Yom Kippur, 5774, Mina Gobler

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Yom Kippur, 5774

Sep 14, 2013 / 10 Tishrei 5774

Mina Gobler

Thank you for the honor of sharing my thoughts with you on this, the most solemn, holy day of the year. By now our stomachs have begun to rumble and we turn inward from material to spiritual concerns. We turn from praying as a community to focusing on our own personal pleas for forgiveness.

My drash is about change, and the pressure for us to change is a part of the pattern, the choreography and script for the High Holy Days. All of our praying and fasting have led up to this: what changes are we committing to make beginning with tomorrow, the day after the gates have closed?

I accept as a given that we are not creatures of fate, that it is within our power to change the course and direction of our lives. Bahya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda, a Spanish Jewish philopher of the 11th Century wrote in Duties of the Heart: “Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his.”

Choosing to take the path of good is Teshuvah, which is also translated simply as “repentance” or “return.” However, returning is the final step of repentance. We first need to recognize and acknowledge our mistakes. We then seek forgiveness and make a commitment to return, to repair our relationship with G-d; repair our relationship with others and return to our true selves. At the end, the question is the same: Will we or won’t we change?

There is a progression that begins with the start of Elul, moves on to Selichot, then to Rosh Hashanah and to Yom Kippur. These are not separate and discreet observances. They are parts of a whole. They are movements of a symphony that ends with a dramatic crescendo.

Today is the day of the dramatic crescendo, Yom Kippur, when the gates are starting to swing closed and we can no longer dither about what we need to do going forward, what changes we are committing to make.

From the start of the month of Elul, the shofar sounds and tells us: Wake up; get ready. Beginning with Elul and Selichot, we take our first steps leading to this awesome day.

“Rabbi Reuven Hammer says: “Elul is ... a time to begin the process of asking forgiveness for wrongs done to other people. According to Jewish tradition, G-d cannot forgive us for sins committed against another...until we have first obtained forgiveness from the person we have wronged.” He adds, “This is not as easy a task as you might think, if you have never done it. This process of seeking forgiveness continues through the Days of Awe,” the Yamim Noraim.

Asking forgiveness from those we have wronged before we can beg forgiveness from G-d, is a concept that truly surprises people who have never heard of it. Inherent in asking for forgiveness is the promise to change our behavior so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.

A fundamental part of the Selichot service is the repeated recitation of the Shalosh Essray, the Thirteen Attributes of G-d’s mercy that were revealed to Moses after the sin of the golden calf.

We recite: Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’hannun, erekh appayim v’rav hesd ve-emet. Notzer hesed la-al-alafim, nosei avon va-fesha v’hatta-ah v’nakkeih.

Adonai, Adonai, G-d, merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.

And we recite these words of reassurance again and again as we go through the High Holyday services.

Think of it this way: A mother and daughter are about to embark on a journey that has elements of risk and uncertainty. The mother reassures her child that she will be there to keep her safe throughout the entire journey; she lets her child know that she is loved and is worthy of trust; that she will guide her safely down fearful paths.

So as we embark on an uncertain spiritual journey, beginning with Selichot, G-d assures us that if we make a sincere effort to repent and return, G-d will be accompany us and will be merciful with us.

Elul and Selichot are about healing our human relationships and beginning our pleadings with G-d. On Rosh Hashanah we acknowledge G-d’s role as creator of the whole world and as Jews we affirm our faith and special relationship with the G-d of our ancestors.

Throughout the Rosh Hashanah service, we pray as a people. Together we recite Avinu Malkenu. We pray, Our Father, “Our King forgive us for what we have done wrong. We ask for G-d’s help in repenting. We ask G-d to show us mercy and to save us. We plead with G-d: Write us into the Book of Life.

So here we are today on Yom Kippur where the two major themes are teshuvah and forgiveness. As a congregation, we confess our sins and beg for G-d’s forgiveness. We plead: “Hear our voice; do not abandon or foresake us. Remember your promises to us and our ancestors. We pray: As a parent looks kindly on a child, may you, G-d, look kindly on us.”

By the time we reach Ne’ilah, there is an enormous urgency to our prayers as we now focus on our own, individual salvation. Rabbi Creditor likens this state of extreme hunger and weakness to a rehearsal of death. He says that we could be ready to die because G-d has responded to our pleadings: Va-yomer Adonai salahti ki’d’varekha.” Adonai said: “I forgive, as you asked.”

G-d has kept his promise to be with us on our journey through the yamim noraim, our journey towards Teshuvah.

How do we integrate all that we have experienced during these days of prayers and fasting? We’ve talked about “sins” committed by ourselves and our people. However, by using a dated liturgy that asks us to see ourselves as “sinners,” it is hard to see the path to Teshuvah. For me, and I suspect for many contemporary Jews, the word “sin” is not really in our daily vocabulary. So, if we don’t think of ourselves as “sinners,” it’s much easier to feel that we’re really not that bad, and we let ourselves off the hook.

Instead, there is an area we can all look to when we want to identify our own shortcomings: We need to think about the words we say and the actions we commit as they relate to all the people our lives touch.

Some weeks ago, during a Shiva minyan I attended, the widow read a letter she received from a family friend in his early 30’s. He wrote about special memories from his early teens that he had about the deceased. What surprised me was that none of these memories appeared to be particularly significant, yet they meant so much to the letter writer that he could recount them many years later.

But there is an important message here for each of us: We can never know how our words or acts will affect others - either for good or for ill. True change comes when this awareness impacts on the way we live our lives.

Now, as our prayers becomes more intense, as the gates are slowly closing, we need to commit ourselves to consider our words before they leave our mouths. Will our words hurt or help? In dealing with our children, can we reinforce what they’re doing right instead of telling them what they’re doing wrong?

Can we do the same in our work environment? By the way, If you’ve never thanked a service provider for his or her excellent service, try it some time.

We need to be conscious concerning our actions. Will they hurt or help? What impact will they have? However, if we stop and think, we will realize the way G-d would want us to act.

How simple it all sounds, but in truth, these are among the hardest changes we can make because they involve making conscious choices daily about how we live our lives. If that sounds hard, imagine how hard it will be to ask forgiveness from someone you have wronged.

As we move towards N’elah and hunger becomes more acute, we ask “What does G-d require of us?” From today’s Haftarah, Isaiah warns us that fasting and starving our bodies is meaningless unless we are prepared to change our ways; to act as G-d wants us to; to take G-s’s words seriously; to change the way we live our lives and treat the less fortunate among us. But if you do change your ways: “Then shall your light shine in darkness and your gloom shall be like noonday. Adonai will guide you always, slaking your thirst in parched places and give strength to your bones. You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail.”

On Yom Kippur, as the gates are closing, I urge us to be G-d’s partners on earth, to choose our words and actions with great care and to return to our best true selves.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.