Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah – September 24, 2014 – 1 Tishrei 5775

It is so good to see you once again as we join together for the first act of our annual ten day family reunion.  This is the time when all the clans of our multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-cultural tribe called the Jewish people come together to renew our allegiance to God and to one another.  On behalf of our clan, Oheb Shalom, Sally, our family and I wish you and all your loved ones a happy, healthy and sweet 5775.  The good news tonight is that Oheb Shalom is continuing to grow.  As of today, we have welcomed over sixty new families into our midst since July and have almost 340 children in our religious school.  I am even prouder of the quality of programming and the warmth of our clergy, staff, and congregants that keep our congregation growing.  A high school history teacher once taught me that “The one sure thing is change.”  Congregations, just like people, are evolutionary organisms.  We change over time, just as do the people who make up our membership.  It is incumbent upon us to strive to meet the ever expanding needs of our members while being true to the dictates of our Tradition.  Over the last 160 years, we have done this fairly well.  We promise to continue making you proud of your congregation, keeping it on the cutting edge of Jewish life in Baltimore.

We gather here tonight to begin the ten day process of cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls. The beginning of this New Year calls us to look at our lives, to examine our priorities, to ask ourselves deep and sometimes painful questions.  Who are we and what do we want to be?  Whom have we hurt?  Is reconciliation possible?  Can I forgive those who hurt me?  Am I able to forgive myself for being a frail human being?  It is hard to look at ourselves in a dispassionate and objective manner but it is necessary if we are ever going to become more moral, sensitive, and loving people.  There isn’t one of us who has not sinned.  We may not have thought before we spoke and said hurtful things to others.  We may inadvertently have hurt another’s feelings.  We may not have spent enough time with our families, not given our best at work, or ignored those in need.  Beyond these moral failings, we may have lied, stolen, or committed crimes which have involved us with the legal system.  A question: Is there any crime so heinous for which atonement cannot be made?

You may recall the true incident that Simon Wiesenthal recounted in his book, The Sun Flower.  An SS trooper was on his death bed in the concentration camp hospital.  He asked for a Jew to listen to his confession.  He had murdered countless numbers of Jews and he wanted forgiveness before he died.  Simon Wiesenthal was chosen to attend him.  Wiesenthal heard the man’s story, listened to his pleas for forgiveness and walked away.  He later explained that the only ones who could grant him atonement were those whom he had murdered and they were unavailable.  Some sins are so agregious that only God can offer atonement.

Fortunately, most of us are guilty of more prosaic sins.  We have been insensitive, morally lazy, and emotionally passive.  We have forgotten who and what really matters to us.  We have neglected our Faith and have let ourselves and our loved ones down.  We are blessed in that our Tradition gives us the opportunity to make amends and start anew.  It is not easy to make true teshuvah, but it is possible.  Maimonides, the great twelth century physician and sage, wrote extensively on  the subject of repentance. He tells us that true repentance is dependent upon our recognizing the sin, feeling sincere remorse, undoing any damage we have done, pacifying the one whom we hurt and given the opportunity to repeat the transgression, refrain from doing so.  He writes, “How does one repent of their sins? He says, O  God, I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed before You by doing such and such.  I am truly sorry for what I have done, am ashamed of myself, and will never do it again.”

We learn that repentance during the High Holy Days can only win pardon for offenses we have committed against God.  We are not forgiven for offenses against other people.  We must pay restitution to the one we have hurt and beg for forgiveness.  If the one wronged refuses to grant forgiveness, we go to him three times and request atonement.  If the one we have sinned against refuses to grant us forgiveness even after being asked three times, then the sin rests on his or her head.

Repentance is not a sudden occurrence. It does not begin on Erev Yom Kippur, just moments before we say the Vidui, the confession of sin.  The great Rav, the Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote, “Repentance sprouts forth and grows in the course of a long and drawn out process typified by doubt and speculation, soul searching and spiritual reckoning. First comes the inner stirring which generates actual repentance.  A great gap often intercedes between the idea and the act, for crystallized thinking is the end product of intuitive, undefined thoughts.  They take hold of one in the darkness of the night, they emerge from the innermost recesses of the secret self, and man tries to fend off some of them and hide them from himself, not to mention, from others.  The road leads from these first stirrings until the actual contemplation of repentance is long indeed and, even then, after the rational idea is clearly formed in thought, it must be reborn and translated into action.”  The Rav emphasizes that confession is the climatic finale of a long drawn out, exhausting process. Confession is the concretization of repentance.  It can only occur after the long internal process of self-reflection.

If Ray Rice were Jewish, he should be standing here asking God, his wife, Janay, his teammates, and his fans for forgiveness. He committed a reprehensible act of violence against his wife and brought shame on her, himself, his team, and his fans. Our questions should be, “Is Rice ready to repent?  Has he gone through the inner turmoil necessary to make true repentance?  Has he struggled enough, engaged in a real accounting of his soul?”  Even though he was drunk when he stuck his wife and knocked her unconscious in the elevator of the now defunct Revel Hotel in Atlantic City, he is still culpable for his crime.  Ray Rice is only 27 years old  and a first offender.  He should have the opportunity to make teshuvah and not be condemnded for life.  As the Rambam, Maimonides teaches, he can only make teshuvah if he is placed in the situation and does not repeat the action. In order to ensure this never happens again, Ray Rice needs to spend a lot of time in serious intensive therapy.  Only then, after completely tearing himself in side out and putting himself back together, can he fully understand his motivations, deal with his anger, and learn to control his violent impulses.  Only after he struggles and triumphs over his inner demons, can Janay Palmer Rice learn to trust him and offer him her forgiveness.

Why didn’t Janay leave him?  How could she bear to be with a man who physically abused her?  The same could be said of Candace Williams, now Candace Williams Suggs, wife of Raven defensive back Terrell Suggs and countless other victims of domestic violence.  Two years ago, Candace Williams received a protective order against her then boyfriend for hitting her and dragging her alongside a car he was driving.  She also claimed he poured bleach on her and broke her nose.  Then, a few months later, she married Terrell Suggs.  Why do these women do this?  The answer is rather simple – they are emotionally and financially dependent upon them.  They are psychologically wrapped up in their careers and success.  It is hard for women to leave abusive men. It is absolutely necessary for a woman’s safety that she leave the home at the first violent instance.  Sadly, it often takes much longer for them to realize this will continue unless they remove themselves from the situation.  That is why we have an agency like CHANA in our Jewish community, to counsel and support those who are victims of domestic violence.  CHANA gives women an opportunity to rebuild their lives, free of the fear of violence.  We are grateful to live in a community in which such a resource is available to us.

If I was Ray Rice’s rabbi, I would urge him to pray to God for the strength to examine the darkest recesses of his soul. I would pray that he has the courage to come out of this internal struggle a new man, one who has the ability to ask his wife to forgive him and to ask his team and his city to give him another chance.  If fact, at the beginning of these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, I pray that we each have the ability to struggle with what plagues us and come out of this High Holyday season more reflective and moral human beings.

May God grant us the ability to make teshuvah and achieve complete repentance.

Shana Tova U’Mtukah

A Happy and sweet New Year to us all.


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