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Yom Kippur 5783 - Psalm 23 and Unwavering Faith

Wednesday, October 5, 2022 - 10 Tishrei, 5783

Pregnancy is a crazy exercise in faith. Even in a world with the technology and knowledge to avoid pregnancy most of the time, so many of us choose to pursue childbirth. Even when we know the physical and emotional risks of pregnancy - the significant chance that all may not turn out well for mother or child - news of pregnancy is often met with a hearty “Congratulations!” Every day, I marvel at this nutty choice I made to endure dizziness, fatigue, back pain, and well-meaning, constant comments about my growing body, all while clinging to the faith that in about six weeks from now, Rabbi Feivel and I will carry our own healthy baby in our arms. Even during this time of Yom Kippur, in which our own mortality and the mortality of my child hang in the balance, I continue with the faith that I will have the strength to keep going, regardless of what this new year brings. 

In his book on Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd, Rabbi Harold Kushner describes God as “the power that imposes order on chaos so that the world is livable,” bringing the human fetus as his prooftext: “[The human fetus] starts out as a cluster of undifferentiated cells, and over a few months, by a process that should never cease to astonish us no matter how many millions of times it happens, some of those cells become eyes, some become lungs, some become fingers. Randomness gives way to order. Isn’t that God at work?” Without faith in God as Kushner describes God, “the power that imposes order on chaos so that the world is livable,” we would never experience the joy of welcoming new babies into the world or of witnessing those babies grow into loving, messy, world-altering children and adults. Whether we look at the choices of pregnancy and parenthood, the choice to simply get out of bed in the morning, or any decision in between, we live our lives dependent on faith in ourselves, our loved ones, the world around us, and the God who brought us all here. When we cling to faith, even when that clinging means defying logic or understanding, we gain the strength to live our most grateful, compassionate, active lives.

As several of us studied this Shabbat and as we will witness during our Yizkor service this afternoon, Psalm 23 offers us a framework through which to capture the experience of this unwavering faith. Now,  I’ll recite Psalm 23 in English; if you’d like, you may follow along in Mahzor Lev Shalem on p. 292:

A Psalm of David.

Adonai is my shepherd, I shall not want.

God gives me repose in green meadows, and guides me over calm waters.

God will revive my spirit and direct me on the right path - for that is God’s way.

Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are at my side.

Your staff and your rod comfort me.

You prepare a banquet for me in the presence of my foes;

You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and kindness shall be my portion all the days of my life,

And I shall dwell in the house of Adonai in the fullness of time.

The author of Psalm 23 knows that no matter what happens, she has nothing to fear. She holds her head high as she walks through the Valley of the Shadow of Death - perhaps she faces a serious illness, experiences the death of a family member, or attends a Yom Kippur service laden with themes of human mortality. Even when her spirit falters, she knows there will be a light at the end of her tunnel, that she will once again be able to recline in green meadows and float over calm waters. God’s comfort will continue to guide her through everything, with God’s simple presence, with the rod and staff of God’s strictly organized commandments, and with the guiding gift of Jewish wisdom. 

While our translation reads “goodness and kindness shall be my portion all the days of my life”, the Hebrew emphasizes that “goodness and kindness shall chase me all the days of my life.” Our author knows that goodness and kindness will always be hers to grasp, that this world of God’s Creation contains innumerable gems; we just need the wisdom and security to recognize those gems when they appear. If the author situates herself in the house of Adonai for as long as she can, as often as she can, she will be able to better recognize her overflowing cup and banquet in the presence of her enemies in the gifts she encounters each day. No, the author is not begging God for a perfect future. No, she is not hoping to overlook what needs change and improvement in her life. Rather, the author of Psalm 23 relies on her unwavering faith for comfort and guidance through the life and death, rest and torment, pride and shame, wealth and poverty that we explore in the liturgical piyyut Un’tane Tokef.

While we explored the benefits of doubt and questioning during Rosh HaShanah last week, this week, we explore the benefits of steadfast faith, even when it may sometimes seem illogical, to bring us through life’s most joyous and frustrating experiences. When we practice faith in a God who is and always will be present, we give ourselves room for endless positivity. Knowing everything comes from our Creator and Sustainer, we actively look for the wonder and joy in every moment, and we reach further and work harder to grasp at even more of that joyous discovery. When we express the gratitude we feel for the goodness and kindness that pursue us all the days of our life, others take notice; others recognize that goodness and kindness and learn how to express it in their words and actions. With our attachment to God’s presence, we know that we have someone to talk to in our loneliest times, whether through prayer, ritual practice, or study of God’s wisdom. Our every action matters, as we are always being watched and protected; we know our actions have consequences, that they do not exist in a vacuum. Even in our darkest moments, with faith in God, the wisdom of our Jewish tradition, and the presence of Jewish community, we know where to look for comfort, and we know where to look for motivation once we know it is time to become unstuck.

