Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey

Yom Kippur Sermon, September 18, 2010

The following is the sermon given by Rabbi Ellen J. Lewis on Yom Kippur, 2010

I once worked in a congregation much bigger than this one where I could never figure out what the people came for. It wasn't a worshipping congregation. They didn't come much during the year but they did turn out for two shifts of services on the high holy days. Because I didn't see them regularly, I found it hard to know what to talk about in my sermons. So I started a practice of calling 20 random families before the high holy days each year and asking them: What are you looking for when you come to services? One year, I called a woman I knew pretty well. When I asked her what she came for, there was an embarrassed silence before she answered me: "I never come on the high holy days. I don't like crowds. I am allergic to perfume. So I just stay home. I prefer to come at other times during the year when the service is quieter and smaller."

I suppose this could be a good example of don't ask a question if you don't want to hear the answer. But this is the time of year when it's important to ask: what are you coming for and where are you headed. The Mishnah tells us: "If you reflect on three things, you will not come into the grasp of sin: know where you come from, know where you are going, and know before whom you are accountable."

So where do you come from? The Mishnah's answer to that question is true but rather graphic: a fetid drop. That's humbling. And maybe that is the point, or one of the points, of this Mishnah. We are all mortal. We are all physically fragile. Sometimes we forget that you and I and all the human beings in this world all started from the same place. That means that none of us can claim that we are better than anyone else based on our origins. The Midrash tells us that when God was creating the first human being, "God took dust from the four corners of the earth in equal measure. Some of the dust was red, some black, some white and some as yellow as sand. These God mixed with water from all the oceans in the seas, to indicate that all races of [hu]mankind should be included in the first human being and none be counted as superior to the other." This is a lesson we just don't seem to get right. Whether you are Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, Baptist or Catholic, Moslem or Hindu or Buddhist or Rastafarian, Republican or Democrat, atheist or agnostic - we all were formed from the same dust. The rabbis make sure we know that, "The pious among all peoples have a portion in God's love and in the world to come." That fetid drop was not only your physical beginning, it was also your spiritual beginning. Because even though we all started in the same place, that drop also contained your uniqueness and your potential. When we had a study session here last fall, some of you reflected on where you came from religiously. Each story was unique. These are the stories you told:

  • My background included no study at all; I was given a choice and I said no.
  • My parents kept kosher and went to temple, but girls didn't go.
  • My parents were atheists and weren't interested.
  • My family wasn't religious. The boys were bar mitzvah but it wasn't offered to the girls.
  • I was raised Orthodox. I've only been on a bimah 3 times in my life, two of them here.
  • I converted to Judaism.
  • I was forced to go to Hebrew School. Bat Mitzvah was my "get out of jail free card."
  • My family was ethnic.
  • My background isn't Jewish but Torah study has changed my life for the better.
  • My family was observant Reform but I skipped 40 years of Jewish life until I came here
  • My background was orthodox. I was taught to learn and to study.
  • My uncle bribed me not to have a bat mitzvah. When I moved here, I wanted to join the Sisterhood at the time, so I had to join the temple.
What struck me listening to you all was that you wanted something different from where you had come from. Those of you who were present that day who are not Jewish, or were not raised as Jews, have surely chosen a different choice from your religious past. Not one of you who was there who was born Jewish said: I want to do this Jewish thing just the way my family did. Even if you enjoyed what your family did, it isn't something you are choosing to replicate in your own lives. You just know you want something different for yourself, and for those of you with children, for your children. The question is no longer where did you come from. That was a decision that was made for you. The question is now, as the Mishnah asks: but where are you going?

Of course, you are here, so you have made a decision about where to join. But joining isn't always a spiritual decision. It may be logistical. It may be convenient. It may assuage a guilty conscience. It may be comfortable, a place where you be accepted for who you are.

