Yom Kippur 5774
By Joel Grossman
When I was visiting my mother in Israel this past summer, her brother, my uncle Shimmy, also came by to visit. My Uncle Shimmy is a retired chazzan, and led High Holiday services at various shuls for many years. He told me the following story. One year, just before Kol Nidrei, the rabbi came up to him and said: “Shimmy, if I have done anything to hurt you during this past year, if I have said anything that might have offended you, if I mistreated you in any way during the past year, Shimmy. . . Get Over It!” So in that spirit I say to all of you in the kahal today, if I have done anything during this past year to offend you or hurt you in any way, please, GET OVER IT! Well, actually, please forgive me.
I want to note at the outset four inspirations for my dvar torah this morning. First is an article that appeared in the New Yorker this past January which concerned, among other things, whether the New York Jets football team was wise to keep quarterback Mark Sanchez. The second inspiration was the dvar torah given two weeks ago by Sal Litvak on parshat Nitzavim. Sal focused on a portion of Nitzavim, Chapter 30 of D’varim, that has always been a text that speaks to me, and Sal’s dvar torah was moving and meaningful. The third inspiration was a short dvar torah by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz which appeared in the shul’s bulletin on the same Shabbat as Sal’s dvar torah, and which led me to a fascinating commentary by the Ramban, Nachmanides, that is at the center of my words today. And finally, the fourth inspiration is the first sentence of this morning’s Haftorah, from the book of Isaiah Chapter 57 verse 14 in which the prophet says, in God’s name: “solu solu panu derech harimu michshol miderech ami” meaning: build up, build up a highway, clear a road, remove all obstacles from the road of my people. In particular I will focus on the words harimu michshol– “remove all obstacles.”
Before going into these sources, I want to raise one question which has puzzled me: why doesn’t the yearly cycle of Torah readings, beginning with the first parsha in Bereshit and ending with the last parsha in D’varim, commence on Rosh Hashono? After all, it’s a new year, why not start the annual reading of the Torah then? Why wait for 3 weeks until Simchat Torah—a holiday not mentioned anywhere in the Torah– to conclude D’varim and begin Bereshit? I will come back to that question later.
Let me start with the very inspiring and moving words set forth in Chapter 30 of D’varim. Because this is a long passage, I will for the most part give you only the English translation, reading excerpts from verses 1 through 14:
“When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you–…and you return to the Lord your God –v’shavta ad adosehm elokecha–…then the Lord will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. …then the Lord your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your children to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul –b’chol levavcha uv’chol nafshecha–. …For this commandment–ki hamitzvah ha’zot–which I command you this day is not too baffling for you nor is it beyond reach. Lo bashamayim hu…it is not in the heavens, that you should say who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it… v’lo me’ever layam hu—and it is not beyond the sea that you should say who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it. No, the thing is very close to you b’ficha u’vilvavcha la’asoto—it is in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.”
I found Sal’s discussion of these verses to be quite wonderful. The Torah, Jewish law, the great body of Jewish wisdom in the Talmud, the decision to live a Jewish life, may seem so hard to grasp, so intimidating, so far away from our own reality. But the Torah tells us lo bashamayim hu—it’s not up in heaven, v’lo me’ever layam hu—it’s not across the sea, ki karov elecha hadavar me’od—this thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart. Those two phrases—lo bashamayim hu—it’s not up in heaven, v’lo me’ever layam hu—and it’s not across the sea, ki karov elecha hadavar me’od—this thing is VERY close to you—have always been moving and comforting to me. And I have always viewed them as a reference to our entire religion. We are not a religion where only the priests or the clergy have access to the holy books and rituals. The Torah and all of Judaism is open to all of us, and it’s not far away, it’s very close to us.
After enjoying Sal’s dvar torah, I picked up the shul bulletin and read Rabbi Berkowitz’ dvar torah, which led me to the source, the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah. I came away with a whole new understanding of this passage, one that is particularly appropriate for Yom Kippur. The Ramban focuses on the literal meaning of the phrase ki hamitzvah hazot—for this commandment—is not in the heavens, or across the sea. He says that this passage is not about Judaism in general or the Torah in general but is about one specific mitzvah. And that mitzvah is t’shuva. The Ramban focuses on the very beginning of the passage in which God says “v’shavta ad hashem elockecha”—when you return to God, that is, when you do t’shuva. Since the passage begins, in effect, when you do t’shuva, and goes on to refer “hamitzvah hazot” to “this mitzvah” the passage is about t’shuva.
Let me mention for a moment the first verse of this morning’s haftorah, which I quoted early. Build a road and clear all obstacles from the road for my people—harimu michshol miderech ami. Clearly this passage refers to the obstacles to doing t’shuva. And there are many. Doing t’shuva can require an enormous effort to remove obstacles, obstacles which completely block our path.
