I have known all year, since I first saw it last October, that I would want to teach a particular text on Yom Kippur. It's been shaking inside me all year long. But I didn't understand the text until today. I am writing this on Tuesday, September 11, around noon. On the radio as I write are the first reports of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and possibly on the passengers and crew of another airplane as well. We'll all know a lot more about this by Yom Kippur. But right now New York has ground to a halt. Washington DC is empty at the center. The radio is on, and I am listening to these reports as I look at my beloved and dreaded passage.
Here's my text for this Yom Kippur, from the Sfat Emet, whose Torah commentary we have been reading on Thursday mornings all year. This is from one of his sermons on Lech Lecha. "A tale is told of one who was wandering from place to place and saw a certain castle that was on fire. He said, 'Could it be that this castle has no master?' The owner of the castle looked out at him and said, 'I am owner of the castle.'"
It's a shocking teaching, in some ways appalling -- quite atypical, by the way, of the usual ethereal sermons of the Sfat Emet. Our world is in some respects a burning castle. With today's events we have joined the world. There is some terrible relief in this -- we no longer have to hide out in what my beloved writer, Rian Malan, calls a moonbase of privilege in a sea of burning. With today's explosions the cover has been torn off -- if it hasn't already been by so many other explosions in so many other places on our earth. We know and we have always known, when we are willing to let ourselves know, that the castle burns and burns. It burns in Africa; it burns in Iraq; it burns in Indonesia; it burns in Ireland; it burns in Tibet; it burns in Israel and in Palestine; it burns in the ghettoes and skid rows of our cities; it burns in Covelo; it burns in households and families and bodies and souls all around us, and sometimes within us as well. This is our world, God's beautiful castle. "I am the owner of the castle." God, whoever and whatever God really is, in all God's infinite, perfect God-ness, looks out at us from the very midst of the fire and says, "This is Mine."
The Sfat Emet's conclusion, what I believe is supposed to be his nechemta, his word of comfort, is still more horrific: "This is the meaning of the burning castle. This whole world was created only so that its vanities be forgotten and negated; this is the world's true fulfillment, since it is the corridor that leads into the great hall. It is the will of the castle's owner that it be burned and consumed. Thus it is with a candle: the white fire hovers over a black, consuming fire. The more the black fire consumes, the more the white light burns."
Who are any of us to expect a world free of burning? Who are any of us to expect that we or our loved ones or our fellow human beings should not suffer? Who are we to be indignant, to be shocked? It is the way of this world to burn and disintegrate. It is the way of our bodies, our towns, our societies. We can say with the Sfat Emet that this burning world is just a corridor leading to the great hall. We can say with Rabbi Nachman that all the world is just a narrow bridge. But we stand in the corridor. We stand on the bridge. And sometimes it burns. Who are we to hide from this?
There may be strategies which move the fire from one place to another. There may even be ways to slow the burn for a time. There may be ways to cut a firebreak in front of our own homes. And if there are, then we will have to think about how and whether it is wise to move fire from one place to another. These strategies are the province of politics, of government, of advocacy, of democracy.
But they are not the province of Yom Kippur. The question before us on Yom Kippur 5762 is the question of our own souls in a burning world. Today as every Yom Kippur we face the truth that we will each and all die, some by fire, some by famine, some by microbe, some by wasting, some by sword, some by strangling. We may have been privileged for a time, because we live in Mendocino County in the United States, to believe that certain of those means of our demise had been put off limits for us. It seems that this may not be true after all. It is very seldom ours to choose how or when we will die. What we can choose is the state of our souls in this world -- in THIS world, not in some Garden of Eden somewhere, but our own souls in this world as it really is. We are all going to die anyways. It would be a great, compounding tragedy if we gave up our integrity, our decency or our faith along the way.
We must do our best to be steady as this world burns around and inside us. Whatever is true when we stand at the ocean at sunset is true when we stand before the burning castle as well. Whatever we believe serves in our gentle surroundings serves in the face of catastrophe as well. Whatever we believe to be true and dependable we should strengthen and refine and have at the ready at all times. This would be a terrible time to throw away our spiritual treasures. For me these treasures are love and community, the details of justice and the absolute presence of God, beyond my fantasies and wishes and projections, in sweet times and in fierce ones. It is my challenge not to be confused, not to be crazy, not to be afraid, not to be weak, but to sharpen my love, to intensify my commitment to all of you and to refine my deeds so that they are not minimally just but vividly so. It is my challenge, and my opportunity, in this lifetime to allow the vanities of my inner life to be consumed, and for that which endures to endure, to nourish and to guide me through whichever corridor I find myself walking. It is our opportunity as a Jewish community, as a human community, as a community of that which is, to intensify our love for each other and for God -- if indeed these are even different -- because then our lives will be rich even if not safe. I wish for a world of peace and ease for all, but it is not my choice which world to live in. It is, however, my choice, how to be in this world, whatever history brings us to face. Let this holy day serve us, not just to bring us to bliss but to burn and refine our spirits so that we are strong to face the new year.
Copyright 2001 Rabbi Margaret Holub
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