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September 16, 2021

A Moment In The Clearing (Yom Kippur 5782)

Hilly Haber


Rabbi Hilly Haber, Yom Kippur 5782

In her book, Beloved, Toni Morrison describes a scene of revelatory, communal worship. In a clearing in the forest, protected by the trees, the broken-bodied and brokenhearted gather each week to pray together. Standing at the center of the gathering, their leader, Baby Suggs, holy, calls out, “Let the children come,”[1] and tells them to, “let [their] mothers hear [them] laugh.”[2] At this moment, the forest rings with laughter, as parents look on and smile. Next, Baby Suggs calls the men into the field to dance, so that their wives and children can watch. Lastly, Baby Suggs calls the women into the circle to cry “for the living and the dead.”[3] When the women finish crying, the entire congregation joins in the center to laugh, dance, and cry. When they finish, Baby Suggs tells them, “the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.”[4]

Protected by the trees, tucked away in the wilderness, Baby Suggs leads a group of oppressed and formerly enslaved people in prayer. The world outside of the clearing is harsh. Outside of the clearing, these men, women, and children are treated not as human beings, but as property. In the clearing, Baby Suggs creates a world in which the men, women, and children learn to endlessly love and embrace themselves and one another. She creates a place for people to witness one another: for parents to see their children laugh, children to watch their fathers dance, and mothers to recognize and acknowledge the pain of their world.

A theology of justice and dignity flows through this scene. In the clearing, Baby Suggs’ task is no less than prophetic. She creates an alternative reality for her congregation; a place in which their bodies, minds, and spirits are infinitely beloved and imbued with humanity, a world in which laughter, dance, and tears flow freely.

Like Moses leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt toward a life of freedom and service, Baby Suggs creates a moment in and out of time for her community to experience a different way of being in the world. In the clearing, broken hearts and bodies are healed, transformed by prophetic ritual and its infinite possibility.

Perhaps these moments of Yizkor on Yom Kippur are a sort of clearing for us -- an open space; a time for our hearts to open and heal; a quiet place of reflection and imagination, of laughter and also of tears.

These waning hours of Yom Kippur are a time set apart -- a space in which life and death touch. On Rosh HaShanah, we cried out,“HaYom Harat HaOlam, today the world is born.” Throughout this long day, we faced our mortality and prepared for our own end.[5]  Yet this day does not leave us immersed in sorrow. As the drama of Yom Kippur comes to an end, we read in the Neilah closing service, “Atah Notein Yad L’Poshim-- You stretch out your hand to us in all our mortal frailty.” And for just a moment, we can actually see it; we can see God’s hand outstretched, ushering us back to life, resurrecting us from the solemn rituals of the day.

The end of Yom Kippur offers us a promise. Neilah means “the closing of the gates,” for the holy day will soon be over. But the gates of life are still open; the future stretches before us, ours to imagine, ours to create. The space opened before us as we pass from Yizkor into Neilah is one in which memory blossoms into possibility.

 “What is the best time for remembering?” asks Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai

“At noon when shadows are hidden beneath our feet, or at twilight

When shadows lengthen like longings

That have no beginning, no end, like God?[6]

Our remembrance service of Yom Kippur happens near twilight, as our shadows lengthen like longings; as our hearts open with grief, but also with dreams and yearnings and hope. We cry for the ones we have loved and lost; we yearn to hear their voice one more time; we ache for their touch. And we hope to be healed; we pray that our pain will be eased; we dream that laughter and joy will return to our life.

Let us join with Baby Suggs and her wounded congregation in that beautiful clearing. Let us laugh and dance and cry with them, and bring our broken hearts and our memories to that protected space in the woods.

Jewish tradition brings us another poignant story about a clearing, an open space where life and death touch. Machzor Vitry, a collection of practices and commentaries from 11th Century France, tells the story of Rabbi Akiva walking through a clearing in the woods, a cemetery, and bumping into a man running frantically with an armload of wood, his body blackened by soot. Akiva calls out, “How is it that a man does such hard work? Who is making you do this?” And he offers,  “If you need money, I can help you.”

But the help he needs is not monetary. The man explains that he is caught in a sort of limbo: having lived a life of greed and violence, he now lives a cycle of torture. And his torment will not end until his son, born after the man died and uneducated in Torah, will recite the Kaddish on his behalf.

Rabbi Akiva brings healing to this tortured soul. He searches out the man’s son and schools him so that he can redeem his father, say Kaddish for him and bring him comfort in the afterlife.[7]

Jewish tradition accords a special efficacy to the words of the Kaddish. For our Sages, this sacred prayer can soften divine judgment and elevate the souls of the dead. And for us, these words have a power that transcends their literal translation. They tie a thread between life and death, weave an unbreakable bond stitched in memory with the power to soften the harshness of our solitude. For Kaddish links us with others -- with a community of mourners who understand our grief, and with the precious soul of the one we have lost. Even in death, our relationship goes on; changing with the years, growing as we grow, revisited every time we remember. The story of Rabbi Akiva teaches us that the living have the power to bring healing to the dead: in the way we remember them at their best; learn from their lives, draw inspiration from the precious gifts they left us.

And in these final hours of possibility and of mercy, we sense the healing power that Kaddish can bring to us, the living, who rise to say these words -- affirming our own ability to stand up and live without the ones we have lost.

In a recent book, a modern writer describes returning to the observant rhythms of his childhood to say Kaddish three times a day for his father. He describes sitting in a Brooklyn shul on Shabbat afternoon:

the rabbi is discoursing about the blessing of the New Moon. He cites a law: “The blind are required to bless the moon.” The blind, even though it is a sighting of the moon that is the occasion for the blessing. I think to myself: This is exactly the predicament of the mourner: [s]He must bless what is wonderful even though [s]he cannot see it.”[8]

The words of the Kaddish are words of unconditional praise and exaltation: “Blessed and praised, glorified...and the Name of the Holy One.”  In the wake of loss, a mourner is given words of praise and affirmation, tasked with blessing that which she may not readily see. In the depths of our grief, we remind ourselves that life is good, that beauty still exists, that we are loved, that we are not alone.

In this special hour, this clearing in the woods, we bless what we cannot see: the possibilities that lie before us, the open-ended future, the promise life still holds for us. Even as we grieve, may we hold fast to hope.

As we watch the gates close with hearts breaking open, may the memories of our beloved ones bless us, guide us, and show us beautiful possibilities in this new year.


[1] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, 2004), 103.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, The Closing of the Gates, 9.

[6] Yehudah Amichai, And Who Will Remember the Rememberers

[7] Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, 42-45.

[8] Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, 22.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.