One such obstacle is decribed in the New Yorker article which discusses the New York Jets and their quarterback, Mark Sanchez. The article, which is the financial column by James Surowicki, discusses what are referred to as “sunk costs.” As Surowicki explains, “sunk costs are hard to ignore… we often end up sticking with something when we’d be better off cutting our losses—sitting through a bad movie, say, just because we’ve paid for the ticket.” As an example he says that some people keep a foundering project alive because there’s always a chance that it will right itself. He tells us that some executives in the corporate world keep pursuing what is clearly a bad project because if they gave up the project it would be an admission that the project shouldn’t have been done in the first place. And of course, the writer uses Mark Sanchez as a prime example. Sanchez was a great college player, and he was drafted by the Jets with high expectations and a high salary. But he didn’t live up to those expectations. In March 2012, after he had a bad season, the Jets nevertheless renewed Sanchez’s contract for another year, guaranteeing him more than $8 million whether he plays or not. Of course, since this article was written last January, Surowicki could not have known that in fact the Jets would decide to start rookie Geno Smith instead of Sanchez, who would occupy a very expensive seat on the bench.
I found this article to be a wonderful illustration of what the prophet Isaiah meant when he said harimu michshol miderech ami—remove obstacles from the path of my people, obstacles to t’shuva. The obstacles have been placed there by us, and only we can remove them. Like the executive who planned a project, or like a football team that decided to renew the contract of a failing player, we have our own sunk costs. We have invested so much in who we are that it seems almost impossible for us to want to change.
This is where the Ramban’s understanding of the passage in Nitzavim is so powerful. Each of us has a vision of the person who we are right now, and each of us has a vision of the person who we want to be. Sometimes it seems that the second vision—the vision of who we want to be—is so far away it is hopeless to even try. We have our sunk costs, we are who we are, and we will not change. But, according to the Ramban, the Torah tells us that this mitzvah—the mitzvah of t’shuva—is not far from us. Let us go a little bit beyond the pshat, the literal meaning of the text. Lo bashamayim hu–That person who we want to be is not in the heavens. V’lo me’ever layam hu—and that person who we want to be is not across the sea. That person who we want to be is very very close to us. Harimu michshol miderech ami—let’s clear out the obstacles, the sunk costs, the overwhelming power of inertia, and the almost impossible task of saying “I was wrong.” “I need to cut my losses and move on.”
While that new person, that new vision of who we want to be seems so far away and unachievable, it’s not far at all. It’s very close. In fact, the Torah says, it’s b’ficha u’ vilvavcha la’asoto– it’s in our mouths and it’s in our hearts to do it. It’s already there. We have the tools, all we have to do is to use them.
It’s in our mouths—we can ask others for forgiveness, and we can tell others that we forgive them. Just as we have used our mouths to utter profanities and to hurt others we can use our power of speech to sing words of praise, to comfort others, to praise others. It’s not far from us, it’s right here inside us, la’asoto—we just have to do it. And just as we have used our hearts to love money, to love fame and glory, to love movie stars and baseball teams, so too we can use our hearts to love those around us, to love those we don’t even know but who need our help, and to love God. It’s not far from us. It’s right here inside us la-asoto—we can do it.
Let me conclude by going back to the question of why the Torah cycle ends and then re-starts on Simchat Torah, after the Yamim Noraim, and not with the beginning of the New Year. Right now in the Torah we are reading about the children of Israel, who have assembled to hear Moshe Rabbeinu’s final words. He is old, and God has told him that he will die soon, before the people enter the land of Canaan. The people are poised just outside the land, and they must be anxious. All they have known is slavery in Egypt and wandering in the desert. They have no idea what this new land will be like. In fact, 10 out of 12 spies told them it would be a disaster. And perhaps most terrifying, their leader, Moshe, has told them that he isn’t coming into the land with them. So Moshe takes this last opportunity to instruct them. He warns them of the consequences of abandoning God’s laws and entices them to follow the laws with the promise of great rewards. But most of all he tells them lo bashamayim hu—all that God asks of you is not far away.
Why do we read this story at this time of year? Because the children of Israel poised at the entrance to the new land is in so many ways just like us, poised to enter a new year, a year of unknown events and unknown challenges. We say in the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer mi yichye u’mi yamut, who will live and who will die, who will be raised up and who will be brought down? Our lives in 5774 may not be as different from our lives in 5773 as the children of Israel’s lives in Canaan as compared to their lives wandering in the desert. But we share with them an uneasiness, an anxiety as we face the new year, as we try to transform the person who we are to the person who we want to be. Let us be comforted, as presumably they were, by the words of Moshe Rabbeinu—lo bashamayim hu, that person is not up in heaven, v’lo me’ever layam hu—that person is not across the sea—ki b’ficha u’vilvavcha—that person is right here, in our mouths and in our hearts. And finally that last and most difficult word—la’asoto—to do it. The tools are there, within our reach. All we need to do is to do it.
Gmar chatima tova