If not now, tell me when
If not now, tell me when,
We may never see this moment
Or place in time again
If not now, if not now, tell me when.
I don’t know if I am much into signs. I understand the concept of synchronicity—how the proximity of certain events in time can perhaps provide us with an opportunity for examination or meaning making. But in the idea of a sign from God, like the 10 plagues from the Exodus story as signs of divine power and human injustice, I don’t usually buy it. I don’t usually base my actions on signals from beyond, or wait to make decisions until I get a sign from above.
But I’ll share with you something, not a sign per se, but something came up that made me think. I have recently completed an 18 program in mindfulness and embodied Jewish spirituality. It was a study program for Jewish clergy—rabbis and cantors—which was comprised of retreats, text study, yoga and meditation.
At the end of our second retreat, we did an exercise. All that week we were invited to write prayers and place them anonymously in a box. At the end of the week, for a closing circle, we passed around the cards and we all read one of the prayers.
After we read the prayer, we went into the center of the circle where we picked another card. The faculty had prepared these laminated sheets, and on the back was a phrase from during the course of our studies. When it was my turn, I picked my card, and it read “et ratzon.”
Now I know this was random, and I know I wasn’t the only one to get this phrase. There were only a few phrases and about 40 of us. But it was the one I chose, based on the randomness of where I stood in the circle and where we started the process of reading prayers. And so I took it not as a sign, per se, but as a kavannah intended for me, to reflect on and try to connect with. Et ratzon.
Et Ratzon means a desirable time, a good time, an acceptable time. It is a phrase from Psalm 69:14:
Vaani tefilati lecha adonai et ratzon Elohim berav hasecha aneyni beemet yishecha
But as for me, let my prayer be to you God at an acceptable time; God in the greatness of your lovingkindness answer me, in the truth of your salvation.
It is a phrase that may be familiar to us, we will sing it tomorrow as part of the Mah Tovu prayer. The Mah Tovu is a collection of four verses from the Bible, put together to create one coherent whole, a prayer for our sacred space. It’s inclusion is meant to be an introduction to prayer. We want our prayer to be worthwhile, heard, answered. The verse is included in Mah Tovu based on its traditional interpretation, found in the Talmud, for what et ratzon, a desirable time, means. For the rabbis in the Talmud it is the time that the community gets together for prayer. That is, if you pray with a community, you are more apt to have your prayer heard. That is et ratzon.
That is a nice interpretation of course. But to be standing there, holding a card with the phrase et ratzon, excerpted from the rest of the verse, I wasn’t thinking about communal prayer. I was thinking, what is et ratzon to me? What is a desirable time?
But first, we can ask, what is ratzon? What is desire?
For the term ratzon is interesting. It means desirable, and it also means will. That which we will, is what we desire. We come across it in our liturgy. Ken yehi ratzon we say sometimes in the liturgy, may it be your will—another way of saying amen. At the end of the Amidah, after we opened up our hearts in prayer, we say Yih’yu l’ratzon imrei fi v’hegyon libi l’fanecha, Adonai tzuri v’go-ali. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heartbe acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer. And we will come across this word tomorrow, when we read the haftarah from the book of Isaiah, the powerful and challenging words, is this the fast I desire? Isaiah in the voice of God challenging the Israelites who observe ritually but neglect to act ethically and morally. A fast desirable to God. Ratzon.
These examples have a common element to them, that they are prayers less about our desire, our ratzon, but about God’s desire, God’s ratzon, God’s will. May it be your will, may it be your desire God—this thing that I have just asked for. May my prayers be desirable to you, may it be what you want to hear, may they be accepted, may they be good, may they be understood.
But we are also taught that we have a will, a desire. And to understand that, we need to turn our attention not to this holiday, but another.
Today is called Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In the Torah, the day is referred to in the plural—Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonements. This quirk of biblical Hebrew leads to an interesting commentary, a pun on the Hebrew, because you can read Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonements (from the root kaper, atone) as Yom K-Purim—a day like Purim (the prefix k- means “like” or “as”)
But, it seems, there can not be two holidays so far off in their intention and practice. Purim is a day of pure celebration. We recall the story of the biblical book of Esther, which tells of an averted plot to destroy the Jews. We celebrate by eating and drinking, sometimes to excess, and dressing up in costume. Frivoloity, satire and fun are the themes of the day, and so it is not uncommon to dedicate the observance of Purim to jokes, fun and games.