A friend of mind recently told her mother that her 24-year-old son is gay. She had put it off because she was worried about her mother's reaction. Her mother said, "Well, fine, I am glad to know." When my friend asked her why she was glad to know, she said, "Because I love him and now he can be himself when he is around me." And that is why some of you are here. This is a place where you can be loved and accepted for who you are. This is a place where you can be your best self. Your reasons for joining are rarely ideological or theological. I can't remember ever hearing anyone say: I believe in God so I better join this temple. Whether you believe in God or not, or what kind of God you believe in, isn't usually your motivation in coming here. That's as it should be.

Judaism teaches that what you believe is secondary to what you do. And Judaism also teaches that doing leads to believing, not the other way around. That's not just true of liberal Jews, by the way. I read a story this summer that the writer Hillel Halkin told about his father. His father was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical seminary in New York.

"My father...prayed with great kavanah [devotion] yet was adamant about having no religious beliefs whatsoever," he wrote: 'It's what a Jew does,' he would say. He once told me a story about a man standing in the street outside a shtibl, a little synagogue, looking for a tseynter, a tenth Jew to add to the nine waiting inside to say the afternoon prayer. Spotting a likely looking candidate, he asks: 'Excuse me, mister. Are you Jewish?'
'Yes I am,' says the Jew. 'What can I do for you?'
'You can join a minyan for mincha,' the man says.
'I'm afraid that's impossible,' answers the Jew.
'Why?' asks the man.
'Because I'm an atheist,' says the Jew.
The man gives the Jew a withering look. 'And where,' he inquires, 'is it written that an atheist doesn't have to say mincha?'"
In fact, it's written nowhere. As far as Jewish law is concerned, an atheist has to pray like anyone else. It doesn't matter what you believe; even non-believers have to be a part of a Jewish community. What matters is what you do.

Belonging here doesn't automatically solve the issues that are left over from where you came from. It doesn't automatically give you a spiritual direction. That requires a conscious choice. A lot of you express shame that your religious education stopped so early that you can't answer your own children's questions. Your religious growth ended when you were too young to know any better. This congregation can become the place where you continue the growth that either never happened or ended too soon.

One of my favorite stories is the one about the rabbi who sat down next to a stranger on an airplane.

"What do you do?" the stranger asked the rabbi.
"I'm a rabbi," the rabbi replied.
"Oh," said the stranger, I'm not religious but I've always thought that all religion could be summed up in that great phrase, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.'"
"And what do you do?" the rabbi asked the stranger.
"I'm an astrophysicist," the seatmate replied.
The rabbi sat back and thought for a minute, then turned to the seatmate and said, "I'm not a scientist, but I've always thought that all of astrophysics could be summed up in that great phrase, 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star.'"
There is so much depth and wisdom in our tradition. Why is it okay for an adult to retain a child's knowledge of Jewish tradition but not a child's knowledge of science? This is the time of year when you decide that way you were isn't the way you always have to be.

Because you do decide. That drop that formed you also contained the freedom to reflect and to choose. On Rosh Hashanah, I asked you to take a moment every day from then until now to reflect on your gratitude and your regrets. I don't know how many of you put your gratitude and your sins on sticky notes, but I decided to take my own advice seriously.

It is amazing, this process of self-reflection. After you list the first couple of obvious choices, you then have to go deeper and deeper to uncover what you regret and what you appreciate. The whole point of the exercise is to become aware so that you can make conscious choices about how to live.

And lest you feel alone or incompetent in figuring out where you are going, let me remind you that you have company. Self-reflection isn't just for individuals on Yom Kippur but for the entire congregation. The words of confession in the machzor are phrased in the plural. You are not alone in your soul-searching and in your fasting. You are here together in your Jewish community.

Many of you tell me it simply feels good to be here. I am happy to hear that, of course, but although that is a necessary reason, it isn't sufficient. You could feel good at the gym or good at a concert. So I know you have other reasons for being here although you may not spend much time thinking about them.

You are here because you believe there are values that transcend your self. We call those values mitzvot, a word I would translate as "holy action." A religious value is meaningless if it is not enacted, if it isn't turned into a holy action. Our school has chosen the idea of mitzvot as a theme for the school year. We began studying the mitzvah of tzedakah and will continue with the rest of the mitzvot. Maimonides says that the reason God gave us 613 mitzvot is that it gives us better odds over the course of a lifetime to at least perform one mitzvah to perfection.

