“Body and Soul” (A Yom Kippur Sermon)

October 30, 2011 at 3:05 pm, by

The following sermon for Yom Kippur 5772 (October 7-8, 2011) was written and delivered by Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank (a.k.a. my awesome dad) in Syosset, NY, at Midway Jewish Center, where he serves as the Senior Rabbi. From 2004 to 2006, he was the President of the Rabbinical Assembly (the international union for Conservative rabbis), and he is the co-editor of Moreh Derekh: The Rabbi’s Manual of the Rabbinical Assembly. Permission has been granted to reprint this sermon. (Thank God for connections!)


Gut Yontiff, everyone, and I wish you all a Tzom Kal, a very easy fast.

For 30 years, Molly Levine had a condition that left her completely deaf in both ears. In spite of her substantial wealth and willingness to volunteer in experimental trials, none of her doctors had been able to find a cure. Now well into her nineties, she had just about given up all hope when she receives an encouraging call from a doctor who calls her to his office. Molly sees the doctor who fits her with a new hearing aid, small enough that no one can see but powerful enough to correct the problem from which she has suffered for three decades.  “Come back in a week,” instructs the doctor, “and let me know if it works as well as I suspect it will.” So Molly leaves and, as directed, returns in one week’s time. “Molly, did it work?” asks the doctor. “Doctor,” she replied, “it worked perfectly.” “Molly,” says the doctor, “I’m so happy.” Molly replies, “I see, Doctor, you’re so happy.” “Molly,” says the doctor, “you must be qvelling.” Molly replies, “Doctor, I’m qvelling.” “Molly,” says the doctor, “the children must be ecstatic.” “Wait,” Molly says, “I didn’t tell them.” “You didn’t tell them?” the doctor asks, “How do they know that you’re listening to them?” “They don’t,” Molly says, “and in the past seven days, I’ve changed my will twice.”

מדבר שקר תרחק
From a false matter, keep your distance (Exodus 23:7)

That sort of sounds like a vote against Molly. But maybe a vote against her children as well who portray themselves one way but speak of her in another. Deceitful behavior is a false matter from which we should keep our distance. That is a principle of Jewish life.

And yet there are many false matters that we assimilate into our consciousness for a variety of reasons, which ultimately impact on our approach to life and how we live. For example, has anyone ever told you that it’s difficult to be a Jew? You’ve heard that one, I’m sure, and I suspect that it has a toe or two dipped in the reality pool, but it’s hardly a platitude that we can take seriously these days. I don’t know anyone in our community who wakes up in the morning and says, “O, my God, it’s another day of being Jewish. How am I going to make it through the morning!” Barukh HaShem—we live in a country where it’s easy to be Jewish.  You can be as Jewish as you want to be and you have a thousand sources at your disposal to help you be the Jew you want to be. Being Jewish is actually relatively easy and if you do it right, as they say in French, it’s a mehayeh—it’s restorative and it’s invigorating.

How about this one: Whatever doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger. Well, I’m not so sure about that one either. Yes—I’ve seen people grow stronger having faced a medical challenge or some personal trauma, but I’ve also seen people sink under the burden of those challenges and traumas. These people don’t die, but their lives have been zapped of the energy and vigor that one would expect of a full life. In truth, whatever doesn’t kill you will not necessarily make you stronger. It’s a false matter.

And then there is another saying that within the Jewish community, a community focused on healthy living, which is very popular and oft-repeated and it is: If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything. And we know where this is coming from because if, God forbid, we end up dealing with some serious or life threatening condition, it’s very easy to fall into desperation. But isn’t it true that we all know of people who  are  in perfectly good health but who clearly don’t have everything—they are lacking in a stable or happy home life, lacking in professional  contentment, missing something that they may not even be able to identify which every minute of their waking hours undercuts their sense of well-being.

And then there are those unhealthy people who persevere brilliantly, in spite of their illness. I think of Stephen  Hawking, the brilliant theoretical physicist and cosmologist whose scientific insights have deepened our own understanding of the marvelous universe in which we find ourselves. Health? Not really. He has suffered for decades from some degenerative motor-neuron disease which has now left him a quadriplegic. But the fact that he is bound to a wheel chair has not kept him from writing, lecturing, teaching, and really capturing the imagination of so many students around the world who are eager to know more about life. Among his major contributions to the field of astronomy is his work on black holes, these invisible structures in the universe so dense that even light gets sucked into them rather than emitted. Given his medical condition, Hawking could have himself become a black hole, living in darkness and completely self-absorbed. Instead, he is an inspiration to the world. His body betrayed him, but he’s got something else even more important than health.

