Isaiah and Eliza (Yom Kippur, 5777)


Yom Kippur, 5777
October 11-12, 2016—9-10 Tishri 5777

            A few years ago, on the high holidays, I shared with you how much I love doing the laundry.  I get to do the laundry.  Doing laundry is a daily, centering, spiritual practice. You have a problem, a basket full of dirty laundry. You wash it. Dry it. Fold it. Sort it. Put everything in its proper place. Then you have that evidence of a job well done: the empty laundry basket.   

            This year, in preparing for the high holidays, I learned that thousands of years ago, the prophet Isaiah beat me to the punch.  In helping us think about our spiritual work on Yom Kippur, what does Isaiah use? The imagery of cleaning.  Isaiah 1:18 tells us:

            “If your sins are red as scarlet, they can turn white as snow.”

            Our Machzor adopts Isaiah’s imagery.  One of the leitmotifs of our liturgy is that our mission today is to go from red as scarlett to white as snow. The robes that clergy wear are white to symbolize just this aspiration.

            But how do we do it? It is relatively easy to make our laundry clean.  But how do we make our lives clean?  At a deep level, what does clean look like?  In thinking about Isaiah’s charge, I consulted a well-known expert in the field, Marie Kondo.

            Marie Kondo  is a professional organizer from Japan who has written a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which has sold over six million copies and has been translated in over 40 copies.   Her book has been on the New York Times best-seller list for over 90 weeks and counting.  Marie Kondo’s word is tidy.  She has a very simple and inviting definition of tidy. If your home is tidy, you will be surrounded only by the things you love.

            The arch enemy in Marie Kondo’s world is clutter. Clutter are things that just hang around, because of inertia or habit or fear.  You don’t use them. You don’t love them.  You just can’t discard them.

            How many of you have clutter in your closet? Clothing that you have not worn, do not wear, and will not wear. And yet, clothing that you do not give or throw away. It hides out in your closet…for years.   How many of you are guilty of the sin of clutter? Al cheit shechatanu lefanekha, clutter.  It is Yom Kippur, a time for true confessions! 

            How do we get rid of clutter?  This is Marie Kondo’s simple formula:  While decluttering a closet, Marie Kondo takes out each item, and asks the homeowner a simple question.  Does this article of clothing still spark joy in you?  If the answer is yes, you keep it.  But if the answer is no, that belt is no longer doing it for you, this blouse you have not worn for ages, you take the item of clothing, you thank it for its service, and you toss it, or give it away.  Only the stuff that still sparks joy gets to stay.  If you do the full Marie Kondo method, you get a decluttered home where everything that is there is there because you want it there.  Nothing hangs on because of inertia or fear or habit.  You are surrounded only by the things you love.

            She writes:  “Keep only those things that speak to your heart.  Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” p. 42.

            Is this what Isaiah was getting at?  Is this what clean means?  Does clean mean we surround ourselves only by what we love—and then discard the rest? 

            A clean home, we are surrounded only the things we love.

            Clean relationships, we are surrounded only by people we love.

            Clean work, we are surrounded  only by work we love.

            I love the Marie Kondo vision of filling our homes, our lives, our relationships, our work, with what we love and tweaking or discarding what we don’t love.  There’s only one problem.  Life is not clean.  Life is also about accepting what we don’t love.  Also about accepting what does not spark joy.   Life is not a closet. Decluttered is not always possible.  Life is not a laundry basket. It is seldom clean.

            What do we do about the mess that won’t be cleaned?  What do we do about the scarlet red that cannot be turned snow white?

            Marie Kondo does not tell us the answer to that one. Isaiah does not tell us.  You know who tells us? Hamilton tells us.

            I remember the feeling, when I watched Hamilton, that this play was not an evening’s entertainment.  This play is a revelation.  And what it reveals is:  how do we continue to wake up in the morning and live with a positive attitude in the face of life’s accumulated heartache and heartbreak that is just there, that will not go away, and that certainly does not spark joy in us.

            The hero of Hamilton is not Hamilton.  Hamilton is a compelling figure—an orphan who becomes a founder of our great nation—but he is also deeply flawed. He cheats on his wife.  For his own peculiar political reasons, to prove that he did not steal, he only committed adultery, he publishes a piece about his affair, which makes his wife feel twice violated.  He gives his 19-year old son Philip fatally bad advice, which leads him to die in a duel.  He follows that same bad advice himself, which leads him to die in a duel, shot by Aaron Burr.

