One of the highlights of this past year has been my work in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where until the summer I was travelling each month to build the first Reform community of liberal Litvaks. In May it was my delight to be joined by our Free Synagogue team – bearing gifts of tallits and prayer books, Cantor Brava and Souks braved long flights and the looming fear of regional war to touch down in the Baltics. They led Shabbat services in the Jewish Community, and a kumzitz Shabbat oneg. They toured Jewish sites across the country including Kovno and the Ponary Forest and they participated in the World Litvak Congress.
Now the YIVO (Yiddish Institute) dictionary defines the stereotypical Litvak as, and I quote: “unemotional, withdrawn, intellectual, and mercilessly critical; a Litvak challenges authority and is by nature skeptical, stubborn, and impatient with, and suspicious of, others.” I couldn’t work out which one of Cantor Brava and Souks might possibly be a Litvak – until the joke rebounded when William our guide gently helped me understand – that with my own ancestry from what is now Belarus but was once the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – that I could certainly be classified as a Litvak as well!
In Vilna, the Jews are very proud of their history. There’s the Vilna ghetto – home to more than 100 synagogues before the Holocaust. There’s the Vilna shas – first printed in the 1870s but widely recognizable and still by far the most common edition of the Talmud that is used even today. And above all there’s the Vilna Gaon – the eighteenth century rabbi famous today amongst all Lithuanians. Gaon means genius in Hebrew, it’s a not a term that is used lightly, and the Vilna Gaon – Elijah ben Solomon Zalman - was said to be the smartest Jew in the Ashkenazi world. We visited the location of his house, just a stone’s throw away from the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna – everything destroyed in the Shoah.
The diligence of the Vilna Gaon and his ability to study Torah was said to be the secret of his success and his grand erudition. He was almost never seen without a book to read. He would never sleep more than four hours at once. Every waking hour would be devoted to study and scholarship. If he ever accidentally paused his learning to do something he would mark it in his little notebook. “On such and such a day I wasted x number of minutes from my studies…” Then every Yom Kippur evening, like tonight, he would take that notebook and add up the time he had wasted, and confess, “Al chet shehatanu lefanecha: For the sins I have sinned before You in wasting the study of Torah.” Once one of his students peeked inside the notebook to see how much time had been “wasted”. He totted up the minutes; the grand total was about three hours. Three hours of wasted time in a year… I don’t know about you but there are some days that I can manage more than that.
Another legend is told of how the Gaon’s sister – let’s call her the Vilna Gaonet - came for a visit, after a separation of many years. He spent about two minutes chatting with her before declaring: “Sister, in fifty years we will have lots of time to talk – but for now it’s a big waste of time.”
This may sound inappropriate but maybe he’s not the only one among us with a sister like that… and it’s stories like this that help us to appreciate the nature of his genius.
The Gaon preached social distancing: “The principal safeguard is seclusion, that you should not, G-d forbid, leave the house, save for some exceedingly great need. And even in the synagogue, you should be very short and leave quickly. It is better to pray at home. For in the synagogue, it is impossible to be saved from envy and from hearing vain talk and gossip.”
Let’s just say that he would have been excellent in a pandemic. But few of us could keep such a regime, nor would we wish to.
The Vilna Gaon had a contemporary whom he respected greatly, the Dubner Maggid. A Maggid is a storyteller, and the Dubner Maggid was also legendary for the tales he would tell. Once someone asked him how he always managed to find such great stories, with fables that really fit well and illustrated what he wanted to say.
The Maggid replied: Once I was walking in the forest, and saw tree after tree with a target drawn on it, and at the center of each target an arrow. I then came upon a little boy with a bow in his hand. "Are you the one who shot all these arrows?", I asked. "Yes!" he replied. "Wow – you’re a real crackshot!” said the Dubner Maggid. ”How do you always shoot a bullseye, and hit the centre of the target?" "Easy-peasy," answered the boy: "First I shoot the arrow, then I draw the target."
The VIlna Gaon asked for some advice, pestering the Dubner Maggid and refusing to take no for an answer when he told him, you’re the Gaon here, you’re the genius, what can I teach you? But in the end the Dubner Maggid agreed to give him some words of instruction:
“You sit at home all day learning. Leave your house of study! Get out more! Go out into the world, into the public arena of life and action, and withstand the ordinary challenges of daily life. Once you’ve spent time in the markets, dealt with other people and the temptations to cheat them or argue with them, once you’ve immersed yourself in real life, uncloistered, only then see how things look and how well you can serve God.”
On hearing these words, the Vilna Gaon broke down in tears. He wept. “You are right, that would be far more difficult.”
None of us here are Geonim, but on Yom Kippur we try for one day to seclude ourselves from the world around us. We wear white. We refrain from eating and drinking. We tune out of our daily life and spend our day in prayer and reflection. For one day a year we enjoy a day of Shabbat Shabbaton “the sabbath of sabbaths” that is Yom Kippur. I say enjoy, but we are supposed to impoverish and afflict our souls. The absence of external physical nourishment enables us to concentrate on nourishing our spiritual inner-lives. On Yom Kippur we pretend to be angels before God.