Yom Kippur meanwhile, is about seriousness. The tunes are more often than not somber. The themes of sin and atonement are heavy. It is a long day, full of multiple services and times for reflection.
But on further reflection, there are elements of the two days that are very similar.
On both days we dress up. Purim it is outlandish costume, we pretend to be something we are not in order to demonstrate the topsy turvyness of the story. And dressing up is fun. On Yom Kippur we also dress up. It is customary to wear white, and not wear leather or other luxuries. Even not eating and drinking is a form of dressing up, for we are pretending on this day, or rehearsing, for death. Again, the topsy turvy ness of life.
Both Purim and Yom Kippur are days of risk. The Esther story with the plotting of destruction, and the near aversion of that destruction, reminds us of the risk we take just by living our lives as Jews. Yom Kippur, with its reminders of life and death in the balance, reminds us of the risk we take just by living our lives as humans.
But the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur may come from that important question, of what is our purpose?
The details of the Purim story are perhaps known to us. It is about the Jewish community of Persia, under King Ahasuerus. The king dismisses the Queen, Vashti, then holds a beauty pageant of sorts to select a new queen. Esther, a Jew, enters and wins, becoming the new queen.
For a variety of reasons, the king’s advisor, Haman, hates the Jews who live in the kingdom and convinces the king to order a decree for their destruction. The date of the destruction is held by lottery (thus pur, or lot) and as the day draws near, Mordechai, Esthers’ cousin and guardian, implores her to use her standing as queen to plea on behalf of the Jews to the King.
Esther, however, is hesitant. She is scared and rightfully so—the law of the castle is that no one may appear before the King unless he or she is summoned. If one does so, and the king does not look favorably upon it by pointing the golden scepter at you, then the punishment is death.
Mordechai’s response to Esther is perhaps one of the most profound verses of Torah. He says to her, “for if you altogether hold your peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish;” and then, this powerful phrase, “and who knows, perhaps you have come to the kingdom for usch a time as this?”
Who knows, perhaps you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this. Perhaps this is the sole reason you are here.
And who knows, perhaps you, my friends, have come to your kingdom for such a time as this.
The Book of Esther is a unique book of the Bible, for it is the only book that does not contain God as an actor. It is less about what God does, but about what we do. It is a unique book because it asks us to focus on not what we may be called upon to do by another power, but what we care called upon to do by our humanity.
And so as we gather on Yom Kippur, Yom Kippurim, a day like Purim, we must ask ourselves that same question. The most important question we can ask ourselves. It is less about figuring out what God’s will is. Rather it is figuring out what our will is. What are we here to do? What are we here to contribute? What is our ratzon, our desire, our will. What do we have to contribute? That is the question we must wrestle with on Yom Kippur. Because we all have something to contribute.
A Hasidic master, the Netivot Shalom, offers the following teaching, in the name of the Ari, one of the great kabbalists of Jewish tradition.
from the moment we are created each one of us has a unique role and purpose in repairing the world, a unique mission given to us from Heaven. No one can fulfill the mission of the other, to repair that which is required of another. Thus, even the least person has a unique mission that no one else is able to complete. Happy are they who, while in this world, discern their earthly mission and fulfill it properly.
So that is your question this Yom Kippur. What is your unique mission? What are you here for? As Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” We each have a reason for being. And it is part of our role to find out what that is.
For if we do not hold out the possibility and the reality that we have a mission in our life, that we have a purpose, a ratzon, then we deny an aspect of our humanity. Again, the Netivot Shalom:
The principle that emerges from this teaching was expressed by our Master of Kobrin: the worst thing is when a Jew feels that “by him all is right, just how it is”. The problem is when we become so accustomed to the course of our lives that we make peace with how things are. At least regarding sins we feel some regret and movement toward teshuvah. But, when we make peace with our situation we can never turn from it; we get used to our situation and have no aspiration to change, to raise ourselves out of the routine of our lives.
