Highway of Holiness
Sermon delivered to Trinity Episcopal Church
by Rabbi David Zaslow
September 10, 2006
In one of your prophetic readings this week (Isaiah 35:4) the prophet Isaiah instructs us on how to walk on what he calls the Highway of Holiness where “…the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like deer, and the tongue of the voiceless ones shall sing…..” Compare this to what Jesus’ brother James is saying in one of this week’s readings: “Pure religion, undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, [and] to keep himself unspotted from the world (James 1:27).” He doesn’t offer us a creed to profess, or a series of theological ideas to memorize – but, rather actions, moral directives: take care of people in need.
The whole idea that James’ expresses is a perfect example of classic Jewish thinking – beliefs are fine, but they must be rooted in moral behavior. This is reinforced in another of your weekly readings. In Psalm 146: 1-9 King David invites his own soul to praise the Lord? How? By taking care of the hungry and freeing the oppressed. Listen to his words: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul…Happy is he who has the God of Jacob…Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry. The Lord gives freedom to the prisoners. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; The Lord raises those who are bowed down….” The connection is clear between Isaiah, James, King David, and Jesus – if religion is to be authentic it must be rooted in action.
Today, on the Jewish calendar, we are on the 17th. day in the month of Elul. Elul in Judaism is a 30 day period of deep, introspective reflection parallel in function to Lent in the Christian tradition. It is almost as if Judaism is a witness to the transformative beginnings of Autumn when the leaves fall, everything turns inward and a very special miracle occurs – the trees let go of their seeds. As the trees let go of their leaves and seeds, so we let go of our own. We shed those inner leaves which are no longer providing nourishment to our beings, and we cast our seeds that allow us to move into the next phase of our lives.
Christianity is a witness to emergence – the visible emergence of those very seeds dropped by each of us in the Fall. But now they have spent their season in the dank, darkness of the rainy season, and only in springtime are they able to open, sprout, and grow. Advent and Lent transform grief through the promise of the upcoming resurrection. Elul, and what we call the Days of Awe, transform grief through the promise of forgiveness and new beginnings. Elul culminates in the Jewish New Year, called Rosh Hashannah, which this year will fall on September 22. Some would say that Judaism and Christianity have opposite theologies. I suggest that we have balancing theologies – we need each other to stay centered and steady. We are witness to the transformative power of the Autumnal equinox, you are witness to the rebirth and resurrective powers of the vernal equinox. This morning I am honored to share with you some key concepts from Jewish theology about the nature and process of repentance – a process that religious Jews throughout the world are engaged in right now. This is the precise historic “action directive” that Isaiah, King David, James, and Jesus were involved with in their day at this time of year. After all, what holds us back from walking on that Highway of Holiness everyday of our lives? Sin – the sense of separation from God. What gets us back on that Highway? Teshuvah, repentance.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was the Chief Rabbi of what would later become the nation of Israel until his death in 1935. A brilliant scholar and mystic, Rav Kook struggled valiantly to bring together religious and secular Jews who were returning to the Holy Land from all parts of the world. Rav Kook wrote a book that was published by Paulist Press called “The Lights of Penitence” one of the most remarkable and beautifully written books I have ever read on the process of repentance, what we call Teshuvah in Hebrew. Rav Kook removes from the idea of penitence all negative connotations and makes it something desirous to experience. He does not use metaphor to decorate language, but to reveal deep spiritual truths and principles based on the Torah. His words and teachings are exquisite:
“The currents of penitence rush along. They are like the streams of flame on the surface of the sun, which in an unceasing struggle to break out and ascend endow life to countless worlds and numberless creatures. One is powerless to absorb the multitude of varying colors that emanate from this great sun that shines on all the worlds, the sun of penitence. They are so many, they come with such a mighty sweep, with such wondrous speed. They come from the Source of Life itself…the individual and collective soul, the world soul, each soul…cries out like a fierce lioness in anguish for total perfection, for an ideal form of existence, and we feel the pain, and it purges us….”
