Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Yom Kippur Morning 2021
Imagine, for a moment, having just built a house (cantor, perhaps you may want to cover your ears). Everything about the house has been as you have desired: the location, the direction it faces, the architecture, the colors, the amenities. You have spent months visiting the site, talking to the builder and decorators and subcontractors, thinking about kitchen appliances and draperies and the like. And at last, it is time for the final inspection before move-in. Everything is as it should be, everything as you imagined, except you decide to go down to the basement. There, you find a small, almost imperceptible crack in the foundation wall. The builder, the home inspector, the engineer all tell you it is nothing, a minor cosmetic flaw. It has no effect on the stability of the house, just patch it up, they say. So, you sign the papers and move in. And when the crack gets a little bigger, you patch it up. And you stop thinking about it until a few years later, you go back down, and see that the crack has returned, perhaps a tiny bit bigger? So, you patch it up again. And again when it returns, larger, and now with a bit of concrete debris falling out. And again. It starts to become the focus of all your energies around the house; this once-small crack in the foundation. Because now there are cracks in the walls upstairs as well. You can tell that the house, in settling, has shifted ever so slightly to one side, and is no longer level. You start wondering if you would be better off demolishing and starting over rather than continuing to patch this crack.
The house in question is not an actual dwelling place, but rather a parable by the Hasidic master R. Shalom Noah Berezovsky, who only passed maybe 21 years ago. R. Berezovsky uses this image of a house with a crack in the foundation to talk about teshuvah, the act of repentance. “The task of a person,” he writes, “is like that of a person building an elaborate house on a foundation of rubble.” Each year, he says, we introduce improvements of various kinds into this house, our spiritual home, “but nevertheless when it isn’t built on solid foundations, new cracks and fissures appear year after year, and our spiritual home remains always in danger of collapse.” And so it is with us. When we engage in teshuvah, we frequently find ourselves looking for shortcuts, or justifications, or other kinds of spackle to put over the cracks in our foundation. We refuse to look deeply into our pain, our hurt, and examine our choices and actions deeply. In his commentary, Shai Held writes, “unless we find the courage to go deep inside ourselves, our fixing of cracks will be frantic but fruitless. We are challenged to learn…that ‘none of these minor repairs will solve the problem of our lives until we dig deep foundations…then we can build a structure that endures forever.’” Which means that minor repairs may not be enough; sometimes, as terrifying as it may be, we need to demolish the structure and start over.
So, we find ourselves confronting our task at Yom Kippur. As the prayerbook asks, will our repentance be more than skin deep this year, or will we settle for superficial repairs that require nothing of us, and are doomed to fail once again? And so our text, Nitzavim, calls us to task. We read in it that the instruction, this mitzvah, which God enjoins upon us this day, is not too difficult, or baffling, or beyond reach. It is not in the heavens or across the sea. It is close to us, in our mouths and upon our hearts to observe it. Repentance—real repentance—is not beyond us if we are willing to engage in it fully. Drill down into our foundations and see where the rot and damage lies, ‘dig in the dirt to find the places we got hurt’, as the singer Peter Gabriel sang. As is often mentioned, teshuvah means to turn. But only if we turn inward first and carefully examine the cause of our negative choices can we turn outward as well, correcting our behavior, and in so doing, turn toward one another and divinity once again.
At the conclusion of our Torah service, as we return the scroll to the ark, we will sing the words found at the end of Lamentations: Turn to us, Adonai, and we will return to you. Similarly, and ironically, the Prophet Zechariah, speaking on behalf of God, speaks similar words to Israel: Turn back to me, and I will turn to you. As Held quotes the Bible Scholar Ben Ollenberger, these are not just a call to repentance, but also an invitation to reunion. May we, this year, find the way to examine ourselves deeply, turn inward that we may turn outward, to establish ourselves on a solid foundation, and return in love to one another and ourselves again.