Yom Kippur 5780
Rabbi Jim Rogozen, October 2019
What Happened to the Dancing?
Years ago, when we had first moved to Cleveland, I was asked to lead overflow High Holiday services at a shul in Toronto. It was great: I could say whatever I wanted to…and then leave town, actually, leave the country. For some reason, they kept inviting me back. I did it for 5 years in a row, until my wife and young children said they really wanted to be home for the holidays. Well, it’s been 22 years since I’ve spoken on the high holidays. It’s an honor to be asked. I am aware, however, that I don’t get to leave town after this. Or at least, I hope I won’t have to.
So let me begin with something clear, easy, and not in the least provocative. Ready?
I hate Yom Kippur.
I don’t like fasting
I don’t like sitting in shul for a long time.
And…I don’t always connect to the messages or language in the Mahzor.
But the real reason, and this might sound funny, is that on Yom Kippur, it’s all about me. Usually that would be ok…but not today.
Before I tell you why, let’s take a step back. For your literary and spiritual edification, I undertook a thorough and exhaustive frequency-of-use linguistic analysis of the Mahzor and determined that these are the top 6 Yom Kippur metaphors or themes:
- Mercy, and
And the top three action items for this day are:
- To Atone
- Repent, and
- Seek Forgiveness
If this were the agenda for a staff meeting at your place of work, I’m guessing you’d all call in sick.
Let’s go back and explore those metaphors and themes, and the thought process of the Mahzor:
Sin: According to our liturgy, we are all nosei avon. Sin is a weight that we carry, it stays with us, it’s a burden, it affects our thoughts and actions. This metaphor implies that, like a landfill, if you keep adding to it, you’ll run out of room, or, in our case, we’ll run out of strength to carry it all. So, as Professor Baruch Schwartz writes, we spend this day asking God to remove this burden.
Stain: Sin clings to us, it stains our souls, it colors our view of ourselves and others. Isaiah refers to sinners as having “unclean lips” (Is. 6: 5). כִּ֣י אִ֤ישׁ טְמֵֽא־שְׂפָתַ֙יִם֙ אָנֹ֔כִי Even though there is no visual quality to it, we see it, and we imagine others see it in us as well. It defiles us and leaves a stain on our character.
The Ramban says that all sins, even those committed inadvertently, “leave a stain on the soul and constitute a blemish on it, and the soul is only fit to meet its Maker when it has been cleansed from all sin” (Ramban to Lev. 4: 2).
Debt: Our sins are also thought of as a huge pile of bills or IOUs. Just knowing they are there makes us miserable. While guilt can feel infinite and unmeasurable and insurmountable, a financial debt is limited and finite. The good news? According to Jeremiah, sin is a debt that God can pay off on our behalf.
The first three metaphors describe our problem; the next three steps outline how we get to the solution.
Judgment: As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as good, or somewhat good, the Mahzor reminds us, in the Untane tokef that time has run out: “V’tiftach et sefer Ha’zikhronot” – God, you open The Book of Memories “u’may’alav yika’reh” all the evidence, all the facts are in there, they speak for themselves, and “v’hotam yad kol adam bo” and every person’s name, everyone’s case file, is in there. Uvyom tzom kippur yechataymun, and on Yom Kippur final judgments will be made. Step one: we need to own that.
Mercy: Once we own our mistakes, we ask for mercy. Our hope on Yom Kippur is that God will take everything into account, and help us beyond what we deserve. What kind of God would do that? The Talmud in Berachot 7a asks “mayee matzlay?” – When God prays, (not if, but when God prays) what does God pray? Rav said: May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger; may My mercy prevail over My other attributes; may I conduct myself toward My children with the attribute of mercy, and
ואכנס להם לפנים משורת הדין May I stop short of the limit of strict justice, or, May I not exact the full penalty from them. Bottom line, God would like mercy to be God’s default setting, but God has to pray on it. That’s step two.
And, if all goes well…
Cleansing: Step three: Sins before God can and will be washed away, by God. Mikol hatotechem lifne hashem tithaaru “from all of your sins before God you will be cleansed.”
I don’t know about you, but this is a lot to think about, too much really.
But here’s the thing: these metaphors don’t even express all the ways we can think about Yom Kippur – just what’s in our Mahzor.
