March 3, 2024 -
This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple contains Rabbi Joshua Caruso’s sermon from Yom Kippur Morning 5775 in the Congregational Service of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, on Saturday, October 11, 2014. We encourage you to share this post with friends by email, to share comments below on the post, and to share it on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, so as to generate a discussion of the meaningful themes shared here.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the legendary spiritual leader and composer of Jewish music, came to the United States from Austria as a teenager, a refugee from the Nazis. Every so often he would go back to Austria and Germany to give concerts, and people would ask him, “How can you go back there and give perform? Don’t you hate them after what they did to you? Don’t you hate the Austrians and the Germans?” And this is what Shlomo would say to anyone who asked him this question: “I only have one soul. If I had two souls, I would gladly devote one of them to hating the Germans full time. But I don’t. I have one soul, and I am not going to waste it on hating.”
Life is filled with choices; some hard and some easy. Reb Shlomo had lived through unspeakable circumstances, yet he chose to fill his one soul with joyous song instead of hatred. On Yom Kippur it often feels like we don’t have choices, as if we are just actors in a frightening play – a play for which we were never give the script!
It is our tradition to close out these Ten Days of Repentance with the Neilah service at the end of the day heading into nightfall. In Hebrew, Neilah means, “Locking”, which conveys the not-so-subtle message that time is running out, and that we mustcome to a resolution with others, with God, and with ourselves before the Gates of Repentance are closed and locked, and we are “sealed” in the Book of Life. Envelopes and pressure cookers are sealed – but what about a life? To be sealed sounds dangerously irreversible. Indeed, we can feel helpless that we have no control during these days and that God is the puppeteer pulling on all the strings.
The language and rituals are very dramatic as our tradition intentionally builds up the suspense. We are meant to feel the gravity of the moment. In particular, the Unetaneh Tokef prayers convey a healthy dose of dread:
Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day: It is awesome and full of dread. For on this day Your dominion is exalted. Your throne established in steadfast love……You are Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness. You write and You seal, You record and recount… On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…
In these words one can feel the looming threat of opportunities unmet, relationships unreconciled, and forgiveness unattained. All of this liturgical drama is meant to convey the weight of our obligation to make things right. And for those of us who search for meaning in this day, it works. I do find myself on the eve of most High Holy Days seizing a free moment to be in contact with someone I have not spoken to in a while, reaching out to loved ones I have neglected, and connecting with members of our temple community who are need of some extra Tender Loving Care. This is the time of year to recognize that all of our lives hang in the balance, with no guarantee that we will be together for next year’s High Holidays.
Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is traditional to greet people with the salutation, “G’mar Chatimah Tovah b’Sefer Chaim Tovim” – “may you be sealed for good in the Book of Life”. The “sealing” implies a tying up of “loose ends”, a closing of unfinished business; like a Ziploc bag from which nothing can get in – or go out.
But tying up those loose ends is not as easy as it sounds. Our unfinished business is made up of vestigial remnants of relationships in which rifts will never fully be resolved. We carry bits and pieces, strands and loose threads that we have never been able to sew up. Like a tear in a fabric that can never be fully repaired without leaving evidence of the damage, the unfinished business of our lives becomes part of who we are – the scars and scratches influencing how we feel about ourselves and how we function in other relationships.
It is true that these Days of Awe are about tying up those loose ends between you and me. But they are ultimately about settling old scores with ourselves. After all, Yom Kippur is regarded in the Torah as a personal Sabbath for you – for us (Shabbat Shabaton Hee LaChem), while every other Sabbath of the year is intended to honor God (Shabbat L’Adonai). This particular Sabbath – this day – is for us to consider the unfinished business that gnaws at and bedevils us. Yom Kippur is meant for us to reconcile those threads of resentment, guilt, and hurt in hopes that in the coming year we will feel more whole, less burdened by the tears (sounds, like “air”)…and tears (sounds like, “ear”) in the fabric of our lives.
Sometimes this can be done by confronting those who have wronged us. But sometimes those who wronged us simply don’t have the capacity to tell us what we long to hear. Perhaps part of the purpose of today is identifying what WE are able to change internally in order to move on with our OWN lives.
What keeps us from moving ahead? Do we not confront those who have wronged us because we would rather hold on to those grudges, nursing our bumps and bruises for the power it seems to give us? Are we loathe to have our fears confirmed, that those who have hurt us have their own limitations that prevent them from being who we want them to be? Do we not ask others to forgive us for what we have done wrong because that would make us too vulnerable, and strip away our own pride?