This past week, we lost Steve Jobs, co-founder and the creative genius behind Apple Computer. This was a man who took an idea that materialized in his parents’ garage and turned it into a 65 billion dollar industry leader. He transformed our lives. If we are not using the Apple operating system itself, we are all using systems that seek to emulate it. The personal computer, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad are the products of Jobs’ ingenious mind. Health? Not really. He endured pancreatic cancer, he required a liver transplant, and try as he may, he could never quite disguise his increasingly lean and gaunt appearances when making major presentations. His body betrayed him, but whatever else he had inside that body, was far more important than health.

This past July, one  of my colleagues in the Conservative Movement, Rabbi  Ronnie Cahana of Congregation Beth-El in Montreal, Canada, suffered a serious  brain-stem stroke, which left him in what the doctors refer to as a locked-in state, unable to speak or move his arms or legs. But Rabbi Cahana continues to communicate with his family, friends, and his congregation, dictating letters, reflections, and even sermons, by blinking his eye lids to form letters and eventually words and paragraphs. He blinked out to his family, “I am in a broken place but there is holy work to do.” Health? Hardly. Life? Tremendous. Again Rabbi Cahana is a case of the body having betrayed itself, but the person perseveres in spite of the absence of health.

So this year, Tony Bennett celebrated his 85th birthday and he decides to record a new album consisting of duets with major artists. The CD was just released this past month and he sings these duets with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Sheryl Crow, Mariah Carey, and one of the duets is a moving, beautiful duet with Amy Winehouse and the song they sing together  is  an  old  song  entitled “Body  and  Soul,”  written  in  1930,  which  we  have probably heard a thousand times without even knowing it. And it goes:

My heart is sad and lonely
For you I sigh, for you dear only
Why haven’t you seen it
I’m all for you body and soul
I spend my days in longin’
And wondering why it’s me you’re wrongin’
I tell you I mean it
I’m all for you body and soul

There’s one more stanza before the final one which goes—

My life a wreck you’re making
You know I’m yours for just the taking
I’d gladly surrender myself to you
body and soul

We spend precious few minutes talking about the soul. We know, intuitively, that there’s a part of us that can’t be touched and can’t be defined. There is a part of us that is, in a sense, super-human and godly. And when we are broken or down, when we sense that all may be lost, it is the health of our souls, not our bodies, that will move us to persevere.

“Body  and  Soul”—what  a  romantic  song! Some  love-struck crooner wants to give everything, his or her entire being, to some love out there. It wouldn’t be romantic if the lyrics were—I’ll gladly surrender my body but please keep away from my soul. Or the inverse—take my soul but don’t touch my body. That’s actually a little weird, but a true love song is going to focus not just on the body, but on the body and the  soul—the totality of one’s being which we so often miss in thinking about our lives.

By the way, if you’re wondering how “Body  and  Soul,” a popular song, written in the 1930’s makes it into a Yom Kippur sermon, the answer is: it is due to a halakhic question, a question of Jewish  law, that was forwarded to me. And this was the situation. “Body and Soul” just happened to have been Amy Winehouse’s last recording before she was found dead in her London apartment. I was only marginally aware of Amy’s music or talent prior to her death, but having died, and since she was a Jewish woman, the question was whether she could be buried in a Jewish cemetery given the fact  that her arms were generously covered with  tattoos. The answer to that question was yes; tattoos are not in keeping with Jewish law, but they do not prevent you from burial in a Jewish cemetery. So having been asked the question that surrounded her Jewishness, I wanted to dive a little deeper into who Amy Winehouse was.

What came to light was that she was a clever lyricist, a talented musician, and for many years hooked on drugs. She actually made a yeoman effort to remove herself from the drug scene, without abandoning her dependency on liquor.  She was on some sort of medication that would wean her away from the liquor, but also  subjected her to seizures. It’s all a very sad story. She did not die of a drug overdose or in a drunken stupor.  She had talent. She had youth. She had promise.  No one will ever know if it was her body or her soul that gave out first, but what life teaches us is that our bodies cannot do it alone. They are frail and vulnerable and forever in need of a strong soul that keeps it moving forward even in the most adverse of conditions. You need body and soul.