Here are two quotes, separated by 19 centuries that give us a wider range of what Yom Kippur was, and what it is like now:
The first is from Mishna Ta’anit 4:8
אָמַר רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל, לֹא הָיוּ יָמִים טוֹבִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בְּאָב וּכְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: There were no days of joy in Israel greater than the fifteenth of Av (Tu B’Av) and Yom Kippur.
שֶׁבָּהֶן בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת בִּכְלֵי לָבָן שְׁאוּלִין
On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments (borrowed in order not to shame anyone who had none). The daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself… Don’t set your eyes upon beauty; rather, set your eyes upon family…”
So the women were out and about, hoping to find a spouse. But why were these young women out and about on Yom Kippur? The Gemara in Taanit says:
בשלמא יום הכפורים משום דאית ביה סליחה ומחילה יום שניתנו בו לוחות האחרונות
Yom Kippur is a day of joy because it contains the elements of pardon and forgiveness, and moreover, it is the day on which the last pair of tablets were given.
The idea here is that God was so angry with the Israelites over the Golden Calf incident that he destroyed the first set of 10 Commandments. But He then decided to forgive the People, and give them a second set of tablets.
Forgiveness means another chance, and the freedom of a new start. Freedom means hope and opportunity, so yes, the young women went out, to find a spouse and look to the future. I’m just imagining it. A warm afternoon, up in the hills, people are dancing. What a great way to end Yom Kippur…and rather early in the day. Just saying…
Now, compare that image to comedian Lewis Black’s description of Yom Kippur: “The music of Kol Nidre is the basis of every Alfred Hitchcock soundtrack. You look around expecting bats to fly into the synagogue.”
Somewhere along the line the range of ideas and goals for the contracted and shifted, especially for Ashkenazic Jews. It’s worth noting that the Sephardic Mahzor doesn’t include U’netaneh Tokef, nor the Eleh Ezkerah. That Mahzor has much less “trauma” and much more hope.
Yes, there are indeed sources that claim that Yom Kippur is the exact opposite of Purim. Purim focuses on a physical struggle, while Yom Kippur emphasizes a spiritual one…but it’s all about the struggle.
But some sources actually say that the holidays are quite similar: Yom K’purim – Yom Kippur is like Purim, because, in both cases, while lives are hanging in the balance, there is hope for a positive ending. In the Purim story, people’s emotions went miyagon l’simcha, from sorrow to joy, but Yom Kippur these days seems to be all about the yagon (the sorrow) but certainly not the simcha.
Let’s put it this way: there is no longer dancing after Mincha.
If I were going to take the long history of Yom Kippur and do a factory re-set, what would be the main focus of the day? What’s in the zone? What’s the one thing I have to accomplish?
When I take all the liturgy, all the metaphors, all the customs, all the expectations of Yom Kippur, from the time of the Torah to today, and distill them all down to its essence, here’s what I think it is:
For 25 hours my job is to face myself – with brutal honesty – before God. I may be at my seat, surrounded by hundreds of people, but I have my job to do.
And, when the day is over, if I’ve done my job well, I can go outside, and, with an updated to-do list, step into a world filled with hope, and opportunity. After that shofar blows, I get to start writing a new page in The Book.
So, yes, today is all about me (and you, and you, and you), but…(you knew there was a ‘but’)… all of this takes work and it takes courage.
So how do we do Yom Kippur?
Rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote that we usually hide from ourselves, but on Yom Kippur we must seek what is hidden. Yom Kippur is self-discovery in silence.
One thing we hide behind is the beautiful notion that our confessions are said in the plural: In the Vidui we say Al chet she’chatanu lefanekha – we committed these sins before you, and we say Ashamnu, bagadnu – We have sinned. What a People we are. We are so good, we’re all in this together. Now, I certainly didn’t do this sin, or that sin, but maybe someone else did, so I’ll pray for them. We’re a team!
Or, maybe it’s a way to call God’s bluff. “God, You want to punish one of us, you’d better be prepared to punish all of us!” It’s a nice thought, and there is definitely some truth to it.
But (you knew there was a ‘but’)… today is the day we shouldn’t hide. We each have to own the consequences of our choices. We know we’ve made mistakes – each one of us. We know we’ve hurt others. We know we haven’t lived up to our own ideals. As Rabbi Abraham Twerski puts it, guilt is to the emotions what pain is to the physical body – a helpful signal that something is wrong. Moral guilt makes us uncomfortable, and because of that, we’re motivated to change.
In order to make sure we truly face ourselves, to get un-stuck, our liturgy requires us to recite our sins out loud, over and over again. There is value in this repetition. It destroys our defenses. It allows us to admit things we’d rather keep hidden.
