Sermon Monday Morning
Yom Kippur Day
2009 – 5770
- At this point in the day, we say to each other, Gemar Tov, may we all have a good finish to this season of forgiveness.
- A poor disheveled Jew came to an inn along the side of the road. The owner of the inn realizes that this poor Jew will probably only cause him trouble. He will want food that he can’t pay for and will want a place to spend the night and will be unable to afford the bill. He brings the poor man to the back of the kitchen, feeds him some leftovers and tells him he will sleep by the stove in the kitchen, that the rooms are for paying guests. The poor Jew says nothing but eats his meal and goes outside for a breath of fresh air.
- But another Jew from the nearby town recognizes the poor Jew and with excitement runs back to the town. Rabbi Elimelech, the great Hasidic sage is visiting the area. By morning there are hundreds of people waiting outside the inn to see the great sage and perhaps to hear some of his teaching. Rabbi Elimelech comes out of the inn and begins to share some stories of the great Hasidic masters. The people stand respectfully and listen to the message he has to share with them. The owner of the inn is embarrassed and ashamed of the way he treated the man who should have been his honored guest.
- After the lesson, the innkeeper runs up to the Rabbi, “Please forgive me the way I treated you last night. I had no idea that you were the great Rabbi Elimelech. I am ashamed of what I have done. Please forgive my rudeness.” But the scholar sadly shakes his head. “Rabbi Elimelech the scholar can’t forgive you for the way you treated me last night. The simple poor Jew who came looking for a meal and a place to stay, that is the man you offended, and he is the man you need to ask forgiveness. Unfortunately, that man is no longer here and your apology is too late.”
- I thought of this story at the beginning of this month as I attended a meeting of the Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis. Rabbi Jack Reimer gave the main address. I found myself challenged by his words and told him so. We all rush to judgment in our dealings with others and in developing our opinions on the events that make the news. In many ways we are like the innkeeper, we just don’t have the time to really look deeply into every person and every idea that crosses our path. So let us take the time to look at five different people and see what we can discover about them and what we can learn about ourselves.
- There were five people in the news this past year who made public apologies for the crimes they had committed. Like our innkeeper they expressed regret over their actions and were looking for forgiveness. The question for this morning is if we think that their words of apology are enough. Can we find a way to forgive them or, has the time for their apology passed and there will never really be forgiveness. To be fair, this is not an all or nothing game, Maybe you don’t think that they deserve forgiveness now, but perhaps there will come a time when you feel they should be forgiven. Has the passage of time changed how we feel about them? Then again, maybe what they have done is so bad that forgiveness now, or ever, is impossible. I will tell you their stories and see how, if we were in charge, we might judge their case.
- There is likely not a soul in this country who does not know who Bernie Madoff is. He is the man convicted in the largest ponzi scheme in the history of the world. Thousands of investors lost billions in assets because of his crooked plan. Charitable organizations lost so much money that some had to go out of business. Retirement funds disappeared and their owners were left destitute. Even people who had not invested their life savings with him lost so much money, they could not fulfill charitable pledges that they had promised to important organizations.
- Madoff went to court and pleaded guilty to fraud and was sentenced this year to 150 years in prison. At 71 years old, clearly he will die in jail. What is important to us today is that when he appeared for sentencing, this is part of the apology he offered: “Your Honor, I cannot offer you an excuse for my behavior. How do you excuse betraying thousands of investors who entrusted me with their life savings? … And how do you excuse deceiving an industry that you spent a better part of your life trying to improve? There is no excuse for that, and I don’t ask any forgiveness. Although I may not have intended any harm, I did a great deal of harm. I made an error of judgment. I refused to accept the fact, that for once in my life I failed. I am responsible for a great deal of suffering and pain. I understand that. I live in a tormented state now knowing of all the pain and suffering that I have created. There is nothing I can do that will make anyone feel better for the pain and suffering I caused them, but I will live with this pain, with this torment for the rest of my life. I apologize to my victims. I will turn and face you. I am sorry.”
- Do you think this was a sincere apology? Are these the words of a man who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison? Would you forgive Bernie Madoff? Would you ever forgive Bernie Madoff? Do you think God should forgive Bernie Madoff?
- The second apology comes from William L. Calley. A former lieutenant in the US Army, he is the only US Army officer who was convicted for killing 22 civilian Vietnamese in the 1968 My Lai massacre. He was sentenced to life in prison but then President Nixon reduced his sentence to three years of house arrest. Calley was speaking this year to a Kiwanis Club near the military base where he was court marshaled. He said “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families, I am very sorry.”
- It has been over 40 years since the massacre at My Lai. Calley has not spoken about the case in all those years. He has refused to be interviewed by reporters and has refused publicity. It was only the request of a long time friend that brought him to the Kiwanis club in Atlanta. Would you accept his apology? Did he make his apology with the proper audience? Would you ever accept his apology? Is he sincerely remorseful? Should God forgive William Cally?
