In the Black Hills of south western South Dakota there are hundreds of thousands lodge pole pine trees. A tall, slender tree shaped like a flagpole, it is one of the most common tree species in western North America. It has very thin bark which makes it particularly susceptible to forest fires. Which it turns out is a good thing. Because the lodge pole has pine cones which are filled with seeds; seeds that can only be released when the outside covering is melted off. Fire creates the perfect soil for lodge pole seedlings, rich in minerals and organic matter. So with each new forest fire, the lodge pole pine regenerates and the cycle continues.
This summer in the Black Hills of South Dakota we saw fire ravaged trees spread across acres of Custer State Park, and we saw new growth springing up all around it. We saw living hidden within the dying.
Tonight we see it once again – living hidden within the dying. We wear shrouds. We are restricted from doing the most basic activities of life: We do not eat or drink, we do not groom ourselves excessively, or even engage in intimate acts. We creatively engage in a rehearsal for death by denying ourselves normal human pleasures, but the purpose of this encounter with death is so that we might live. We hope that 25 hours of confronting our mortality will melt our brittle exterior and set free the seeds of new life so that our own cycle might continue.
It is particularly meaningful to be experiencing this as the natural world around us is going through a similar process of dying and seeding. This past week the weather changed, as Baltimore summer gave way to fall. Darkness began to descend much earlier, the leaves began their changing, and all around us we sensed the decline of autumn that will lead to winter’s death. (“Autumn” in Seasons A Center for Renewal, Parker Palmer)
As we look around this sanctuary we notice that most of us are in the autumn of our lives. For us it is neither spring nor summer. The abundance that awaits us is not an abundance of years but hopefully an abundance of experience, an abundance of love, an abundance of meaning. I know that if I suggested you were no longer in the spring of your life any other day of the year you might be angry with me for saying so. But tonight, we lay our cards on the table, we tell the truth to ourselves, to God.
But Yom Kippur is not a depressing day, it is a hopeful day because on this day we can turn and return; and to turn is to be reborn and renewed. (The Jewish Way, Yitz Greenberg)
And while we experience that rebirth and renewal as individuals, we go through this together, as a community. It is the one day of the year when everyone is here in the synagogue. The one moment of collective in our Jewish year. We might all celebrate a Passover Seder. But we do that privately in our homes. Yom Kippur we observe together because as Jews we know that we do not exist alone.
Yom Kippur is our most diverse day of the year when congregants from 101 years of age to two weeks come together. When Jews of color, and Jews born in foreign lands and even Jews born outside of Pikesville gather together to search our souls.
At Chizuk Amuno we are fortunate to do this in great numbers. Today we are more like a small city than a synagogue, as thousands of us are here to pray together. There is power in these huge numbers. This summer my children asked me how many Jews lived in South Dakota, as we didn’t seem to find many others besides ourselves. Fewer than 400 Jews live in South Dakota amidst the towering lodge pines, the fewest of any state in the country. I told them that there are more Jews in one seating section of the Sanctuary on Yom Kippur than in the entire state of South Dakota. So yes, we are fortunate to be here together in such numbers, even if it means you have to wait a few minutes to exit the parking lot after services.
This is our way. Judaism does not see us only existing as individuals. Soul searching and self-reflection is not only done in a forest as solitary human beings. It is not only done on a mountain top alone with our thoughts. We must experience life in community with other people who share our common purpose of making meaning through Jewish values, memories and life passages. We need these Jewish experiences that we can’t get in a National Park, we can’t get in a sports stadium, and we can’t get at a yoga retreat.
We try to improve ourselves in the context of the other, which is fitting because in relationship with another person, whether that be a friend, partner, teacher, even our children, we learn more about ourselves when we interact with other human beings. That’s why we need to experience Yom Kippur in the presence of a lot of Jews, not to judge ourselves against them, but to judge ourselves with them. Despite the admonition of Pirkei Avot, we spend a lot of time separating ourselves from our community. Doing our own thing, making Judaism work for us personally, creating separate prayer experiences, setting up private groups, feeling singular and unique.
It is this one moment of collective when we don’t separate ourselves from the community. Tonight is the only time of the year when Jewish time means on time, because Yom Kippur requires that we to start together. And at Chizuk Amuno it also means we end together. We don’t conclude Yom Kippur separately in the Sanctuary and the Krieger and Family Service and Torah for Tots. We end it together, with each of us as part of our big beautiful whole.
There is a challenge in this: to see your part in community. If you see yourself as part of this community, and you should see yourself as such, then it implies responsibility. You don’t just stand next to them on Yom Kippur. You also have to stand next to them when they are sitting shiva and saying kaddish for their parent. You have to sit by them at dinner when you invite them to your house. You have to debate with them in Torah study class. You have to dance with them at their child’s wedding. You have to pace with them in the hospital waiting room. You may even have to subsume your own wishes for your synagogue in favor of theirs. That’s what it means to be part of our whole.
We are here tonight because we want to make meaning in our lives and our tradition has seen fit to help us find the meaning in our living by confronting our mortality. To recognize the ephemerality of our years and in so doing to renew our days with greater love and appreciation for the beauty of life.
On the Black Hills of South Dakota, in a place bereft of Jews and community, stand hundreds of thousands of lodge pole trees, heavy with pinecones, waiting for the dying that will be the necessary precursor to new life.