The Awe of Love
Yom Kippur Morning, 5778
September 30, 2017
Congregation B’Nai David, Visalia CA
For Jews, Yom Kippur is a day like no other. We fast. We most of the day in shul. We think a lot about how we can be better people. We confess our sins, as well as those of the people around us. Sometimes we cry. And as Jews in America, or in the Central Valley, most of us do this more or less unnoticed by our neighbors. Has anyone here ever spent Yom Kippur in Israel?
On Yom Kippur in Israel, everything stops. TV and Radio go off the air. No aircraft take off or land at Ben Gurion airport. And vehicle traffic stops. I mean completely. Families in Tel Aviv ride bicycles on the freeway. When I was living in Israel, Jon and I strolled down the middle of King David Street after Kol Nidre services without a car in sight. It was eerie and strangely exhilarating.
Apparently, not everything stops in Israel in Yom Kippur. Yesterday, the Times of Israel ran a story with headline “For Many Israeli Teens, the Eve of Yom Kippur Is a night of Forbidden Love.” Oddly enough, this caught my attention. Despite the somewhat suggestive headline, this story was actually quite sweet. In one town on Yom Kippur, “hundreds of teenagers gather in a mass of white, with many sprawled out on pillows and blankets in the grass. Some play backgammon or board games. In public, hardly anyone violates the religious ban on eating or smoking; smartphones are left at home, or at least in a pocket. Public displays of affection are also generally avoided in keeping with the Talmudic prohibition against sexual relations [on Yom Kippur].” One young man said, “Everybody is clean and dressed in white, and you’re supposed to have asked forgiveness for your sins. So there is this pure, magical feeling in the air.” And just like with teens everywhere, love finds a way.
For these Israeli kids, Yom Kippur is about teshuva and atonement, but it is also about love. And this story reminds us that Judaism is built on love. Earlier this morning, we chanted this prayer together:
וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃
You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
Of course, this prayer is from the Sh’ma, which is included in the liturgy for weekdays, Shabbat and festivals. In other words, every day. It has been called the “watchword of the Jewish people.” And this foundational prayer talks about loving God, and showing love for our children by diligently teaching them about our faith.
In the Book of Leviticus, the Children of Israel receive the mitzvot, God’s Commandments to our people. These commands include loving our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18), but not only our neighbors. Just a few verses later it is written “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am Adonai your God” (19:34).
So, then, we are commanded to love God, love ourselves, love our children, love our neighbor, and to love the stranger. This all sounds wonderful….and they are God’s commandments after all, right? But how does help us today, right now, as we are doing the messy and difficult holy work of Yom Kippur?
To be honest, I myself sometimes find that these commandments feel idealized and out of reach. And as I face down my truest self on Yom Kippur –my flawed, hurting, selfish, petty self – this disconnect between the idealized mitzvot of love and my distorted perceptions of my ability to love and be worthy of love result in despair.
On one hand, each of us is made in the image of God. By loving God, we must also therefore love the “godliness” in us. But on the other hand, the list of sins we confess in the Ashamnu, as well as the other ways we miss the mark, can make us seem quite unlovable. This is a spiritual predicament of significant proportions.
Rabbi Sharon Brous teaches that there is a way out of the predicament of being spiritually unlovable. She calls it “Yom Kippur Love.” It is a “love that starts from a place of deep honesty and vulnerability. Yom Kippur love says: I’m giving you access to my fears, my hopes, to me. I will let you see the best and also the worst of me. I will let you see my soul – and I want to see yours. Show me your scars – I promise not to run.” Rabbi Brous wrote “the Mishnah teaches at end of Yom Kippur, all of the women used to run out to the fields to dance, to celebrate and find love.” Why would this be so? “Because in that moment, more than any other in the year, the façade has disappeared. You are just yourself - your truest self. Broken and beautiful and worthy of being loved. The Rabbis understood that vulnerability is a prerequisite for love.”
Yom Kippur Love is characterized by honesty and vulnerability. Love that simultaneously needs to be seen and treated with deep respect. Honesty and vulnerability sound a lot like “awe” to me!