It’s so much easier to buy into the awesome imagery of the liturgy, to passively wait for God to render “judgment” or “mercy” upon us. To wait, trembling, as God decides if we can make it safely into the Book of Life before those gates close. But what if we turned the traditional concept of Yom Kippur on its head? What if, instead of focusing on the imagery of those closing gates, we consider the idea that Yom Kippur can be about openings?
With all of the dramatic liturgy about the closing of the gates, and of the sealing of the Book of Life, the pages of our Yom Kippur prayer book feature entreaties to, “Open the gates, “Pitchu Li…shaarey tzedek…avo vam…odeh yah”. This, too, ispart of our liturgy. “Open for us the gates of righteousness, we shall enter to praise the Lord”…Yet the gates only open when we are prepared to walk through them.
Open the gates to release past wrongs and hurts.
Open the gates not only to allow others to offer forgiveness, but to forgive ourselves for nursing those hurts instead of letting them go.
Open up the gates to ourselves, to allow the vulnerability required to see ourselves and others differently.
Open up the gates to new opportunities for reconciliation.
I offer an example:
Sugar Ray Leonard was one of the top boxers in the late 1970s and 1980s. In 1980, Sugar Ray went up against one of the best fighters in the game, Roberto Duran. In that fight, afterwards dubbed “The Brawl in Montreal”, the match went the distance – all 15 rounds, and Duran won the match on a split decision. Of course, a rematch was inevitable; as Leonard wanted to prove that he could win against the best.
From the opening bell of the rematch, Leonard was confident and looked far superior in the opening rounds. At one point, in the 7th round, Leonard began to toy with Duran, faking him out, clowning around, even mocking him. Duran couldn’t figure him out. In the 8th round, Duran flat out quit the fight by uttering two of the most memorable words ever spoken in professional boxing: No Mas (“No More”). Leonard was, as one would expect, jubilant. But at the press conference afterwards, the media began to question the authenticity of the win. Leonard got defensive, asserting that he was the champion of the world, fair and square. The headline the next day, however, read, “Duran quits” not, “Leonard wins”. Despite many theories, no one ever learned why Duran quit. For Leonard, he long ago resolved that the book was closed on this fight – his legacy sealed as the champ who didn’t win the fight on his own merits. This fact dogged Leonard for decades, a disappointment with no prospect of resolution.
But the producers of ESPN, the cable sports network, suggested to Sugar Ray that he finally get closure on the “No Mas” fight by visiting Duran in his hometown in Panama, and asking him what really happened at the rematch in New Orleans – what everyone refers to as the “No Mas” fight. Leonard made the journey to Central America, looking forward to finding an answer to the question that had been left unresolved for nearly three decades.
Leonard came seeking the truth. He felt Duran owed it to him. And Sugar Ray opened up with the question he had always dreamed of asking, “I want to know what happened. I think the world wants to know what happened that night.” But from the very start, it became apparent that Duran could not meet the moment. He looked smaller, weaker – he was no longer the fighter with hands of stone. He began to explain himself away, issuing the same unsatisfying reasons that were dispatched by his camp decades ago. Even so, something in Leonard decided to let it go, and the long-anticipated encounter ended with an embrace. After that meeting, here’s what Leonard said:
“I backed off…I admit it…because I saw him struggling… I looked in his eyes…and I saw something in him that he has not been totally able to deal with …there was nothing else I could do but embrace him…there was nothing else I could do but let him go…there will always be questions or debates on what actually happened…to be honest with you that really doesn’t make a difference with me anymore…and that is the most amazing part of this whole journey…confronting this…confronting him…I’m just gonna be the bigger man…and let it go…”
Leonard proved that whatever our future holds, we can choose our own redemption story. We can open ourselves up to seeing the humanity and vulnerability in those who have hurt us. Leonard learned that his own personal happiness could not be contingent on unanswered questions from long ago. We all go through situations that result in uncomfortable feelings, in loose threads that remain unstitched. Someone treats us unfairly. We say something we shouldn’t have said. Circumstances beyond our control have devastating consequences for our lives. What do we do with those feelings? Will we close them up and seal them within us, allowing the loose threads to become tangled and knotted? Will we nurse them, feed them, and allow them to take on a life of their own? Will we allow them to affect how we feel about ourselves? Right here –today – we can unlock the sealed pain. We can choose to open ourselves to new possibilities.
Pitchu Li…Shaarey Tzedek…avo vam odeh yah.
Open up the gates to confront that which remains unsettled within.
Open up the gates to gain wisdom through experience.
Open them up to a renewed sense of self.
Open those gates wide so we can tender forgiveness not just to others, but to ourselves.
Open up the gates in order that we can relieve the burdens that weigh us down and trail along in our unconscious.
Open up those gates.
