Happy New Year. Shana
As we begin this
Kol Nidre evening our thoughts turn to the contemplation of our lives. For the
last ten days since Rosh Hashanah we should have been engaged in a conversation
with God to plead our case for atonement.
If you haven’t yet had that conversation with God I welcome you to do so
tonight. So let me wish you all the
traditional greeting for Yom Kippur:
In Hebrew:” Gmar Chatimah Tovah “which is translated: “May
the Odds Ever be in your favor.”
Tonight begins the Jewish version of
the Hunger Games. It is one of the most popular book series and movies of all
If you are not familiar with the
Hunger Games—it centers on the story of the brave young woman Katniss
Everdeen. The stories take place in a
post-apocalyptic America now named Panem.
There are now 12 districts rather than 50 states and each year the
districts must provide two teenage competitors for the annual Hunger Games. This fight to the death for the amusement of
the bourgeois Capitol district is a semi-controlled pageant and death Olympics
that brings so called “honor” and much needed food to the sole winner and his
or her district. All the districts serve
the Capitol and its outlandish inhabitants in this dystopian view of the world.
They fight hard to rebel against this
end of the world scenario of slavery and death in the Hunger Games. Yom Kippur is our time to fight hard for our
souls and ourselves. . It is our time to
right those bad habits that have enslaved us. So that we can claim once again the image of
God that each of us possesses Kol Nidre is the first step in renewing our
Godliness and our helping us focus on our goodness! Tonight is a rebellion of
sorts against the sins of our past, and a push toward creating a new liberated
path for ourselves.
By the end of Yom Kippur if you are
fasting you may be physically hungry but the idea is to be spiritually full. Even
though we refrain from eating physically, we are replenishing our spiritual
fuel. It’s like detoxing and rebalancing
our spiritual selves all at once. When we fast we create a physical void and
allow ourselves tonight to feast on spirituality. The High Holy Days and
fasting are spiritual disciplines that will let our spirits soar higher and our
inner divine light to shine forth once again. The rituals of Yom Kippur,
fasting, refraining from sex, from being concerned with our physical
appearance- allows our souls to reach higher.
ancient Kol Nidre melody helps our souls go higher. It frees us from our past
our vows that we failed to keep this time last year and helps us enter this
Unlike the “Hunger Games “this is not
a fight to the death physically. But it
is the death of the old you. It is a
time to annihilate the old tattered self-and emerge tomorrow evening with a
fresh new you; a fresh new soul that is free from shame and free from guilt,
free from sins large and small. We are
taught during Yom Kippur to keep what is good within but this is our chance to
toss out that which damages the essence of our humanity. Tonight we remind
ourselves that we are made in the image of God
On Yom Kippur –we
say in our prayers: s’lach lanu, machal
lanu , kaper lanu,
Forgive us, wipe the slate clean and grant us atonement.
Forgive us, God,
from our sins and errors and trespasses, wipe out our shame and guilt and
restore our relationships with you Divine One and help us do so with
others. That is atonement-when we
restore our relationships with God and with others and with ourselves
If only it were
easy! If only we could make those
changes in a snap or a seek forgiveness in an instance. But I am not sure it
would be as effective. Imagine If only
we could apologize for our errors and sins, and our trespasses done to God and
others and ourselves and be done with it quickly! Imagine we could make it all
right with just a push of a button.
In fact Tom and Ray Magilozzi who
write a column for Cars.com wrote about this very idea. They wrote a column about “Features We'd
Really Like to See in All Cars”. Along
with improvements in tires and brakes
and suspension systems they imagined this:
10. 'Sorry!' Button
Is there anything that we need more
on the roads today than a "Sorry!" button? We often do bad or dumb
things when we drive, and we have no way to communicate remorse. It might just
lead to a little more civility.
As it stands now, when you tick off
another driver, he or she has little choice but to remind you that you're a
moron. Then you have to retaliate with a clever retort like, "Oh, yeah?
Well, you're a moron, too!" Say you're sorry, though, and you break the
cycle. A "Sorry!" button could defuse a lot of otherwise explosive
situations — not to mention, it would generate a good deal of karma.
While we're at it, we'd like to have
two buttons, "Sorry!" and "You jerk!" Except when you press
the "Jerk" button ... your car still says, "I'm sorry!"
Nice, huh? We thought so.
But Repentance doesn’t come with a
push of the button. It won’t come at all
unless you push yourself. It only comes
from actually confronting what You
did to screw up and committing not to do it again and repairing the damage if
you can and finally by making amends to the person and to God.