This year, I'd like to expand the school's efforts to the entire congregation and make it a year of conscious mitzvot for us all. Perhaps not all 613 at once. Try choosing one mitzvah you will practice here and one you will practice at home. This might be a ritual practice like saying the Shema every day, saying kaddish, affixing a mezuzah, giving tzedakah, studying Torah, observing Shabbat, lighting Shabbat candles, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick - there are many from which to choose. But it might be a practice you don't even think of as a mitzvah.

I read an article about the CEO of Zappos.com. The company has developed a set of what they call "core values." When they interview a prospective employee, they test for these core values. The candidate is picked up at the airport by the Zappos shuttle and dropped at the office. Later on, the recruiting manager speaks to the shuttle driver and asks how the candidate treated the shuttle driver.

How well you treat the shuttle driver is a core value for Zappos.com. How well you treat other human beings is a mitzvah for us as well.

You can choose a mitzvah and then make it concrete in your daily life - you can be nice to the checkout person in the ShopRite, you can call your parents more often, you can choose not to gossip, you can love your neighbor as yourself, you can apologize more often, you can increase your tzedakah commitments outside and inside this congregation, you can find an Israeli charity that will be the major recipient of your tzedakah this year, you can go to Israel (did you know that is an ancient mitzvah?), you can join the Torah study group or the Hebrew class, you can pick vegetables with the Sisterhood, you can donate your talents to the PTO, you can make a new friend. You can quote a teaching and mention the teacher by name; our tradition says that "when scholars are quoted after their deaths, their lips murmur in the grave." I know that eight of you already have made a commitment to celebrate becoming b'nai mitzvah as adults next June. If you are here for a spiritual purpose, to elevate your lives and transcend your self, this is a way to put that goal into action. Otherwise the regrets you record on your sticky notes next year will be the same as this year.

You can answer where you came from and make some commitment to where you are going but how do you answer the Mishnah's ultimate question: know before whom you are accountable. Although the Mishnah says the answer to this is The Holy One Blessed be God, I would expand that answer. I think this is a question about immortality. In the long run, what is it that you want to leave for posterity?

The Mishnah says that, in the world to come - which is the Jewish language for talking about immortality - we will be held accountable for these questions. Did you deal honestly with people in your business? Did you busy yourself with procreation, another way of asking, did you invest in love and in the future?? Did you set aside time for Torah? Did you live with hope in your heart? Did you seek wisdom and did you lead a life that mattered?

Immortality is not about not dying; we all know that is not an option. As Rabbi Schulweis says in a paraphrase of today's Torah portion, "Immortality is not found in heaven. It is not on the top of the mountains, or the bottom of the sea. It is here is your hearts, in the way we live… Look within you and find the immortality that God has planted there."

So today as my job is to help you pray, your job is to look within and find the immortality that God has planted within you. All of you come here for reasons both the same and unique. According to the Torah portion, 600,000 stood at Sinai. You hardly number 600,000. I think we have about 85 families, sopping wet, as they say. But you are all here and according to the Torah portion we read today, you were also there at Sinai among the 600,000.

Our ancestors didn't have much choice about standing there; where else were they to go? But you have a choice. You are here because you chose to be. And each of your stories is a different one. I read recently that, "At the beginning of Yom Kippur, the congregation full of different stories prays for forgiveness for all of us and also for the stranger who is in our midst. Who is the stranger?

Originally, the stranger was any visitor who might happen to come to this congregation for this service. But one commentator offers a different interpretation. He suggests that every one of us contains a stranger inside, a false or inauthentic self that tries to persuade us to do things that are not truly us. On the day of atonement, your task is to discover and be cleansed of that alien inauthentic self so you can remember our uniqueness." Each one of you is here for a purpose, not divinely ordained but freely chosen.

May this new year be the one where you discover that the answer is not in the heavens or across the sea, but in you.

Ken yehi ratzon - May it be God's will.

 

 

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Last updated: October 24, 2010