The Rebbe makes us want to repent and return to God as he describes how natural the process of Teshuvah really is, rather than something to be avoided: “At once the person senses negativity and…he/she is converted into a new being. Already he experiences…a complete transformation for the better….The higher expression of penitence comes about as a result of a flash of illumination of the All-Good, the Divine…Who abides in eternity.”
Rav Kook is so careful to emphasize that the act of penitence is not just some chore to accomplish during the Days of Awe, but actually has the most beneficial impact on the body. He makes the Hebraic link between soul, mind, and body when he writes, “Penitence is the healthiest feeling of the person. A healthy soul in a healthy body must necessarily bring about the great happiness afforded by penitents, and the soul experiences therein the greatest natural delight. The elimination of damaging elements has beneficent and invigorating effects on the body when it is in a state of health….How we need penitence, how vital it is to illumine the horizon of life!”
Finally, the desire to return and to permit God to transform our lives may come after years of practice, self-discipline, therapy, and spiritual practice – or it may come in a flash. Rav Kook teaches, “Sudden penitence comes about as a result of a certain spiritual flash that enters the soul. At once the person senses evil and the ugliness of sin and he is converted into a new being; already he experiences inside himself a complete transformation for the better…the higher expression of penitence comes about as a result of a flash of illumination of the All- good, the Divine, delight of Him who abides in eternity. The universal soul, the spiritual essence, is revealed to us in all its majesty and holiness, to the extent that the human heart can absorb it.”
Let’s take a deeper look at the process of repentance. The word “repent” comes from a Latin word that means “to feel pain.” When we make a mistake there is no way to obtain forgiveness and reconciliation with God without feeling the pain that we brought upon others and to ourselves. However, revisiting the pain is just the beginning of Teshuvah – a transformative process leading to the feeling of regeneration, renewal, and spiritual rebirth. The word teshuvah in Hebrew means both “return” and “answer.”
Teshuvah comprises of a “return” to who we really are, and to what we really are at our godly essence. But teshuvah is also is our “answer” to God’s call for each of us to come home to the land of the soul. Following is a simple, four-stage description of the teshuvah process:
1) Confession: From the thought that we are sinning we acknowledge our mistakes and errors beginning with words charged with regret, heartbreak, grief and sorrow.
2) Repentance: We take an nonest inventory of our soul, what we call heshbon ha-nefesh, and make a plan of action for change of destructive behavioral patterns.
3) Forgiveness: This is the Divine response to our confession and acts of repentance. The sense of God’s forgiveness gives us the courage to carry out the program of change we established in our lives, and to be on guard that our behavioral patterns are forever changed.
4) Atonement: This is the final stage in the Teshuvah process. Atonement, from the Anglo Saxon word meaning at-one-ment is parallel to state of sublime, joyous, ecstatic unity that we experience after completing our inner work. The Holy One blesses each of us with after we are forgiven…we feel at one with the Creator and creation.
What makes us human is that when given free will we make mistakes. So, the Creator has given us this profound process to rectify errors. After making a wrong choice, we repent, get “washed clean,” and begin again. According to Jewish tradition with every mitzvah we fulfill, the world gets a little closer to the days of Messiah. So, why on earth, would G-d have even permitted us to sin? Created in His image why are we not simply born to be sinless?” To make us human, the rabbis respond. To give us the true sense that we are not robots, but fully human, full partners with G-d in creation. We are born good, we sin, we do teshuvah, and we end up being better for the experience – even though it hurts.
May we all have the courage to improve and enhance the good that is within us during the Days of Awe and every day of the year. May we each recognize the spark of God that is the soul itself. May we wake up tomorrow morning and really recognize our true selves, our godly selves. The Kingdom of G-d is, indeed, at hand. But it will not happen by G-d’s actions alone. It is up to us to reach the heights of our human potential by taking the first step on that Highway of Holiness. So, what is a church or a synagogue? Simply a rest stop along the way.