Yizkor Drasha – Repent. Pray. Give.

Parts in Regular font read by Ittay Flescher

Parts in bold read by Carm Rose 

Hey there everybody. Each week I try and listen to my two favourite podcasts, This American Life and its Hebrew cousin Sipur Yisraeli (now also available in English). They each choose a theme and bring you different stories on that theme. Today being Yom Kippur, for those who have never heard the podcast before, we are presenting to you three stories around the theme, Teshuva, Tfilla and Tzedakah, as seen in Shira’s version of Julia Robert’s film, Repent Pray Give.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This Shira Life. I'm Ittay Flescher. Stay with us. 

Act One: Repent

We searched far and wide for a meaningful story of teshuva, and are pleased to share the work of Israeli author Etgar Keret, in our first story about what Teshuva means to him.

My strangest Yom Kippur apology story began when I was 4. One of the kids in my new preschool group was a pretty, sweet girl named Noa. She was quiet and smiley, two qualities I was not blessed with, and when I once accidentally touched her thick blonde hair, it felt like sticky cotton candy. I really wanted to play with her but didn’t exactly know how to do it, so after six months of looking at her from a distance, I decided to make a move, and one morning, when I saw her running next to me in the yard, I stuck out my foot and tripped her.

Noa fell and hurt herself. She started to cry, and when the teacher ran over to help her, Noa pointed at me and said, “He did it. He tripped me.” The teacher, who liked me very much, asked me if it was true, and I immediately said no.

The teacher rebuked Noa, “Etgar is a good boy who never lies. Why are you making up such terrible things about him? You should be ashamed of yourself!” Noa, who’d almost stopped crying, started all over again, and the teacher stroked my head and walked off angrily. Right then I wanted to tell Noa I was sorry and confess to the teacher that I’d lied, but I couldn’t find the courage. Meanwhile, another girl helped Noa walk over to the fountain so she could wash her scraped knee, and I remained standing in the yard.

An unsaid sorry can keep you awake at night. Or in this case, 13 years. Finally, at age 17, Etgar Keret decides to apologise.

 “Noa?” I said in a very shrill voice. Noa stopped, took off her headphones, and studied me. “I’m Etgar,” I said, “Etgar Keret. We were once in the same preschool together.” She smiled and said she remembered preschool but didn’t remember me. I told her about how I tripped her and lied, and how she cried because of the affront and a little because of the pain, but she didn’t remember any of it.

“It was a long time ago,” she said, half-apologetically.

“But I remember,” I persisted, “and soon it’s going to be Yom Kippur, and I wanted to apologize.”

“Apologize for something stupid you did when you were 4?” she said and smiled that lovely smile I remembered from preschool. “Apology accepted,” she said after a brief pause, and then put her orange headphones over her ears and left.

I remember going home from school on that day having done my teshuva. I rode my bike, the pedals turned easily, the road felt smooth, and even the uphill parts felt like they were downhill. I never saw her again, but since then, whenever I have a strong urge not to tell the truth, I think of her outside her high-school classroom, smiling broadly, her face full of pimples, saying she accepted my apology. Then I take a deep breath, and lie.

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer. He also writes a regular column  from Israel for Tablet.

We now enter the second part of this Yom Kippur Episode

Act 2: Pray

Fifty one years ago, American President John F. Kennedy organized a meeting of religious leaders to discuss civil rights issues at the White House. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel responded to the President with a telegram that has since become famous: 

I look forward to the privilege of being present at the meeting tomorrow four pm. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leader’s personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary towards funds for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare a state of moral emergency. A Marshall plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Heschel was expressing his firm belief that the religious experience of worship could not be divorced from one’s actions outside the synagogue walls; those who failed to act publicly against injustice could not claim to be religious.

Frequently cited in these circles is the statement Heschel made following the Selma Civil Rights March in 1965, when he joined with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other religious and political figures in a third — and finally successful — attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, and demand voting rights for African Americans at the Alabama state capital:

For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about 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 1965 Heschel prayed with his legs, today in this shul, we pray with our lips. But how will we pray on the other 364 days of the year? Prayer may be in shul, but it may also be done through actions of Social Justice. And, maybe, that that is exactly what God wants from us.

This brings us to the third part.

Act 3: Give  

10 days ago, the Jewish calendar entered the year of shmitta. The sabbatical year is mentioned several times in the Bible, starting with Shmot. Here’s God. She’s going to read a bit of the Torah she gave us now.

“Hi God”

“Hi Ittay”

“Big day huh?”
“Yeah, I’m feeling the love”

“So shmitta. How is this year different from all other years?”

“For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year, which started ten days ago, you are to let the land lie unplowed and unused.” (Exodus 23:10)

“No ploughing? I love ploughing”

“No. NO ploughing. Come back seven years!”

“Ok, so what about my fields?”

The poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.” (Exodus 23:11)

That’s a wonderful idea God, but if I don’t work my field for a whole year, what am I going to eat?

Fear not my son. I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it should yield a crop enough for three years (Leviticus 25:21)

Wow. That’s amazing. So I take a whole year off, and you provide me with a massive bonus. Is there anything else that I have do on the shmitta year?

