RABBI MICHAEL WHITMAN
I originally shared this sermon on Yom Kippur, 2003.
One of the most curious features of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the two different ways we say the Viduy, (confession - Ashamnu, Bagadnu…) where we confess the sins we have committed. First, we each say it silently in the Amidah - and it's painful. To review, before God, our failings of the past year is a humbling experience. We all have our public personas, our public image we show the world. But before God, there is no persona, there is no image - there is only the frightening truth. And each of us faces that truth alone.
But then, during the cantor’s repetition we all recite the Viduy again - together, aloud - not with tears but with a lively, upbeat tune. It’s seems as if we are happy to be saying it. There is, when we say it aloud, a jarring dissonance between the content of the words and how we say them.
Rabbi Yosef Solveitchik explains (On Repentance, p. 127) there are two tracks in the atonement process. There is the atonement of the individual. Each one of us appears before the Almighty and repents his/her sins. To the extent that a person is sincere, perhaps his repentance will be accepted and he will be forgiven, but there is no guarantee. And so each of us approaches God in our personal, silent prayer in a state of insecurity, depression, and despair. And we weep, we should weep, as we recite the litany of our sins and beg for forgiveness.
But during the cantor’s repetition, when the congregation prays aloud together, we come before God as Klal Yisroel, the eternal Jewish People. To Klal Yisroel, God has made a promise. As Klal Yisroel we don't plead, we claim forgiveness as our right. “Because on this day (of Yom Kippur, God says) I will forgive you.” (Leviticus 16:30) You can rely on it. God says, I will forgive you – but the you is plural. That promise is made, not to any individual. That promise is made only to Klal Yisroel, the eternal Jewish People.
To achieve forgiveness as part of Klal Yisroel, we must be a part of Klal Yisroel, we must feel and act bound to Klal Yisroel. How does one bind oneself? How can one qualify for the special guaranteed forgiveness offered to Klal Yisroel? Firstly, of course, we come to synagogue and participate in the prayers. But not just prayer – we need to participate in the many activities of the community – study of Torah, public observance of Shabbat and holidays, together with programs of celebration and socializing.
But even deeper, we need to act in a way that binds each of us closer together and we need, we desperately need to reject the temptation to divide or cause arguments among ourselves.
In my 30 years of communal experience, I have found an interesting truth: most arguments are caused by mistakes.
My grandfather used to tell the story of an elderly couple, married some 50 years. They were rocking on their front porch as the day drew to a close. Unfortunately they were both hard of hearing, and the wife said to her husband, "Honey, I am proud of you," and he said, "Well, I am tired of you, too!"
That happens all the time. We jump at the first thought that we have been insulted or mistreated. So often, the truth turns out to be that's not what was said, that's not how it was said, that’s not what happened. If we could just calmly wait until we have the whole story - so much anger, so much divisiveness could be avoided. But we begin to boil, and we don't use the control necessary to slow down our response. And the more certain we are that we have been wronged, the more hesitant we should be to rush to judgement.
I heard this story from Rabbi Yisroel Reisman. There was a woman, a religious woman, travelling from NY to Israel. She arrived at Kennedy Airport early, and she checked in for her flight. She had extra time before the flight was to board so she went to the gift shop and bought a newspaper and a box of cookies to eat. She went to sit down at the gate – it wasn’t too crowded – so she put the cookies on the seat next to her. And she opens the cookies and starts to eat the cookies while she reads her newspaper.
Two seats down, on the other side of her cookies, there is another religious woman sitting. And she sees this other woman reach out and takes one of her cookies. Without even looking at her, certainly without asking! She was so shocked she didn’t know what to say – just to sit down and take someone else’s cookies – who would do such a thing? She took another cookie and she sees that this other woman also takes another cookie. And the whole package of cookies goes like this – she takes one, the other woman takes one; she takes one, the other woman takes one.
Finally, there is just one cookie left. And she looks at the package and she thinks, “Now what is this other woman going to do?” And the other woman, still not even looking at her, takes the last cookie, breaks it in half, puts half down, and eats the rest. Now this woman is really angry – her blood is boiling. Just then they call her flight, she takes her newspaper and gets on line to board. She avoids the other woman, still not able to believe how chutzpadik she acted – she just hopes she doesn’t have to sit next to her on the flight. As she gets to the front of the line, she opens her bag to take out her boarding pass, and she sees - the unopened package of cookies in her bag!
The cookies she bought she put in her own bag. The other woman had obviously also bought an identical package of cookies and put it on the chair next to her. At that instant she had a shocking revelation - she was the other woman. Everything terrible she had thought of this other woman, that was her. And the other woman, imagine how kind and compassionate she really was. Without saying a word, without being asked, she shared her cookies – especially the last cookie. Imagine, she had one last cookie. And before eating it she splits it in half for this woman who is taking without asking!
We need to try to be slow to anger, slow to judge, to stay calm until we have the whole story. With just this one adjustment in our lives, we can change our lives, and the lives of those we touch. And at the same time we will strengthen our bond to Klal Yisroel and improve the fabric of our community. And then we will qualify for the unequivocal promise of God's forgiveness and love.
Marci and I wish you and your family a sweet, happy, and healthy New Year.
Rabbi Michael Whitman