Yom Kippur

  1. Gemar Hatima Tova – May we all be sealed for Life in the New Year.
  1. My good friend Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt from the Washington DC area shared a note he recently received from someone asking a question. The person wrote, “Dear Rabbi, I am struggling with the issue of why should I repent, ask forgiveness and try and be a better person when everyone around me does not try to be a better person? When everyone else around me is full of evil thoughts, words and deeds? It is so hard to find it within myself to change and forswear bad behaviors when every day I am confronted with those who act badly against me.”
  1. I thought to myself when I read this letter that here is a person in a great deal of pain and who is becoming very cynical about life and the nature of the world. I suppose if I were a psychologist or a social worker, I would find evidence of all kinds of issues in this letter. I am only a Rabbi and when I saw that letter I began to think about who this person might be and how I would pen my response to this letter.
  1. Life would be so much easier if we did not have to worry about who we have hurt and if we have had our revenge on those who have hurt us. If we didn’t have to be a better person each year, we could go on our merry way, happy with ourselves just the way we are and if anyone has a problem with that, well, that is their problem not ours.  If someone is mean and nasty to me well, I can show them that I can dish it out as well as I can take it. I am just as happy to give back to others what they have dished out to me.
  1. These feelings of frustration are not unique to our age. In Psalm 28, King David says, “Do not count me with the wicked and evil-doers who profess goodwill toward their fellows while malice is in their heart. Pay them according to their deeds, their malicious acts; according to their handiwork, pay them and give them their desserts.”  Or see Psalm 27, the Psalm we recite during this penitential season, it reads, “When evil men assail me, to devour my flesh – it is they, my enemies who stumble and fall.” From ancient times, human beings have called upon God to punish their enemies and vindicate those who do good.
  1. It is hard, going through life seeing wicked people prosper. For every Scott Rothstein and Bernie Madoff who get caught, we know that there are many others, just like them, who are too clever to come to the attention of those who would punish them. The CEO’s who cut corners at the expense of those of us who rely on their products or who risk environmental catastrophe to insure investors have a decent return and if the worst happens, then they clean it up with the money they can recover from the profits of just one day. It does not matter if they are in the Gulf of Mexico or in suburban San Francisco, in corporate America, is easier and cheaper to get forgiveness than it is to get permission.
  1. Rudyard Kipling knew this kind of frustration. In his poem, “If” where he gives advice to his son, he notes at the very beginning that life can be frustrating. He writes, “If you can keep your head when all about you, others are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” We have learned, from a very early age that honesty is the best policy and cheaters never prosper. But we look around us in life and find that these maxims are honored more in the breach than in reality. We might hope that bad and malicious people will get what is coming to them, and when they do we might even gloat. But most of the time, people full of evil thoughts, words and deeds seem to not only get away with their lies, but they seem to find their way faster up the ladder of success. Is it any wonder our letter writer is contemplating joining their ranks?
  1. It is so hard to be the only one who does not cheat on our income taxes. It is so hard to be the only one who is stopping at the red light and driving at the posted speed limit. Don’t we wish that our investments would benefit from insider trading? Why to I have to be the only one who, when there is a billing error in my favor, that I let them know that I really do owe them more money then they have calculated?
  1. Clearly, Judaism wants us to be that one person. If necessary, the only person who is doing good when others are following the crowd to do evil. Remember Abraham, when he argued with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorra? The number of good people that could save the cities became smaller and smaller until God agreed that if there were 10 good people in the entire city, God would spare Sodom its fate. Just ten good people in a city of tens of thousands. All it takes is ten good people and destruction could be averted. But there is only one in the city, and after he is removed, the city is destroyed.
  1. This afternoon, we read a similar story. Jonah is sent to Nineveh, to preach to the city to get them to repent before God destroys them. Jonah tries to run away from this commission but he is returned to where he needs to be and he finally begins a three day trek through Nineveh to convince the people to repent. Jonah is so good at his job, that there are not just ten good people found to spare the city, the entire city, from the King on down repents their actions and so God spares them. Jonah is upset that he now feels like a fool, preaching destruction and now all is forgiven. God has to remind the prophet that sparing life, animal or human, is a mitzvah.
  1. At first, there are not even ten good people in Nineveh. But by the end of the story, the entire city has repented of their evil and the destruction has been averted. This is a story of the power of repentance. We do not have to be perfectly good to save ourselves and our families in the New Year. We only have to be committed to doing better as the year begins.  If Teshuva, return, is our goal as the year begins, God will give us the chance to try again.
