatic growth is not about finding silver linings or moments of blessing, though that is important and helpful in its own way. Post traumatic growth is when the trauma leads to a change in the way we live our lives after the trauma has ended, a change in how we think, live or feel. It’s about making meaning and discovering new creativity, and it’s different for each of us.
For some it will be about finding greater appreciation of the life we have and sensing what brings us joy and prioritizing that. For others it will be about appreciating and strengthening our relationships, or focusing on the ones that really matter, and maybe letting go of ones that don’t. For some of us, it will be about breaking old patterns and feeling our own personal strength. I hope that for all of us it is about increasing our compassion for others and exploring a new spirituality.
We are clearly not there yet, not quite ready to take this on, as we are still so far from an ending. We know that there won’t be a return to normal, as much as a new normal. And getting there will require that we prepare ourselves for what will come next. We may think we don’t know how to do it. How could we know what to expect? The pandemic is literally unprecedented in our lifetimes. That is true. But our traditions, particularly the synagogue customs of this day, The Day, Yom Kippur, can serve as a guide for us.
Yom Kippur is a model for a traumatic experience that leads to growth. This entire day is set up to literally put the fear and awe of God into us. It is meant to make us come face to face with God’s power, and face to face with our mortality. We clothe ourselves in white like a funeral shroud. We empty ourselves. We empty the Ark, the Aron, which is also the Hebrew word for casket, and we metaphorically stare into our own graves.
But that’s not all. We don’t just think about our own deaths, we consider the many ways we and others may not make it into the book of life, as we did in our Untaneh Tokef prayer earlier this morning. And then, a little bit later, we’ll pray our Eleh Ezkarah and pour out our souls. This is our tribute to those whose deaths in the last year did not have to happen. This is based on the tradition of reading the stories of the martyrs of our people, who gave their lives in horrific and painful ways for the sanctification of God’s name. As we hear about their deaths, we put ourselves into their shoes. It’s heavy. It’s meant to make an impression. It’s meant to change us. It’s traumatic for the purpose of growth. “If we allow ourselves to live with the consciousness of death, it will enrich us by making us understand how precious life is.”
Similar to the other liturgy of this day that speaks of death in the abstract, our Yizkor Memorial service, which we will pray together in a little while, deals with deaths that are personal, those we have experienced, those that are closest to us. Yizkor is in many ways about acceptance of our loss, our trauma. Together we honor the lives that our loved ones lived. We remember them. We take time to recall them, to mourn them, often feeling again as if they only just left us. By honoring their lives, by recalling our loved ones of blessed memory, by recalling what they meant to us, remembering times we were together, and how much we hurt that they are gone, we give their deaths more meaning and give our own lives more meaning. We know that as we remember, we will be remembered. We recognize that while we cannot bring our loved ones back, we don’t have to leave them behind. We call ourselves to continue to live and to live better for their sakes.
And the prayer most associated with death in our tradition, the Mourner’s Kaddish, is so much about what happens after the trauma, that it doesn’t even mention the trauma, death. The Mourner’s Kaddish is about sanctifying God’s name, making God’s name great. Over and over again, in synonym after synonym, we praise God. Magnified, extolled, blessed, acclaimed, revered, beautified, etc., etc. The prayer we recite on behalf of our departed loved ones is about renewed spirituality. It’s about searching for something bigger to make meaning out of the difficulties of our lives. It’s about putting faith in God and affirming life. After a trauma, we bless and affirm life!
This is a day that is truly nora v’ayyom awesome and full of trauma!
And yet at the end of this day, after all this trauma, where will we find ourselves? We will see ourselves in as pure a state as we can be. We will be ready to put our teshuvah into practice, make better decisions, and break patterns of bad behavior. Out of this truly difficult day, we come out ready to strengthen relationships and called again to do more for those in need in our community and our world. This day is not just leading to a break fast, it’s leading to a break with who we used to be and a connection to who we can grow into.
Encountering our death brings meaning into our lives. As the angel Michael learns in the TV show “The Good Place,” “Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die, but that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” Yom Kippur demands we give our lives meaning by leaving the sanctuary different than when we entered it because we have come face to face with our mortality.
Yom Kippur traumatizes us so that we grow.
At the end of the day, when our mouths are parched and dry, and our feet ache from standing before the heavenly court, we participate in a special and sacred ritual moment, unlike anything we do on any other day. We take out the Torahs once again, as we did last night, and we stare into that empty Ark one more time. Last night we declared that we will sin, that we ought not be taken at our word. This time, though, as the last rays of sun darken and the purples and mauves paint the heavens, we make three declarations. First, we recite the Shema, declaring that God is one and one alone. These words are familiar to us as the central prayer of our people.
As are the words of the next line familiar: Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed. We are used to hearing them immediately after the Shema, but here we say them three times. Once each for the past, the present, and the future. This line, unlike the Shema is not from the Torah. Rather, it comes from the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, based on the Psalms. After he would come out from the Holy of Holies, atone, and declare God’s name, the people would bow low to the ground and exclaim these words: Blessed be God’s glorious majesty forever and ever! And they would proclaim God’s sovereignty.
Then seven times we repeat: Adonai hu HaElohim: Adonai is God. Seven times, a number that symbolizes wholeness and holiness, like the days of creation. We exclaim that God is our God, using two names of God, one that refers to God’s justice, Adonai, and one that Refers to God’s mercy.
The end of Yom Kippur tells us that after the trauma of the day. After coming face to face with our deaths, the deaths of our people, and recalling the deaths of our loved ones, we declare the presence of God. We put ourselves into something bigger than us, that makes us more than just random atoms floating through a multiverse. These three declarations make us part of a bigger plan, with more purpose than we can understand. We declare God’s presence as a springboard to the days after.
Then, we sound a Tekiah Gedolah. You might think that after such a long day, after fasting and praying and atoning, we’d maybe want to get out of here more quickly. Maybe just a plain old tekiah. But instead, we linger. We allow the note of the shofar to call out as long as possible. We make it last. We hear the sound of God’s presence as at Sinai and we can’t bear to take ourselves away from it! Why? To hold on to the moment of purity. To hold onto the moment of connection with God, our tradition, our history, and our community. To hold onto the pristine soul within us for just a moment longer, because we know that as soon as the shofar ends, we’re liable to go back to our ways. One more second of the tekiah is a second we don’t yet have to deal with the world after Yom Kippur. The long call of the Shofar reminds us to take the lessons of this day with us. “Grow from this day!” it says to us.
And as we will grow from this day, so will we grow from this extended trauma that we are living through. There won’t be a shofar blast to announce the end of COVID, unfortunately. But one day, we will look back on this time and marvel at how it changed us. One day, I’ll get to give that sermon. One day, we will look back at this day and exclaim how different we were before.
We will look at ourselves and we will see how we have grown, and we will recognize that we don’t get over trauma or leave it. No, we absorb it into us, and let it propel us. And if we take the lessons from our tradition, we can use it to push us to grow toward the heavens.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.