[REMINDER, MY HIGH HOLY DAY SERMONS ARE DIVIDED INTO 5 SECTIONS AND SEGUE INTO DIFFERENT PORTIONS OF THE SERVICE]
I have an idea for a new smartphone app. You know those quizzes where you answer a bunch of questions, and then it tells you which character from Friends you are most likely to be friends with, or which Avenger are you? By the way, I always get Ross and, for some reason the Hulk. My idea is this: Let’s turn all the sins listed in our Machzor into a checklist. Then, when people check off the ones they have done, they get some sort of analysis. The question is, what is the apt comparison? After re-reading the confession in the Machzor, I think it would have to match you to a Game of Thrones Character. I actually don’t know much about the show, but I do know they did some bad things. And our confession includes some pretty grim stuff. This points to a problem in our liturgy. There is a disconnect between the writing on the page and what brings us to the Temple tonight.
Over the years, I have heard a common refrain: “I didn’t do those things.” They read a page that says, “We have trespassed, betrayed, stolen, slandered, caused wickedness, spread lies, and generally been morally corrupt.” It sounds like Game of Thrones because it is exaggerated to the extreme. It is the worst of the worst. As a result, for the reader of this prayer, the Day of Atonement can lose meaning. It can even be harmful.
An old friend wrote a Facebook post recently that made me think about the holidays in a way I never had before. They wrote, for people who already have anxiety and depression, they do not need another day where they have to tell themselves they are broken and flawed. And worse, since these conditions are often connected to eating disorders, a day of fasting tops off a very difficult day. These are not the words of a person who is distanced from the meaning of Judaism. To the contrary, they understand it completely, and the exaggerations in our confessions fill them with dread. I would bet that this person is not the only one who feels this way. Their concern must be taken seriously and responded to with compassion. We have to establish trust that Yom Kippur is founded on the principle, “Do No Harm.” For this reason, the tradition makes adjustments if an observance will cause damage. Fasting, for example, is forbidden for those whose health would be threatened by it. Even if you do not fast, there are other meaningful ways to observe the day. And if the words spoken in the sanctuary are threatening, we can understand them differently. I believe we generally misinterpret what is in our prayer books. If we change our perspective on the prayers, we can gain a healthier outlook, bringing us closer to their true intent.
And I will tell you about that in a bit….
First, let us change our perspective on this room as we rise from our seats. Please turn to page 22 for the call to worship.
I have another idea for an app. You click “Start” and then four words appear on a grid. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing, fault. You rank them from 1-4. Then 4 more words appear. Slander, gossip, cheat, lie. You rank them, and so on, and so on. Eventually, an algorithm produces your own personalized confession, a perfect expression of your true contrition.
Never mind. It would never work. It is actually better to understand the words we have before us. They may not be personal or perfect, but they work if we allow ourselves to understand them.
Yom Kippur prayers are written in grand language. They are not a litany of facts. The words are intended to inspire, to make us think and feel. We would do well not to take everything so literally. Our prayer books are poetry. The words can move us to deeper understanding that transcends the words. If we were to make the mistake of reading the Machzor as a technical manual, we might believe that it does not speak to us. We would conclude that we are perfect, but that’s not likely.
During my first round of graduate school in France, I had the surreal experience of being tested for English as a second language. I was in the same program as the French students, and I had to take the same final exams, including English. I was told, going in, that the test was conversational. The grading scale was out of 20. Since the criteria were subjective, I should expect no more than a 19. They held a philosophical belief, there was no such thing as a perfect conversation. While I accept the reasoning, and while it is possible that I made a few mistakes, it has always bothered me that I could not get a perfect score on something I am so good at…. Or at which I am so good. Maybe that is why I got a 19.
Despite what some people claim, there is no such thing as perfection. There are no perfect conversations. There are no perfect people, and no algorithm can generate a perfect confession. Praying the words in our Machzor does not mean we are terrible people. It does however remind us, “No one is righteous enough to say, I have not sinned.”
Our tradition tells us that the mistakes make us better people. I will tell you how in a bit.
At this time our focus turns to the heart of our service and prepare ourselves to come a little bit closer to perfection through the lessons we learn in our worship. The chatzi Kaddish calls us to attention on page 45.
I have another app idea. It is based on the old saying, “to err is human. To forgive is—- divine.” My app actually focuses on the step before forgiveness. We have to repent before we can receive forgiveness. On Yom Kippur, it is repentance that is divine. So, here is my idea for a game. An avatar is tied to strings that reach heaven. Those strings start to break. By tapping the broken strings, we put them back together. The catch is, we have to power up in order to fix the strings. We do that by texting apologies.
