Here is the sermon I delivered at my pulpit, Congregation Beth HaSholom in Williamsport, PA, on Yom Kippur morning:
When I was 11 years old, I made a choice. Though it seemed small at the time, this choice would shape me as a person, and influence my life in unknowable ways. This choice was to become a Mets fan. That year, the Mets and the Yankees faced off in the World Series. My family had moved to New York a few years before, and attended both Mets and Yankee games. We had never felt a need to root for just one of them. But in fifth grade math class that morning, my teacher fatefully decided to use baseball as part of her lesson. She went around the room, and made tallies on the board. Who was a Mets fan, and who a Yankee? When my moment to declare my fandom came, all eyes were on me. I had no idea what to choose. “Can’t I root for both?” I asked. My classmates scoffed at this ridiculous idea. The pressure was on. I looked at the board and saw about a dozen tally marks in the Yankee column, and about three in the Met column. I knew what choice I had to make. I couldn’t take the easy way out and side with the majority. I added my tally to the Mets side, and sealed my fate.
I’m going to be upfront with you: this sermon could have gone two ways. I write this the morning after the 2016 National League Wild Card playoff game. After a season that started in a promising way, but then was riddled with injuries, the Mets clawed their way into a spot in a winner take all game to continue on in the post-season. I attended that game with thousands of others, held my breath through 8.5 innings, and was incredibly disappointed when our closing pitcher, one of the best in baseball, gave up a three-run home run to the other team at the very end. So while this sermon could have been happy, uplifting and inspirational, it won’t be, thanks to the Mets.
Isn’t that life, though? As much as we want things to go our way, and to lead ourselves to victory in every scenario, we know that we can’t win all the time. Even the Yankees, who have the most World Series wins ever, haven’t been to the playoffs in a while. Yet we still get invested. We still form sacred relationships. We still hold out hope that things will get better. As we grow, we learn to conduct our imperfect lives. We learn to be vulnerable and live with disappointment, while trying to create meaning and wholeness. This is what it means to be human.
The Torah portion that we read today, and the prayers that we say on Yom Kippur really exemplify this tension; this striving to lead successful and happy lives while knowing that we can’t win them all. In Nitzavim, God chooses us. God tells us that we are part of a sacred covenant. This special relationship comes with high expectations: do good, and you will be rewarded. Do bad, and you will experience God’s worst anger and wrath. This classic bible imagery is poetic and dramatic, but seems highly unrealistic. Not every choice is merely good or evil. Not every decision is merely sacred or terrible. And what about just being human? What about when we try, and fail? When we play with all of our hearts but don’t win the game? Can we still be a part of the covenant then?
Yom Kippur is all about acknowledging this gray area of imperfection. Naturally, we have done things wrong in the past year. We are supposed to admit that we have not done everything right, all of the time. We chant our alphabet of woe: ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen, acknowledging that we have not lived up to our highest hopes and expectations of ourselves. We have sinned. Yom Kippur is our reminder that we are human. We look into our hearts, and the faces of those around us, and see imperfection. We come together as a community to explore what it means for us, and resolve to do better. We allow ourselves to be caught in that grey area, between good and evil, between sacred and terrible.
Part of living in that grey area is navigating our participation in sacred relationships while knowing that they will never be perfect. Being a Mets fan, I certainly know that there were disappointments in the past year, and there will be disappointments in the next one. But that does not mean that I want to stop being involved. When I chose to become a Mets fan, I entered into my own covenant. No matter what they do, I now am deeply connected with them. When God tells us that we are entering into a sacred covenant, God knows that we won’t be perfect. When we form relationships with one another, we may hope that they may be perfect, but we are aware that nothing is. Rather than deny our problems or pretend they don’t exist, this time of year- the baseball playoffs and the High Holy Days- reminds us that it is essential for our growth to face them, and learn from them. Loving an imperfect baseball team has made me a stronger person. It has helped me to learn how to live with disappointment. It has helped me to feel part of a larger community, enthusiastically high-fiving strangers when things go well, and collectively sighing with thousands of others when things go not so well. I have had moments of extreme joy and extreme sadness while watching the Mets. I feel human when I watch the Mets, living with uncertainty and hope and anxiety all at the same time. That’s life- it doesn’t always go as planned. But we keep on building our sacred relationships, striving to find meaning in the brokenness we encounter along the way.
Judaism teaches that brokenness has been a part of life, even essential to it, since the earliest days of creation. Kabbalist Isaac Luria wrote that when God created the world, God had to contract to make room for what was being made. Then, God sent out ten vessels full of light. Too fragile to contain such holiness, the vessels shattered, and the pieces scattered all over creation. Without these broken vessels, the world would not exist. Without the brokenness that each of us contains, we would not be whole. As singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen tells us, “there’s a crack in everything- that’s how the light gets in.”
This year, let’s be more forgiving of ourselves and others- not just on Yom Kippur, but all year. We don’t immediately have to turn to wrath and anger when we sense wrongdoing, even though that’s what we see God threatening to do in the Torah portion we read today. We don’t have to have unrealistic expectations, demanding the sacred and good from others all of the time. Let’s use our brokenness to connect with one another, and see each other more clearly. And in the same way, let’s not have unrealistic expectations of ourselves. We sin, we go astray, it happens. There is no way we can be perfect all of the time. We live in a world somewhere between good and evil, between sacred and terrible. We’ve all experienced heartbreak. We’ve all been imperfect, whether it was on purpose, or unknowingly. We’re all human. Our cracks open us up.
Once the Baal Shem Tov commanded Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret meanings behind the blasts of the ram’s-horn, because Rabbi Zev was to be his caller on Rosh Ha-Shanah. So Rabbi Zev learned the secret meanings and wrote them down on a slip of paper to look at during the service, and put the slip of paper in his pocket. When the time came for the blowing of the ram’s-horn, he began to search everywhere for the slip of paper, but it was gone; and he did not know on what meanings to concentrate. He was greatly saddened. Broken-hearted, he wept bitter tears, and called the blasts of the ram’s-horn without concentrating on the secret meanings behind them. Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: “In the habitation of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock, but the master key of all is the axe, with which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So it is with the ram’s-horn: the secret meanings are the keys; every gate has another meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a person truthfully breaks his or her heart before God, he or she can enter into all the gates of the apartments of the Ruler above all Rulers, the Holy One, blessed be God.”
Today, we break our hearts before God, one another, and ourselves. In doing so, we give ourselves permission to enter into all the gates of being human. We cannot be complete without having experiences that hurt us, without straying off of the path of righteousness once in a while. By praying to be forgiven for our wrongdoings, and fasting, we acknowledge our own extreme humanity. We look our worst qualities and offenses in the face: Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen. Our mistakes and failures have shaped us, and made us who we are. Our relationships with imperfect people, and sports teams, help us to learn how to love, and grow when the outcomes aren’t always what we hope for.
There’s a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in. Mets starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard, who played an incredible Wild Card game, tweeted the following after his team lost: “Baseball has a way of ripping your heart out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest, then healing itself just in time for Spring Training.” May we not be afraid to open up our hearts to the world, even when we know it will disappoint us. May we embrace living in the gray area between good and evil, sacred and terrible. May our brokenness and our blessing intertwine, leading us to wholeness.