Sign In Forgot Password

Sermon: Kol Nidrei, 9/28/20

10/06/2020 02:57:47 PM


Rabbi Charlie

Gut Yuntiv!

If I were to describe to you a time of returning to God by taking an honest inventory of personal and national sin, taking responsibility for our actions with humility, and asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness, in addition to fasting, prayer, and calls for repentance – you would think you would know what I was talking about. Umm, yeah… that special moment took place yesterday. There was a Christian group – no joke – had a big day called “The Return” this past weekend. It was a big, global moment for an event that began on the “Biblical Feast of Trumpets” and it’s ending with the Day of Atonement.

This really happened… When I first heard about it, I was shocked. I just couldn’t believe it! I’ve had Christians with no connection to Judaism ask about using kippot and tallit and mezuzot. Lots of Christians with no connection to Judaism celebrate Passover. But the Yamim Noraim – our Days of Awe?! Yom Kippur, Really?!

And I thought about it. And while I find the use of Yom Kippur in a Christian context confusing … it’s true that there are a lot of problems in the world and a little more atonement can’t be a bad thing – right? I’m alright with repentance and atonement - I guess my issue was with connecting it to Yom Kippur.

In antiquity, when there was a drought or a plague, our prophets or our rabbis would call for a day of fasting and prayer. That could happen at any time when we needed God to pay attention to our suffering so the world could change – rain would come, the plague would subside. That seems to be the reason why “The Return” took place. Look – I’m not saying that’s not a good idea. Our world is pretty messed up right now and a lot of it is our fault – humanity that is. Atonement is a good thing! It just didn’t need to happen around Yom Kippur. 

Yom Kippur is something different. Yes – it’s a national day of atoning for our collective sins and mistakes and bad choices and all the times we missed the mark. But why do we have Yom Kippur? Why is our Day of Atonement the holiest day of the year? What was the point of the two goats and the sin offering and everything? It was never about rain or fixing the world. The ritual of Yom Kippur was done so we wouldn’t die.

It’s a bit intense and a bit morbid and it’s why Leviticus, chapter sixteen, which tells us about the Yom Kippur ritual, begins with (16:1):

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אַחֲרֵ֣י מ֔וֹת שְׁנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן

“Adonai spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons…”

Aaron’s sons died because they didn’t do a Temple ritual properly. And then the Torah follows that up with instructions making sure Aaron does everything exactly right: V’lo Yamut – Lest he die – and that’s mentioned twice. And the point of the ritual? Lifnei Adonai Tit-haru – so we can be ritually “clean” or “pure” before God. Because what happens if we’re not “clean”? We could die.

This is why I’m wearing my kittel – my burial shroud – that Adena bought for me for our wedding. I know, very romantic. It actually was a romantic gesture because it took forever to find just the right one. It was my fault – true story. In addition to the kittel, we don’t just casually toss out the words, “who shall live and who shall die?” Even the traditional greeting of the day, G’mar Chatima Tova, which is about being sealed for a good year, is almost like saying – I want you to be sealed for good because I don’t want you to die.

On the one hand, we have to ask who would say something like that? On the other, why don’t we say it more often and why don’t we say it with more sincerity, more emotion, more passion? I don’t want you to die. It’s implicit in a lot of what we say:

Don’t go out without a coat on… because I don’t want you to die.

Safe travels… because I don’t want you to die.

Please take your medicine… because I don’t want you to die.

Can I take you to see a therapist… because I don’t want you to die.

Bearing witness to hunger, illness, violence – we cry out - someone needs to help… or God – please help… or We need to help… because I don’t want people who are struggling, people who are suffering to die – even if I don’t know them.

We don’t actually say it out loud – and I’m not suggesting starting a new trend. Hashtag dontdie! Um… No. We don’t even think it. We don’t want the possibility of death so close to our thoughts. But on Yom Kippur, we’re supposed to draw near.

Today we say: Repent! Turn to God - so you can live the best life you can live. Acknowledge your mistakes and do better… because your life matters and how you live your life matters. You don’t want to die and God doesn’t want you to die. And the reality is that death is always possible – it will happen eventually. Each and every year we are asked to come face to face with that uncomfortable truth. We can never know when our time will come – there are no guarantees.

There were no guarantees throughout our history of oppression, expulsion, and massacres. There were no guarantees during times of poverty, illness, or war. And for us, during this time of pandemic and loss and frustration at the world and frustration at God and frustration at each other, we know that there are no guarantees. And yet no matter what we have dealt with or what we are going through, we are commanded to “choose life.” This sacred day forces us to acknowledge that we only have so much time. And then it forces us to ask: how are we going to spend that precious resource? 

The goal is not to indulge every whim. It’s not to pursue our own happiness at the expense of all else. We are commanded to live a holy life – a life of meaning and purpose – caring for those without power, caring for each other, and caring for ourselves – self-care is a part of it! Holding ourselves to a high ethical standard – in business and with all people. Recognize the blessings and offer gratitude each day – to offset the challenges that we have to overcome every day. We will make mistakes – there’s a reason why Yom Kippur comes each year. With the time we have, we only have to live the best life that we can. 

The story is told of Zusya, the great Chassidic master, who lay crying on his deathbed. His students asked him, "Rebbe, why are you so sad? After all the mitzvahs and good deeds you have done, you will surely get a great reward in heaven!"

"I'm afraid!" said Zusya. "Because when I get to heaven, I know God's not going to ask me 'Why weren't you more like Moses?'  But I'm afraid that God will ask 'Zusya, why weren't you more like Zusya?'”

Our time is our own. It is not unlimited. It’s up to us to make the most of it!

And I say with great intention, G’mar Chatima Tova – May we all be sealed for a good year!



Thu, January 21 2021 8 Sh'vat 5781