02 October 2014

Condemnation and Consolation

[This is something I wrote last year that appeared in my temple's newsletter. It was in response to a request for comments on a Yom Kippur sermon that many temple members found provocative: some in a good way, some in a bad way.]

Though we won't have another prophet until The Anointed One comes, we must keep the prophetic voice alive.

This voice, as typified by Isaiah, is a bewildering combination of condemnation and consolation.

It may seem to contain contradictions, in making us responsible for so much of what is wrong with the world, while reminding us that there are limits to what we can control.

Perhaps the most important reminder of our limits is Shabbat.

Consider the Haftarah for Yom Kippur Morning, from Isaiah.

As is the prerogative of prophets, Isaiah speaks for God when he asks, in apparent disgust, "Is this the fast I have chosen?"

The answer is of course "no." The fast he has chosen is not just refraining from eating on one day. The fast he has chosen is also refraining, every day, from the self-indulgence that prevents us from caring for others. The hardest fast of all. The one that seems to place all the responsibility on us.

But, the portion concludes by reminding us that to be rewarded we must not only fix the world, but also "keep from trampling the Sabbath."

So we must not only fix the world, but also be mindful that we cannot fix it all. There is a remainder (one seventh?) that only God can and will fix.

We are offered the additional consolation that when all of this is done, we will ride high and our fast will be over:
I will cause you to ride upon the heights of the earth,
and I will feed you with the portion of Jacob your father
–The Eternal One has spoken.
This year (5774), Yom Kippur (Shabbat Shabbaton) fell on Shabbat.

Yom Kippur seems particularly well-suited to the condemning part of the prophetic voice, while Shabbat is more suited to the consoling.

What's a rabbi to do, in composing a sermon for such a day?

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