Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)

This summer, for the first time, our son has been afraid of thunder and lightning. I can’t blame him for that. Thunder and lightning can be scary. Especially when you are small, and you don’t remember ever having experienced them before. At times like those, even the comforting presence of your stuffed animals isn’t enough: you need a parent to cuddle you and tell you everything’s going to be okay.

So that’s what I do. I tell him it’s all going to be okay. I tell him it’s only thunder, it’s only lightning, it’s not going to hurt him. When the lightning flashes, I tell him it’s the clouds playing with their flashlights, just like he does. When the thunder cracks and rolls, I tell him it’s the clouds playing their drums.

This is probably proof, if proof were needed, that I am a poet and not a scientist. I think in metaphors. We have friends who teach their kids about electrical charge building up in the clouds. I make up stories about the clouds having parties with their flashlights and their drums.

I did learn something extraordinary about lightning this summer, though.

And because they say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, I’m going to share it with you now. Here is what I learned about lightning, in a class on kabbalah and quantum physics which I took with R’ Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad at the ALEPH Kallah:

In a stormcloud, air molecules become polarized. The negatively-charged ions cluster at the bottom of the cloud, and the positively-charged ones cluster at the top.

You know how if you hold two magnets near each other, the ends which have the same charge will push each other away? The same thing happens with the stormcloud and the earth. The negative ions at the bottom of the cloud push the negative ions in the ground further into the ground, because like repels like.

The negative ions in the earth sink down low, moving away from the cloud. So the surface of the earth becomes positively charged. Now the earth and the cloud are charged in opposite directions: positive earth, negative cloud.

Here’s the wild part: as the cloud sends electricity down, the earth sends electricity up. Before the lightning ever comes down from the cloud, the cloud is reaching down with its negative ions and the earth is reaching up with its positive ions.

If you look at time-lapse photography of lightning, this is what you see: the cloud sends little rivulets of light downwards, and the earth sends rivulets of light upwards. They are reaching for each other. And when they connect, most of the light goes up.

The moment I learned this, I thought about spiritual life. I thought of the story from Torah about Jacob camping out for a night and dreaming about a ladder with feet planted in the earth and a top stretching into the very heavens, with angels going up and down the ladder in constant motion. One of my favorite teachings asks: it makes sense for angels to be coming down the ladder from heaven to creation, but what’s with the angels going up? And the answer is: the angels going up are our prayers. When we pray, our prayers become angels which ascend this cosmic ladder, and in response, blessings come pouring back down.

And that, in turn, makes me think of the Days of Awe, the process of teshuvah, repentance and return. What happens, spiritually, when we all get together for these services every year. In our spiritual lives, as in physics, when things get charged up, light can pour fourth. And the light comes from both directions, not just from above. The light comes from our yearning toward God, and from God’s yearning toward us.

Tonight is a night of yearning. Tonight, in every Jewish community in the world, we are making teshuvah, turning toward holiness, aligning ourselves in the right direction. On a spiritual level, every electron in us is reaching for God.

Here’s another thing I understand now about lightning: when the concentration of ions becomes dense, lightning becomes visible. But even when we can’t see the ions, they’re there. This too strikes me as a metaphor for spiritual life, especially life in community. Even when we’re not all together in this room praying at the same time, we’re part of something greater than ourselves. That something-greater, that sense of community, is not always visible to the naked eye — but it’s always there.

One photon is an impossibly small light. A hundred photons, more light. A hundred million photons, exponentially more light. Our hearts and souls are the same way. Our spiritual energy is greater when we’re all together. When we come together to make teshuvah during the Days of Awe, we’re like those positively-charged ions in the earth during the storm. Together, our combined energy makes it possible for us to reach up to the heavens in a more powerful way.

Here’s one of my favorite teachings about spiritual life and light. This comes from the writings of Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, from Belarus. Here’s what he teaches: every Shabbat, we receive the light of the Shekhinah.

The Shekhinah is the aspect of God which is immanent, manifest in creation. Not up there, out there, on high — but here with us, embodied, in the world. Every Shabbat, teaches the Slonimer, the light of the Shekhinah shines in and through us, and this light cleanses our souls. Shabbat is a deep spiritual cleansing.

Yom Kippur is sometimes called Shabbat Shabbaton, the Shabbat of Shabbats. And the Slonimer teaches that on Yom Kippur, too, this same transformation takes place. On Yom Kippur, we are bathed in the light of Shekhinah and our souls become pure. This, he says, is what atonement means.

There are three Hebrew words which we use when we ask God to forgive us: s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu. “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” We’ll repeat this refrain several times over the course of Yom Kippur.

Every day of the regular year, during the Amidah, we ask for forgiveness and pardon. Forgiveness and pardon are everyday experiences. But this notion of kapparah, atonement, is unique to today. For the Slonimer, “atonement” means that the light of the Shekhinah shines in our souls and removes the corruption or inner impurity caused when we sin.

We may not be comfortable with the idea that we besmirch our souls each time we sin. But I think what he’s saying is, our misdeeds change us. Think back to a moment when you did something really wrong. I’m not talking about speeding on Route 2 through Charlemont or keeping a library book out too long; no offense to our traffic cops and librarians, but I’m talking about something bigger. Think of a time when you were cruel or unkind. When you repeated ugly gossip. When you looked down on someone. When you turned away from a person in need.

We all do these things. And when we do them, they have an impact on us. They leave a kind of residue behind. Over time, that residue accrues, like plaque hardening our arteries. Our misdeeds create a kind of karmic build-up. On Yom Kippur, the light of the Shekhinah shines into us and dissolves those clogged-up places.