  1. Rabbi Shai Held, one of the great upcoming new scholars in the Jewish world, has taught recently that God wants us to find ourselves. But, he then notes that if this is God’s goal, why is God always scripting our lives? How can we find ourselves if we have no real choice but to follow the Torah?  After all, the Torah teaches us that to follow Torah is life, to reject Torah is death and we must choose life. But what kind of a choice is that? Who, in their right mind anyway, would choose death? Rabbi Held goes on to say that the role of the Torah’s script is to help us rise above all the other scripts that are given to us by the many other forces in society, forces like capitalism and our drive for power. The purpose of our faith is to free us from the false needs and wants that distract us from our goals with their allure and call. We all know that we need to do good, but the other forces in our lives, the need to earn a living, to get along with others and the seductive call  to celebrate today and don’t worry about tomorrow, these all beckon to us to forget Torah and follow their lead.  The script of the Torah, of Judaism, helps us keep our focus on doing what is right and good and not let our other drives take control of our lives.
  1.  We live in a time of great anger. In many ways, anger is the script that is most in use in our country today. We don’t talk to each other, we yell at each other. We don’t care about the point of view of someone else, we only care that everyone else should be as angry as we are. It has become fashionable to speak in superlatives. One mistake by a politician indicates a “hidden” agenda”. Rumors pass themselves off as news items. Fact checking is what you do on a slow news day. Something is not wrong as long as it is “partly” right, or at least could be correct given an unusual or rare set of circumstances. To get good ratings, you have to say outrageous things. Things that fuel the flames of anger higher. There is no such thing as compromise anymore, you are either with me or against me. The only good is that which is perfect and anything less then perfect is to be despised.
  1. There are some who say that the script of Torah is no different. The Halacha, Jewish Law is immutable and unchanging. One can either keep the law, in every aspect or one is a complete sinner. Sometimes it seems that every day there are new ways to look at old laws. A Haredi Rabbi this past year suddenly announced that “Shabbat Elevators” which automatically stop at every floor on Shabbat, are no longer permitted on Shabbat. That suddenly, these elevators became an illegal form of riding on Shabbat. I don’t know what prompted this change in Halacha after almost a century of elevator riding, but it stranded many observant Jews on the upper floors of very tall buildings for Shabbat. I don’t really mind that there are some Jews who will not ride an elevator on Shabbat, but to insist that one is not Shabbat observant if you do ride them, seems to defy all logic.
  1. In truth, the script that the Torah puts out for us is very different than the angry Torah that the Haredi Jews defend so mightily. We understand that religion is not a matter of pure right versus wrong, or a recipe for getting on God’s good side. In my mind, anyone who presumes to know what God wants or what will make God “happy” is preaching a caricature of religion, but not a true faith. If we have learned anything in this multicultural nation in which we live, a nation founded on the principle of religious freedom, it is that there are as many ways to find God as there are people. What is important to faith is not how to get there, but the journey between selfishness and true freedom. The Torah is a very interesting book. While it begins with the creation of the world, the largest part of the text is devoted to a journey, the journey of the People of Israel as they travel from Egypt (The narrow place of slavery) to the land of promise, the land of milk and honey. What makes the Torah intriguing is that the People of Israel, like Moses himself, never get to the Promised Land. It takes 400 years to get out of Egypt and another 40 years to get Egypt out of the People. But the Torah never takes them across the Jordan River. Faith is not found in arriving, it is found it the Journey.
  1. Many Rabbis use this story of the People of Israel as a metaphor for our journey through life. We leave the “narrow place” from where we are born, and life is a journey, but we do not know where we are going. Some say that where we are going depends on where the journey in life takes us. Others say that we decide where we want to end up and all of life is about how we direct ourselves to the goal.
  1. I get asked all the time about what Jews believe happens after we die. This is certainly a big concern for Christianity and for Islam too. It is not such a big concern in Judaism. The Rabbis teach that we really don’t know what the next world will bring. Nobody has ever come back to tell us what happens there. We can only believe that what is next is better than what we have here and that if we do good in this world, it will serve us well in whatever may come at the end of our journey.
  1. There is a telling story, a Midrash, about a man who wanted so badly to know the difference between heaven and hell that he prayed incessantly to be given the chance to see both.  Finally, to get him to stop his nagging, an Angel appeared and told him that since live people could not enter either heaven or hell, the best that could be done is to show the man the first house inside heaven and the first house inside hell and he would have to be satisfied with that.
  1. The first stop was in hell, the first house was a rather ordinary stone house with a thatch roof. There was a light shining from the window, and inside the man saw a large table filled with all kinds of delicious looking and delicious smelling food. All around the table, people were sitting, plates piled high with all kinds of good food and they were holding a knife and fork in each hand. But nobody was eating. Each person had his arms tied to a splint so that they could pick the food up off their plates, but could not get it into their mouths.  “OY” said the man, “This truly is hell!” The Angel then took him away.