Yes my humble servant. Every seventh year you shall practice release of debts. This shall be the nature of the release: every creditor shall release his authority over what he claims from his neighbour. (Deuteronomy 15. see here see here for a great article by Adam Zagroria-Moffet)

So why am I releasing these debts? Why am I leaving the land? What’s it about?

“You may think you hold the title and deeds, but the land is Mine; for you are but a tenant occupying my earth! That Land is not yours. I let you live on it through my generosity.  (Leviticus 25:23)

My stay here is brief like a passing shadow. Ultimately nothing I own is really mine.

That’s right. You just need to let it go, let it go, don’t plough the land any more

After that exchange with God, one would think Jews would be thrilled about keeping shmitta to the letter of the law. Unfortunately this is not what happens in practice.

In practice, Shmita has become mired in legal, political, and economic issues that obscure its historical and ethical origins. For most Israelis, the topic of Shmita has been relegated either to the kitchen (kashrut observers must choose between a complex set of Shmita standards) or the garden (when am I allowed to cut the grass?!). The fierce debates around these issues not only exacerbate tensions between the secular and religious communities, but also detract from the underlying significance of Shmita.

Our final guest on today’s program, in Act 3, Einat Kramer, Founder and Director of Teva Ivri; a non-profit organization promoting Jewish environmental responsibility in Israel. 

My story, which you can find on the Times of Israel, started during my maternity leave for my fourth baby. I stepped out from my normal life, work, politics, and just took time out. It reminded me so much of the shmitta year, where we leave our normal busy life on the land, and just rest.

It seemed resting wasn’t in Einat’s nature though, so she went on to set up an exciting new venture – the Israeli Shmita Initiative. To her great surprise, it was warmly received by many organisations across the religious spectrum, and three Israeli ministries endorsed it in the Knesset. You may be wondering, what is the Israeli Shmitta initiative? Here’s Einat again:

The Israeli Shmita Initiative believes that this shmitta year, property assumes less importance, time is less pressured and nature becomes much more than a resource to be exploited. Shmita presents an alternative to the race of modern life and is characterized by love of the people and Land of Israel, a heightened sense of social responsibility, and a framework for environmental practice. After two years of active preparation, we can already see that this Shmita year will look different to any that has gone before.

Here are some of the initiatives Einat’s organisation has supported this shmitta year:

  • A financial recovery program, spearheaded by Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon engages philanthropists, banks, and professional consultants in helping needy families settle their debts and begin the journey toward financial recovery.
  • An online Time Bank enables one to “give up” time on behalf of youth at risk, disadvantaged families, and others in need, based on one’s availability and skill set.
  • A think tank for cinematographers, and new media specialists to explore Shmita and produce new-old expressions of Israeli society.
  • The Merkam youth group – a network of secular and religious communities – initiated a collective “disconnect” from Facebook for the sake of real social interaction, face to face.
  • In New York, Amichai Lau Lavie has also created Fallowlab.com, a year-long journey of exploring better balance between our virtual and actual lives. Inspired by the Jewish Shmita tradition, this journey reinterprets the biblical agricultural practice of a year of release to the land and to the farmer, reapplied for today’s social, economic and digital reality.

Einat continues her story here:

Israeli Shmita invites everyone to learn about the mitzvah of Shmita and consider how he or she can actualize it on a personal and communal level. There is no limit to what you can “take on” in order to internalize the messages of Shmita – reducing the number of hours at work, joining a study group or class, buying more local, ethically sourced and seasonal food… Everyone needs a bit more shmitta in their lives. Trust me you won’t regret it! 


So, we have now heard three stories. Etgar Keret’s attempt to do Teshuva, and repent to Noa. Heschel’s story of tefilla, praying with his legs on the march from Selma to Montgomery and Einat Kramer’s enterprise to give tzedaka, through the Israeli Shmitta Initiative.

These are but three of thousands of stories we could have chosen about Teshuva, Tfilla and Tzedakah. Each of us has our own. Please share them.

Without stories, so much of Judaism ends up having no meaning, becoming a list of do’s and don’ts rather than a canvass of hows and whys.

In a few minutes from now, this room will fall silent. Those of us who remain, will say the words, Yizkor Elohim nishmat, may God remember the soul of…. After we will insert the name of a loved one and affirm to give tzedakah in their memory. 

Perhaps some of you may be inspired do more than just give tzedakah after yizkor. Maybe you will find your own meaning of shmitta this year. Ask yourself,

What does it mean for Israelis to accept that they are only the stewards and not the owners of the land?

What does it mean to let go of work stress, digital overload or other fears that stop us from being who we want to be?

What does it mean to forgive the debts, and maybe the wrongs, committed against us by our neighbours and friends?

Each of you will have your own answers to these questions, so at this point, I’ll bid you farewell, and pray that we may all find ways to have a meaningful shmitta year, as we pray to be inscribed in the book of life.

May you also have a story worthy year.

Gmar Chatima Tova.

Posted on October 7, 2014 .