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The Empty Chair-Be A Mensch

This is my Yom Kippur Morning Sermon delivered at Congregation Kol Ami 5773


I wish you a Gmar Chatima Tovah—a good inscription in the Book of Life.

One of the images of the High Holy Days is God’s heavenly throne.  In fact the Ark of the Covenant… that was held in the Holy of Holies was God’s footstool for the Heavenly Throne! The ancient Temple was the place that helped us reach toward the heavens and the place where God was thought to reach down to us.  On this holy day-that place of direct communication is open to us.  We are actually here in our sanctuary space before the Throne of Glory.  That last thing you want to see is an empty chair!  Or empty Throne.

But it seems like Empty chairs are getting a lot of publicity these days!

It seemed to have worked well for Clint Eastwood depending on your political view. But his ad-libbed conversation with President Obama told us that the chair wasn’t really empty- we were to use our imagination to fill that chair.

And we too have to use our imagination to fill the empty Throne of God.  We come here seeking atonement and repentance for our sins.  We must use our imaginations in order to seek the union with God that complete forgiveness and atonement is. This is ours to seek on this day.  We are challenged on the High Holy Days to imagine God is here with us sitting on that Heavenly Throne because we are in that space between Heaven and Earth.  We have been admitted to the holy realm for these few hours. And I hope we use this time well.

We have lots of chairs in Judaism filled and empty. Just like in this sanctuary today.  There are many seats filled. But there are also many seats empty. There are Jews who ought to be here with us communing with their tribe, communing with God.  But they claim they are “not religious” Jews. And so have no need of being here on Yom Kippur or any day. But I beg to differ. Religious or not the synagogue is the home to the Jewish people—it isn’t just about prayer or rituals. It is about being a mensch. And whether you believe or not being a mensch is what we learn together.

Today I want to share a bit with you about Jewish tradition and chairs and being a mensch and particularly the role of the chair and why it is important especially on Yom Kippur. And why even if one isn’t so called a “religious” Jew that you need to fill the empty chairs.

First one of the most important images of the chair in Judaism is the uplifted chair of the wedding.  Traditionally brides and grooms are raised high on the shoulders of the community as they dance together.  This tradition came about because at an Orthodox wedding men and women are separated by a mechitza. The sex segregated celebration has lots of dancing and the only time the bride and groom dance together is by holding a napkin or handkerchief between them.  Chairs in these cases are lifted high. In this case a filled chair is full of joy, but can be deadly if emptied.  More than one groom and bride have fallen out of the chairs and sustained injury at their own wedding!

This is a case when an empty chair is not a good thing at all. And the filled chair a blessing.

Seemingly under the heading of a Jewish custom transforming itself by the ignorant-now often the bar or bat mitzvah is lifted in a chair at their party.   Although this is mostly a mistake by DJ’s who know little of Jewish tradition.

But these are filled chairs…what about the empty chair in Judaism?

The first real empty chair in a person’s life is at the brit milah or brit banot—the covenantal ceremony welcoming our sons and daughters into the Jewish people.  There is an empty chair for Elijah the prophet at every ceremony.   One of the finest examples of the Elijah chair is in the synagogue in Cavillion, France, in Provence.  It is a decoration on the wall and was used by the community at each brit milah.  You can see it still to this day.

Elijah, Eliyahu HaTishbi, he same Elijah we sing to at the end of Shabbat and we welcome at the Seder during Pesach, was a miracle worker in the Bible.  He brings good things and blessings everywhere he goes.  He is the herald of the Messiah.  And at each brit ceremony we briefly place the child in the empty chair-imagining that this new life might be the Messiah.  They have the potential to change the world for good. To defeat evil and to bring a sense of all that is good and holy to their family and the world.

This is an empty chair-momentarily filled-  and it brings joy to all.   This empty chair is symbolic of the promise and hope that the Messiah will come and bring about a time of peace and prosperity and health and well- being for all.

The hope of a messiah as an individual who will come and achieve these things has been in Judaism since before the time of the Prophets.  Jeremiah and Isaiah both make reference to him and the prophet Micha (4:4) teaches us that everyone will sit under their vine and fig tree and Isaiah teaches us nations will not lift up sword against nation any more.

