(My sermon at EB on Yom Kippur owed much to the ideas and words of both Rabbi Barry Kornblau and Rabbi Benjamin Blech. Here is a written version of what I said on Yom Kippur)
"…It’s bad news. There are some very bad men on the plane. The men have a bomb and they have a knife. We've had no contact with the pilots, but the men have taken over the plane and have moved everyone to the back of the plane and left us here….I need to know something. One of the other passengers has talked to their spouse, and he said that they were crashing other planes into the World Trade Center. Is that true?…..Now, I need some advice - what to do? Should we, you know, we’re talking about attacking these men, what should I do?... OK, The others and myself have voted to attack the terrorists. I have my butter knife from breakfast.. I’m going to leave the phone here. Stay on the line, I’ll be back."
It is Yom Kippur today, but it is also three days after the 12th anniversary of 9-11. This conversation I just read to you originated on an airplane on Sept. 11, 2001. The plane was United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark, bound for San Francisco.
The man on the plane, on the phone with his wife --- was a 31 year old Jewish man from New Jersey by the name of Jeremy Glick. Along with three other people, Mark Bingham, Todd Beamer and Tom Burnett, Glick took on a leadership role in his decision to rush the hijackers. Their goal: To prevent an even greater tragedy. For their efforts, these passengers were given numerous posthumous awards.
The more I think about 9-11, the more I appreciate it as a Yom Hadin – as a Day of Judgment. It was a day of judgment for the American people, a day of judgment for all decent people – and certainly, a day of judgment for the passengers of those flights, including Flight 93.
If you were to be asked, who, from the Torah's perspective, is the star of Yom Kippur? In the days of the Bet Hamikdash, it was clearly the Kohen Gadol, High Priest. He trains for seven days; He runs from task to task. He immerses in the mikveh 5 times. He enters the Holy of Holies. He prays and confesses on behalf of the entire Jewish people.
But the Torah tells us of another co-star. He escorts the Scapegoat from the Temple to the desert, where, mysteriously, his role is equally as important in helping the Jewish people atone for their sins.
The name the Torah gives to this person is איש עיתי- the “Ish Iti”.
The Talmud explains this term to mean, “the pre-designated man” - the man with an appointed purpose. There’s another translation of his name, too: he was a “timely man”. For him, every second counted: Back in the Temple Courtyard, the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest and everyone assembled took a break of about 4 hours in the middle of the day as they waited for him to complete his appointed task.
To make sure that he completed his task, he was even allowed to break the fast! In fact, Sukkot came a little bit early for him: The mishna records how there were Sukkot throughout the miles and miles of desert, manned by volunteers, offering him OU- approved Oreo cookies and Gatorade to snack on. According to the Gemara, not once in Jewish history did the “Ish Iti” ever take advantage of the Sukkot pit-stops, but the very knowledge that he could eat and drink if he wanted to was enough to calm him and energize him while he continued his mission.
Most Jews, when asked to sum up Yom Kippur, would naturally say that it’s the ultimate fast day. As if the fast is the essence of the day. Now, don’t get me wrong - fasting is central to Yom Kippur, and a person should not break the fast barring a life-threatening reason to do so. But it’s fascinating that the Ish Iti – the co-star on whom much of the Atonement depended upon – himself – had the option of eating and drinking.
Here we are, obligated to fast – and the person who is helping atone for our sins – gets to eat??!
I may be going out on a limb, but I am going to say it anyhow – the essence of Yom Kippur is NOT the fast. The heart of Yom Kippur is the obligation to cultivate a sense of purpose in our lives. The goal, the agenda of the fast is to trigger us to reflect on and rethink our lives and reframe our purpose for being here.
On Flight 93, Jeremy Glick was the Jewish people’s representative, the Ish Iti of that moment. At the same time as he was filled with horror, he was infused with a sense of purpose; fate beckoned him to act. And, like the Ish Iti of the Torah, he did what he did to save the lives of others.
