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Yom Kippur Sermon by Rabbi Burt Jacobson: “The Quest for Inner Freedom”

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day of at-one-ment, is drawing toward its close. The inner and outer work of the Ten Days of Teshuvah is almost complete. And so at this time, as the sun is descending, I want to pose a question to each of you: Where will you go from here? . . . For Jewish tradition is quite clear that teshuvah, the process of turning away from our baser instincts and toward the sacred potential within us, needs to be and ongoing endeavor. Every day offers us the possibility of discovering greater inner freedom. Every moment is an opportunity to connect with the great mystery at the heart of our existence.

Babies come into this world with a capacity for wonder, joy and love. Life is fresh, full of marvels, but as we grow up we often tend to lose this gift. Being an adult means confronting complexity, difficulty and constant demands. Such ongoing responsibility can exact a severe toll on our souls. The pressure of so-called “normal living” is constant, relentless. We may close down our awareness and forget the awesome and marvelous character of life. And we may lose sight of the vast spiritual potential that lies within us as well.

One of our greatest spiritual challenges, then, is finding an inner freedom that might allow us to experience the world as a wondrous miracle. My teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, identified the truly free individual as one who  “is not carried away by the streams of necessity, who is not enchained by processes, who is not enslaved to circumstance.” And Heschel defined inner freedom as “spiritual ecstasy, the state of being beyond all interests and selfishness. Inner freedom is a miracle of the soul.” Spiritual masters around the world have called this process awakening or enlightenment or liberation.

I first experienced such inner freedom during a mystical experience I underwent in 1966. During my journey I ascended to a state of consciousness in which all my normal cares and anxieties simply lifted from my awareness. In turn an incredibly wondrous living energy began to pulsate through my body and awareness. My need for control, in fact, all of my psychological defenses slipped away.  My concerns, my anxieties, my “I”—none of these mattered. As my sense of boundaries dissolved, I became a vast transparent center of awareness, totally open, accepting, loving and ecstatic. Being was an entirely blessed and holy state—indeed, the only state.

The world was incredibly awesome, beautiful, bountiful, good. There was a transparency and perfection to it all. Each thing was in its right place, as it was meant to be, and nothing was lacking. The realization came to awareness that what people called “evil” was really only a slim thread winding through this wholeness that was in its essence perfection. As the ascent continued, there were no things at all, nothing to speak of—only the intense rapture of mysterious Is-ness. Consciousness completely merged with cosmos.

This profound journey was occasioned by the use of a psychedelic, and eventually what I experienced would change the very course of my life. But at the time it did not actually alter the way I was living. Yet, after that experience I wanted to change, to become freer, and so the question arose for me, “How can I change my life so that I might live in accord with the vision I had experienced?” This set me on the path to spiritual self-transformation.

Israel Ba’al Shem Tov—also known as the Besht—was a spiritual master who lived in Poland during the 18th century, and his life and vision inspired his students to found Hasidism. The Ba’al Shem himself underwent many experiences of expanded awareness, and he taught his disciples how to spiritually transform their lives. The Besht regularly experienced inner freedom through the exaltation he experienced during his mystical worship.

When I discovered the Ba’al Shem Tov in 1973, I knew I had found my spiritual teacher, someone who might help me find inner freedom, as well as teach me how to manifest compassion and love.

Years later, I discovered that the Besht had incorporated his vision of inner freedom into his interpretation of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. To the master, the ancient story of liberation became a paradigm for individual liberation in the here and now.

We usually think that the bondage in Egypt had to do with the physical toil that the Israelites were subjected to. But their slavery had spiritual ramifications as well. Here’s what the Besht taught:

What is the true meaning of the bondage in Egypt?

Just this: That the consciousness

of the Jewish people was in exile.

The children of Israel had lost the truth

that all existence flows from the light of Ain Sof,

the Infinite.

How do the Besht’s words speak to our condition? When we give ourselves totally to the demands of the outer world, we can lose our connection with our souls. It’s a kind of exile, a kind of slavery. It can lead to a loss of our sense of ultimate meaning, because to cultivate a deep connection to our souls we must have inner freedom. We must be able to develop our sense of wonder, of awe, of radical amazement. We need to have the time and energy to deepen our link to the divinity that is pulsing through creation. We need to realize that our lives are gifts of the universe’s grace.

How do we find such inner freedom? We need someone wiser than us to guide us toward spiritual transformation. We need teachers. In the Besht’s reading of the Exodus story, Moses becomes the prototype of the enlightened spiritual master who dispels the fog of forgetfulness represented by Pharaoh. The Ba’al Shem put it this way:

Then Moses arrived in Egypt, and by the miracles he performed

it became known that indeed there is a Creator who

interacts with the world,

and that there is a divine plan, an underlying meaning to it all,

both on the larger historical plane, and in each

of the minute particulars of our lives.