The Messiah a word that comes from the Hebrew Mashach, to  Annoit would not only be a redeemer, God’s messenger but a king who would renew the monarchy of Davidic times. The Messiah of Jewish tradition would sit literally on the throne of David and re-energize the Kingdom of Israel and Judea. The Messiah, a descendent of the line of David would be a king.  The Messianic/Davidic throne is empty. It ended after King Solomon and was divided into two kingdoms and then finally dismantled when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  Thus the empty throne of King David-would not have a King Messiah as the Talmud writes about. And this is precisely why Jesus didn’t fulfill the Jewish criteria for the Messiah.   Nor other rulers like Herod.

Instead the throne sits and remains empty.  And we wait for the Messiah. Rambam, Maimonides wrote that the Messiah was part of the essential beliefs in Judaism.

Reform Judaism rejected the idea of an individual messiah-a person who would be descended of the line of King David and sent to change the world.  But rather Reform Jewish ideals took the notion of a Messianic time that would be brought about by our working toward a vision of that kind of day.  Instead Reform Judaism committed to working toward a utopian society that we created by our progressive ideals-the equality of men and women, a time when poverty is no more and together that we Jews along with our fellow men and women of all races and creeds share in the protection and welfare of our planet and are concerned with one another.  We believe in a true time of peace and friendship and fellowship across tribal lines and international borders. This is the vision I still hold to in my work today.

There is a poignant Biblical story in the Book of Samuel.  Saul, King of Judah, the first Jewish king, invites the young David to a banquet in celebration of the New Moon, Rosh Chodesh.  David is cautious, for he fears that Saul means to set a trap for him.  Saul feared that David would become King and usurp the throne. David decides not to attend.  Jonathan, Saul’s son, the beloved friend of David, conspires with David to protect him.  In doing so, Jonathan knows that they may never see each other again. Jonathan says:  “Your chair will be empty.  You will be missed.” When someone is missing from our table that empty chair indeed indicates that someone is gone from our family circle.

In Judaism we have empty chairs in times of grief and mourning. Traditional Jewish custom says that at the shiva home, the mourner is to sit on cushions or low stools, since it is not permitted to sit on a regular chair during this time. The mourner is dis comforted-by loss and by the hard low stool or floor. This extends to national days of mourning such as Tisha B’Av when we are also to sit on the floor and mourn for the loss of the ancient temple.

And there is a Monument in Krakow, Poland of empty chairs. It is a public art installation. These empty chairs represents the over 65,000 Jews of Krakow who did not return from the Holocaust

The Empty Chair is a metaphor for loss, a symbol of grief. The holidays are often a time to realize that there is a place at the family table that is empty.  Sitting in a sanctuary today on Yom Kippur we might well recall parents, grandparents, children, teachers, family members who are no longer alive, yet their presence is felt.  It is as if there were an empty chair or place next to us where they should be.   There is some consolation and comfort to be found in the awareness that we continue to feel the presence of those who have influenced and touched our lives. And this afternoon at our Yizkor service we will remember and pay tribute to them.

During the years of Soviet refusal to let the Russian Jews emigrate to Israel-many of our Passover Seder’s included an empty chair for the Refusniks, and later the Ethiopian Jews who couldn’t get out of Ethiopia until Israel airlifted them out, and most recently until a year ago Gilad Shalit-the Israeli soldier that was held captive for 5 years by Hamas who was released in exchange for over 1000 terrorists prisioners. The empty chair is symbolic of those who can’t be at our holiday observances.

chair     Another Empty Chair is that of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.  He was a famous 19th century Rabbi-known for his amazing observations about life.  Rebbe Nahman, as he is known, was the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the charismatic founder of the Hasidic movement who lived and taught in the 18th century.  Rebbe Nahman, was known as a tzaddik, that is, a Hasidic religious leader who possessed a special understanding of the links between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm. He was truly a righteous and incredible teacher.

In his brief 38 years of life he served his loyal followers (who became known as Bratzlover Hasidim) with incredible passion, he traveled to the Holy Land of Israel, and he spread his teachings, and the ecstatic approach of Hasidut all over Eastern Europe and the Ukraine.  But when he died, he died without naming an heir, leaving his followers lost and forlorn.