To Aric Knuth it probably felt like the gates of resolution and forgiveness had closed long ago. Ira Glass, Host of “This American Life,” tells the story of little Aric, whose father was in the merchant marines. Glass narrated, “He would be in Guam, or Scotland, or God knows where. And Aric would record these cassettes, send them off to him.” And here is little Aric speaking on one of those tapes:
Child Aric: “Have you been in the desert? Did the Easter Bunny send you an Easter basket? If he did, you better make sure there are no lizards in it. Dad, when are you going to be coming back up to stay? I’m anxious to see you or at least hear your voice. Yeah, send me a tape, Dad.”
Ira Glass describes how Aric’s request, that his father record a tape for him, is repeated over and over again on these tapes. His hope that his dad would respond was so great that every cassette that he sent, he would only record on one side. The other side was blank for his dad to fill in and send back.
Even though his dad had received Aric’s cassette tapes, he never recorded anything on the blank side. Years later, Aric decided to confront his dad about it. He played those tapes back for his dad, and his dad cried and cried, pleading for his son to stop playing them. When Aric asked why his dad had never sent a tape back, his father had no excuse. “I was a failure, total failure in that. I should have had the strength to do it. I didn’t have the strength to do that.” As you can imagine, these answers did not provide a healing salve for Aric. Although he is now a grown-up, he had always been haunted by wondering why his dad let him down. Had he done something wrong? If he were a better son, would his father have responded to him? Even though Aric didn’t get the answer he sought, confronting his father allowed him to move on. He realized that whatever the reasons were, they lay in his father’s limitations and didn’t mean anything about Aric himself. That didn’t mean that the wounds would go away. There was no perfect closure, but Aric was able to release the burden he had been harboring for years and years. By opening himself up, Aric found an opportunity for personal redemption. Like Leonard, the boxing champ, Aric opened up what had been sealed within him for years, and chose to no longer nurse the pain and the hurt he had been feeling. He opened up the gates of forgiveness.
Pitchu Li…Shaarey Tzedek… “Open the gates; open them wide…”
Even before there was a Yom Kippur, or a proper Jewish concept of reconciliation and forgiveness, the biblical Joseph struggled with how to reconcile his troubled past. Let’s be honest…Joseph certainly exhibited a sense of self-importance, and it didn’t ingratiate him to his brothers. They thought he was a spoiled brat! When given the opportunity, they threw him into a pit, and then sold him, and he ended up in Egypt. To cover up what they did to Joseph, the brothers told their father, Jacob, who immediately tore his clothing – the threads of which could never be made whole again.
While Jacob thought his son dead, Joseph – in a splash of biblical serendipity – went from being a prisoner in Egypt to a position of authority second only to Pharaoh himself. Many years later, his brothers appeared, pleading for provisions to tide them over during a brutal famine that had brought the region to its knees. When they presented themselves before the royal vizier (their long, lost sibling left for dead) the brothers didn’t recognize Joseph…but he knew them. By this time, Joseph had emerged into a great leader. He had riches, status, and a family of his own. Yet still, there was something missing. He knew he belonged to a people, and to a father and brothers who were a part of him.
At first he did all he could to conceal his identity from his brothers; he tried to keep the closed book of his past life with them sealed. But he belonged to them, and they to him. In a rare instance of emotion – one where the passion palpably spills off the pages of the Torah – Joseph made himself known to his brothers and cried so deeply…and sobbed so loudly…that all of Egypt heard him. The brothers embraced, and Joseph directed them to inform his father immediately.
No, he could never erase the pain of abandonment, the sting of being shunned by his family. However, he could choose, as did Sugar Ray Leonard and grown-up Aric, to let go of past hurts to reclaim his future. He chose to walk through the opening of the gates of righteousness, of love, and connection to reclaim a part of himself. And most importantly, he chose to close the book on resentment and seal shut the door of open-ended anger and loss. Let it be said that not every relationship is recoverable, and not every bond can be reclaimed. Only we can know the limits and boundaries of forgiveness. But if the threads of a relationship can be pieced together, and if there is the possibility of resolution we must seize it!
This is what today is about.
“Forgiving is letting go of resentment. It’s accepting all the parts of another person; the good and the bad”. Not condoning them, but accepting them. You can choose. Do you want to be the person who resents or who forgives? You have the freedom to choose how you function in your relationships…And here’s the thing… “If we want others to forgive us, we must learn to forgive others.”
Let this day be both easy and demanding of us. Let this day be about resolving our relationships with others, but most important with ourselves. Let it be a day when, instead of passively waiting to see if we will be inscribed in the Book of Life before the Gates of Repentance close, we actively choose to open the Gates of Righteousness. For Yom Kippur offers us the opportunity to find our path through those open gates.