Tonight I want to
you to think about three things in your year that you regret. That you shouldn’t have done but did
anyway. The words you said that you
shouldn’t have. The shading of the truth
that gave you an unfair advantage. The
charity that asked you for money but you lied a bit and claimed you didn’t have
it. The way you avoided someone at the
grocery store. The promises to call that
you never made. The way you rejected your spouse to punish them for some slight
real or imagined. The harsh judgments you made on a co-worker not really understanding
what was happening to them. The way you
felt entitled to special treatment and demanded it but you know you really
didn’t. The valet you treated as less than human by not even looking him in the
eyes when he handed you the key and the checker at the grocery store with whom
you got impatient. That you were rude to
your neighbor. The way you critiqued someone under the guise of humor but you
knew it was true. The fight you had with your sibling that caused you not to
speak any more. The cousin who asked you for money for the thousandth time that
is annoying. When you lost your temper needlessly, snapped at your children or
an elderly parent. Or your addictions got the best of you including being too
tied to your phone?
I want you to reflect on your reactions,
your behaviors in response to all these situations. What could you have done differently? How you might have responded with caring?
any of these are on your personal list or not-the beauty of Judaism is that no
matter our trespasses we come here to seek to improve ourselves. The Al Cheyt prayer enumerates exactly these
sins we have just mentioned. We seek forgiveness from the small things and the
big things. And we mention them all
whether we have actually done them or not because we confess together as a
community recognizing we all have the capacity to sin.
That’s a harsh word sin. We Jews all too often associate it with
Evangelicals preachers we see on television.
But sin is our original word.
Sins are real. I always tried to
side step this word trying not to be too judgmental but the truth is there are
sins. If we assert there is a Jewish system of living, ethics and rules and
order that is Judaism. Then there is sin.
Sometimes we sin against God and sometimes we sin against other people
and sometimes we sin against ourselves.
In fact we have several words for
sinning in Hebrew. Like the Inuit –the
Indigenous tribes of the Alaska and Canada that have many names for snow -we
have at least six different words in the Tanach that refer to sin. And we have
many more in the Ashamnu prayer we just sang. Our words for sin have
Chet, Pesha, Avone are Sin, transgression and moral failing.
In the most general terms here are some definitions. Chet means going astray…
you have wandered off from the Halacha (the Jewish path, the Jewish legal path.
It is an unintentional sin. You have missed the mark. Pesha is a transgression it means an
intentional sin going against God. That you willingly chose to do. An
Aveirah-is an iniquity-a sin of passion or lust- a sin not meant to deny God
but a sin never the less.
But the truth is
that to atone for these sins this takes work.
It is more than a quick push of the button, saying “I’m sorry. “
In Jewish tradition
the face to face ask is one of the hardest.
Near the end of tractate Yoma, the Mishnah limits the scope of the Day
For sins between humanity and God,
Yom Kippur atones. But for sins between people Yom Kippur does not atone until
the injured party is appeased.
Kol Nidre and Yom
Kippur are here to help us be free from those sins that which diluted our
spiritual strength since last year. That caused a problem in our relationship
with God. But the sins you committed
against others –the time has come for a face to face encounter. That is the hardest amend to make. Hardest to admit and hardest to do. And a general statement on Facebook doesn’t
has the possibility of being a day of
reconciliation with those we have hurt.
Our ancient ancestors they had it
easy. They went to the Temple which
stood in Jerusalem. On Yom Kippur they
brought the Proper sacrificial offering, they fasted and prayed and were
absolved. The High Priest would send
out a goat to Azazel – out into the wilderness with all of our sins transferred
to it. Banishing our sins for another
year. But what about after the temple’s
destruction? What about for us now?
Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan states the following:
One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben
Zakkai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehosua, they arrived at where the
Temple now stood in ruins. "Woe to us" cried Rabbi Yehosua, "for
this house where atonement was made for Israel's sins now lies in ruins!"
Answered Rabban Yochanan, "We have another, equally important source of
atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim ("loving kindness"), as
the prophet Hosea stated "I desire
loving kindness and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6).
And not just Hosea-but all of our prophets. Tomorrow morning we will read the Haftarah
from Isaiah. Isaiah will remind us that
God doesn’t want empty rituals, and empty prayers. God wants from us is action. Apologies to the person, Caring for the sick,
feeding the hungry, clothing the naked.
Isaiah wants to remind us that God demands our caring for our fellow
human beings above empty rituals and sacrifice.
