Yom Kippur Morning 5776: Where Heaven Meets Earth

Do you know “Where the world began?” I bet if I asked you “How old is the world” you would be able to answer that question. If you were speaking from a Jewish point of view, you would say the world is 5776 years old. If you were speaking from a scientific point of view, you would say the earth is 4.543 billion years old. I bet if I asked you “How was the world created” you would be able to answer that question, too. If you were speaking from a Jewish point of view, you would say that “G-d spoke and the world came into being.” If you were speaking from a scientific point of view, you would tell me about the “Big Bang Theory”.  But if I asked you, “Where the world began”, I don’t think that many of us would be able to answer that question, even from a scientific point of view.  It may surprise you, but there is a Jewish answer to that question!

According to our tradition, the bedrock upon which the Temple in Jerusalem was built is called the Even Shtiyah, or Foundation Stone of the world. It is the center of the earth –it is the very foundation upon which G-d then constructed our world. It is where the world began. The midrash explains, “The Almighty created the world in the same manner as a child is formed in its mother’s womb. Just as a child begins to grow from its navel and then develops into its full form, so the world began from its central point and then developed in all direction.” That central point is the rock upon which Abraham performed the sacrifice of Isaac; it was upon that rock that the Temple in Jerusalem was later built; for the Muslim, it was from that rock that Mohammed ascended to heaven, thereby becoming one of Islam’s holiest sites as well. That rock is “The Rock” of the “Dome of the Rock”, the Golden Dome that dominates the Old City of Jerusalem.

That Rock must be a very special place. In fact, it is known as the “place where heaven meets earth”. It is the place where Abraham encountered an angel who stopped him from sacrificing Isaac. It is the place where the High Priest would enter on the Holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, and ask forgiveness for himself and his family, for all of the priests who served in the Temple, and for the people of Israel as a whole. That Rock marked the portal to heaven – the place where heaven meets earth. It was on that place that G-d chose to build the Temple.

That is one tradition explaining how G-d chose the site of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is another Jewish tradition that explains that choice. I want you to listen carefully to it, and consider which story you like better. The second story explaining how G-d chose the site of the Temple in Jerusalem involves two brothers who shared a field. The first brother is married with children. The other brother is single. After harvesting their crops and dividing them into two equal piles, the married brother thinks, “Here I have children to take care of me when I am old, but my brother has nobody.” At the same time the single brother thinks, “I have only myself to feed, but my brother has a wife and children.” At night, unbeknownst to the other, each brother brings some of his wheat and places it in the pile of the other.  Each brother is amazed when, in the morning, their piles remain the same. Each night thereafter they carry wheat from one pile to the other, but in the morning, their piles remained the same.  One night, they met in the middle of the field. They realize what is happening and fall into one another’s arms.  That place of brotherly love was chosen by G-d to be the site of the Holy Temple.

Which origin story do you like best?  In the first story, G-d just chooses a random point from which to start the world. After all, one has to start somewhere!  It is upon that point that the Temple is built. In the second story, G-d chooses a place of brotherly love to build the Temple. Both stories explain why the site of the Temple is the place where Heaven meets Earth, but from each story we can draw different lessons.

In the first story, the place where Heaven meets Earth is a point on a map — In the second story, where heaven meets earth is a place in the heart. The lesson is that heaven meets earth each time a human being reaches out to help his or her fellow human being.  That can be anywhere in the world. Heaven meets earth when congregants gather at a shiva home to console the mourner. Heaven meets earth where a daughter holds her mother’s hand at her bedside and talks throughout the night as her mother lay dying. Heaven meets earth when a child with Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy courageously mounts the bima to lead our congregation at his bar mitzvah. Heaven meets earth when a bat mitzvah girl organizes a race for her Bat Mitzvah project that raises thousands of dollars for the Celiac Disease Foundation. Heaven meets earth each time a congregant provides a meal for someone who is ill. Heaven meets earth when we sit together to study, to pray, and to celebrate.  Heaven meets earth in those who have bravely struggled for years with chronic illness and in those who have reaffirmed life after tragic losses. Heaven meets earth when we gather with the Muslim community to make sandwiches to feed the hungry, when we volunteer at our local food pantry to help the needy, when we staff the local homeless shelters to help those who are victims of domestic violence or poverty. Heaven meets earth when we gather to remember the victims of the Holocaust, or make a pilgrimage to Israel to experience our Holy Land. Heaven meets earth in the excitement of our children when they study Hebrew and in the perceptive questions they ask about their Jewish heritage. Heaven meets earth every time we give of our time, our effort, and yes, of our money, to make our Congregation the vibrant Jewish community that it is – these are the places where Heaven meets Earth!

Any interaction between two people is potentially the place where heaven and earth meet. It follows then that the earth must be filled with heroes and angels. Not only the kind of heroes who overcome a heavily armed man on a train to Paris, saving countless lives, as we saw in just a few weeks ago. There are heroes and angels among us every day, appearing in countless guises, manifesting themselves in myriad ways.  Rabbi Ed Feinstein, a prominent American Conservative rabbi, spoke movingly about this is a video as he recounted his experience as a cancer survivor. Rabbi Feinstein had two bouts of colon cancer. The second bout required ten hours of surgery, and even with that, as he tells it, his long term prognosis was guarded. He relates:

……. after the 10 hours of surgery I woke up two a half days later at three o’clock in the morning in the hospital room by myself.  My glasses weren’t on so I couldn’t quite focus my eyes and I just was in so much pain and so much distress and so confused I began to tear the IVs out of my arm.  Into the room walks a very large nurse.  An African American gentleman who I came to know as Charles and Charles looks at me and says “What are you doing?” and I said “I’m gonna die”.  And Charles said “Not on my watch, too much paperwork and now sit here and be quiet” he says to me.  And I didn’t know if I was still asleep, if I’m awake, if this guy is real, am I in Heaven ………?  I didn’t know what it was.  He comes back 5 or 10 minutes later.  He gives me a bath.  He gives me something to suck on.  He puts the IVs back in.  He fluffs the pillow.  He puts a new blanket on and he sits with me for a few minutes and he says “tell me who you are”.  And I discovered when I was sick that the world is filled with angels.  Angels aren’t creatures with wings and halos and harps.  Angels are ordinary people who do extraordinary acts of goodness and kindness without asking for anything in return.  Charles was my angel and to me that’s the indication that God is close and that these people without asking for any recognition, for any reward, for any acknowledgement, for anything back just extended themselves to me and all of their expertise, their compassion, the power of their souls to heal me. …….. The world is full of angels and that’s the indication that God is close.”

This true story brought to mind a fable that I recently read:  There was once a little boy wanted to meet God.  He knew it was a long trip to where God lived, so one day he packed his suitcase with Twinkies and root beer; and started off on his journey.

When he had gone about three blocks, he met an old woman in the park. She was sitting on a bench just staring at some pigeons.  The boy sat down next to her opened his suitcase and took out a root beer. He was about to take a drink when he noticed that the old lady looked hungry, so he offered her a Twinkie. She gratefully accepted it and smiled at him.  Her smile was so pretty that the boy wanted to see it again, so he offered her a root beer. Once again, she smiled at him.  The boy was delighted.

They sat there, the two of them, all afternoon, eating Twinkies, drinking root beer and smiling, but they never said a word. As it grew dark, the boy realized how tired he was and he got up to leave, but before he had gone more than a few steps, he turned around, ran back to the old woman and gave her a big hug!  She gave him her biggest smile yet.

When the boy opened the door to his own house a short time later, his mother was surprised by the look on his face.  She asked him, “What did you do today that made you so happy?” He replied, “I had lunch with God.” And before his mother could respond, he added, “You know what? She’s got the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen!”

Meanwhile, the old woman, also radiant with joy, returned to her home; her son was stunned by the look of peace on her face and he asked, “Mother, what did you do today that made you so happy?” She replied, “I ate Twinkies in the park with God.”  And before her son responded, she added, “You know he’s much younger than I expected.”

G-d is much closer than we think. We do not have to travel to Jerusalem to find the place where heaven meets earth.

The Kotzker Rabbi asked his disciples, “Why did God create human beings?” One student answered, “Each person is created in order to work on their soul…” The Kotzker Rabbi angrily responded, “That is idolatry! No, God put us on earth to keep the heavens aloft – to help our fellow human beings and bring holiness to our world!”  Each time we act with kindness, with compassion, with generosity with our fellows we bring holiness to our world. That is the place where heaven meets earth!