The following is the text of my remarks to Congregation Beth Jacob of Redwood City CA on Yom Kippur 5774.
Before we talk about this morning’s Haftarah, let’s have a quick show of hands. How many of you are hungry? [A few hands went up.] Okay, for those who didn’t raise your hand, how many figure by the time we get to Ne’ilah and Havdallah at eight o’clock tonight you will be hungry? [Many hands went up.]
Pretty good. Looks like we’re all doing what’s right, doing what we can to get closer to God. [Dramatic pause.] Well, I’ve got bad news for all of you. You may be starving your bodies, but God is not impressed! It's not enough to pray with your stomach. You've gotta pray with your heart!
[I think they were starting to squirm at this point. I asked them not to show their hands for the following questions.]
How many of you sneaked in a little work since sunset last night, or checked your email, or read the business pages? How many of you cut someone off on the road rushing to shul last night? How many of you have spoken harshly to your spouse or children or parents? Is there anyone here who hasn’t broken at least one of the Ten Commandments? I bet you’ve broken half of them today! You sit here, acting so holy, fasting and beating your chest, but admit it, YOUR FAST IS ABSOLUTELY MEANINGLESS! [This last sentence crescendoed to a shout “with full throat” to the stunned amazement my fellow congregants.]
[Aside] Rabbi, was that too much? [Feigning innocence:] I was just paraphrasing the text of this morning’s Haftarah!
Check it out at the top of page 285 of the Machzor. God commands Isaiah, "Cry with full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram’s horn! Declare to my people their transgression, to the House of Jacob, [to Beth Jacob, declare] their sin.”
I wondered how Isaiah must have felt standing before hundreds of people with empty bellies shouting at them that their fast was meaningless, so I decided to give it a shot. [This actually got a laugh. Phew, they were with me!]
For one thing, it takes a lot of chutzpah, but it’s also very humbling. It demanded that I first put myself under the microscope, and what I saw really wasn’t very pretty. It was hard for me to read what’s required on this fast day—and truly every day. God demands much. It’s overwhelming to think of meeting all of God’s demands for freeing the captive, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, just to name a few.
Despite what we do here at CBJ in the Home and Hope shelter network, at the community hot meal program Breaking Bread, and in our personal contributions of time and money to many causes, it seems like it’s never enough. Poverty, hunger, homelessness, and oppression are so great that, despite all of our political and philanthropic actions, it’s beyond any individual or even our community’s capacity to eradicate them. Facing the enormity of need in our world and our limited ability to respond, we could easily get to a point of such despair that we would be tempted to throw in the towel—“why bother!” We could fill ourselves with a sense of futility—that we’ve failed to measure up to the challenges of this day, and we could conclude that ours is not the fast that God desires.
The question I offer is, “How do we acknowledge our falling short of the mark without becoming so discouraged that we become immobilized and fail to move ever closer to what is asked of us?”
The answer comes from a little secret about Haftarah that I recently learned. Did you know that every Haftarah passage ends on an up note? Thank God for that! Even after being castigated by Isaiah we finish on the bright side, especially when you consider all the acts of loving kindness that I just mentioned that we indeed accomplish. Beginning at Verse 10 we read: “[If] ...you offer your compassion to the hungry ... then shall your light shine in darkness... The Lord … will slake your thirst in parched places and give strength to your bones.”
What I draw from this is that though we can never do enough to eradicate the world’s problems, not even on Yom Kippur are we held to an unattainable standard of perfection. Let’s remember the words from Pirke Avot, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.”
God commanded Isaiah to cry out and remind Beth Jacob of their misdeeds. While we consider our failings, let us also recall our good deeds, so that we may build on them, and find the hope and comfort that lies in this passage as well.