And so along with the prayers
tonight, and along with actually making amends to those you have hurt
intentionally or unintentionally and making amends there is a third piece to
atonement . A Third pillar of this
soul-polishing is chesed-acts of lovingkindness
This third pillar the act of kindness
is no different now than in time of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. There are real people who are suffering in
our midst. We see in it the Congo. And our work with Jewish World Watch has
helped our community focus on Darfur, and the problems in the Congo.
But right here in our own congregation there
is suffering. There are still plenty who have no jobs. Or are only able to find
part time jobs and so they have no health care. There are many who have no one
to care for them in their senior years.
There are many of us who suffer such great sadnesses, depression, health
problems and grief. There is real
suffering in our midst. But if we ignore it, if we pass by the mourner without
offering words of comfort then we have sinned against God, and other people,
and ourselves. Gemilut Chassadim- acts of lovingkindness not only helps redeem
us from our own sins, transgressions and errors but helps us build our own
spiritual lives as well. Acts of Chesed help us transform our souls and those
of other people.
As my good friend and one of the
first women Orthodox rabbis, Dina Najman wrote, “Tzedakah is sparked by the
demands of compassion. One cannot bear to see a person suffering, so one is
compelled by a sense of sympathy to help the other. If that present need did
not exist, there would be no compassion necessary and no charity given.
Chesed requires a broader, more sensitive heart and a generosity
of spirit to be integrated into one’s personality. Chesed then, will not be a reaction
forthcoming only in response to sadness.
It will be an ever-present quality which will anticipate needs,
understand other’s limitations, search for solutions and initiate acts of
benevolence, even when unstated or un-noticed by the recipient.”
Acts of chesed are considered the
realm of our Ancestor Abraham. When we act with Chesed towards those around
us… When we reach out in kindness to the
person who is depressed or mourning or alone we change the worlds’ reality and
we change our own reality. When we let
the quality of Chesed flow from God through us into the world then we will
begin to heal the deep holes left in our soul from sin or our own grief and
heal those we help.
Abraham is the representative of
Chesed-lovingkindess. If only we could
match his Chesed – his lovingkindness, teach our sages.
As a result his acts of love and
kindness, Chesed is built into our entire Jewish way of life. We don’t just have random acts of
kindness-but in Judaism our chesed should overflow from our being and not just
be random but it ought to be our state of mind.
In the Mishnah and in the Morning
worship service we read Eilu divarim she ayn la hem shiur : these are the
obligations without measure whose reward too is without measure. One of the items on the list of ten is: To
perform acts of love and kindness-even though this quality should flow freely
from us-it is also a responsibility as Jews.
Chesed Lovingkindness –is the mark of
caring for others. It is the way of
gentleness. It is the idea of radical
A IL Peretz story
retold by British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Every Friday morning before dawn, the Rebbe of Nemirov would
He could be found in none of the town’s synagogues or houses
of study. The doors of his house were
open but he was not there. Once a
Lithuanian scholar came to Nemirov.
Puzzled by the Rebbe’s disappearance he asked his followers. ‘Where is
he?’ ‘Where is the Rebbe?’ they replied. ‘Where else but in heaven? The people
of the town need peace, sustenance, health.
The Rebbe is a holy man and therefore he is
surely in heaven, pleading our cause.’
amused by the credulity, determined to find out for himself.
One Thursday night he hid himself in the Rebbe’s house. The next morning before dawn he heard the
Rebbe weep and sigh. Then he saw him go
to the cupboard, take out a parcel of clothes and begin to put them on. They were the clothes, not of a holy man, but
of a peasant. The Rebbe then reached
into a drawer, pulled out an axe, and went out into the still dark night. Stealthily, the Lithuanian followed him as he
walked through the town and beyond, into the forest. There he began chopping down a tree, hewing
it into logs, and splitting it into firewood.
These he gathered into a bundle and walked back into the town.
In one of the back
streets, he stopped outside a run-down cottage and
knocked on the door.
An old woman, poor and ill, opened the door. ‘Who are you?’ she said.
‘I am Vassily’, the
Rebbe replied. ‘I have wood to sell, very cheap, next to
‘I have no money’, replied the woman.
‘I will give it to you on credit’, he said.
‘How will I be able to pay you?’ she said. ‘I trust you – and
do you not trust God He will find a way of seeing that I am repaid.’
‘But who will light
the fire? I am too ill.’
‘I will light the
fire’, the Rebbe replied, and he did so, reciting under his
breath the morning prayers.
Then he returned home. The
Lithuanian scholar, seeing this, stayed on in the town and became one of the
Rebbe’s disciples. After that day, when
he heard the people of the town tell visitors that the Rebbe ascended to
heaven, he no longer laughed, but added: ‘And maybe even higher.’
