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Finding God - Yom Kippur Morning - Devar Torah

O Lord, where shall I find you?
Hid is Your lofty place;
And where shall I not find You,
Whose glory fills all space?

These words from Yehuda ha-Levi, the late 11th/early 12th Century Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher, inserted into the morning worship of the Reform Movement’s Gates of Repentance Machzor, sum up the essence of this morning’s Scriptural readings.

We began last night’s service by reciting a formulaic prayer declaring it “permissible to pray with those who have transgressed.” Since this is a communal declaration, we must assume that we are referring to all of us – we have all transgressed. An appreciation for this communal state of spiritual defilement is essential to this morning’s Torah and Haftarah readings.

We begin with the relatively dry job description of the priest’s responsibilities found in parashat Acharei Mot. At the end of the lit of his chores, we have a personnel change: From the priest’s job description, we switch to our own.

We start with Aaron offering his bull of sin offering, to make expiation – atoning by offering sacrifices – for himself and his household and then purging the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins. First for himself and his household, then for us.

Then comes our job: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, we shall practice self-denial; and we shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among us. Why? Because on this day, atonement shall be made for us to cleanse us of all our sins; we shall be clean before the Lord.

Finally, our maftir reading from Numbers will go into more detail about the actual sacrifice that would have been brought on Yom Kippur.
All this presents an unusual anomaly: The priest’s function – not ours – is to atone for himself, his household, and all of the Israelites. We are not going through the process of atonement – that’s the priest’s job to do it for us; our job is to prepare ourselves for that atonement. But if the priest is doing our work, then why are we spending today fasting, reflecting, praying, atoning? Shouldn’t the rabbi – or me, the chazzan – be doing the heavy lifting for you and us?

Emphatically, no. We – the people, the Israelites – have a huge responsibility today, something that no priest, no rabbi, no chazzan, no intermediary can do for us: we have to put ourselves in a position of finding God and being found by God.

It has been said that if we can’t find God, if we can’t feel God’s presence, then perhaps it is not God who has moved out of sight, but rather, it is we who have moved out of God’s sightline. Today’s Torah and Haftarah readings provide insight into how to get our eyes back into focus.

So where is God going to find us? The answer is clearly stated in the second part of verse 16:

and he shall do the same (he will purge it) for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness.

God survives even in our most unclean state, and – Rashi, the great 11th Century Torah commentator, teaches us – we survive as well. As Rashi comments on that verse: The Shechinah (Divine Presence) dwells with them (that’s us) also when they/us are in a state of defilement.

In Sefer Aggadah, the early 20th Century classic compilation of aggadah from the Mishnah, the two Talmuds and the Midrash literature, we read that God loves us so much that God chose to accompany us into captivity and exile: to Egypt, to Babylon, to Elam – wherever we were sent. And according to Deuteronomy, when we return from exile and captivity, God will come back with us. The ultimate proof text comes from Rabbi (Judah I, the Patriarch), who said, “How may the matter be illustrated? By the parable of a king who said to his servant: If ever you seek me, you will find me with my son. Whenever you seek me, you will find me with my son. Thus Scripture: ‘That dwelleth with them in the midst of their uncleanness,’ exactly what we just read.

When gave ourselves (air quotes) “permission” to pray with sinners last night, we did so because we knew that the Divine Presence would be with us. We are all sinners, we have few good deeds to recommend us, and yet God is still with us. Torah, Rashi, Midrash, our Sages – they all tell us so.

Our Haftarah, the powerful Yom Kippur reading from the prophet Isaiah, will reinforce this great and comforting teaching as we will read on Page 555:

For thus said the One who high aloft forever dwells, whose Name is Holy: I dwell on high, in holiness; yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit – reviving the spirits of the lowly, reviving the hearts of the contrite.

Isaiah’s vision of God is that God may live in the heavens, but God’s compassion and presence is with those of us who are sincerely struggling.

The three texts that make up today’s Scriptural readings bring us full circle from the Hagar/Ishmael story of the first day of Rosh Hashanah: just as God heard Ishmael’s cry over the prayer of Hagar, just as Abraham opened his tunnel vision eyes and ears to see and hear God’s messenger, God is going to find us – and we will find God – exactly where we are today.

And so, O Lord, where will I – where will we –find You? With ourselves and our very flawed people. Gemar chatimah tovah.

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