Interpreters of our tradition tell us that Yom Kippur is like rehearsing for you own death. We don’t eat. We wear white like a death shroud. We disregard the body and focus on the soul’s transition.
I have found this to be intriguing but distressing. Let’s try looking at this from another perspective. Yom Kippur is a day not when we rehearse for death but rather we prepare for life. What if Yom Kippur were a day when we detach from our material possessions and put aside our egos? We have worked hard at creating comfortable lives but we are not merely the sum of our resumes or our accomplishments.
Yom Kippur is a day not when we rehearse for death but rather we prepare for life. And we know that life brings challenges. Each of us has had challenges, sometimes a storm, sometimes an earthquake. When there is a loss, we often suffer a spiritual crisis as well – scrambling for faith that from our despair there will again be joy, from our loss there will again be gains. Yom Kippur is an opportunity to retreat from our hectic crazy busy lives, to sit with the still small voice within us and to figure out who we really are. And if we get to the essence of who we are, not what we have, not what we pretend to be, then we are better prepared to meet life’s challenges head on.
To be publicly fired from a high-profile network television post might provoke a spiritual crisis for anyone. There is a new book written by David Gregory, who was unceremoniously dumped as moderator of NBC’s“Meet the Press” in August 2014 after a steep slide in the ratings. Gregory has taken his abrupt unemployment as an opportunity — time to write a book on the religious life he had been nurturing for years. The book is called: “How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey.” Not without coincidence it went on sale this week, just before Yom Kippur, when Jews “turn to God and ask to be inscribed in the book of life.”
It’s clear from the opening pages that Gregory —born to a Jewish father and Irish Catholic mother — began as a cultural Jew and has became a religious one. The book is an answer to three questions. “What do you believe”, “how’s your faith”, and “who would you be if you lost it all?”
First question: “I know who you are, but what do you believe?” Gregory was asked this question by his Methodist Wife. Gregory wanted to raise his children Jewish. However, his attachment to Judaism was cultural and not theological. He had to press beyond ethnic identity in search of deeper meaning. His wife is a practicing Methodist and regularly attends church. As part of his search for an answer, what do you believe, Gregory found a teacher, Erica Brown, with whom he has studied for many years. He also studies with Rabbi Danny Zemel of, Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., and with an informal group of Jewish writers including David Brooks and Daniel Silva.
The Second question: “How’s your faith?” This question was asked by former President George W. Bush. He asked Gregory “How’s your faith?” more than once during the years Gregory covered presidential elections and the White House for NBC before taking over “Meet The Press” in December 2008. Bush publicly credits a conversation with evangelist Billy Graham and a connection with evangelical belief for his turn away from his own carousing ways, and his shift from tradition to belief. Gregory writes in the book that Bush’s faith was “deeply personal and it impacted every realm of his life.”
Where did Gregory find roots for his faith? He anchored his faith in study and prayer and observing Shabbat with his family.
Third question: “Who would you be if you lost it all?” This is the question that fascinates me most. In part because I was present for the genesis of this question. I too studied with Erica Brown for a while. And during dinner at her home one evening, she hinted at her teaching some powerful Washington people in a Torah study group. A conversation ensued between Erica and another guest about the challenges of identity and spirituality for the Washington Power Elite. As we all know, politicians can rise and fall precipitously. Just ask Eric Cantor – you do remember Eric Cantor the former Jewish Congressman from Virginia? Was it just three years ago that Mitt Romney was a candidate for President? Or General David Petreaus was the head of the CIA? The same is true for many others in Washington; politicians, lobbyists and reporters.
During his difficult final years at “Meet the Press,” David Gregory said Brown posed the question, “who would you be if you lost it all?”
But when the great job really was lost, Gregory knew the answer: He had not “lost it all.” He said, “I have come to believe that there is always a loving God who is present in our lives and who hovers.” What Gregory discovered is that he had to separate his professional identity from his interior life. Losing his job at NBC was made bearable by his faith in something greater than himself.
Of course, there is nothing new under the sun about this concept of ascent and descent, and trials of faith. We have an ancient Jewish story of a radical shift in fortunes and a rescue from despair through faith.