Judaism gently teaches us through the stories of the Torah
that true goodness is not carried out in a blaze of glory.
True goodness and giving that we call
Chesed often involves nurturing and caring in little ways that go unseen. Often when it’s hard. Often when it hurts. Often
when it’s not really “my job.” Impacting this world is not reserved for the
knight in shining armor, for the airbrushed faces of Hollywood. It is the responsibility and right of every
one of us—with all of our talents and strengths, and yes, with all of our
weaknesses. We, and our loved ones, are immortalized long after we are gone,
through the kind acts on this earth—the comforting whisper to a frightened
child, the mending of a broken heart, the giving of charity when we need to dig
deep, the patience and forbearance to a cantankerous relative, the nourishing
home-cooked meal delivered with love . . .
It is through this goodness and
giving that we touch the divine, ascending higher than heaven.”
Tonight I am asking
you to each go Higher this year. I am asking you to help wipe your sins away
through acts of chesed. Acts of lovingkindness.
I am asking you to hear the call of our Ancestors- like Abraham and
Sarah who brought chesed into the core values of our Tradition. I am asking you
to stop focusing only on yourself and focus your chesed-your kindness on
For a number of years our Chesed
Committee has remained moribund. With
few to take on the responsibilities and joys of bringing kindness to those who
are homebound, who are ill, who are in mourning. This is the year to rejuvenate this important
group within the life of our congregation- I am looking for people who will
want to dedicate some of their time and energy this year to bringing Chesed to
others, to calling on the sick and homebound and comfort the mourner and to
make the guest feel welcomed. Chesed
–lovingkindess in all we do-is the theme of the year and we will feel the
redemptive power of acting with chesed.
For those of you who are not yet
members along with those who are members I am also asking you to remember that
these times are still tough for so many.
1 out of six Angelenos are hungry.
Sova, our Jewish food pantry that serves everyone regardless of religion
moved a couple of doors away from Kol Ami on La Brea two years ago. Each
morning the line to get food snakes past the temple and wraps around the block. At holidays, Thanksgiving, Pesach, especially
the line is triple. They used to serve approximately 7000 a month. Since the
2008 recession those numbers are now more than double. These are the real Hunger Games.
And hunger is to get worse since the
Farm Bill which reauthorizes Food Assistance formerly known as Food Stamps was
not acted upon by the House. The present
5 year law expires on September 30 and many programs that affect our farmers
who are facing the worst drought since the dustbowl in the early part of the 20th
century will be affected.
The biggest impact
of the proposed bill though would be in America’s anti-hunger safety net, SNAP
(still known by most folks as the Food Stamp program, and CalFresh here in
California.) SNAP accounts for 80% of Farm Bill funding and is currently
helping 46 million Americans survive during this extended recession, most of
who are unemployed or work at low wage jobs, or who have disabilities and can’t
work, and of whom a huge number are children.
In the bill that
was proposed, some $16 billion is cut out of the SNAP program over ten years,
particularly affecting seniors and others with high utility bills in certain
states, possibly affecting thousands of people locally in California who’ve
been able to get benefits under new rules that allow people to keep more
assets, and putting immigrant families with fully qualified members under added
But With no Farm
bill passed and congress gone home…. Things will get worse right here in
California and around our nation for those who depend upon Food Assistance to
simply survive. This is a time for Chesed because the Hunger
Games are about to get worse.
This is the time that we as a
community must step up as never before.
Chesed is one of the ways we work through our sins and make
atonement. One way to do this is to help
bring food to those who need it. I am
asking you to make a commitment to bring canned food with you to temple
tomorrow as never before. And I am
asking you to do that every time you come to synagogue. I am asking you to volunteer with our Team
Sova-that goes to help. I am asking you
to get involved in our Game night once a month on Thursday and our Thanksgiving
program for the seniors of Triangle Square I am asking you if you have fruit
trees on your property to let us arrange a fruit pick so that the fruit doesn’t
get wasted and can go to food banks around town. I am asking you to let Chesed flow through
you into the world to help change the world and yes, change you.
There are other ways Chesed can be
expressed. Tonight I have given you several easy examples of how you can let
chesed-lovingkindess become part of your everyday life. Maybe it’s not as easy as a Push of the
button but all of these will help you do the work of atonement. And help redeem you from your sins.
All we have comes from God—yes-Judaism
believes we have a responsibility to share it with others.
On this holy
night the time of atonement-is here. The
time to confront our sins and ask for forgiveness has arrived. It’s time to reach higher than you did last
I know you can.