A story: In Cleveland, where I was a Head of School for many years, the local school districts provided free bus transportation to the private schools, including the Jewish day schools. On Halloween, one of my more adventurous students set off a little smoke bomb on the Cleveland Heights bus. The district’s transportation coordinator came to my school and questioned the top suspects, all 4th grade boys. I watched in awe as he quietly spoke to each one of them, asking them to tell their stories. Then he brought them back in, one at time, again and again, to compare their stories with the others. With each re-telling the list of suspects narrowed. By round five, one of the kids came in, put his head down and his hands out and said, “Cuff me, I did it.” I gave him credit for creativity, and a sense of drama. Clearly, the constant repetition wore him down.
That’s why we recite the al het over and over again. Today we don’t hide from God.
We also don’t hide from our friends and family. Before Yom Kippur, we have to reach out to them and ask for forgiveness.
There is a fascinating discussion in halakhic literature about just how much detail you have to reveal when you admit or recite your sins.
In the Arukh HaShulchan: Orach Chaim 606 we read:
ויש לו לפרט החטא שחטא לו.
A person who is asking his friend for forgiveness must provide details of exactly how he sinned against him
אך אם חבירו מתבייש מזה – לא יפרט, אלא יבקש ממנו שימחול לו סתם
But if his friend would be embarrassed by this, there is no need to go into detail. Rather he should just ask his friend for blanket forgiveness.
If you are chanting the standard Vidui out loud in shul, especially if the Hazan is going to repeat it, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Rema, says you should not say the details out loud, because then it’s just a canned formula.
But when it comes to confessing one’s sins to God quietly, he says you have to provide details.
Underlying this discussion is a key question: Who benefits from these detailed confessions? It’s not God. God already knows the details. Clearly, it’s for the benefit (or the discomfort) of the person who is confessing.
This attention to the details of our sins reminded me of something I learned in my college statistics course, which was itself an entire semester of pain and suffering.
In the world of statistics and research, one way to show the range of responses on a test or a survey, is to use a bell curve. The center of the bell curve shows the mean – the average score. The term “standard deviation” is used to quantify the expected variation in that set of results. The results that fall beyond the expected “standard deviations” are the ones you want to pay attention to.
As we examine the details of the past year, we need to ask: what does our bell curve look like? Is it a narrow curve with all of our thoughts, words, and actions close to the mean, in line with our usual way of being in the world? Or is it spread out because some of what we said or did this year went beyond the standard deviation? In some cases, these variances can be good. We may have been nicer, or more helpful than usual. On the other side of the bell curve would be times we went off course, in a bad way.
When I learned orienteering by map and compass in the Boy Scouts, there were no GPS devices. So we were warned to be very, very careful as we plotted out our hikes. The saying was, “The more you go off course, the longer the walk back to camp.” When you’re traipsing through the woods, schlepping a heavy backpack, the walk back can be painful.
On Yom Kippur we ask ourselves: how far have I gone off course? And, how much work do I need to do to correct that?
I think these are questions we can ask about a community, and a country as well.
T’shuva is our attempt at re-alignment, it’s the way we come back, to way we get closer to the mean, and closer to what we already know is good.
As my classmate Rabbi Alan Lew, alav ha’shalom, wrote, “The great journey of transformation begins with the acknowledgment that we need to make it. It is not something we are undertaking for amusement, nor even for the sake of convention; rather, it is a spiritual necessity.”
The gift of Yom Kippur is knowing we can do T’shuva, that we know we can return, no matter how far or disconnected from ourselves we’ve become. We’re not stuck, there is still a second, or third, or even a fourth act in our lives…and even more, if necessary. Perhaps the words “v’eeneetem et nafshotechem” don’t mean “you shall afflict your soul.” Maybe it means “v’aneetem” this is the day when you respond to your soul – in the affirmative.
So, yes, I hate Yom Kippur because it is all about me. I am forced to take a hard look at myself. I can’t hide, I can’t pretend. But I do have to remind myself: today isn’t about doom and gloom and tears. It’s about getting back to the good in me, it’s about re-orienting myself. It’s about the gift of a new opportunity. After Neilah, when that shofar blows, a door will open and I will walk through it with a sense of hope and renewal.
I probably won’t start dancing, but I’ll have a lot to look forward to.
May we all have good things to look forward to, today, tomorrow, and in the year to come. G’mar Hatima Tova.