  1. Soon they came to the first house in Heaven. It was a rather ordinary stone house with a thatch roof. There was a light shining from the window, and inside the man saw a large table filled with all kinds of delicious looking and delicious smelling food. All around the table, people were sitting, plates piled high with all kinds of good food and they were holding a knife and fork in each hand. Just like in hell, each person had his arms tied to a splint so that they could pick the food up off their plates, but could not get it into their mouths. The difference in heaven was that around this table, the people were feeding each other.
  1. The difference between heaven and hell is not something that is outside of ourselves; the difference is found inside. We decide if the circumstances of our lives are to be heaven or if they will be a living hell. There is nothing in hell that prevents the residents from feeding each other except for their own stubbornness and selfishness. Everyone at the table in hell could be well fed and happy but their inability to see and feel for each other keeps them hungry and unhappy. This is the story of our journey through life. Our happiness does not depend on others, we decide for ourselves if we will be concerned for each other or if we will only look out for ourselves. Either choice is possible but one will make us happy and well fed, the other choice leads to a constant hunger that gnaws at our belly.
  1. The good people in our life tried to teach us this lesson. Our parents, our mentors, our teachers, all tried to show us that the script of Torah was a way of love, care, concern for each other, a way where we are instructed to lend a hand to those in need and  to depend on others in our own time of sickness and sorrow. What we give, we also receive. If we are mean, nasty miserable people, nobody will want to be our friend. If we decide, instead to be kind loving and caring people, everyone will want to be our friend. Maybe there are no guarantees in life that it will all work out this way, but you don’t need a public opinion survey to see that, more often than not, this is the way of the world. And this is the way of Torah.
  1. To be fair, I have to say that there is a downside to being kind, loving and caring. I once rushed to the hospital where a woman, 97 years old had just been told that she is dying, and did not have much longer to live. I found her in the emergency room, with her 65 year old daughter sitting by her side. The elderly woman looked at me and said, “Rabbi, I am 97 years old. I have led a really wonderful life. I have children I am proud of; I have accomplished all that I ever wanted to do. Life has been good to me and I am dying with no regrets at all. But Rabbi, I need you to do one favor for me. I am ready to die and I don’t face it with any fear. So please tell my family that they don’t have to mourn when I am gone, tell them not to cry, because I have been so happy with my life.”
  1. I looked at this serene woman and said to her, “I think you need to mind your own business.” She looked at me shocked but I went on, “It really doesn’t matter that you lived the perfect life. The fact is, when you are gone, your children will miss you.  They will miss your love, your caring, your opinions and your advice. And when they miss you, they will cry. There is nothing you or I can do or even should do to stop it. If you had been a bad mother and friend, they would not care. No, you had to be loving, caring and considerate. Those tears are the price we pay for losing someone we love.”
  1. We are approaching the hour of Yizkor. The time we allot in this most holy day to remember those who we loved, and who loved us. Today is one of the days we have to pay the price for all that love we shared for the all too short time they spent in this world with us. I attend daily minyan and I see, almost every day, people who brave the tears and the broken heart all over again just to be in shul and remember a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, a spouse or partner, or, God help them, to remember a child who is no longer in this world. Even 10, 20 or 40 years later, that love lives on in their hearts. For some of us here, we mourn family who died almost a half century ago. But the love we have for them is still strong in our hearts, and we remain grateful for the influence for good in our life that can never be erased. What more could we want from life but to be remembered for good, for love and for our compassion? What better memorial could we build?
  1. There are people who will not repent on this Yom Kippur. There are those who say that there is no God, that what we do makes no difference to the universe. All that there is, is what we can see, anything else is just fantasy and fairy tale. The only force that forms the universe is gravity and that is all that is holding the cosmos together. It does not matter to the universe if we are good or bad, only that we survive; that is the source of ultimate meaning.
  1. That is not the path of Torah, that is not the script that our Machzor, our faith, our Torah would have us follow in life. What we do does make a difference, perhaps not to the universe but to those who love us and to those we love. We can choose to ease the burden of another, to feed the hungry, care for the sick, console the mourner or we can look the other way and look out only for our self. That is the choice that the Torah places before us, and we are commanded to choose life, a life of kindness, not anger; a good life, and not an evil life; a life of acts of loving kindness, not bad behavior. Life may be easier if we give in to looking out only for ourselves, but life is richer, meaningful and deeply satisfying, when we repent of our mistakes and choose each year, to live a better and more holy life.
  1. Rabbi Weinblatt wrote in his reply to the letter he received, “I believe, with all my heart, that being a good person makes us better people. It is not just a tautology, to not be a forgiving person, turns us into bitter people.” I might add that we are free to choose a sweet life or a bitter life. I have chosen the path of sweetness, love and harmony. In my life, that has made all the difference.
