Saturday, October 8, 2011

Erev Yom Kippur Sermon 5772

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in sometime later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” The gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try going inside in spite of my prohibition. But take note. I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I cannot endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this first one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud; later, as he grows old, he only mumbles to himself. ..Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things considerably to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know now?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going to close it now.”

Thus wrote the great Jewish writer Franz Kafka, but it is a story familiar to all of us. How often have we been kept out, found the gate and the gatekeeper blocking our path, excluded and alienated for no reason we can fathom, except here we are, the entranced barred. And this is  especially true of our Jewishness, our personal spirituality, our connection to God and each other, a thing we glimpse in darkness, barely illuminated, but blocked, it so often seems, by so many guards, the next more intimidating than the last. Questions of authenticity, of legitimacy, of value, of commitment come flooding toward us. Some are indifferent questions, questions about dues and congregational culture and youth groups and programs. Some are costly questions indeed, about identity, about dedication and obligation, about intermarriage and access, about what we want to teach our children, and how we want to see ourselves.

And still. We sit on our stool and curse our luck, and never wonder why we never see anyone else try to enter. We never look to move past our gatekeepers, our questions, because sometimes those gatekeepers, the most powerful gatekeepers, are the ones we put up ourselves. We deny ourselves the opportunities for intimacy, for real, meaningful connection; we fear making a mistake, or exposing ourselves, so we keep our connections on the surface. Or we put the onus entirely on others, then call them ‘unfriendly’ and ‘unwelcoming’ when they don’t live up to our expectations. Rabbi Elie Kaufner shares a story of going to onegs and playing a little game, standing just outside a conversation and waiting to see how long the people talking would acknowledge him. How often have we felt like the interloper in such settings, but as Kaufner points out, the barrier was not them, but him. What would have happened, he wonders, if he had introduced himself to the people talking, and joined their conversation?

What would happen if we would give ourselves fully to one another—to our spouse or partner, to our children or parents, to the people standing near us—rather than go through life standing just outside each others’ circle, fearful of what might happen?

[move away from the podium] there is nothing that frightens me more as a rabbi than this [gesture], the space between us, that seemingly endless chasm where we can pretend somehow that we’re not engaged, not praying together, not really present in each others’ midst, and when I collapse that space [move forward] many in this room recoil, as if I’m violating some kind of trust. There is too much space here, too much opportunity to disconnect, and as a rabbi, a Jew, a friend, I want nothing more than to create that closeness, to get rid of this space!

[return to podium]. So here we stand, on the holiest day of the year, and we are already preparing our gatekeepers—the ones that keep us out of synagogue, the one that keeps us from each other. Or, we could make a promise to eliminate that gatekeeper once and for all, and to bask in the light of Torah, the light of prayer, the light of intimacy, the light of each others’ holiness. Let’s not let the moment pass! Let’s not let our gatekeepers close the door! Let’s strive for that closeness, that relationship with one another that is rooted in holiness, and let’s start now. I invite you to open yourselves up and participate in a ritual. Hold the hand of the person next to you, or lock arms, or place an arm around the other—even if that person is a stranger to you! Even if that person is someone you have never met in your travels in this world! Take hold of the person next to you, and say these words with me:

I pray in this new year
Include me
Invite me in
Allow me to make space for you
May I be supported by those around me
May I be a strength to those who need me
May I let others see the real me
May I see what is real and holy in you.
May our words be true. Amen 

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