While radical faith may seem like an abstract theological idea, we can train ourselves to practice it through our every-day actions and communication. One clear way to start such a practice is through embracing one mitzvah that makes very little logical sense. Next week, we will celebrate Sukkot, during which we are commanded to wave around four different kinds of plants, arranged in a particular order, in particular numbers. Many of us not only refrain from non-kosher ingredients, but also, keep three sets of dishes, engaging in a whole lot of boiling and burning when we make mistakes and before the holiday of Pesah. Between Pesah and Shavuot, we count the omer, during a time and place in which very few of us encounter sheaves of wheat on a regular basis. Every day, we are commanded to wear leather straps and boxes, as well as decorative sheets laden with knots. Pick one mitzvah or Jewish ritual practice about which you have never been able to see the point, and stick with it, simply because you know that doing so shows your gratitude to the God who provides you with so much, whether or not you always, logically deserve it. 

Every day, you can also practice your faith by setting aside time to talk to God. Our liturgy gives us concrete words with which to express our gratitude, petition, and wonder to God. Our Amidah appears three times on most days (four on Shabbat and most holidays, and five on Yom Kippur). Our Jewish tradition has established blessings before and after we eat, after we go to the bathroom, and to mark the natural wonders we see in our very own yards. Through the Book of Psalms, we have a literature that explores every possible human emotion and experience in conversation with the Divine. Whether jumping off from the written liturgy or just speaking from our hearts, we can and should have a running commentary with God throughout our day, saying thank you as much as possible and asking God for what we need, relying on our faith that God is listening and is on our side. Beyond saying thank you to God, we exercise our faith in God’s Creation by saying thank you to the people we love, and even, the people we simply tolerate. We exercise our faith by finding the goodness and kindness that chases us constantly, by assuming that all of God’s Creation has been created from a place of positive potential. 

One more task may take some time and may shift and change over that time. Today, I challenge you to start your journey of finding an image and theology of God that both comforts you and challenges you to pursue your most positive potential. I'm inspired by a Midrash (Pesikta d'Rav Kahana) I've shared several times in this room:

Rabbi Levi said: The Holy Blessed One seemed to them like a statue that has faces in every place. A thousand people gaze upon it, back at each of them. So, too, when the Holy Blessed ne would speak, every single Israelite would say, "With me the speech is speaking." It is not written here: Anokhi Adonai Eloheikhem - I am y'all's God. Rather, it is written: Anokhi Adonai Eloheikha - I am your [singular] God. 

You have the power and responsibility to shape your own vision of who and how God is for you. You can find inspiration from liturgical names - Adonai Tz'vaot (Adonai of hosts or armies), Avinu Malkeinu (our parent, our sovereign), Sh'khinah (feminine Presence), HaMakom (the Omnipresent), etc. And you can find inspiration from the people and qualities that inspire you each and every day. Please know that your God theology does not have to be the same tomorrow as it is today. Like every relationship, your relatinship with God can and should develop over time.

Our Jewish tradition thrives on the rational. Our Talmud features pages of grammatical and deductive discourse. Our most famous names exist in the worlds of science and academia. And yet, our Talmud would not have been written without the foundation of dedication to God. Our scientists and academics could not have proceeded with their discoveries without the faith that what they had to say would make a difference, that they were worthy of making that difference. Alongside our constant questioning and alongside our risk assessment, we thrive and grow with every leap of faith, both faith in ourselves and faith in God. Just as I demonstrate that faith through my presence in this particular state, you, too, demonstrate that faith through your choice to attend a Yom Kippur service today, to push yourself in work and school, and to make whatever wacky choices have changed your life. Knowing that you are never alone and that you were created in the image of an inscrutable God, every single day, allow yourself to be shepherded by the good and the awesome. Allow yourself to be guided through every Valley of the Shadow of Death, and know that every time you make it - every time you convince yourself not to fear any evil - you give yourself the potential for banquets, for anointing, and for an overflowing cup of life and love, in the fullness of time. 

G’mar Hatimah tovah - may you be sealed only for good, and even when it may seem otherwise, may you seek comfort and guidance in God and community to pull through and eventually, find the waters and green meadows on the other side.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784