Rabbi Julie Greenberg's Erev Yom Kippur 5767
Coming together at this auspicious time for the
opening services of this holy Yom Kippur Day, we
have the intention of stripping away the material
distractions that usually occupy our attention. On
YK, no food, no physical pleasures such as bathing
or sex, no fancy shoes, no commerce.
The stark austerity of this day that we are
entering reminds us of how much of our daily
existence is bound up with material well-being. As
the Jewish adage goes, “Ayn Kemach, Ayn Torah.
Without flour there is no Torah,” I’m not sure that
is really true since many cultures that are poor in
material resources are rich in spirituality.
Nevertheless, focusing on food, shelter and material
needs is a natural human endeavor. Parnassa is the
Hebrew word for material livelihood; the need for
parnassa is respected and appreciated in our tradition.
In fact most of the ancient sages worked full
time for income in addition to studying and teaching
Torah. I guess in those days if you met a
water-drawer or a day laborer it was sort of like
meeting a waiter or waitress in a restaurant in New
York---you just assume these folks are dancers or
actors trying to support themselves. It wasn’t until
the middle ages that philanthropists began to
support the learners of Torah and work was separated
from Jewish learning.
While the world of work is valued in Judaism, we
set aside this day of Yom Kippur, THE holiest day of
the year, the Shabbat of all Shabbats, to explore a
different value. We wrench ourselves out of our
ordinary lives and almost force ourselves to pay
attention to this other value. This is the value of
the soul. On this day we explore a non-material side
of reality. We explore the inner world of the soul
and the ways that the soul manifests glory in the
In American culture you could go for years
never realizing that you even have a soul. Because
the soul is not a commodity. It can’t be bought or
sold and it doesn’t produce anything that can be
measured or traded. There’s no point in comparing
one person’s soul to another’s because that
comparison would be irrelevant. You will never see a
soul advertised on T.V.
But tonight we shine a light on the soul and
carry a message about its value and its needs into
the New Year. So what does Judaism have to teach
about the soul?
Judaism teaches that all souls were created at
the beginning of time, a treasury of immortal souls.
When Adam, the first human, was created from dust,
God breathed into this original human the soul
breath of life. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan notes that the
rest of creation was created with speech so it
emanates from God’s power, but not God’s essence.
Humans are essentially of God. The Quaker motto,
“There is that of God in each of us” also expresses
the Jewish teaching.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, a Hassidic master, taught
that the soul is a portion of God above. A spark of
mashiach, the transformative, redemptive power of
God, is contained within each individual soul.
Burning within you is a spark of redemption, an
incredible resilience and inner power, the potential
In this culture we are novices at understanding
the soul. We may be highly regarded professionals in
the world of work, or accomplished family members in
the world of home, but few of us know much at all
about the soul. This knowledge is not nurtured and
taught in most places in our lives and may even be
denigrated in some.
I recently read about a conference that took
place last November at which the Dalai Lama and some
senior Buddhist monks met with a coterie of
prestigious western neuro-scientists to dialogue.
They had a really hard time finding common ground
because they had such different experiences. The
western scientists were very interested in studying
the uses of meditation to reduce stress. But try as
hard as they could, the interpreters couldn’t find a
way to communicate the concept of stress to the
easterners. They didn’t have a concept of stress or
a word for it.
The scientists spoke of some generic practice
that they called “meditation” until one of the
contemplative folk pointed out, “One of my teachers
described 21 levels of silence---the silence of
darkness, luminous silence, where the body becomes
filled with light; silence with or without content.
There are meditations on compassion, lovingkindness,
joy, equanimity. All have many different levels and
many different trainings.” When you pay attention to
something you develop a vocabulary and insight into
its various nuances and subtleties.
In our own Jewish tradition we have extensive
teachings about the life of the soul. It’s not
necessary to become a full-time practitioner of
Hassidut to draw from the well of this knowledge. It
is a spiritual resource that is ours for the taking.
For example, these teachings shine through the
language in the prayer book. Kabbalah and chassidut
teach about five levels of soul. You’ll hear these
words used often in our sacred texts.