There was a study published last month in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from UCLA and the University of North Carolina had volunteers fill out a questionnaire asking them if they felt satisfied with their lives, whether they considered themselves happy, and, if so, to identify the cause of their greatest joy. They follwed this up by looking at the underlying cellular mechanisms that affect mood and health or, more specifically, the gene-expression profiles for the volunteers’ white blood cells.
Genes direct the production of proteins which jump-start other processes that control much of the body’s immune response. And here was the shocker: Different forms of happiness were associated with very different gene expression profiles.
Researchers recognized a distinct difference physiologically between two kinds of joy.
One is what we would call hedonistic. It’s the result of eating a great meal, enjoying a fine scotch, (drinking Fig Raki (!))... or experiencing physical intimacy. It’s the body’s reaction to self- gratification.
But there is different category of happiness for which we have the term "eudaemonic". It is rooted not in getting but in giving. It is the happiness that comes from the sense of fulfillment that accompanies living a life of higher purpose and service to others. It makes demands on the body and often stands in the way of physical enjoyment, but it succeeds on a higher level.
It is the joy felt by a surgeon physically drained after a grueling but successful 12-hour operation. It is the joy felt by the rescuer of a drowning child, weary to the point of exhaustion by his efforts but overwhelmed by the knowledge that he was instrumental in saving a life.
As the rabbi of this congregation I am going to add on: It is the joy felt by the Ladies Auxiliary after donating $30,000 to put new lights and paint in our sanctuary; by an EB member known for his expertise in building and construction for implementing the plan; the joy of one of illustrious co-Presidents in leading the reupholstering of our sanctuary. It is the joy of those who responded to his “ask” It’s the joy of those members who bring in renowned speakers, sponsor Shabbatonim and Kiddushim on behalf of the congregation. It’s the joy of those who participate day in and day out, on Shabbat and Festivals in the Minyan and Torah learning at our Kehilla. It’s also the joy of the founders of this congregation, who, though they have passed away from the physical world, are with us always – and who labored tirelessly to create this very community.
The researchers from the University of California and University of North Carolina determined which of the volunteers were happy as a result of hedonistic or eudaemonic reasons. To their amazement, those whose happiness was primarily based on consuming things and physical gratification “had surprisingly unhealthy profiles, with relatively high levels of biological markers known to promote increased inflammation throughout the body. Such inflammation has been linked to the development of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They also had relatively low levels of other markers that increase antibody production, to better fight off infections.”
And those whose happiness stemmed from acts of kindness, communal service, or commitment to a higher cause? They had profiles “that displayed augmented levels of anti-body- producing gene expression and lower levels of the pro-inflammatory expression.”
Stephen Cole, a professor of medicine at UCLA and senior author of the study, concluded that “our genes can tell the difference between a purpose-driven life and a life limited solely to the goal of self-indulgence, and goes so far as to reward the former and biologically express its disapproval for the latter."
Over the past few days, I had some conversations with some people who noted the parallel between the “afflictions” of Yom Kippur and the laws of Tisha Be’av. On the surface of things – the days seem to have the same character, as expressed in the shared laws. The difference is that Tisha Be’av is a day of mourning, and the restraints are geared to trigger mournful contemplation. Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is a festival. So how do we explain the imperative of refraining from food, drink and other pleasures? In line with the study we’ve been discussing, we Jews are withdrawing from self-indulgence to make the statement that we are people driven by a higher purpose!
In fact, Rabbi Blech suggests that we reframe the Day of Atonement as the“Day of At-Onement”, the day in which we become one with God, “by heeding the still small voice of the pure soul that God has implanted within us, we achieve the greatest blessing of all-At-Onement with the deepest recesses of ourselves and the spark of Godliness within us.”
Each one of us can transform him or herself into an Ish Iti – a person with a purpose. As we continue our communal Tefilah on this Yom Kippur day, let each of us meditate on we are going to implement this imperative in our personal lives.
Tizku Leshanim Rabbot and Shabbat Shalom!