A parable is told about a young prince. He was kidnapped from the palace and was raised as a peasant laboring in the field -- far away from the glory and riches of the king's house. The king sent emissaries throughout the kingdom to find the prince, and finally, after many years, he was located.
When the king heard the news, he sent messengers right away to bring his son to the palace. The prince was reluctant to go -- he knew nothing of being the son of the king. The son, who had never seen anything more than a village hut, did not even know what a "palace" was!
But the king's messengers were persistent. They gave the son a set of clothes befitting of a prince, put him on a horse, and rode him towards the capital.
When the prince got to the palace, he was struck with fear. Everything seemed so immense and imposing. He didn't know what to do in a palace. He thought, "I'm a stranger here. This can't be mine. Is the king going to want to have anything to do with me?"
The messengers brought him to a door and told him that inside this room sits the king. The boy was scared. How would the king receive him?
The doors opened slowly. The boy saw the king, the most powerful man in the kingdom, by whose word vast numbers lived and died. He trembled with fear. He couldn't approach. And then, the boy realized -- it's not the king, it's my father! They fell into each other's arms.
This is Yom Kippur. From the first of Elul, a month before Rosh Hashana, we begin our journey to see the King. On Rosh Hashana, we're in the palace of the King -- scared, standing in judgment before Him.
On Yom Kippur, we're His children.
Living in the modern world, it's hard for us to relate to loving a benevolent king. The kings we think of are monster dictators -- the target of revolutions to overthrow the king!
The Jewish concept of a king is different. The king of Israel has his power limited by the Torah: He may not amass excessive personal wealth, and he must carry a small copy of the Torah with him at all times to remind him of his obligations. The Israelite king was required to go into the actual heat of battle and fight on the front lines with his people! A Jewish king has awesome power, but he uses it all as a servant of the people. He uses his power to ensure a society where people can live peacefully and develop their full potential.
The Biblical "Song of Songs" is a love song between a man and a woman. Yet the Talmud calls it the "Holy of Holies" -- the most sacred biblical text. Why? Because love is really an expression of our deep desire for the ultimate unity: to connect with God.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, because your love is better than wine... Pull me after you, we will run, the King has brought me into His chambers, we will take joy and gladness in you, we remember your love more than wine, unswervingly they love you. (Song of Songs 1:2-4)
Consider a woman who received as a gift a beautiful diamond ring. She's ecstatic. Everywhere she goes, she shows people the ring -- a flawless diamond. Then one time she shows it to a jeweler. He looks at it with his magnifying glass and announces: "There's a flaw in it!"
She'll never show the ring to anyone again. She may never even wear it again. It's the same diamond, it looks beautiful -- but now she knows it's not a truly flawless diamond, it's not perfect.
So what? Why doesn't she just pretend it's perfect? No one but an expert jeweler will know! It's because she's longing for something in life that is real and perfect. If she knows it's not real, even if no one else does, she can't take pleasure in it.
So too, deep down, no human being wants to settle for anything less than the ultimate.
The Hebrew letters of the verse, "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" (Song of Songs 6:3), spell out "Elul," the month leading up to Rosh Hashana. We long for God and He longs for us.
LONGING FOR MEANING
Now let's look at another situation. A man is working at the airport taking bags off the baggage carousel. It's boring, but it's a living. We could do it, if we had no alternative.
Imagine one day that the airport manager comes to this man and makes him an offer: "I'll triple your salary. The only condition is that from now on, when you take a bag off the carousel and put it on the floor, you have to then pick up the same bag and put it back on the carousel. Then take it off again. Then put it back on again..."
It's the same physical effort, and the salary is triple. But who could do such a job?
Why not? Because a human being longs for meaning. Working in the luggage department of an airport may be boring, but at least there is the satisfaction of accomplishment and helping people. If you take away that purpose, a human being can't stand it!
We long for what's real and what's meaningful. We long for God, the ultimate reality.
Yet sometimes we lose sight of what we want. We get distracted by other things. How many times have we been inspired by a book or a movie, and thought afterwards: "I want to be great, I want to really experience living." Sometimes we followed up on those resolutions, but most of the time we just forgot.
In Judaism, we call that a "mistake." The word for "sin" in Hebrew is chet, which literally means "mistake." Our biggest mistake is that we want to relate to God, be close to God.
But we forget.
We know what it's like when we're challenged. It's so hard sometimes to summon the effort. We think: how can we do it, it's such a hassle. So what happens? We end up thinking God is far from us. He's a tough, stern God, He wants too much from us, He doesn't really love us. Then we deny His existence. We construct a layer of cynicism -- there's really no meaning, why bother struggling. Let's just go back to bed...
Consider the words of King Solomon:
I sleep, but my heart wakes. Hear, my beloved is knocking, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one...I have put off my coat how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how can I make them dirty? My beloved put his hand on the door, and my heart was thrilled for him. I rose up to open to my beloved, but my beloved had turned away and was gone. My soul failed when he spoke; I sought him, but I could not find him, I called him, but he did not answer...I make you swear, daughter of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved tell him that I am sick with love. (Song of Songs, 5:2-8)
There is a true story of an Israeli boy sitting in the hospital waiting room while his mother was having a minor operation. Since he was religious, he was reciting Psalms, the holy words of King David which comfort and inspire us during difficult times.
In the same waiting room was a kibbutznik, an older man. The kibbutznik saw the boy saying Psalms and came over to him. "Why are you doing this? This religious stuff is old-fashioned. It can't possibly do any good!"
The boy asked him, "Why are you here at the hospital?" The kibbutznik answered, "I came to pick up the body of my son. He's having an operation, but the doctors say there's no chance."
A few minutes later, the doctors came out and announced to the kibbutznik: "It's a miracle. The operation was successful. Your son will live."
The kibbutznik stood on his feet and proclaimed in a loud voice: Shema Yisrael -- "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
What's the meaning of this story? What type of man attacks a boy for saying Psalms for his mother?
Only someone who desperately wants to do it himself, but can't. At a time when his son is dying, he wants to be back in touch with his God. But he's spent so many years denying His existence, on building his life on the principle that God is not there...
But God is not really far from us. Just like we're longing for God, He's longing for us.
SMALL, STILL VOICE
How do we connect to the Almighty in everyday life? If deep down we are all longing for God, how can we capture that feeling?
The Bible tells us about the prophet Elijah. The Jewish people were being influenced to worship the idol Baal, so Elijah set up a test. He gathered all the people together at Mount Carmel (in Northern Israel), where he set up one altar, and had the priests of the Baal set up another altar. Elijah declared that whichever offering would be consumed, then that would prove who is the true God.
A fire came down from heaven and burned the offering on Elijah's altar. All the people shouted out: "The Lord, He is God!" (We say this seven times at the end of the Yom Kippur service). Then the people -- angry for having been misled -- turned on the priests of Baal and killed them.
It was a big miracle, but it didn't work. The evil Queen Jezebel sent messengers to kill Elijah, and he had to run for his life. While Elijah was hiding, God appeared to him:
And behold, God passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains and broke the rock in pieces before the Lord. But God was not in the wind. And after the wind -- an earthquake. But God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake -- a fire. But God was not in the fire. And after the fire was a quiet voice... (1-Kings 19:11-12)
What was God trying to teach Elijah with the wind, the earthquake, the fire, and the quiet voice? It is that God talks to us with a quite voice of love. The pleasure we get when we're with someone we love, or when we do something meaningful, or witness the beauty of a sunset, or discover the depths of Torah --this is when God shows us that He is really with us.
The entire world is God's message of love to us. Yom Kippur is the time when we are most open to receive this message.