I’d like to share a story of Yom Kippur love in an unexpected context. Mary Johnson lives in the same building as the man who murdered her son, and is happy to do so. In 1993 Laramiun Byrd, Mary’s son, was shot to death at the age of 16 by 20-year old Oshea Israel after a fight at late night party. And from that moment Mary’s life became a nightmare of loss and pain; grief and anger. Mary, a deeply religious Christian, described herself as “full of hatred” toward Oshea, the man who took her son’s life. As a person of faith, I find myself wincing a little at the idea of being filled with hatred. But I think we can all understand how Mary found herself in that place. Oshea was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Many years later, Mary found herself very much in the same place as the day her son’s killer went to prison. Mary said, “The root of bitterness ran deep, anger had set in and I hated everyone. I remained like this for years, driving many people away. But then, one day, I read a poem which talked about two mothers – one mother whose child had been murdered and the other mother whose child was the murderer. It was such a healing poem all about the commonality of pain and it showed me my destiny. Suddenly I had this vision of creating an organization to support not only the mothers of murdered children but also the mothers of children who had taken a life. I knew then that I would never be able to deal with these mothers if I hadn’t really forgiven Oshea. So, I put in a request…to meet him.”
Mary went to the prison not at all sure what to expect when she met the man who shot her son. But when Oshea came into the room she shook hands with him and said, “I don’t know you and you don’t know me. You didn’t know my son and he didn’t know you, so we need to lay down a foundation and get to know one another.” And they talked. Mary opened her heart and told Oshea about her experience. Oshea admitted his crime to Mary.
Mary said, “I could see how sorry he was and at the end of the meeting, for the very first time, I was genuinely able to say that I forgave Oshea. He couldn’t believe how I could do this and he asked if he could hug me. When he left the room, I bent over saying – ‘I’ve just hugged the man who’d murdered my son.’ Then, as I got up, I felt something rising from the soles of my feet and leaving me. From that day on I haven’t felt any hatred, animosity or anger. It was over.”
Mary and Oshea continued their relationship and she visited him regularly. A few years later, after completing 17 years of his prison term, Oshea was released. Mary introduced him to her landlord who, with her blessing, allowed him to move into the same apartment building. Oshea has made a successful transition back into community life and he and Mary maintain their bond. Mary works in the restorative justice movement in Minnesota, and she and Oshea tell their story to community groups.
One of those groups was my home congregation in Minneapolis. I remember the Shabbat when Mary and Oshea spoke and the astonishment I felt as I listened to their story. Mary lived every day with the murder of her son, a loss that transformed her life into pain and anger. And somehow, she saw that the way out of that anger was to open her heart to her son’s killer and forgive him. To love him. Mary’s forgiveness became a wellspring of blessing not only for her, or for Oshea, but also for other women who have lost their children to murder, or to the consequences of committing murder.
Mary’s story is a story of Yom Kippur Love, perhaps in the most difficult expression imaginable. She was filled with unimaginable pain and recognized that the only way out of it was to be honest and make herself vulnerable to the man who killed her son. Because Mary’s loving soul reached out to Oshea, there was teshuva and the restoration of a small degree of justice.
On this Day of Awe, it is imperative that we be whole and real with ourselves. In order to do the work of teshuva and atonement, we must do so from a place of love…Yom Kippur Love. Yom Kippur Love is awe, and awe is love. The response to vulnerability and honesty is rachamim, compassion.
As you do the work of Yom Kippur, may you – and each of us – find the joy in this day. Like the teens in Israel, like the women running and dancing in the field, may we all live Yom Kippur love. May we let go of our facades and show each other our beautiful, broken, awesome selves.
Ken Yehi Ratzon, May it Be God’s Will
Shabbat Shalom, G’mar chatimah tovah.
 Rabbi Sharon Brous. Kol Nidre 5772, IKAR, Los Angeles.
 Rabbi Sharon Brous, quoted by Rabbi Michael Adam Latz. http://www.shirtikvah.net/Resources/Documents/Yom%20Kippur%20Love%20Kol%20Nidre%205773.pdf
Note: The story of Mary Johnson was told in a in a slightly different form in an earlier sermon. MB