- Lynndie England did not kill anyone. She appeared in the pictures that broke the scandal of prisoner abuse in Abu Graib in Iraq. She was among those who were court-martialed for her small part in the abuse. Here is her apology. See what you think about it. “Yes, I was in five or six pictures and I took some pictures, and those pictures were shameful and degrading to the Iraqis and to our government. And I feel sorry and wrong about what I did. Of course it was wrong. I know that now. But when you show the people from the CIA, the FBI and the MI (military intelligence) the pictures and they say, ‘Hey, this is a great job. Keep it up,’ you think it must be right. They were all there and they didn’t say a word.”
- What shall we make of this apology? Is there a sincere repentance in her words? Does she believe the words that she says? Do you believe she is sincere? Would you accept this apology? Would you ever accept an apology from Lynndie England for what she did at Abu Graib? Do you think that God should forgive her actions?
- Finally, let us turn to Michael Vick. There is no human being who was harmed by this talented football player. He was not even accused of insulting or threatening another person. Michael Vick organized vicious dog fights that resulted in the maiming and killing of attack dogs. He served two years in prison and was released this year after serving his sentence. Some say he got a light sentence because he was a privileged talented athlete. He was fired from his job as quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. (The NFL did not rule on whether he would ever be allowed to play football again.) When he was released a few months ago, he mentioned that he has been humbled by his downfall, he regrets his actions that led to his arrest. He has renewed his faith and found some rehabilitation through his religion. He is now deeply involved with the Humane Society of America teaching inner city youth to stay away from dog fighting. He just signed a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, a two year deal for 6.8 million dollars. So far, the NFL has not said that he is banned from the game.
- Should Michael Vick be allowed to play professional football again? Should the NFL forgive him for his crimes? Is he getting a free ride because he is a talented young man who could make a lot of money for the team that hires him? Would you forgive Michael Vick? Would you ever forgive him his crimes? Should God forgive Michael Vick?
- Finally there is the late senator Ted Kennedy. What happened in 1969 was clearly an accident that resulted in the death of a young woman. Kennedy drove off a bridge and did not report the accident until the next day. Perhaps he was drunk that night. We will never know. Many people felt that it was his social and political status that helped him get away with behavior that was criminal. Political reporter Eleanor Clift, in a recent Newsweek magazine, wrote, “If you are not sympathetic to Kennedy’s politics, you note that he led a staggeringly privileged life. He got away with something he shouldn’t have. But if you are sympathetic to Kennedy and his politics … then you are willing to measure the benefits that Kennedy brought to countless people through his politics and give them proper weight on the scales of the man’s record. If you measure his capacity to reform himself, you tip the scales even further.”
- Ted Kennedy’s record of benefits that helped the poor, the forgotten and the powerless in America is a formidable record. But does that record redeem the senator from the crimes that were committed that night in 1968? How much would he have had to do, how many bills do you think it would take to bring redemption to the youngest of the Kennedy brothers? Do you forgive him? Should he ever be forgiven? Should God forgive him?
- So what is the scorecard for today? Madoff/Calley/England/Vick/Kennedy; Are we able to forgive any of them? Are their repentance and their apologies sincere? Should we forgive them their crimes? Would any apology they offer, or does the lack of an apology, help us weigh their actions? How should we judge them? How should God, who judges all of humanity on this day, how should God judge them? Are we in favor of Justice or will we choose Compassion?
- When the Rabbis in early September discussed these cases, Rabbi Reimer then reminded us of two important principles of Judaism. First, that there is only one ultimate Judge in our tradition and second, that Judge is not us. Our point of view is not only limited but inherently biased. Only God can weigh the intentions of those who stand accused and know if they are sincere in their repentance. It does not matter if we agree or disagree with the divine verdict, at the end of the day, we can only recite the blessing “Baruch Dayan Emet – God is the righteous Judge.
- Here we are, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Judgment day for humanity and the world. The day that we need forgiveness from God, and we have to now examine our hearts to see if we are as forgiving as we would want God to be. In the bible, King David himself is caught in a sin and asked by the prophet if he would like human justice or to put himself under divine justice. David replies. “I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of Adonai, who is very compassionate, but let me not fall into human hands.” Only God can weigh all the components of our soul and all the intentions in our mind and only then does God judge us with compassion.
- So how are we to learn compassion instead of judgment? How can we not rush to judgment with our friends and neighbors when they do something that, from where we sit, seems like a terrible sin? Only later do we discover that their mistake was genuine. How is it possible to debate matters of public interest when we rush to judgment, hearing only what Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, MSNBC or Fox News has to say on a topic and not waiting to hear how the other side explains their decision. When we get our opinions from only one source, we become victims not of their reasoned views but of their appeals to our fears and emotions that add heat to the fire but do not enlighten the discussion or the debate.
