Yom Kippur Drasha by Ittay Flescher

Just as Yom Kippur is the climax of the 10 days of repentance, so Neila is the climax of Yom Kippur. The heavenly judgement inscribed on Rosh Hashana is sealed during Neilah. According to the Artscroll siddur, one should try and bring oneself to tears during Neila. In order to facilitate the added fervour required for Neila, various customs have been adopted:

  • Open Ark
  • A respected rabbi leads the tfilla
  • Stand for the whole time
  • Moving melodies are used
  • Avinu malkeinu is recited
  • Before neila, a respected leader of the congregation exhorts the people to tearful repentance.

What can I say to make you cry? Nothing. But I can make you think.

The l
iturgy of yamim noraim with its constant refrains to choose between teshuva or death, invites us to ponder big questions about justice in this world.
-Is there justice in the world?
-Does justice mean everyone gets what they deserve?
-Is God just?

In the Book of Job this question is answered in the affirmative, but in the story of Sodom, perhaps the answer is no. In the story of Sodom God wants to inflict collective punishment on the entire city for the sins of having too much chessed or maybe not enough.

Is there a time when we should argue with God about justice like Avraham did when he said “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?

Avraham bargained for human life. He scolded God saying
“Far be it from you!
Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen 18:25)

Why argue with God? Would he really change his mind?

There was once a sage in Sodom, who would walk the streets shouting at the people to change their ways. At first some of them listened. But over time, they stopped listening and returned to their old lives. The sage continued to walk the streets and shout. One day a small boy approached the Sage. ‘Do you not know that they do not listen to you?’
the boy asked. ‘Yes, I know,” replied the Sage. “Then why do you keep shouting?”
“If I still shout,” answered the Sage, “it is no longer to change them, it is so they do not change me.” – Sage in Sodom (Elie Wiesel), told by Donna Jacobs Sife

In today’s world, I sometimes wonder whether we have lost the holy chutzpah to make the case for justice when injustice is being done in the name of God.

In today’s world there are so many crimes committed in the name of religion that faith has gone from being described as something noble and virtuous to something that is irrational and even immoral.

It doesn’t need be this way. In 2008, Karen Armstrong started a movement to change religion. As an academic who researched all of the world’s major religions, she found that every ‘major’ religion put at its core what's become known as the ‘Golden Rule’.

For Example:
Confucianism: “One concept sums up the basis of all good conduct… loving kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself” (Analects 15:23)
Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you” (Mahabharata 5:1517)
Islam (hadith): “None of you (truly) believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.
Taoism: Regard your neigbours gain as your own gain, and your neighbours loss as your own loss.
Christianity: In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. –Jesus, Matthew 7:12
Bahai: Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.
Judaism: Masechet Shabbat 31a

A certain heathen came to Shammai [a first century B.C.E. rabbi] and said to him, “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Thereupon he repulsed him with the rod which was in his hand. When he went to [Rabbi] Hillel, he said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and learn.”

Noticing that these religions had so much in common, Karen Armstrong launched the Charter for compassion in 2008. The aim of this charter was to get as many religious leaders and followers as possible to sign the charter. Armstrong felt that this would be the best way to turn religion from a force for evil, to a force for good. An extract from the charter reads:

Charter for compassion
We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

Thus far it has been signed by Dalai Lama, Tariq Ramadan, Desmond Tutu, Rabbi David Saperstein, Queen Nor of Jordan and has institutional support from Cordoba Initiative in New York to the Elijah Interfaith Institute in Israel. It has also been signed by over 50 000 other individual around the world.

This is one way to interpret religion.
I know what you thinking. How naïve is this. Religions exist to separate people by highlighting their differences and uniqueness. If one believed that we were all the same, it is more likely the text of choice would be john lennon’s imagine than it would be a text from any one of the holy books. That’s why when we are called to the torah we say ‘asher bachar banu MI call ha’amim” and not “asher bachar banu IM(with) kol ha’amim.

This Nihilistic view that religion and life are doomed to cause strife and should therefore be abandoned was one that confronted Viktor Frankl in his famous book, “Man’s search for meaning”

His friend says to him, “You must realize that the world is a joke. There is no justice, everything is random. Only when you realize this will you take yourself seriously. There is no grand purpose in the universe, it just is. There’s no particular meaning in what decision you make today about how to act.”

In our hyper “reality” driven world where fame is what happens to the person in Australia who can make the best guava custard snow egg on masterchef, this description seems highly apt.

However, this view must not prevail. In the final chapter of Frankl’s book aptly titled "The Case for a Tragic Optimism" Frankl makes the case that people will benefit from an optimistic perspective of life no matter what their hardships. According to logotherapy, meaning is a tangible, down to earth concept. Frankl reiterates the three ways for people to arrive at meaning: accomplishing something, experiencing something or encountering someone, or turning a personal tragedy into triumph.
Frankl’s golden rule is this:

“Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted wrongly the first time.”
I think the strongest case for optimism and compassion in the world comes from the prophet Yishayahu. The biggest dreamer of them all. He dreams that one day “all nations will beat their swords into plow shares and turn their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, and that they shall never again know war.” (Isaiah 2:4)

I argue that dreaming about utopian visions about what the world could be is not utopian or naïve. It is actually the most Jewish thing to do of all.

Yom Kippur is going to end in one hour. What will you take from this day?
In Isaiah’s time, the people were complaining to him that their Yom Kippur fast was not working. Isaiah tells us what the people had said to him.

They ask Me for the right way,
They are eager for the nearness of God:
They say, “Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”

Yishayhu answers in the name of Hashem
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress your workers!
Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. Do you think this kind of fasting will make me listen to your prayers?
When you fast, you make yourselves suffer; you bow your heads low like a blade of grass and spread out sackcloth and ashes to lie on. Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that?

"The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:2-7)

What Isaiah is telling us is that the best form of fasting and prayer is one that leads to action. In 1955, when Abraham Joshua Heschel joined Martin Luther King in the civil rights march he said. "For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship.
I felt my legs were praying." In 5771, please

Pray with your wallet, by donating to good causes
pray with your facebook profile, by promoting awareness of injustice
pray with you time, by volunteering
pray with your eyes, by not turning away from seeing
pray with your ears, by listening to peoples stories
pray with your kitchen by cooking food for the sick
Given that at this final hour of Yom Kippur, Shira doesn’t have “a respected leader of the congregation exhorts the people to tearful repentance.” I will quote from a very person who, if we had a rabbi, might be up at the bimah now. Not because of his Talmudic knowledge or sermon giving ability, but because of his ability to move us through song. The man is of course, Leonard Cohen.

And even though, It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Posted on September 19, 2010 .