They were ridiculed by members of other sects, who called them the Dead Hasidim, because their rebbe had passed away and left them without a connection to heaven.  Rabbi Nachman struggled all his life with depression.  His infant son died and after was never the same- perhaps that inner sadness, that he felt and struggled with brought his teachings down from heaven and made them more real.

He still has many followers world -wide. Perhaps on a trip to Israel you have seen the stickers all over—Na nach Nachma Nachman MeUman.  The chair of his dynasty has never been filled. And thus Rabbi Nachman’s empty chair.

But they did have something that would keep them going as a sect.  They had that chair, an empty chair.

A few years before Rebbe Nachman died, a devoted follower gave the rebbe a gift – an exquisitely-crafted wooden chair, a throne of sorts for the great rabbi to sit upon. The man that handcrafted it had worked a few hours every day on it for more than six months.  When Rebbe Nachman died in 1810, his followers left that chair empty, sitting silently in the congregation for over one hundred years, in order that it should remind them of the irreplaceable loss of their leader.

During the Cossack uprisings against the Ukrainian Jews in the 1920’s the chair was cut into pieces, smuggled to safety and later brought to Israel in 1926 by a Bratzlover family fleeing the impending Holocaust. It was brought to Jerusalem, reassembled with help from the Israel Museum, and was in the Bratslaver synagogue in Jerusalem for many years.  (taken from Excerpts of the Introduction of “The Empty Chair”, Jewish Lights Publishing).

This summer I saw Nachman’s empty chair in the Israel museum in a wonderful exhibit about the inner life of the Chasidic community.

His empty ornate chair with the beautiful maroon velvet cushion continues to inspire so many people around the world. Many of you know some of the important words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. And Cantor Saltzman has even sung them on Rosh Hashanah eve-Kol Haolam Kulo-gesher tzar m’od. V’haikar lo lifached.   All the world is a narrow bridge, but the main principal is not to be afraid.

And in part those words have brought comfort to me each day of my rabbinate. They have kept me strong and moving forward despite my fears.

But Nachman actually wrote during his lifetime about an empty chair that has important implications or the High Holy Days.  When one sits in a chair and the person is empty then indeed you are sitting on an empty chair. Your body may be on it. But you are empty inside, Rabbi Nachman wrote.  He recognized the quality of emptiness comes from inside of us.

This describes so many people I meet. Perhaps it describes some of you.  You may be sitting now in the chair but if you are empty inside then that chair is empty too.
Oh you may be full of so many things: Bravado, ego, material goods.  But we all know that those don’t really fill us up in the end.  We can be lonely and still surrounded by so many people and things. We can be sitting on empty chairs because the emptiness is inside of us.

As Mark Twain said, “”You can’t depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus.”

And so we are called to use our imagination this day to fill the empty chairs. We are called to use our imagination on this Yom Kippur morning to fill the emptiness inside of us.  We are called to dream.  Even if we don’t know how. Even if we have been moving from one thing or person to another.  Yom Kippur helps us to start over, start fresh, by opening us up to the possibility that we can change. We can be different than before. We can dream on this Yom Kippur day of how we might change and be the person we imagine.

Rebbe Nachaman also taught that when a mensch sits on the chair it is full.  A mensch is that integrated person who does good, integrates spirit and the material worlds.  Looks out for herself, her family and her friends.  A mensch is a person who tries to do the right thing.  A mensch gives tzedakah and practices gemilut chasadim.  A mensch is what Jewish life tries to create in all of us.

Today, Yom Kippur is about trying to be a mensch.  Yom Kippur tries to remind us not fill up  with things, but to strip down to the basic simplicity of faith, hope, loyalty, charity, study and putting our Jewish values to work in the world every day.

These are not always the values of the world around us. In fact I have to say that these Jewish valuesoften run counter to the world around us.  Instead we see greed and gluttony, individualism and worship of money and things and an emphasis on the superficial.  We Liberal Jews most of us who left Judaism at 13 years of age still hold on to that 13 year old views of Jewish life and God and Torah.

But a sophisticated and adult view understands that Judaism reminds us that what matters is family, a balance and an emphasis on community, a reminder that all we have is not ours alone but must be shared with others.