The story of Elijah is that story. You know Elijah as the prophet we invite to our Passover Seder, the one whose return heralds the coming of the messiah. Elijah the prophet lived in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Ahab, the king who "did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him" (I Kings16:30). Ahab had married a Phoenician princess named Jezebel who established the cult of Ba'al and persecuted the Israelite prophets. Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba'al to the famous contest on Mt. Carmel (ch.18). King Ahab and the people gather to see whose sacrifice will be accepted, that of Elijah or the prophets of Ba'al. This is Elijah at his best - angry, daring, dramatic. Even after pouring water on his altar, a fire of God descends from the heavens, consuming Elijah's offering. "Adonai, He is God!" shout the people. The text tells us that "the hand of the LORD had come upon Elijah" (18:45). Elijah is God's right-hand man, the people's hero and the king's herald.
Unfortunately for Elijah, Ahab’s wife Jezebel sends a messenger to Elijah threatening his life. Elijah flees to the wilderness south of Beer-sheba. How suddenly Elijah's fortunes have been reversed! God's favorite, the hero of Israel, the worker of miracles who ran before the king's chariot, is now running for his life!
He came to a broom bush and sat down under it, and prayed that he might die (Kings chapter 19 v. 4). Elijah is alone in the wilderness without protection and without water. After years of literally being fed by God, Elijah feels abandoned, his prophetic mission terminated. "Enough!" he cried. "Now, O LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers" (v. 4). Elijah prepares to die.
Surely Elijah deserves better. The text continues: He lay down and fell asleep under a broom bush. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Arise and eat." He looked about; and there, beside his head, was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water! He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the LORD came a second time and touched him and said, "Arise and eat, or the journey will be too much for you." He arose and ate and drank; and with the strength from that meal he walked forty days and forty nights as far as the mountain of God at Horeb (vv. 5-8).
Sustained by God, he travels to Horeb - another name for Sinai. There he went into a cave, and there he spent the night.Then the word of the LORD came to him. He said to him, "Why are you here (ma lekha po), Elijah?" (v. 9).
I wonder how Elijah must be feeling. He has come close to death in the wilderness and God is closer now than ever. Never before has God engaged Elijah in dialogue. What is God really asking of Elijah? Not his travel itinerary.
He replied, "I am moved by zeal for the LORD, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life" (v. 10).
This is the same passionate Elijah, the Elijah of righteous anger. His response is really a question, "How could You have allowed one who has served You so well to be in so desperate a situation?" Elijah replies defensively. "I am here because I have been zealous for You!"
"Come out," God called, "and stand on the mountain before the LORD."And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind - an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake - a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire (vv. 11-12).
Rashi tells us that the cave is the same crag in the rocks where Moses stood as God passed by him after the episode of the Golden Calf. Elijah clings to the cave while God unleashes natural forces far beyond anything Elijah has seen or heard. But even in the midst of the tempest, he realizes that something is terribly wrong. The text announces that God is passing by. The expected natural escorts - wind, earthquake and fire - are present, just as they were when the Israelites had their revelation at Sinai. But as the text repeats to us three times, God is nowhere to be found!
And after the fire, a soft, murmuring sound (qol dmamah daqah, v. 12) A "still, small voice." When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave (v. 13).
Nature's upheaval over, Elijah is now able to stand at the entrance of the cave as Moses did before him. (Ex. 33:20). Remember that when God passes by Moses, the verse is proclaimed Adonai Adonai El Rachum V’chanun -: 'The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; These are the very words we repeat over and over during these High Holidays, as if they are our password to enter the gates of forgiveness. But Elijah does not hear those words as Moses did. Instead, for Elijah a question "Why are you here (ma lekha po), Elijah?" (v. 13).
The revelation to Elijah is not an answer, but a question, the same question he heard before. Literally, the question is, "What is for you here, Elijah?" Who are you, Elijah, in this desert? Despairing? Hopeless? A loss of faith? No God-sent fire as on Mt. Carmel; no crowds to applaud your courage and your miracles. Your righteous acts and miracles are behind you. Would you rather lie down and give up on life? And here on Mt. Sinai, the wind, earthquake and fire brought no revelation. When you are left mystified in desert silence. Did you expect to see God's glory and instead hear a silent voice? Did you expect redemption and instead get a shattering question?
The question peels away every layer of his being, like a snake shedding its skin, like the layers of an onion being stripped away. Who are you Elijah, here and now?