All year long, we ask for pardon and forgiveness: either in the ritualized words of our liturgy, or on a case-by-case basis whenever we realize we’ve screwed up. Either way, asking for pardon and forgiveness enables us to cleanse the schmutz which gets attached to us on the outside. But we still need a kind of inner refinement to cleanse our deepest interior places. That’s what Yom Kippur does.

Another understanding: s’lichah and m’chilah, forgiveness and pardon, repair the damage we do when we sin against other people. But kapparah, atonement, repairs the damage we do when we sin against the Holy One of Blessing.

A sin against another person: that’s easy to understand. These are sins with direct objects. I do something to you. And then I need to ask your forgiveness. But what exactly is a sin against God?

Some say that when we fail to observe the mitzvot which are designed to give our lives meaning — regular prayer, lighting Shabbat candles, giving tzedakah to help those in need — we sin against God. These mitzvot are our system for mindfulness and meaning, and when we ignore them, we’re insulting their Giver. Some say that when we squander the Earth’s precious resources, we sin against God, because God put the Earth in our keeping.

Others argue that when we sin against each other, we’re actually sinning against God, because there is a spark of divinity in each of us.

Here’s another teaching, from 18th-century rabbi Chayyim Yosef David Azulai: “The cries of a broken heart can purify us on the outside, the face we present to the world. But when it comes to the inner damage we do to our souls when we err, that inner tum’ah can only be cleansed when the light of the Shekhinah shines inside us. When God’s light shines in us, this has the power to cleanse.” Like the Slonimer, he teaches that asking each other for forgiveness can cleanse us on the outside, but on the inside, the only way to heal our damaged souls is to receive the light of the Shekhinah on Yom Kippur.

And, of course, in order to receive that light, we have to open our hearts and souls… and we have to believe that we deserve the light. We have to know that deep down, ultimately, in the most fundamental sense, we deserve to be made clean.

On Shabbat, God’s light shines in us and through us and we are cleansed.

On Yom Kippur, God’s light shines in us and through us and we are cleansed.

And when we can experience them both together…? What an amazing opportunity. Today we have a unique opportunity to open ourselves up to light. We can be like lenses. God’s light shines into us and through us, and we refract that light into the world.

One of Judaism’s most central teachings is that sacred time is special. It’s kadosh: holy, set-apart. This doesn’t just mean you don’t go to work. It means that the day itself is different. It vibrates with a different energy. And when we expose ourselves to that, when we really put ourselves into this different energy field, a deep kind of personal and spiritual transformation is possible.

Today — Shabbat and Yom Kippur, together — is a day for entering that special energy field and experiencing its light. Have you ever been outside just before a thunderstorm, and felt the hairs on your arms standing up? That’s from the build-up of electricity: the clouds yearning downwards, the earth yearning up. This moment, right now, is that moment of electricity. The electric field between us and the heavens is becoming stronger as we pour our hearts and our souls into the prayers and songs of this Kol Nidre and Shabbat night.

In this moment, God is yearning down to us, and we are yearning up.

We read in Leviticus (16:30) that “On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol makes atonement and purifies you from sin; when you come before God you will be purified.” There is no Kohen Gadol anymore. But each of us can be our own High Priest. On this day, we can go inward to our own Holy of Holies, to the hidden sacred spaces of our deepest heart and soul. We can go inward and throw the windows wide open, and let divine light shine in.

On Shabbat, we’re called to relax and stop doing. To sink into a different headspace and heartspace; to recognize that subtle shifts can take place in us when we experience that special kind of time. On Yom Kippur, the same is true. Today we’re called to open our hearts, to open our souls, and to trust that the work of transformation and purification will happen. That when we turn to God seeking to be cleansed, God will do the cleansing.

Have you ever seen a sonic cleanser? People use them to clean coins, watches, surgical instruments, jewelry. My dad has a small one. When I was a kid, I used to love going into his closet, where the sonic cleanser was kept, and watching it work its magic. You put a smudged and dirty thing into the basket; you fill the chamber with plain ordinary water, and submerge the basket in the water; and you turn it on. Sound waves penetrate the water, and somehow, as if by magic, the dirty item becomes clean.

Though it’s not magic — it works with electrons, at the atomic level. Which takes me back to the ions with which I began. A sonic cleaner works at the atomic level to cleanse and purify, just as our prayers and God’s light can work at the atomic level to cleanse, purify, and heal our souls.

Yom Kippur is our sonic cleanser. We immerse ourselves in the
experience of this holiday like coins immersing in the sonic cleanser’s
basket. And the spiritual energy of this day vibrates at its unique
frequency, and God’s light cleanses and heals our souls, and when we
emerge at the end of Ne’ilah, we are cleansed.

Take deep breaths. Breathe God in. Feel God’s presence, God’s light, penetrating into your every cell. Feel the unique vibrations of Yom Kippur in your bones.

I believe that God is present with us in every moment of our lives. But life intervenes, and we forget God’s presence. We forget that we are made, every one of us, in the image and the likeness of the Holy One of Blessing. We lose sight of the absolute miracle that we are capable of change and growth. We forget that, like God in Whose image we are formed, we can choose mercy over judgement. We can embody kindness and compassion. We can seek to heal the broken world.

Today — Shabbat and Yom Kippur, together — is our day to remember who we truly are. Remember who we yearn to be. Remember what it feels like when we really seek forgiveness with our whole hearts. Remember what it feels like to be washed clean, illuminated, loved.

Today we’re in the sonic cleanser. We’re in the mikveh of this doubly holy day. God’s light, God’s vibrations, God’s love wants to come pouring in to cleanse us of the karmic baggage of the last year. All we have to do is open up and let it in.

And when we reach out and let our own light shine, our souls are like the lightning coming up from the ground. When God yearns for us, and we yearn back for God — just imagine the kind of light we can create.

(Song: We are opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous lovelight of the One.)


Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

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