My colleague, Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles, posted an amazing story a few months ago on Facebook, which inspired me to write this sermon. Her story is of repentance or Teshuvah in Hebrew - and it captures the very essence of which the High Holidays are about. When I read her family’s experience of the power of repentance, and the healing that comes from making right past wrongs, it moved me to tell the story tonight. It is the age old hope that we too will be inspired to heal through the process of Teshuvah.
Yom Kippur, we forgive our families, we forgive our neighbors, we forgive our friends, we even sometimes forgive G-d. We also ask for forgiveness, from our families, neighbors, friends and even G-d. We do this because of our commandment in Leviticus, “Be holy, for I, your G-d am holy.” Holiness, kadosh, means to separate. We can always be more holy, to sperate more from the mundane, and self-improvement, even divine improvement, makes us more holy. However, while we give forgiveness, and seek forgiveness, are we able to forgive ourselves?
In the best of times, we ask, “where is G-d?” After all, we built this world on our own. In the worst of times, we ask “where is G-d?”
“What’s going through his head?” This is a question I, and many others, have often asked of our patriarch Abraham during the story we will read tomorrow, the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac. How can Abraham be so willing to sacrifice his son? There is not much dialogue in this story, so we don’t get Abraham’s perspective. What we do know, though, is that Abraham argued earlier with G-d about preserving life.
During my first year in rabbinical school, my classmates and I examined our connections to Judaism. I heard many wonderful answers.
In Pirke Avot it says, “Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin. Know from where you came and where you are going and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning. One who is wise sees the outcome of his actions.” (Pirke Avot 3:1) Maybe it’s because I’m on the precipice of a large number that ends in “0” on my next birthday. Or maybe it’s because - I lost a few good friends this past month - a reminder of the fragility of life.
There’s a central prayer in our High Holiday Liturgy called Avinu Malkeinu - Sometimes translated as, “our father, Our King” The story behind the etymology of the prayer is that one year, during a particularly bad drought, Rabbi Akiva was said to have followed Rabbi Eleazar into the ark and recited these lines, showing his praise for God and showing his humility about his place on earth. With his words, the proverbial rains fell and the earth was nourished.
In 1913, in Berlin, Germany, a young Jewish man. Franz Rosenzweig, had fallen away from Jewish religious practice, like many of his Jewish friends. Some of them had converted to Christianity, and they urged Franz to do likewise. After all, they lived a modern German Christian world, and Judaism was just a relic of a bygone era that held little meaning for them. Franz agreed. He would convert to Christianity. But he felt that he owed it to Judaism to give it one more try. So when the High Holidays came around, he went to a tiny shul for Kol Nidre services.
Just this past weekend, I was fortunate enough to be at my sister Becky’s wedding in Washington D.C. I left from Etz Chaim on Friday afternoon and had my kippah on. I do wear it often, but not always when I’m travelling; mostly because it falls off. However, I forgot to take it off, and I was on the plane when the flight attendant asked me about it and I explained I am a rabbi. She said, “That’s wonderful.” My wife Rebecca was with me and it was explained we were both rabbis.
When I was 16, I was fortunate to take a summer camp trip to Alaska. This was an adventure trip through the Canadian Rockies and Alaska that included hikes, a sea kayaking trip and many other outdoor activities. We traveled throughout the state, but the furthest north we went was the Pinnell Mountain range. We split into three groups, each covering a section of the mountain for a three day back country trip. On the second night my group was told that there was going to be, as there will be on the first night of Sukkot, a full moon. However there were two issues with seeing the moon.
Last week I was given the opportunity to sit on a panel at the Chicago Board of Rabbis to discuss whether or not to present politics and candidates’ positions from our Bimah on High Holidays. There, I told a story from my childhood: My parents were founding members of a now very prestigious and well known Westchester County, NY synagogue. Once its Rabbi gave a sermon which, in my parents’ eyes, favored one political candidate over another. My parents not only left that Temple, they left the Reform Movement!