These are the things that help us shape our menschlikite.

Today, on Yom Kippur you should be asking yourself-How can I in the year ahead be a mensch.  How can I live my life more in tune and in balance with the Divine Principals of Jewish life?  How can I incorporate these teaching into my life every day?  How can I imagine , how can I dream of a different, more meaningful reality for myself and the world? How can I sit on the chair and not feel so empty?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov also taught it was through the idea of faith:  He taught the pathway to filling up the emptiness begins with this:

First:  Affirm your faith in yourself:  (repeat after me)

Make sure you say pray daily these words:

I believe I am important in God’s eyes

I believe I can return no matter how far I’ve strayed

I believe that I have the inner strength to change

I believe that I can become truly devoted and close to God.

This is the essence of moving forward to a life that is full. Because one you become committed to faith in yourself and faith in God-you will see there will be a fullness and a contentment that will begin to shape your reality-a fullness that will come with meaningful living- a fullness that will come with intentional living, a fullness that will come with the study of Torah and using it as your guide post to navigate the world of empty chairs and empty people.  Judaism is that guide. If you have felt empty-if you have been drained by the world, the rough economy, the frustrations of simply getting from here to there on any day in Los Angeles, if you have been lonely, Yom Kippur is here to remind you the way out of that emptiness and into a life of fullness and fulfillment is something you have had at your disposal all along-living a full Jewish life. Living an intentional Jewish life.

I have been privileged for 25 years to hold the chair as the first openly gay rabbi in this community.  5 years at BCC and 20 at Kol Ami.  My whole rabbinate-has been dedicated to the liberation of this community of Jews;  I have seen plenty in these  years.  I have buried more than my share of people and visited hospitals more than I care to because of the devastation of AIDS that hit our community.  I was 28 when I began in the heights of the crisis as your rabbi.   We have had plenty just in those losses alone to feel the emptiness inside.

I have been with you as we let our anger fill us trying to get the government and the larger community help us deal with the devastation that was and I remind you still is HIV/AIDS .  I have worked alongside you trying to create an environment of acceptance and welcome for LGBT Jews and for our civil rights. Working hard to change the environment in the religious worlds and making great headway on many fronts.  Where there were empty chairs in Temples and synagogues –we now fill them including on the bima as Conservative Judaism ordains Rabbis and Cantors as well.  I consulted with the Conservative movement and have consulted with the next realm of openness and that is in the Orthodox world.  It is slowly changing. And the conversation is being had in places it never was before from Yeshiva University, to Agudath Yisrael and Chabad.

I have been sitting in the chair beside you all these years-in times of joy at the birth of our children and grandchildren and at the dedication of our Temple, at your weddings even before it was legally recognized. And soon God-Willing it will be again.

I have been sitting beside you all these years as we have buried our parents and bedside as many of us age and deal with the intricacies of health.

But to do that and to not feel the emptiness my self-I have kept one verse in mind.  And that is the verse I use as my own mission statement.  Written on the wall in my office, and on this tallit and several others I own, is a verse from the prophet Micah. (6:8). It keeps me grounded. It reminds me to be a mentsch.  It keeps me directed on the right path.  It keeps me filled so that I don’t have an empty chair that Nachman spoke aboutbut a verse that keeps me filled and ready to do the work God calls me to do:

O Humanity, What does God require of you? Only to do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with   your God.

This has been my guidepost to serving as your rabbi. This has been my guidepost in serving the Jewish people. This has been my mission as a rabbi and continues to be. It fills me when emptiness creeps in.

And I believe this verse from Micah can also be the pathway to a better you. And help you flll the emptiness that is the signature of our times.

Yom Kippur urges us onward to cleanse ourselves of everything that got in our way. The errors, ommissions, sins of commission.  The times when we got in our own way of living a holy life-the life of a mentsch.   And the promise of this day is that we can use our imagination to see ourselves as the person we dream of becoming.  Beloved by God, belonging to a people so I am never lonely, and no matter how far afield I have gone-there is no place like home.  Yom Kippur urges us Homeward Bound- so we can fill up all the empty chairs –and focus on doing together-justice, loving compassion and walking humbly with God.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.