May we be blessed in the year ahead, with forgiveness, and with being forgiven. May we spread not hatred or anger, but love and compassion and may we, whenever it may be our time to die, may we leave behind warm memories, loving hearts and lots and lots of tears.  May we be sealed for life this year, a sweet life, a life of holiness and a life filled with love as we say … AMEN AND GEMAR TOV.
  1.  Look around you for a second. What do you see? Hundreds of Jews gathering to remember loved ones who have died? If you were the county Fire Marshall, what would you see if you looked around you? Would you notice the state of the art fire prevention and alert system installed? What if you were a furniture sales representative? Would you see the chairs and pews people are sitting on? Would you see this as a sign that some good salesman was here before you or would you see that there is the making of a large order in this room? What if you were selling a Machzor? Would you see a need for newer books? Do you know that the new Machzorim sell for $27.00 each? There are 1300 people here, that amounts to $35,000 dollars just to replace what we have. Can you imagine our electric bill for these holidays? Plus the fact that we need a repair service and a plumber on call, it would not be a good thing if the Air Conditioner would go out or the rest rooms would flood.
  1. Security is also an issue. To be sure we do not want to be a target of terrorists who would find so many Jews in one place an enticing target. But what about all the cars in the parking lot? We need to makes sure that nobody steals from our cars while we are praying inside. Cleanliness is also an issue, somebody has to come through this room, at the end of the service, to pick up the trash, to reset the seats and make sure that those who come later will have a book and a clean seat to sit in. The Rabbi and Cantor put in hourse to prepare for this day, as does our Administrator, our secretarial staff and a small army of volunteers.
  1. I know that everyone bought a ticket to attend this morning, but I really don’t need to tell you that the ticket prices do not come close to paying for all the expenses of Temple Emeth. Like all synagogues, we depend on donations to keep our doors open and to pay our most basic bills. It is the generous donations of others that made Temple Emeth possible, and if we are to continue to offer services here, and continue grow and expand what we have to offer, we will need your help.
  1. If you are not a member of Temple Emeth, that is the first level of help. Your membership tells us that you care about what we do here and that you are willing to attach your name to all that we are trying to accomplish. When you join Temple Emeth, you have become part of a thriving Jewish community right here in Delray Beach. It can be the portal to connect you and your family to the greater Jewish world. Just call us or stop by after the holiday and our Membership office will be glad to help you become a valued part of our synagogue.
  1. If you are already a member of Temple Emeth, Thank you for your care and your support. You already know that there are many ways your donations to our congregation help us meet the rising costs of the most basic necessities for a congregation. You already know that we offer far more that just Holiday services, that we offer educational programs, social programs and entertainment programs throughout the year. We have daily, Shabbat and Holidays services and we have them seven days a week, twice a day, 365 days a year. And we rely on the donations of members and guests to help us keep the doors open and to keep the quality of our programs high.
  2.  As we remember those we love at Yizkor, we need to remember that every donation we make in their memory or in honor of the living goes a long way to improving Temple Emeth. This year, through the generosity of the Leopold family, we were able to upgrade and replace the Siddurim we use on Shabbat and at daily minyan. Now we need your help. Your Yizkor pledge can make a difference to someone who cannot afford, in these difficult economic times, to join a synagogue, so we don’t have to turn anyone away. Your Yizkor pledge can help pay the ongoing bills that yes, even a synagogue has to pay. We make these holidays look so easy, but we can do it because we can rely on your support and your generosity.
  1.  I know that, at your seat, you have a pledge card. We are not like a church, where we can pass a plate and take cash donations. We rely on the promises of those who pray with us to help us grow and flourish. I can tell you that every year there are those who think that someone else should be giving the money. That there are others, wealthier than I am, who should step up.  I just can’t make a donation.
  1. We are not asking today for large sums of money. If you can give it, great. If not, any amount will do. The cost of a dinner for two is $50. Since we are not eating today, can we ask for the cost of one meal to help Temple Emeth? To replace a Bible takes a donation of $100 dollars. We are also starting advanced dues categories for those who are able to give more. Advanced dues include not only membership but High Holiday tickets as well. We have many opportunities for larger gifts and multi year donations. In addition to the Machzorim, we are looking to replace our Humashim and we are looking for someone to sponsor our Scholar in Residence program and other aspects of our Yeshivat Emet program for Continuing Jewish Education.
  1. Please take your pledge card, fold down the tab that you think could best help Temple Emeth and hold it up for the ushers to collect. As soon as we are finished, we will begin our Yizkor Service. I should call your attention to the addition this year of a prayer for those who still have a living parent. We invite everyone to join us, in just a few moments as we begin the prayers of Yizkor. 
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