And this meaning is present in each and every step that one takes,

and through every word that one utters.

Moses’ function as a spiritual teacher was to show each member of his people how to go within and liberate their consciousness from the domination of the Pharaoh inside themselves. It was in this way that Moses countered their lack of faith.

What did Moses do to help individuals discover freedom and enlightenment? He told the people that they didn’t have to be slaves, that they could be free. As a result of Moses’ prodding, the people woke up and saw just how constricted they had allowed their lives to become. The Ba’al Shem put it this way:

Then the Shekhinah was revealed to the people,

and they became aware

that the divine is hiding in all reality.

Moses also brought the people the Torah, which contains the spiritual and moral practices necessary for a holy life.

We need teachers to help us on our journey toward inner freedom. The great Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, wrote: “Whoever travels without a guide needs two hundred years for a two-day journey.” But the outer teacher is only effective because each of us has an innate capacity for awakening to inner freedom. The Besht taught:

Every person is a microcosm embodying

Moses and Aaron as well as Egypt.

Did you get that? You have within you the potential of Moses and Aaron. But in my own experience, one can develop that potential best through the guidance of a teacher.

There are certain rare spiritual exemplars—like the Buddha or Jesus or Lao Tze or Rumi or the Ba’al Shem Tov—whose personalities shine through the stories of their lives and whose teachings are so potent that they can inspire, guide and shape seekers in later generations, even though they themselves no longer live on the physical plane. For over forty years the Ba’al Shem has been such a master to me, and his path has helped me discover and bring to the surface the Moses-spark within myself. But I must add that the Ba’al Shem alone was not enough. Thank God, I have had living teachers and spiritual directors who enabled me to confront the dark places in my life and helped me transform them.

But I must add that the Ba’al Shem alone was not enough. Thank God, I have had living teachers and spiritual directors who enabled me to confront the dark places in my life and helped me transform them. I could not have developed as a human being without the guidance of Arthur Green, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and many others.

I’d like to speak more personally for just a few minutes. Love was scarce in my family of origin, and the greatest challenge of my life has been learning how to love—to love people, to love life, to love God. When I first encountered the Ba’al Shem Tov, I sensed that he would be a spiritual teacher who could guide me in my quest. I read stories about the Besht’s life. I studied his teachings. I created spiritual practices for myself that were inspired by the Besht’s own teachings and practices. I engaged in work with my spiritual director using teachings of the Besht. And I taught classes about the Besht.

All of this has had a positive effect on my own personal development. I have become increasingly aware of the loving presence of the divine flowing through all things. The Ba’al Shem’s vision helped me work on negative traits that had stunted me from childhood. My capacity to care for people and the world has grown. I have internalized many of my teacher’s insights regarding compassion, gratitude, joy, ecstasy, surrender, equanimity and liberation. There are times when I lose my footing and slip up, sometimes badly, and I know that I must continue to work to deepen the spiritual and moral qualities that I have learned from the Besht.

So, you may ask, have I achieved what I was searching for? Am I spiritually free? I often experience inner freedom when I am meditating or davening. It is then that I can let go into the whole of existence and the mystery at its depths. Through such spiritual practice I can experience exaltation, ecstasy, love, oneness, surrender—all manifestations of the divine presence.

And when I meet adversity in my daily life—my own or someone else’s—I’m often able to mitigate its effect on me by recognizing that this anguish is truly a part of the entire fabric of existence, and that God is present in suffering just as God is present in all experience. As the Ba’al Shem taught, “When you recognize that God is with you, then the sorrow dissipates.” Just knowing this decreases the amount of suffering I need to endure.

I believe that all of my inner struggles have made me a deeper, more loving human being. Most of the time I am no longer subject to the power of the negative patterns that dominated my life as a young man. But I haven’t reached any kind of perfection. I have remained fully human, still contending with self-centeredness, still learning how to love and to serve.

I have found that my imperfections provide an incentive to live in greater humility. The gift of this brokenness is compassion for all those who are broken. And I have come to see that despite the inevitable difficulties and suffering that are part of living, my existence is a gift of the Infinite.

My prayer for each of you on this holy day is that in this coming year you make a commitment to a quest for inner freedom. If you don’t have a spiritual teacher or guide, may you find the person or persons who can help you in this endeavor. May the teachings of Judaism and Hasidism enable you to open your hearts in greater compassion and love—to friends, family, community, and to the strangers in our midst.

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