Dvar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar, September 23, 2015
Throughout the liturgy of Yom Kippur we have recited line after line asking God to hear us, answer us.
We ask in plural:
משענה לרבקה בלכתה לדרוש הוא יעננו
May the one who answered Rebecca when she went seeking answer us
and in first person:
ה׳ שמע בקולי- תהיינה אזנך קשובות לקול תחנוני
God hear my voice, may your ears pay attention to the voice of my supplication.
Over and over we cry out:
עננו – Answer us
שמע קולנו – Hear our voices
It is as if we are begging to be heard, hoping that if we ask enough times, our requests for mercy will be answered.
Yet also interspersed in the liturgy are names we call God that imply a closeness between us and the Divine:
We say that God is:
בוחן לבבות – searches hearts
יודע רזי עולם – knows the secrets of the world
קרוב לקוראיו – close to those who call out
Unetana Tokef, one of the keystones of the High Holiday liturgy presents an image of an annual inspection where every creature on the earth passes before God to be judged.
Let’s freeze time for a second at the moment where each one of us stands before God. In my imagination, this isn’t a silent evaluation, rather, an opportunity for each individual to have, for a moment, the personal attention of God.
Even if we accept that God can understand what we want yet refuse our requests, the contrast in the language of today’s prayers is still striking: Do we need to plead for God to hear us, or is God close to us, knowing what is in our hearts?
I’d like to suggest that our request for listening and paying attention isn’t directed only to God, but it is also a reminder for us.
We are taught : אחרי ה׳ אליקכם תלכו- that we should be imitating the actions of God.
In biblical stories, God clothes the naked, visits the sick, and buries the dead. And so the Talmud directs us to do the same.
I’d like to extend this teaching. If we ask of God to hear us and to answer us, our responsibility is to do the same.
Think back over the times we were called to hear, really hear the cries of others. What cracks open our hearts?
For many, last month, the photo of 3 year old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach suddenly jolted into our awareness the plight of refugees fleeing Syria. The Syrian Refugee Crisis started in 2011, but it was when we saw this photo that we could see it. Unfortunately Alan was not the 1st to die, but it was his story that led many of us to contemplate what it means to be a refugee.
If you follow the Humans of New York blog, you know that Brandon Stanton is an excellent photographer, but he’s an even better story teller. If you’re not familiar with it, the posts are usually a portrait photo with a caption from the excerpt of the conversation between the subject and the photographer who has a knack for making the viewer see each one of his subjects as an deep and interesting individual.
At least twice this year stories he raised to awareness have made significant progress due to his raising them up. A photo of a student named Vidal describing his principal, Nadia Lopez as most influential person in his life led to a campaign to help 6th graders of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn visit Harvard that raised well over a million dollars.
Even more striking was a photo series taken last month in Pakistan raising awareness of the problem of bonded labor and the work of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front. I suspect many of the individuals who made contributions in the following days, amounting to a total of over two million dollars, didn’t know much, if anything about bonded labor in Pakistan. But seeing the faces of those enslaved, and reading their stories opened their hearts, and now the organization has a decent chance of ending bonded labor in Pakistan.
We know from the liturgy of the High Holidays that God cares. We read that God notices Hagar, remembers Sarah, and answers the prayers of Hannah and Jonah.
The piyut מי שענה that we recite lists example after example of God answering the prayers of our ancestors.
As we assure ourselves that God hears our prayers, we also need to attune ourselves to hear the cries and the prayers of others.
Yom Kippur is the culmination of the process of Teshuvah. The hebrew root means “to return” but the same root also means “to answer.”
As we have spent the last 10 days evaluating ourselves and returning to God, we are also called upon to be עונה –to answer when others call, and one way to do this is to listen for their stories.
This is difficult. It is easier than ever to learn of the stories of others, especially when they go viral. But we are not like God, and we cannot relate to each of God’s creations this way. It’s too much for us to do this all of the time.
What we can do is remember to view each person we come across as someone with a story. If we knew them better, if we knew where they were coming from, we’d feel connected to them. We can listen for their voices and sometimes we will be able to draw them close, or to help.
The midrash in Bereshit Rabba (33:3) teaches:
התמלאו רחמים אלו על אלו והקב”ה מתמלא עליכם רחמים
Be filled with compassion for one another and the Holy One will be filled with compassion for you.
May we cultivate in ourselves the attributes of compassion and of listening to others and their stories and may we find compassion when we need it ourselves.
Gmar Hatima Tovah