And now it is your turn! Stop and listen to the silence to discern who you are. Who are you when your achievements are left behind? Who are you without fame? Without fortune, no 401 k, IRA? Where are you when you’ve left your possessions behind? When you’ve shed everything or lost everything or been robbed of everything, who would you be?
If you are searching for the essential for survival – how much of your possessions can you carry? The less you are carrying the more agile you will be. In the struggle for survival, you can’t carry much in the way of possessions. Ask any refugee how much they can carry and still travel onward.
The same is true in a search for spiritual survival. The less baggage you carry the more able you will be to find a safe haven which is to answer the question “Who are you here and now?” I’m not suggesting that one needs to be an ascetic and divest of everything. To the contrary, I’m an insurance salesman. I am suggesting that as a practice one needs to insure that they can weather any storm, fire or any earthquake. It could be the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, the destruction of a home or the loss of good health. You would purchase disability insurance or health insurance or casualty insurance to protect your property interests. What insurance do you have to protect your emotional and spiritual health?
The strength I am addressing is not only relevant when we lose standing or fame or fortune. The same should be asked when we face shocks to our lives. We all have them and will have them. For David Gregory and perhaps for you, faith is a way of arming ourselves in advance for the inevitable – but completely unanticipated – blows that we will all face.
And it isn’t just faith. To be able to cope best with the challenges that will confront us, we must be more like Moses and Elijah. We must be humble. Should our physical strength be sapped, should our furnishings be swept away, or should our reputation be ruined, can you let go of your pride and see yourself for the person you truly are? Don’t count the accomplishments you’ve garnered but focus on the values you uphold and the personal connections you nourish and the faith that you maintain.
Prophecy changed for Elijah. No more dramatic miracles, no more fire from the sky and cheering crowds. Elijah must now learn to embody his role-model Moses whose greatest virtue was humility. The zealous warrior is given his most difficult mission, to confront his pride and see himself as he truly is.
Life has changed for David Gregory. No more televised interviews with Presidents. No more political scoops and breaking news reports. He has to be like Elijah and Moses – humble. The zealous political operative, the skilled broadcaster has been given his most difficult mission, to confront himself and see himself as he truly is. He had put effort into figuring out who to be so that he could succeed as the host of a Sunday news show. But when he lost that high profile job, he had to find out who he was without cameras or prestigious titles. While not an easy task Gregory says that it was faith that steadied him.
The humbling loss turned out to be a gift. He could identify other opportunities for growth and happiness —even if it hadn’t gone according to plan. His spiritual work before the dismantling of his career gave him a basis for recovery and growth. He believes that in joy, pain and even in personal failure, God is close. David Gregory professes that his faith has sustained him and that he was able to not retreat to the wilderness of despair but rather to the mountain of faith. That is the place where it is proclaimed,Adonai Adonai, el Rachum V’chanun, God of compassion and mercy, long enduring and great in loving kindness and truth. It is a place of compassion. God is compassion.
David Gregory is working on a question of his own: “‘who am I as a true self before God?’ Gregory’s book is a search to figure out what he believes fundamentally about life and the world.
So now it is your turn. Perhaps you have had such a time in your life – when the business closed, or a loved one died, or illness challenged your health. Were you able to connect with the essence of who you are? Could you let go of the material possessions and the need for approval or recognition by others? At your core, do you have the right values that will guide you, do you have the courage that will energize you, and do you have the faith that will sustain you? As God asked of Elijah, Who are you, right here and now, stripped of everything that is a distraction?
Yom Kippur calls upon us to strip it all away. We don’t worry about food, or cosmetics or work. We focus on answering the question – who are you really? To answer that question, you may need some time alone, some quiet or silence. It is a silence that is not the absence of noise but an absence of distraction. You might find it tomorrow afternoon in yoga, or meditation or a walk in the woods. You may find a silence in which God is very close.
On this Yom Kippur day, figure out who you are and what is your faith. Do it now the holiday tells us. Because we don’t know who in the coming year will be tossed by the winds of change, who will be burned by misfortune or shaken by earthquakes of transformation. It is in the opportunity of the stillness for us to figure out who we really are, what is critical in our lives and what is our faith.
Erica Brown wrote Gregory a note on his last day in the job. She reminded him to trust God, quoting Isaiah 46:4. “I am He, I am He who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” May each of us in the coming year have health and contentment and be open to experiences of faith that will sustains us.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame