There is a wonderful two-line short story by Franz Kafka, more or less like this:
“One day a leopard came stalking into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail.
“Three weeks later, it had become part of the liturgy.”
Our task, in every generation, every year, is to let the leopard out of the cage of liturgy.
Scary, and full of life.
For example: How do we treat the Yom Kippur prophetic reading in which Isaiah calls on the crowd not just to fast but to share their bread with the hungry, their homes with the homeless, their clothes with the naked, and then to go one huge and highly political step further and break off the handcuffs put on by wicked power?
On Yom Kippur morning, that Haftarah can be read in any of four ways.
One way is to treat it as part of “the liturgy.” Someone chants it in a droning Hebrew or reads it in a listless English.
Or we could read it with passion, even with strong music and powerful graphics. For my own impassioned translation and a YouTube art-and-music video of “Isaiah Lives!" click here:
OR –-- On this coming Yom Kippur, we could let the leopard leap from the page, roaring. We could notice that Isaiah disrupted the official Yom Kippur liturgy, that he says people yelled at him and shook their fists when he broke into the pleasant Levite chanting.
Today someone could actually break through Isaiah’s words for the sake of Isaiah’s truth –- perhaps suddenly in the middle of the Haftarah shouting out a headline about a homeless old man found frozen to death on a wintry downtown street; then, a few verses later, another headline about 300 people lining up in hope of a job when the Postal Service announced three vacancies;
Or someone could read a brief paragraph (just after the verse about the handcuffs) describing how an Arizona sheriff deliberately feeds rotted food to immigrants he has imprisoned and forces them to work outside in 130-degree heat. Or a paragraph about how the US government has explicitly refused to put on trial those who ordered the torture of prisoners.
OR – We could break through the cage of words altogether, and actually do what Isaiah tells us that God, the Breath of Life, demands:
How? First someone could read aloud these words:
"In North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux and hundreds of others -– the largest gathering in US history of Natives from all their many nations, plus many Americans of other communities -- have gathered to protect the sacred ancestral lands of the Sioux and the Missouri River from the proposed route of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
"Native people have gathered since last Spring to protect both the graves of their forebears from desecration and their water from poisoning, with the call that "Water is Life" -- Mayim Hayim.
"They are protecting our beloved Mother Earth for the sake of all of us, all life and future generations.
"For the pipeline will mean still more emissions of CO2 and methane to burn our Mother Earth.
"The encampments are peaceful, drug and alcohol free, where the elders and tribal leaders conduct daily ceremony and prayer.
"Yet they face soldiers with rifles loaded and pointed at them as they peacefully pray.
"They have pledged to camp all winter -- to insure that the pipeline does not get built through their tribal lands. They need donations to purchase winter supplies, food, tipees, and other necessities."
AND THEN -- as God and Isaiah cry out to us, to feed the hungry and clothe those exposed to wintry chill, to help them face with brave nonviolence the weapons aimed at them by domineering power, come to prayer on Yom Kippur ready as the break-fast begins on Tuesday night to write a check made out to "Standing Rock Sioux Tribe --- Pipeline Protest Donation Fund." Collect the checks and send them that very night to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Attention: Donations, PO Box D, Building #1, North Standing Rock Avenue, Fort Yates, ND 58538
Another leopard we could free: On Rosh Hashanah we read two painful stories –- one about Abraham’s expulsion of Ishmael his son and Ishmael’s mother Hagar from Abraham’s family, into a wilderness where they were on the point of death from thirst; and the other, about Abraham preparing to put his son Isaac to death at what he thought was God’s command. For both of Abraham’s sons, at the very last moment, God intervenes –-- and both their lives are saved.
Their story does not end with bare survival. Later in the Torah (Gen 25: 7-11), on a Shabbat when many fewer people will be in synagogue to hear, we are told that after twenty years apart, Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their dangerous father, and then Isaac went to live at Ishmael’s wellspring.
This Yom Kippur, what about lifting up and reading this passage of tshuvah and slichah, “turning” and “reconciliation”? For Yom Kippu is precisely the festival that is supposed to bring us to tshuvah and slichah.