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Joshua Cypess
+ Your AuthorsArchive @JoshuaCypess He/his. PhD social scientist & Orthodox Rabbi. We're all in this together. #BlackLivesMatter #Steelers #Mets #Resist Sep. 17, 2021 6 min read

1/ Nearly every Shabbat & Yom Tov since I left the pulpit I've prepared a drasha & shiur that I know I won't be able to deliver. I've described that for many artists the need to produce the art overwhelms an actual audience. The art compels them.

2/ I define art broadly to encompass every creative faculty that arises from the multiple intelligences, talents & perceptions in human capability. We know singers or painters are artists, but so is a teacher or philosopher. IMO society doesn't define an art, humanity does.

3/ Not everyone who has artistic talent or drive or vocation needs to have a feeling of compulsion. My chiddush (intellectual innovation) is to say everyone with that need to create has the soul of an artist whether they are recognized or not.

4/ One of my favorite images from @neilhimself's Sandman world is the library of the Dreaming, where every book ever imagined but unwritten is stored. In some ways it's the heart of the entire character & thus the series: the vast storehouse of stories. 

5/ That image, in my mind & desire, is how I see the Beit Midrash of shamayim which has all of the teachers, shiurim & drashas that were never able to be taught. All the people kept out of the Beit Midrash, or cut down by oppression or prejudice. That's part of how I see heaven.

6/ So I prepare the shiur. And one day I trust I'll be able to teach it, either in this world or the next, and learn from all those who want to teach me, voices we've never been able to hear. The mountains of seforim burnt by our oppressors & the teachers forced into silence.

7/ I'm not part of that truly poignant history. My obscurity is enough of a choice that - as I needed to establish on YK itself - I can't allow others to be blamed for. But the art is irrepressible. And it's constantly being created and changed.

8/ Ironically, after I deliver a drasha or shiur, I find it nearly impossible to recreate what was said. What I said was the Torah I had at a time. Like a river, it's constantly flowing and if I teach at 10 am it will be different than what I teach at 10:15.

9/ Teaching aloud, in front of others, will also change the substance. The Heisenberg Drasha Principle. And the relevance will be changed by time. My pre-Neilah talk this year used imagery from this past month & that quickly loses its cogency even if it's effective for the Now.

10/ I compared #Neilah - which means the closing [of the gates of Heaven] - to the urgency of finding refuge, as we see in the recent hurricanes, the tornado & flood in my own community, and to the those fleeing the Taliban.

11/ Neilah is in many ways the focus & efficacy of #YomKippur, which is paradoxical because it's purposefully during a time when the day may actually be over. It's during twilight, between when the sun sets and when it's completely dark.

12/ On Shabbat, this time period is one of doubt. Is it still Shabbat or Sunday? So we act out of doubt but limit certain behaviors. YK is different: the ikkar of the day is davka during this, normally & nominally doubtful, period.

13/ The image of refuge and safety - so fresh in our minds from the news but also for many of us who huddled in our basements from tornadoes, basements that soon were filled with water that destroyed our material possessions - is what Neilah evokes in the liturgy.

14/ Imagine the rescuers over the horizon, trying to spot people to save, but limited by the oncoming darkness. Or the airport in Kabul, the places filling up, you are on line, vulnerable to attack and counting the minutes before the last plane leaves you to your doom.

15/ That fright & vulnerability is one of the moods that we need to feel at Neilah. But, as with the entire Elul-Tishrei period, it's mixed with another necessary message: that we are given an enormous opportunity and privilege to have a personal audience with Hakadosh Barukh Hu.

16/ My teacher Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt'l illuminates this concept in a recently (re)published shiur about the "Joy of Teshuva." We need to know our fate is in the balance but we should feel joy as well for the incredible near-guarantee for forgiveness. 

17/ Rav Aharon, whom I miss every day and whose departure left an irreplaceable hole in our world - the only Gadol HaDor with a Ph.D. in the arts (English Literature) - possessed a complexity of thought that filled my pockets with wisdom, pockets I didn't even know were empty.

18/ Rav Aharon's essay takes as a given that repentance is a mitzvah and thus, like any mitzvah, must be accompanied by joy. It's worth reading in full, and I have a few perpendicular observations, but for Neilah he shows how it's fitting and expected to feel joy amid the terror.

19/ The joy of mitzvot comes from the joy that we can do mitzvot.

And for me, the terror of Neilah comes not from YK itself, but from how the day is designed to heighten our awareness of our everyday frightening, harrowing & horrifying fragility.

20/ Neilah comes after we've had our petty egos stripped away from deprivation - our hunger, our uncomfortable clothes, our standing and concentrating - all of this designed to remove the blinders of selfishness that we can be wearing all year long.

21/ I've said that the disempowered and/or the disabled have the Neilah feeling every day of their lives. They get a head start on the mood and meaning of #YomKippur. They know how life, comfort, ease, access etc. aren't given or expected. They live a life with less pretense.

22/ I describe this awareness possessed by the oppressed not as a gift, it's a pale recompense and a just, Godly, society would ease the suffering. Their pain is undesired but well-earned wisdom and many of my messages of YK aren't for them.

23/ Neilah is a time of the terror of needing to run for shelter, but should have the pleasure of knowing that the shelter is available and it comes with the grand joy of being in the presence of unconditional love. So we extend into twilight for both of these reasons.

24/ We push back the end of the day, claim the doors are still not closed, in order to have more time to ask for forgiveness based on our covenant & heritage. But we also cheat the clock so we can spend more time in the audience of Avinu Malkeinu. Both messages are key.

25/ At another time I will add notes to what Rav Aharon wrote, especially in light of the Rambam (presumed) position that teshuva isn't a separate mitzvah. For me, one joy in teshuva comes from the process of solving problems and figuring something out.

26/ #ReshetKeshet #Neilah #YomKippur #Torah #Forgiveness


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