Below follows my Erev Yom Kippur Sermon for 5778.
Tomorrow, thousands of people will gather in a communal act of love and justice. Actually, Two. One
, is the holiday
we begin tonight, a holiday that calls us to task and asks us to be our better
selves. The other is the March for Racial Justice, a march taking place on
Washington on a day, tomorrow, that is incredibly significant for African
Americans, a day commemorating the massacre of hundreds of African Americans in
Arkansas in 1919, one of too many days in American history drenched in blood.
But by scheduling this march on Yom Kippur, it appeared as if the organizers
were purposefully excluding Jews, who have been at the forefront of racial
justice in North America, from David Einhorn and the abolitionists before the
Civil War to the Jewish Freedom Riders and
rabbis who went to the south to fight for desegregation and voting rights
to today. It looked bad…until a day in late August, when the organizers put out
an apology. A heartfelt one, recognizing the shared crisis of racism and
antisemitism we are facing in the United States today and their own failure to
recognize the date of Yom Kippur being in conflict. They could have stopped
there, but they didn’t. They asked for forgiveness in the spirit of the
holiday, recognized that self-denial and fasting is not just a spiritual act
but one of resistance, and that we use the holiday to reflect on the ills of
society and not only our personal failings. And while they couldn’t change the
date of the primary march, they were adding other events afterwards and in
other cities to create opportunities to include Jews as allies and partners in
the work of racial healing and social justice.
In other words, they made Teshuvah.
Tonight, we begin our Day of Atonement, our last chance to reflect on our actions from the past year and decide what kind of people we want to be. The next 24 hours we will be focused, as commanded, on self-denial, mostly fasting, and concluding these 10 Days of Awe, themselves part of several weeks of penitence; a final, last-ditch effort to make Teshuvah, to turn in true repentance and try to live up to our better selves. Even more than that, the scholar Adin Steinsaltz describes Teshuvah as “the ever-present possibility of changing one’s life and the very direction of one’s life”, and “the possibility of altering reality after the fact.”
When we talk about Teshuvah, repentance, and kapparah, atonement, we often talk about the idea of selicha, of apology. Classically, Teshuvah is made up of three parts: we are supposed to apologize for what we’ve done wrong, make amends or restitution to those we’ve offended, and make changes in our lives so that we don’t make the same mistake or cause the same harm again. But the focus is so often on asking forgiveness. Our liturgy emphasizes that idea of verbally saying “I’m sorry”, and we see all over social media and in person people saying something like, “if I have offended you I apologize and I forgive anyone who has offended me,” a reciprocal act of forgiveness. But Teshuvah is more than just the words we speak; it must be predicated our actions as well. To merely ask for forgiveness without doing the hard work of literally turning ourselves around is really an invitation to failure. It’s setting an expectation that we will do better and be better without having prepared ourselves to do either. It’s the spiritual equivalent of running a marathon without having ever done any exercise; without the training, the buildup of muscle and endurance both physical and mental, the race is already lost. Doesn’t matter if you paid the registration, got your number and had every intention of running and finishing; without the prep work, it’s over before it starts. The same is true for Teshuvah. To apologize is to set an expectation; that things will be different, that I will be better. That I will just somehow miraculously stop doing whatever it is I was doing to make the other person miserable. But without recompense and change in behavior, without doing some real hard work within my soul, then the words are only sounds.
And we each know someone who simply cannot apologize. To ask them to say, “I’m sorry” is a step too far. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad people or incapable of being thoughtful or self-reflective; they just can’t say those words. Or perhaps that description resonates within us, ourselves. Maybe it’s too embarrassing, or it feels like weakness. But for whatever reason the words “I’m sorry”, meant to be a phrase that facilitates catharsis, instead becomes an obstacle to real Teshuvah.
Is real Teshuvah, real repentance, possible without an apology? That’s tough. For many of us, hearing an apology is a necessary moment of engagement; it’s that point where we evaluate the sincerity of the offending individual. And, frankly, it’s sometimes self-satisfying to be told by someone that they were wrong and we were right. It’s gratifying to have someone come to us in humility. But is it truly necessary?
To understand that I want to share what I think is one of the greatest examples of contrition and Teshuvah in the modern experience, and the words “I’m sorry” were never spoken.
Many people wondered what President George W. Bush was going to do when he left office in 2009. At the time a deeply unpopular president, one who had presided over a Recession, two enormous wars, and one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the United States, “Dubya” was never one to apologize. In fact, he cast himself as a man of steely resolve, the “Decider” who, despite initially wanting to create a humbler presidency, never could admit a wrong, at least publicly. Surely there were tears shed privately, as we learned later, when confronted by the parents of soldiers sent off to war only to return broken, or not at all. But that was never articulated to the public.
So, it was a surprise to learn that this least-introspective president had taken up painting. Taking lessons and self-teaching, he seemed to be cultivating a quirky hobby in his political retirement, painting self-portraits, including of him coming out of the shower, which no one wanted to see. There were a lot of laughs at his expense as a result. But it turned out all of this was practice, laying a groundwork to focus on a specific project. Last year, it was revealed that former-President Bush had been learning to paint so he could paint the portraits of men and women he had ordered to serve in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom were profoundly wounded, either physically or psychologically. He released a book this year of his portraits, called “Portraits of Courage”, which highlight the biographies of the former soldiers he painted, many of whom suffered post-traumatic stress and brain injuries. The proceeds from the book go to an organization that helps wounded warriors with employment, treatment and recovery for their injuries, etc.
Friends, George W. Bush never apologized in the way the organizers for the March for Justice did. He never apologized for the forever wars we are still fighting. He never apologized for sending our children into harm’s way. He never asked this country's forgiveness for his choices, and we’ll never know if he apologized to those men and women who did their duty, be it with enthusiasm or reluctance. But is there any other way to understand this effort? And how could we not open our hearts to this action, this choice, this act of contrition, no less profound than that of the March organizers gearing up for tomorrow. Each in their own way made a choice to alter reality after the fact, to open themselves up to the possibility that they could turn, and in turning, be reborn. That very same choice is before us; tonight, tomorrow, and each and every day. It’s only up to us to resolve that we will embrace those opportunities to alter ourselves and our experiences. May we have the courage to do so. Amen.