If we make peace with our situation we do not grow. If we say that is just how it is it can never change. Part of our role is to be dissatisfied with the way things are, and find out the way that we can make it different. This is our ratzon, our desire, our will. It is our answer to Mordecai’s question. Who knows, perhaps you are here for this very purpose.
And this response to this question, is one of creativity. In other words, we ask ourselves, what is our creative response to life?
I’ve shared some wisdom from Brene Brown in the past, from this bimah, last year in fact, on vulnerability. On how vulnerability is, while uncomfortable, a key to growth. She has continued with her work, and has a new book out, and recently I heard another interview with her, in which she was speaking of creativity.
In the interview, she dismissed the idea that there are some people who are creative and other people who are not. Rather, she said, there are those who act on their creativity and those who do not. And to not act on one’s creative impulse is harmful. “The only unique contribution we will make in this world,” she said, “will be born of creativity.”
We sometimes don’t act on our creative impulse because of shame, another one of Brown’s research topics. That we feel shame because we do not feel that we are creative, it makes us vulnerable. But this is how we add to the world.
“You are a born maker,” Brown says, “and we need what you can bring to us, because you are the only one who can bring it.”
We as unique individuals are the only one who can offer what we can offer, because it is uniquely ours. Life depends on you offering it. We all have something to bring, a creative impulse in response to life. So what do you have to bring?
There is a story of a king who had a prized possession, a diamond. He kept it protected in a special case, only taking it out on special occasions. On one occasion, he took it out only to discover a small nick, a scratch in the side of the diamond. He was completely distraught, and didn’t know what to do.
He went to everyone in his court, and asked if there was anyone who could restore the diamond. Many examined it, and tried, but could not find a way to make the diamond whole again.
He then went out into the kingdom, to every town and hamlet, asking if anyone would be able to restore the diamond. Everywhere he went, people either didn’t want to try to fix it, because they thought they might ruin it more, or simply didn’t know what to do.
Finally he came to a town on the far outskirts of the kingdom. Again he made his request. No one knew what to do. Until he came to a house, on the outskirts of the town. A small simple home, and home to a craftsman. He examined the diamond, then took it into the back of his shop.
He was gone for quite sometime, finally emerging from the back. “Well,” said the king, “did you fix it?” The artist handed the king the diamond. And there, etched on the side, where the scratch was, was a beautiful engraving of a rose. A rose, that incorporated the scratch in its stem.
What is your purpose? What can you bring to this world? What is your creative contribution to this life. Can you, like the craftsman, see an opportunity, respond with creativity, and do what mission in life is to do? Maybe he was brought to the kingdom for a time such as this.
And when we ask this question of ourselves, when we try to discern our mission, when we suggest, like Mordechai to Esther, that maybe this is why we are here, we recognize that others have that same charge. And while we seek out our gifts, we can also recognize those gifts in others.
In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, we read: “He [Ben Azzai] would also say: Do not scorn any person, and do not discount any thing. For there is no one who has not their hour, and no thing that has not its place.” (4:3)
Everyone has something to give. Everyone has their hour. We seek to recognize this in ourselves. And we seek to recognize this in others. And when we all recognize that we have something to give, and we act on it, and offer it, then we are all enriched, we are all uplifted. What is your ratzon?
Which brings me back to my first question, what is et ratzon? What is the desirable time? There is no one who has not their hour. When it et ratzon? It is now. The time is now.
Now is the time to begin to change
Now is the time to offer your unique contribution.
If we understand ratzon to be that which we are called upon to do, then every time is the right time. Every time is the desirable time. For as we learn from Esther, it is not always finding our ratzon and going out to create it, although that is certainly one part, it is finding ourselves in a particular circumstance and rising to the occasion. It is the ability to see the life that we have and the circumstances we are given and transcend them, to remake them. It is responding creatively to life.
Et Ratzon—the time is now.
As Rabbi Hillel put it, also in Pirke Avot, “if not now, when?”
As the contemporary singer songwriter Carrie Newcomer put it:
If not now, tell me when
If not now, tell me when,
We may never see this moment
Or place in time again
If not now, if not now, tell me when.
This Yom Kippur, we commit to find our mission, find our purpose. Because each one of us has one. And that is, how are you going to creatively contribute to this life. We need it. We need your contribution. And we need it now.