- There are a few people here today who have come to the synagogue over the past two months to get to know the new rabbi, to talk with me, to pray with me and to see how I respond to the daily life at the temple. Some of them have expressed happiness that I am here and others are still thinking about if I will work out or not. How many of you here today, this being the first and perhaps the only time you will see me this year (God forbid you might need me in case of an illness or death in the family) how many of you meeting me for the first time will judge me on this sermon, or maybe on all my holiday sermons and speak authoritatively about me around your condo pool or clubhouse? You know, it just ain’t easy to be a Rabbi.
- Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov has written; “you have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that person is completely wicked. It is your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in that person where he is not evil. When you find that bit of goodness and judge the person that way, you may really raise her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuva. The psalmist tells us to judge one and all so generously, so much on the good side, even if we think they’re as sinful as can be. By looking for that “little bit,” the place, however small, within them where there is no sin (and everyone after all, has such a place) and by telling them, showing them that that’s who they are. We can help them change their lives. So now, my clever friend, now that you know how to treat the wicked and find some bit of good in them – Now go and do it for yourself as well! I know what happens when you start examining yourself. ‘no goodness at all’, you find, ‘just full of sin.’ ‘Even the good things I did’ you say, ‘I did for the wrong reasons. Impure motives! Lousy deeds!’ Keep digging, I tell you, keep digging, because somewhere inside that now tarnished-looking mitzvah somewhere within it there was indeed a little bit of good. That’s all you need to find, a dot of goodness that should be enough to bring you back your life, to bring you back your joy. You show yourself that that is who you are. You can change your whole life this way and bring yourself to teshuva.”
- We read in our Machzor:
Our Creator our Ruler, be gracious to us and answer us for we have no good deeds in our lives. Deal with us in justice and kindness and save us
- Is this how we truly judge ourselves on this sacred day? Are we without any merits at all? Are we all so wicked that there are no good deeds that we can turn to so that we may say, “Here is a time when I acted in a holy fashion”? Just as we cannot condemn others in our judgment because we cannot see the true person that lies within, we cannot judge ourselves because we do not see the whole picture of who we are inside. We often don’t understand what motivates us to decide against our own self interest; why we turn right instead of left.. We can only see that we have done so, and that our decisions have consequences that are not always obvious.
- Rabbi Hanoch Teller, the famous storyteller, writes a story about a young Jr. Executive, after being chewed out by his CEO must make a mad dash from Downtown New York City to Long Island to conclude a deal that could make or break his career. He has just enough time to catch a subway to Penn Station, so he can catch a train to Long Island and thus catch the client before he leaves for an extended holiday in Europe. Millions of dollars are on the line as well as the young man’s career. He races to the subway and arrives just as the train is pulling in, but his path is blocked by a homeless man selling pencils for a quarter. The executive tosses a quarter into the cup and races for the train but the homeless man stops him, “Hey mister, you get to have a pencil” The executive looks at him in puzzlement. He says “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were a merchant” takes the offered pencil and darts into the subway as the doors close behind him.
- The deal is closed. It nets much profit for the company and the executive is not only promoted but given a bonus as well. Four years later, at the end of a long day, he stops to buy a newspaper at a stand on the street. The vendor looks at him and says, “Wait I minute… I know you!! The executive starts to back away, regretting that he even stopped for the paper. The vendor stands up, “You are the guy that who once said to me ‘I didn’t realize you were a merchant’. Years ago, I didn’t know I was a merchant either. But I got to thinking that if a Wall Street guy like you thinks I am a merchant, maybe there is something to it. Now look at me. I got nine stands like this in the city, three in Queens and a couple in Pelham Parkway. I got 14 stands and it is all thanks to you. Take whatever paper you want, mister, it’s on the house and Thanks, Thanks a lot buddy!”
- We cannot judge the actions of others and we cannot judge our own actions either. We can only use this time to try and find that spark of goodness in others and in ourselves. Leave the judging to God. Look at the world through the eyes of kindness and see that not every bad deed is wholly bad and even the ideas that we think are terrible may still have a spark of goodness within them. My first Rabbinical School teacher reminded me that any fool can tear down a barn, but it takes an architect to build one. It does not take any talent to find the evil in the world, but it takes a holy soul to find the good in everyone.
- So my friends, that is our lesson for this Day of Atonement. If we can find just one dot of goodness in others we will help their soul grow more holy. If we can find that dot of goodness in ourselves, we will begin to grow our own holy soul. With that soul we can learn to sing the sweetest music of kindness and compassion and through that music we can learn the deepest mysteries of prayer. And through that kind of deep prayer we can discover the secret of a happy and joyful new year.
- May we be blessed with good deeds, sweet music, uplifting prayer and a joyful new year as we say …
AMEN AND GEMAR TOV