Tonight we are part of the largest family reunion in history, as Jews around the world gather to pray and re-connect with God and one another. We have just come from eating a gesundte meal with family and friends. Now is the time to mentally re-orient ourselves. We should turn from the questions, “Were the matza balls hard enough?” “Were there enough kreplach in the soup?” or “Was the brisket too dry?” to the ultimate questions of our lives. There is something elemental about this Erev Yom Kippur service which brings us back, perhaps for the only time in the year, to this synagogue. Is it the holiness of the moment? Is it the haunting melody of the Kol Nidre? Is it the memory of parents and grandparents who held this day as sacred? Is it the very meaning of Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, when we have the opportunity to wash ourselves spiritually clean and begin again? Is it a combination of these reasons or is it something else altogether?
An answer may be found in the choreography of our service. During all of our services, we bow several times during the T’filah and rise up on our toes during the Kedushah. These are symbolic movements directed towards expressing our submission to God and our desire to reach out to God. During the Yom Kippur Afternoon service, during the Great Aleinu, we literally kneel and touch our heads to the floor as a symbol of complete humility before the Holy One, Ruler of the Universe. Yet there is one other gesture that we repeat a number of times that is limited to the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. This symbolic act may hold the theological key to this day and provide the reason as to why this service is so important to us.
As we read the Al Chet, the confession of sin, we beat our chests while we recite a litany of sins which we may have committed during this past year. Why do we beat on our chests? It could be in emulation of Christian self-flagellation, but the act is older and certainly more nuanced than that. “Beating on the chest appears to have been an outward manifestation of mourning.” Throughout rabbinic literature, there are references to the sages beating on their chests as a sign of grief. If this is so, why do we beat on our chests during the confession of sin? Who has died?
We have died. Not physically, of course, but morally. Sin is the death of the spirit. There is a stain on our souls, a burden which must be lifted. On Yom Kippur, we experience sin as a spiritual death and forgiveness as spiritual resurrection. We come back here each year to re-live this drama.
Speaking of drama, do you remember when your children were little? You would take them to a movie, a nice restaurant or perhaps even to Oheb Shalom when they would start fidgeting and drawing attention to themselves. Inevitably, you became quite uncomfortable with all the stares and so you lifted up your child and scurried out of the room. I remember when our oldest son, Nathaniel, was about three years old. He never misbehaved in synagogue but one Friday evening during the service he really started to act up. He was dancing on the chair and having a grand time when I gave Sally the look. She picked him up and was taking him out when he shouted at the top of his lungs, “Mommy, I’m sorry! Give me another chance! I’ll be good! I’ll be good.” That is exactly what we do on this most sacred of days. We plead that we will be good. We implore God to give us another chance. “Please God, write my name in the Book of Life for another year. I am truly sorry!”
I read with fascination this summer about the drama of the primary elections in New York. Anthony Weiner, former member of Congress, made infamous by tweets of his body parts, and Elliot Spitzer, former Governor of New York, known for his patronage of expensive women other than his wife, went through political deaths and were seeking political resurrections. Amazingly, each seemed to have a real chance to be re-elected. I questioned whether either was really sorry. “Did they sincerely make Teshuvah? Were they changed individuals?” Did they deserve another opportunity in public office? While only God can answer these questions, I am not certain they would have had my vote. The New York voters didn’t believe that either was truly sorry or worthy of being elected – Spitzer lost the primary to Scott Stringer and Weiner only received about 5% of the vote and was soundly defeated.
On Selichot, we dressed the Torah scrolls in white, symbolizing purity. We wear white robes which remind us of the white linen tachrichim, shrouds, we wear when we are buried. For twenty four hours, we fast and abstain from sexual relations. During our most vulnerable period of the day, during the mid-afternoon, we join together to remember the deaths of our loved ones in Yizkor. As we do so, we imagine our own mortality and fragility. At the end of Yom Kippur, in the very last minutes of the N’eilah service, we recite the Sh’ma, just as we are supposed to do on our death beds. “Then comes the final shofar blast, the tekiah gedolah, the cry of the born again infant that is, in reality, each one of us.”
“On a day that is redolent of death, there is every good reason to imagine sin as a miniature death, a death of the spirit. But if only we make the effort to turn, every force of goodness, within and without, will help us while we live to escape that death of the heart which leads to sin. While we are pound on our chests, we are mourning our own inner deaths. Perhaps we might also say that the beating on the chest is not only an act of mourning for ourselves, but also a kind of spiritual CPR. Instead of translating the beginning of the Al Chet as ‘for the sin we have committed…’ we can translate it as, ‘for the death of the spirit that comes from…” This is a less literal, but I think even more meaningful metaphorical translation of the prayer. Sin is a kind of spiritual death.
By engaging in repentance, in sincere atonement, and changing our ways, we return to God and our true selves. We are reborn to a new moral life. Maimonides teaches us that the first step to Teshuvah is to take responsibility for our sins. The second step is to make restitution to the one we have wronged. The final step, and this is the hardest part, is a personal pledge not to commit the sin again. When we beat our chests, we remind ourselves how easy it is to sin and how difficult it is to repent.
My dearest friends, I pray that on this holy day we will pledge to make Teshuvah and erase the stains of sin from our souls. May this Yom Kippur be one of new spiritual life for us and all our loved ones.
Amen and G’mar Chatimah Tovah