One day a year. With an effect that is short-lived. We know that once the day is over, once the feverish intensity of Neilah brings the setting of the sun tomorrow night, we return to our ordinary lives as human beings.
There was an old custom that the day after Yom Kippur, the yeshivas would open one hour early. One hour the next day to show our intention for a better life, to get up earlier, to study more, but the following day would already revert to the usual time. We are only human beings. And we don’t have a yeshiva – yet – in this synagogue. But for those who can, I urge you to turn up on Thursday morning from 9am to help the volunteers with food distribution here in this synagogue – as we now do every Thursday morning as part of the Flushing Food Collective.
Judaism doesn’t expect us to be saints. After all, that’s why we have Yom Kippur – to atone for our sins.
It happened once that a saint and sinner were both passengers on a cruise ship. Suddenly a storm broke and the ship seemed in danger of sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Immediately all the crew and the passengers started praying. “Save us Lord!” cried the sinner. “Ssssssshhhh!” warned the saint. “Please don’t let God know that YOU are here, or it will be the end of all of us!”
I like this joke – it’s somehow very Jewish, poking fun at the holier-than-thou. But of course it has a different ending to our Yom Kippur boat story that we will hear tomorrow afternoon, when we read the Book of Jonah.
Rather - on Yom Kippur we stand together as a community – all in the same boat. Looking out for one another, all sinners great and small, in an act of solidarity. Some of the confessions in our prayers – in the Vidui - are piyyutim, poems with alphabetical acrostics. They help us acknowledge our sins from A to Z, from aleph to tav. It needn’t be that we are each guilty of every sin, done each one ourselves, but so that we vouch for each other. The sins we cannot admit to God – or even to ourselves - our fellow worshipper can voice them and admit them on our behalf.
In truth, Jewish tradition has a soft spot for a sinner, and scorn for the overly saintly.
I remember a story in the Yom Kippur machzor we used when I was growing up. I forget exactly how it went, but it was something along these lines: “A rabbi heard that young people in their community were staying up all night drinking and playing cards. “Ah” said the rabbi, “Excellent, that’s very good – they are training themselves to stay up all night to study Torah.”
When I get stuck playing endless games of internet chess into the wee small hours, probably i indulge myself with a version of this story… and tonight is the night to confess the very personal sin of self-indulgence.
Kol nidre is the night for such introspection. All of us are guilty of losing our way. And through teshuva, tefilla, and tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and charity, we can find it again. We lose sight of ourselves, busy in the world around us. We lose ourselves even in our seclusion and the loneliness of our solitude. The last years have been tough for so many reasons; we can find every excuse for our failures, but still we know that we can do better. We are not expected to be saintly, but we can still do better. Call that sister or that family member that you haven’t spoken to in a while - we may not have fifty more years to wait for the conversation. And once it’s too late, it’s too late. Give of yourself - if you don’t have money give time. If you don’t have time, give money. And if you feel you have neither time nor money to give, then you can also do better. Come down from your ivory tower and open your eyes to suffering in the world around you. We are not alone in our suffering. Like the Vilna Gaon, let yourself break down and weep. And then find your way to give. And play your part in the rebuilding of this community - so that together as Reform Jews in Queens, here in Flushing, we can turn around this community in this magnificent historic building, a link in the chain of the generations.
Yom Kippur is a white fast not a black one. It reminds us of our mortality but it urges us to put away morbid thoughts and to do everything we can to reboot our lives. To do all that is in our power to choose life and to live. In doing so we honour those who have passed away. Make the most of your days - like scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered.
And even if none of us will be remembered quite like the Vilna Gaon, we will be remembered for who we are. Martin Buber in his Tales of the Hasidim tells the story of another eighteenth century rabbi, Zusya of Hanipol – due south of Vilna, in the region of Chelminitsky, in modern day Ukraine.
On his deathbed Rabbi Zusya began to weep uncontrollably and his students and those around him attempted to console him. They asked, “Rabbi, why do you cry? You are almost as wise as Moses, you are almost as hospitable as Abraham, and surely heaven will judge you favourably.”
Zusya answered them: “It is true. When I get to heaven, God will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Abraham?’ or ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’ This I know. I was not granted the righteousness of Abraham or the faith of Moses but still I tried to be both hospitable and thoughtful. But what will I say when God asks me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’
When we pass away God will not ask us why we were not the Vilna Gaon. Rather – why were we not ourselves?
Tonight, and throughout this Yom Kippur, turn off your televisions and especially your telephones. Spend tonight and tomorrow being present - alive to those around you but also open to your own thoughts and open to the possibility of the divine presence. Be where you are! We each have an annual opportunity these twenty-five hours - this year, please make good use of them! The only shoes we need to fill are our own. But we still need to fill them, and they are larger than we think.
Shoot your arrows, draw your targets! Adjust to the world around you! But never lose sight of you are, and the better version of yourself that all of us this Yom Kippur must strive to be! Gmar hatima tova and may we all be sealed in the Book of Life for another year!