Nefesh --- behavior and action
Ruach ----- emotions, comes from the word for
wind, they are real but fleeting
Neshama ----- my daughter’s Hebrew name, inner
self/ Mind, literally means breath
Chaya ---- unique self, conscious of God connection
Yehida ----unified soul
Delving into a study of the soul means exploring
each of these levels in each arena of life. Is there
integrity in your action, are you congruent in your
feelings, what is your frame of mind, how is your
God connection and where are you in your being? In
each area it is possible to raise your level of soul
health through self-reflection and the doing of good
deeds. In the life of a congregation time is set
aside for this inner work and for its manifestation
as repair of the world.
In the economy of the soul, we celebrate
different virtues from those admired in the world of
material economics. The impulse of the soul is to
reveal Godliness in the world. How do you reveal
godliness in the world?
You help fix what is broken
You make a point of bringing out the best in others
You give the best of yourself to the world
Traditional economics is about scarcity. It is
about how to produce and distribute goods assuming
that there are always scarce resources. I remember
in Economics 101 those little graphs on X and Y
axes, plotting the exact point where supply and
demand meet and somehow that generates a price.
The economy of spirituality is about abundance.
There is plenty of love, plenty of compassion,
plenty of patience, especially if we are conscious
of cultivating these virtues. Reconstructionist
Judaism teaches as a basic tenet that we live in at
least two civilizations. There is nothing wrong with
being successful in the economy of material things.
In fact, wealth and material comfort are good
because they create an even bigger base for the
doing of good deeds. But, as Jews and fellow
travelers, we have the choice to also excel at the
economics of spirituality.
What qualities of the soul do you want to
cultivate this year? Yom Kippur gives us a
spaciousness, away from the distractions of every
day life to ask this question. Which aspect of the
soul do you want to nurture this New Year? To be
alive in your body? To reach emotional clarity? To
learn new knowledge? To be still and quiet in your
Judaism is a counter-culture that holds open a
large space for practicing the economy of the soul.
Week after week when Shabbat arrives we have a
renewed opportunity to live out the wisdom of Yom
Kippur; Yom Kippur gives us the drastic awakening,
but Shabbat gives us the weekly infrastructure to
actually renew again and again a commitment to the
economy of the soul.
In the prayer service we say Elohay neshama
she’natati bi, tehora hee. God the soul you placed
in me is pure. We chant that one line but the text
goes on to say in translation, “God the soul you
placed in me is pure. You created it. You formed it.
You breathed it into me. You keep body and soul
together. One day you will take my soul from me to
restore it to me in life eternal.” This text is
actually a teaching about the journey of the soul.
The soul is eternal; it is there before we are born
and it continues after we die. As our bodies
inevitably fail and fade away, our soul re-joins
that Great Universal soul, what the eleventh century
Spanish poet and philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol
called “God the Soul of All Souls”. Each individual
soul rejoins that Great Beyond.
vWe are so much greater than ourselves.
Fundamentalists would take these teachings and
start doing autopsies trying to find the location of
the soul. In fact just a few hundred years ago when
science and religion were figuring out their
different domains, scientists did just that. They
took cadavers and weighed them each day to see if
they got lighter as the soul progressively separated
from the body.
But we are not talking fundamentalism here. We
are talking about the great spiritual teachings that
hold us, that uplift us through life. Psalm 42,
“Like a deer yearns for water, My Soul thirsts for
You, My God.” This day allows us to be in touch with
our deepest yearnings, to greet our inner lives, so
that we may each manifest our self in a way that
heals the world.
In the world out there, despite a plethora of
self-help books and pop psychology, scant attention
is really paid to the spiritual side of existence.
Do you know what calms you down and makes you feel
at –one-ment? Do you know what sooths your friend or
partner or committee member and makes them feel
whole? Are you curious?
You are good because God made you.
You are on this earth because only you can
fulfill the mission to be you.
You are welcome to come water your soul week
after week from the well of song, prayer, silence,
holy struggle and the doing of good deeds that
happen here at the Heart of the City. May we carry
the message of Yom Kippur, about the value of the
soul, into our everyday lives and may this be a year
of spiritual abundance, peace and blessing for all.