            The hero of Hamilton is Hamilton’s wife, Eliza.  None of this sparked joy in Eliza. None of this pain can be cleaned.  And we learn, in the very last song, track number 47,  Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, that Eliza goes on to live for 50 years as a widow.  Now we know that story.  We know the story of the widow who lives for years and then decades on her own.  We know the widow who was widowed for as long or longer than she was married.  That loneliness does not spark joy.  But we can’t get rid of it. We can’t just discard it. What do we do about it?

            One of the genius aspects of the songs that Lin Manuel Miranda composed is that lyrics recur, and they presage the future.  When we first meet Eliza and her sisters, she is young and innocent, meeting eligible bachelors in New York.  Eliza offers three tips for living that are as wise and powerful as anything Isaiah ever said. 

Look around, look around at how
Lucky we are to be alive right now!

First point, gratitude that we are even alive. Yes, we’ve got problems, but thank God we are alive!  When we have mess we cannot clean, can we remember that even to be alive is a blessing?

            Then she says:

History is happening in Manhattan and we
Just happen to be in the greatest city in the world!

Second point, radical amazement.  Eliza looks at the time and place in which she lives and is amazed.  History is happening.  I get to live in the greatest city and the greatest time in the world.

Even in our complicated time, can we see what is good about our world?

            Finally she offers a pointed refrain:

Work, work! Work, work! Work, work! In the greatest city in the world.

 Third point, grit.  Can we  bring positive energy and positive results into our imperfect world?

            Widowed Eliza will go on to fulfill the words of young innocent as yet unscathed Eliza.  She will work, work, interviewing soldiers who had fought with her husband.  She will work, work, raising money for an orphanage because her husband was an orphan.  She will work, work, not giving in to life’s accumulated heartbreak, but getting up every morning for 50 years grateful for the gift of a new day. 

            This happens on Broadway. But does it happen in real life?  Can we do Eliza?

            As many of you may know, my Mom passed away on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. I just got up from shiva this afternoon. Every morning I used to call my Mom, and the conversation would go like this:

            Mom, it’s Wes, from Boston, good morning! How did you sleep last night?

            Good morning, sweetheart, she would answer.  My Mom was the only person in the world who always called me sweetheart. She would then say: I wasn’t able to sleep last night.

            You weren’t Mom?  Why not?

            I couldn’t sleep because I was talking to God.

            What were you saying to God?

            I was thanking God for my blessings.

            Now my Mom had anything but an easy life. Not clean and pristine. A lot that did not spark joy.  She grew up in the Depression, she never had a chance to go to college, she worked hard with my father in a small kosher grocery store in Denver that never made much money while raising her six children, she never took a vacation other than going to her children’s college graduations, my Dad died when she was 57, she spent the next 35 years as a widow, she lived in her own apartment and worked in my brother’s accounting firm until she could  no longer live on her own.  In her last year she was painfully aware that she did not have the physical strength or the memory she once had.  And yet, she looks at this whole picture and every night thanks God for her blessings.

            That was my Mom.  Gratitude for what was good. Radical amazement about how much she loved her life.  And responding to the long years of lonely widowhood and the indignities of aging with grit and positive energy.

            I think that gets to the essence of clean that Isaiah is asking us to think about today.

            Clean cannot mean that there is no mess.  Clean must mean that we are not going to let the mess get in the way of our life.  That we are going to live in the face of mess we cannot clean.

            That is what Eliza did in Hamilton.

            That is what my Mom did throughout her life.

            That is what Judaism calls upon all of us to do.  That is the message of a prayer that we all know, Kaddish.

            Kaddish has such a unique hold on the Jewish people.  I have seen with my own eyes people who never used to come to shul come, regularly, to say Kaddish.  They come early in the morning. They come at the end of the day. They come in the midst of winter storms. Why? 

             Kaddish, the prayer said by mourners on behalf of our beloved departed, says nothing about death or mourning.  Only about life. 

            What does the word Kaddish mean? It means sanctify. Yitgadal v’yitkadash shemai rabbah, may God’s great name, may life itself, be exalted and sanctified.   Even though my loved one just died, life is still sacred and beautiful, and I am not giving up on life.   

            Our response to death is life.

            Our response to loss is love. 

            Our response to pain is faith. 

            Our response to mess that cannot be made clean is gratitude, radical amazement, and grit.

            Or, in the language of Eliza: Look around, look around, look at how lucky we are to be alive right now!  History is happening and we just happen to be in the greatest city in the world. Work! Work!  

            May we sing that song, may we pray that prayer, may we live that life, in this New Year.