Of the three lyricists who wrote “Body  and  Soul,” only one seems to be Jewish and how well-acquainted he was with the prayers of the Mahzor or this high holiday season, I don’t know, but there is a piyyut in the Mahzor, the name of its author lost to us forever, but the sentiments expressed penetrating each time we recite it and it is this:

הנשמה לך
The soul is Yours (God),
והגוף פעלך
and the body is Your craftsmanship
חוסה על עמלך
Have compassion upon your work.

And there has always been this sense in Jewish tradition that body and soul go together like Hansel and Gretel, or sugar and spice, or love and marriage—the two must be engaged in a collaborative effort and the two are among God’s most precious gifts to us. And in a world where we are told to exercise our bodies, which we abide by more or less seriously, the message that seems to get lost is that we need to exercise the neshamah, the soul, as well. We don’t exercise our souls as well as we could.

Have you heard this one—“Man plans and God laughs”? That’s an old Yiddish saying and one that I have always found particularly objectionable. It’s a jaded platitude meant to evoke some sense of insecurity or instability of the future. Plan as you will but something will happen to make those plans come undone. And who is the spoiler of your  plans? God, who has a grand old time laughing at your expense. You’re miserable  and God’s response is to get giddy, to chuckle, to laugh until the tears roll down His divine cheeks. If such a God does exist, He’s not worthy of our attention or our devotion or our love. This is a god with whom you can have no relationship because, unless we ourselves are psychologically compromised, we don’t establish relationships with others who mock us, who degrade us, or who  humiliate us. You can’t have a relationship with a God who is laughing at you; it’s not good for your soul.

Let’s take relationship with God one step further. We all know that a mitzvah is a commandment, a sacred demand from God. But that idea is also problematic because what kind of mutually loving relationship can you think of that is based on you getting bossed around all the time? Do this…do that…don’t do this…don’t do that and by the way, “You shall love me unconditionally, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” Try that tactic on your kids and see if it works.  Of course it won’t. It doesn’t work when we do it with our kids and it doesn’t work when we understand God doing it to us either. The demanding, commanding God generally does not touch our souls as one would hope a loving God would. But wait—if a mitzvah isn’t a sacred command, what is it?

There is actually a Hasidic approach to the understanding of mitzvah that may be of help here because instead of seeing the term from a Hebrew root meaning to command, one may see the word as a derivative of an Aramaic term, tzavta, meaning to be  joined  together. When we fulfill a mitzvah or experience a mitzvah, we are connected in some way that prior to the experience we were not connected. Mitzvah creates a holy or sacred connection.

Think about it this way. Every time we refer to an act of kedushah, of sanctity, we are referring to some sort of connection. So when we recite Kaddish, we are connecting with loved ones who have passed away; when we say Kiddush, we are connecting ourselves with Shabbat; when we recite the Kedushah in the Amidah, we are connecting ourselves with the heartfelt prayers of the angels in heaven and ultimately with God; and when we recite the blessings of kiddushin, we are connecting a man and a woman in marriage. Every kadosh act, every holy act, is an act of connection. And you know what the opposite of kadosh is? Hol. Hol means secular. It also means sand, the stuff that when you scoop up on a hot summer day, slips through your fingers because grains of sand do not connect with each other. The secular is about disconnection, but the holy is all about connection.

אשר קדשנו במצותיו
God makes us kadosh [holy], God connects us through mitzvot

We need to stop thinking about a mitzvah as God demanding. God is not demanding, commanding, cajoling, compelling, or coercing. God is inviting, God is calling, God is welcoming us to take a single moment in  time and connect sometimes with our community, sometimes with our ancestors,  sometimes  with  our  progeny,  sometimes with our fellow Jews around the world, sometimes with our sacred literature, but always, to connect with our souls. Every mitzvah is an act that exercises our souls. We exercise our bodies; we have to exercise our souls.

I realize that for many of you this approach to mitzvah is radically different from anything you’ve heard. It may be even a bit unsettling, but it is an engaging idea. It’s creative. It’s simple. And most importantly, when I have developed this approach to mitzvah with various people, it has touched them in a way that the sacred command approach never did. But can you take an idea as time-honored as mitzvah, the sacred command, and upgrade?

