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5779's Shadows

Yom Kippur 5780
October 2019

This year has seen shadows being cast over our community, over Rodfei Zedek and its people, and our fellow Jews, that will leave a darkness, a grey tinge to our memories of 5779.  Yet I think that shadows need not be bad.  In life there is darkness and there is light, and finding the balance as well as the meaning they each contain is part of what it means to be human.  The breath of life that God breathed into souls is only fully realized if we can find the means to understand how light communicates with darkness

Earlier we said Unetanah Tokef prayer.  It is an exceedingly difficult prayer, a graphic one; and if that prayer does not shake you, if you are not approaching its darkness while searching for its light, then you are not allowing this day to work on you.  And in that prayer the author makes use of a phrase from Psalms, Ksel O’vair, life is like a passing shadow.  It comes in a particularly bleak section of that prayer;  I think we hear it as saying our lives are fleeting, which is true, but not what I think we ought to get from this prayer and this vivid image:  the hovering shadow over our lives and our lack of control over our fate.

Shadows remind us of the fear we hold onto as a child in the dark; our limbs frozen from the fear that awaking in the night arouses.  We see a monster whose shadow was created from objects in the room and the nightlight; that which is present and comforting in daylight is transformed into something harsh.  Comfort vanishes.  That thing that was there to protect has sent you into a state of fear.  Do you pull the covers over you, or do call out for your parents, the ultimate security blanket?  Calling out for help, is the luxury of childhood, one that is removed from us upon adulthood.  Unlike a bar/bat-mitzvah, our tradition’s moment of transition to adulthood, the precise moment of our true entrance into adulthood—the removal of this gift of security— does not announce itself and is not one we always celebrate.

Yet what we have to know is that darkness is not always scary, and we need to learn to harness the fears it induces before it can be life-giving because there is life in darkness, too.  The Rabbis tell a story about Adam and his first night on earth. Picture what that must have been like:   everything new, boundless possibility, but also limitless danger.  When the sun descended, those possibilities were transformed into fears.  God saw Adam trembling, overtaken when what was novel and beautiful just before had become frightening.  God took note of Adam’s fear and gave him two stones, one that God called shel’mavet and one a’fay’lah:  a stone of death and a stone of darkness.  God told Adam to strike them together; and when he did, light burst forth, creating fire, a warmth that sparked an ability and perspective to see those fears in a new light, life’s light, rather than death’s darkness.

As adults we know there is no light switch to turn off the dangers, emptiness, and pain that life has given and taken from us.  We know that a security blanket is something constructed from a fabric that contains no magic and that our parents were just as afraid and unknowing as we are and were as those shadows cast their glare.  The responsibility of adulthood, one where beauty and meaning reside, is the space to know that staring into the darkness and not away from it.  That space is where we can grow, to figure out how to remove darkness’ shadow living inside us.  Because night is not the absence of light, it is simply the time we need to look harder.

We think and we are taught to avoid that darkness, to out-run its shadow.  Our culture tells us to look away from the potential pain it can cause:  death is hard and sad, so let’s steer clear.  We listen to music or go on vacation; we over-eat or over drink.  We seek other detours from life because confronting them can hurt, and who wants that.  We say or are told things like, “They are in a better place,” when we know that is not true.  We must avoid that; that’s not Jewish, and our tradition has deep and emotional awareness of encountering death, of where to allow the raw pain to reside and how to embrace that rather distancing ourselves from it.  And how to move forward thoughtfully and carefully.

During the time of mourning, we traditionally avoid concerts, we initially stay out of the service during the music of the kabbalat shabbat, and we do not say false niceties like, “They are in a better place.”  We actually are not supposed to say anything at all; we wait and allow comfort, words, and connection to grow from that silence.  We wait for meaning’s light to emerge from the shadow of darkness, yet we know that a part of that shadow will always remain.

This year we seemed to endure loss after loss. A year ago this week my dear friend’s father passed away. This man, Sam Fraint, was my childhood rabbi and is an ever-present influence in my life and on the way I conduct myself here, on the rabbi you see.  Three weeks later, eleven people died in what our liturgy would call, kiddush ha’shem, as martyrs.  Their lives and light were extinguished because they had decided to come to shul.  Because of their ancestry and destiny, that we share, their deaths cast a shadow that will forever follow us.  And as 5779 progressed, it seemed like we moved from shiva to shiva with no respite from the losses.

We lost parents and friends and loved-ones, people who shaped us and family members, whose lives illuminated our lives and some whose own inner darkness projected shadows that blocked us from living fully in the light we were meant to be bathed in.  Some were the losses of people whose shadow is only starting to emerge, as you are unclear what it means to be a family without your Ner Tamid, your central and guiding light.  Some deaths were those of people who were no longer alive, yet were technically still living, and for years you lived under the veiled and nearly imperceptible light of the memory of when they were actually alive.  Now you are left to figure out where death’s shadow ends and where life’s begins again.  And some of you feel no such darkness, a weight lifted as life has given you the two stones you need to produce light.

As I stood here or walked around on Rosh Hashanah, I saw on your faces the shadows that this year has cast.  I saw it in your blank expressions, I saw it as you sat alone on the couches in the atrium needing a break from the service, I saw it in the hesitation and heaviness that trailed you as you walked in the doors to the sanctuary, I saw it in your depleted attention and stunted attempts at engaging with the machzor.  The shadow of your loss and the previous year was too great to see the light, not now, not yet.  But Judaism tells us that there is life to be found in these moments, their life coming from that shadow.

The Rabbis’ take our phrase, Ksel Ovair and say there are three shadows in life:  that of the bird, wall, and tree.  A bird’s shadow is ephemeral, here one moment and gone the next.  While the bird’s vision and perspective are valuable, the shadow it casts gives us nothing.  The wall is anything but ephemeral; it is sturdy and long lasting and fixed.  But since it is fixed, its shade depends exclusively on the position of the sun and thus not always there in our time of need.  But the tree, says the Rabbis, offers the shadow of life.  A tree is life-giving, it looks different at various parts of the day and seasons of our lives.  We can even neglect its reality, its blessing for periods of our life yet it will still be there, like The Giving Tree.  If we think about it, we will realize we are breathing the air that is its shadow.  We become nourished by a shadow if we live in a certain way, if we stare into its darkness without allowing that darkness to overwhelm us and envelop our lives.

In darkness and death, there is light and possibility even in our darkest times if we seek hope rather than succumbing to more darkness.  The shadow may never be lifted.  Shadows trail us, but the pain can be gone if we do what the rabbis say the tree’s shadow is capable of—bearing fruit and witness, daring to offer a new blessing, a blessing of hope, of strength, of planting new roots not by being a new person or through denial but by removing the shadow that lives within.

I want you to remember the master craftsmen of the tabernacle, the person God singled out to build God’s home; his name was Betzalel, in the shadow of God.  Shadows can be a source of comfort and strength.  They are reminders of our troubles, what is missing and trailing behind us.  Yet those shadows may also be smoothing our way back onto the path of life.  When we can turn around and face the fear of staring into that shadow—the shadow of our loved one, the shadow in the mirror, the shadow of God—God will give us two stones, and we will make light.

  Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf

Fri, August 12 2022 15 Av 5782