Never mind. We do not need the app. We already have this Hasidic teaching. It is said that when each person is born, a rope ties us directly to God in the heavens. Each time we sin, we cause that that rope to be cut. We become distanced from God. Then when we make atonement, the broken ends of the rope are rejoined by a knot. We are then reconnected to the Heavens. The remarkable thing is, when you tie a knot in string, it becomes shorter. Therefore, each sin and the ensuing knot brings us closer to God bit by bit. This is the essence of Teshuvah, to return. To live with that string is to know that we will make mistakes, but with each one comes the opportunity to learn and to mend and brings us closer to being the best versions of ourselves.
The list of sins we read during Yom Kippur provide us with a starting point. It opens the door for us to consider all those times when we have cut the strings between us and God, and also between us and the world around us. The cuts we make may not actually be on the list, but each one represents a category, and causes us to reflect. Through our reflection we envision the ropes we need to mend. The tying of those knots brings will bring us closer to each other and ultimately to God. In this way repentance is not about shame, but rather a means for improving our lives.
But of course, repentance does not end there. And I will tell you why in a moment.
At this time, we pray that the knots we tie will be strong enough to last as pray for our prayers to be accepted. Please turn to page 72 as we sing Retzei.
If I were to create an atonement app, it would have to include an option like “atonement with friends.” It would be a game that could be played with and against acquaintances and strangers around the world. It though of this because of a text we read just this past Shabbat in Torah study. It was a commentary on Netzavim, the same portion we read this morning. In two statements about repentance, the first says we turn toward God, and the second says we turn to God. The different prepositions are stages of atonement. It begins with the personal turning. That turning joins us in a global turning. That global turning leads to justice.
In her book, Recharging Judaism, Rabbi Judith Schindler explains justice is the ultimate manifestation of God. She questions, “How do we [collectively] have faith… when words express our mood of desolation.” She quotes Isaiah, “Zion shall be redeemed by justice and those who repent by righteousness.” Repentance leads to justice which leads to redemption for all. With true atonement, greater things are possible than we ever imagined. It starts with individuals, and the effects spread far and wide.
While mending our ties is important, it is only a beginning. There is more than must be done, and I will tell you about that in a moment.
Right now, we turn our thoughts inwards as consider the confessions of our hearts.
Here is my last app suggestion for the evening. Our atonement merges with our calendar, and every day it generates reminders of all those things we do not want to do again. It will help us follow the teaching of Maimonides that true atonement is when we have the opportunity to make the same mistake but don’t.
There is a corollary to the story about the broken string and the knots. It says when it comes to atonement, one knot is good but no strong enough to last. The better fixes happen when we tie a second knot. That second knot is our future promise not to make the same mistake again. To this end, we have Kol Nidre, the prayer which has been the focus of our worship this evening.
Kol Nidre stands apart because it points to the future. It speaks to things we will do between this Yom Kippur and the next.
Thinking about the future has helped Yael Shahar to cope with her PTSD. Shahar is a security officer in the Israeli army. She has written about a breakthrough she had during her treatment. Her discovery was connected to the forward-thinking nature of repentance. Some experiences were too painful to speak of. She could not go near certain people and places. However, she knew it was not realistic to avoid those things forever. One day before a treatment session, she was riding a horse who was still young and inexperienced. While in a dead run, she had fallen, spraining her knee rather severely. She explained to her counselor why she got back on the horse.
“Such an incident can be frightening for a young horse. You have to get back on and re-create the situation, but this time in a more controlled fashion, so that she’ll learn that it doesn’t have to end badly. You redo it in a safer way, in order to learn not to be afraid.”
This was her “aha!” moment. She needed to believe about herself what she believed about her horse. The best way to learn that things do not have to end badly is to be in a similar experience, but in a safe and controlled way.
PTSD is a very serious condition, and in no way am I implying there is a simple cure. Still, what helped Yael Shahar, her realization about her horse, can be instructive in how we understand and approach repentance. We do not have to repeat mistakes. Our prayers during Kol Nidre provide us a safe time and space to think forward to the times when we could fall into old patterns. They force us to consider a better way to act in the moment, to have a plan. We plan how to get back on the proverbial horse and how to ride it from this Yom Kippur to the next, this year, we hope, without falling off.
This night, Kol Nidre, we feel the urgency to act now. We think about how not to repeat our mistakes in the coming days, and with each act of repentance, we repair ourselves, the people we love, our communities. And our hope is that our repentance will serve as a model for bringing peace to the world.
And everything we have said and done up to now has been a warmup, for the act of confession truly begins now. We pray that we can be in the moment, so we may reflect on the past, and pave the way for the best possible future.
Please turn to page 82 for Viduy.