You know, I still have the first computer I ever bought. It’s a Mac. What I use in 2011 is 10,000 times faster than what I used in 1987, but I will never junk that first Mac, because that Mac was the beginning, that little box with a seven-inch screen changed the way you and I do business, forever. It deserves a little respect. But the point is this—a bad idea gets discarded. A good idea gets an upgrade. Mitzvot are good ideas; they’re just in need of an upgrade.

A few years ago (2005), Steve Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University and closed with words that are strangely apt for a Yom Kippur sermon. He said, “Stay hungry; stay foolish.” And the saying was actually not his but printed on the back cover of the last issue of The Whole Earth Catalog, which Jobs described to these young  students  who never grew up with The Whole Earth Catalog as a sort of paperback version of Google. What Jobs meant by “Stay hungry; stay foolish,” is that it is our hunger that keeps us searching and growing, and it is our foolishness that dares is to think out of the box. That goes for all of life and it goes for us as Jews. When an aspect of Judaism is no longer working for you, you have to change it in some way. If the command hasn’t worked for you up until now, try mitzvah as a connection—with our people, our literature, our God, and above all, our soul. We dare not ignore our souls.

Danielle Gelfand, an executive producer with VH1, wrote a column for the online edition of The New York Times entitled Years of Atonement.” She described how for the past 18 years, she and her mother would spend Yom Kippur on the beach at Tod’s Point in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Her mother would read from the prayer book that she inherited from her father, and Danielle, among other things, would be in charge of ordering lunch from a greasy concession stand that remained open well past the summer season: double hamburgers, grilled onions and French fries. And she writes about it not with irreverence (she actually acknowledges how unorthodox a rite this was), but only to describe the Yom Kippur ritual as she and her mother observed it. So the story was that her father was a deeply troubled man, fell into a depression from which he could not extricate  himself, and finally left the family. He came back infrequently to visit, though the  relationship between he and his wife continued to deteriorate. The last time the author spoke to her father was as a freshman in college, and the conversation ended with her telling him that she hated him. That was also the end of their relationship because her father took his life three weeks later. The police found his body on erev Yom Kippur.

A few years ago, driving back on Yom Kippur from the beach, they had an accident on a Connecticut bridge that the author always crossed holding her breath ever since a portion of it collapsed in 1983. An enormous oil tanker hit their little car and they almost went over the bridge but instead spun onto a grassy patch on the side of the road. No one was hurt but suddenly Ms. Gelfand encountered a moment of sacredness. She felt as if her father, in Heaven, had been watching over them. That’s a connection.

So this year, she asked her mother if she was ready to go to the beach and her mother said, “No.” She needed a synagogue. She had thought about her husband, was feeling guilt over having been unable to save him, and the beach, the sun, the hamburgers, the grilled onions and the French fries—they may feed your body, but they will not satisfy your soul. She needed to connect with her husband and with God, and for that she needed a synagogue on Yom Kippur. And Ms. Gelfand told her mother, “I’m going with you.”

Those 18 Yom Kippurs at Tod’s Point beach were not lost years. It was just the only way that they could make Yom Kippur work. And I respect that, far more, let’s say, than engaging in an act that may be traditional, but has lost all meaning, for to do something by rote, mechanically, thoughtlessly, over and over again, is to ignore our souls which require connectedness. If we insist on staying hungry and staying foolish, if we seek a deeper reality in life and take the risks needed to think out of the box, we will experience mitzvah as connection, between you and loved ones who have passed on, between you and God, between you and soul or put another way, between body and soul.

The rabbis offer us a prescription for avoiding sin. You should always consider what is above you—

עין רואה
a seeing eye
ואוזן שומעת,
a hearing ear
וכל מעשיך בספר נכתבין:
and all your deeds are recorded in a Great Book.  (Pirkei Avot 2:1)

Remember Molly Levine’s children? They could say whatever they wanted in front of Molly because they must have lost their souls—what a terrible thing to do, speaking ill of the deaf in the presence of the deaf. But their real sin was in thinking heaven was also deaf. That’s serious disconnection. When we ignore the little bit of heaven within us, we end up ignoring the great heaven above us. I hope you’ll explore and search and experiment with mitzvot that will help you connect in this New Year. Stay hungry and stay foolish. It will be good for your body and your soul.

Gemar hatimah tovah, everyone—let’s be sure to complete the holidays sealed securely into the Book of Life.

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