Yom Kippur 2020/5781 – Ed Kessler

One day, a travelling circus came to town. Its star was a lion, kept in a cage 30 metres long, 30 metres wide. For hour upon hour each day, the lion paced up-and-down, back and forth. One night, it broke loose from the cage. His escape was soon discovered and the search was on. Before long, the keepers found him. Strangely enough, he had only gone a few streets away and was in a courtyard 30 metres long and 30 metres wide. The lion was pacing up and down, back and forth, continuing the same monotonous yet comfortable habit of lateral motion – free and yet at the same time, not free at all. For whenever he reached the corner of the courtyard, the exit within touching distance, he reversed his direction. Having broken out of one cage, he simply found another.

I want to ask on Yom Kippur, whether we, like that lion, have broken out of one cage, travelling along roads of new understanding but have not truly escaped? Have we mistaken lateral motion for forward movement?

More on breaking out of a cage in a moment, as I am aware that I am speaking to you at home, not in a crowded synagogue and probably not with a feeling of intense community that a physical presence provides. And in this year of COVID-19, foremost in your mind may be issues of life and death, sickness and health, illness and mortality.

Thankfully, amongst the abundance of prayers we recite on Yom Kippur, there is one in particular which will help. Marc Saperstein mentioned it in his powerful sermon last night. It is a piyyut, a religious poem from Medieval times, called Un-e-ta-neh To-kef, which means ‘let us speak of the awesomeness’.  Marc and I, as some of you may know, live on the same street but we address different themes raised by the same prayer, written 1000 years ago. It states:

“As a shepherd examines the flock, making each sheep pass under the staff, so you (God) will review and number and count, judging each living being, determining the fate of everything in creation, inscribing their destiny.”

Whilst I don’t think that our destiny is actually inscribed, this prayer does helps us think about our place in this world with responsibility to our family, community, and yes, to ourselves.  To thine own self, be true, as Shakespeare wrote.

But there is more:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the fast of the Day of Atonement it is sealed. How many will pass on and how many will be born? Who will live and who will die? Who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end? Who will perish by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by beast? Who by hunger and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by plague?

These questions are as relevant today as they have ever been. Each day we learn the number of people testing positive, or dying, as result of our plague, Covid-19; we read of fires in California;  we experienced record summer temperatures ourselves in the UK; and terrible rains are predicted to follow this winter.

So, the first part of this piyyut asks the Big questions, but it’s the second half that will help us to truly escape the cage– to improve our lives, sustain our communities and benefit wider society: Repentance, Prayer, and good deeds annul the severity of the Decree.

Teshuvah, T’fillah and Tz’dekah – repentance, prayer and good deeds – have the power to transform the harshness of this destiny and yes, to turn the corner. The message of Unetaneh Tokef – in fact, the message of Judaism – is that we have the capacity to change, to be better people, to create a more just and fair society.

You might ask then, what is repentance? Are our proclamations of remorse equivalent to being penitent? Does saying “sorry” guarantee a passport to normality?

A story is told about rabbi and a student who were going to synagogue between Rosh ha Shana and Yom Kippur when a sudden downpour forced them to seek shelter at the door of a tavern.  The student peered through one of the windows and saw a group of Jews feasting, drinking and partying.  He told the rabbi that these people were behaving badly when they should have been praying for God’s forgiveness for their sins. Disregarding the student’s rebuke the rabbi said.  “They are surely reciting the benedictions for food and drink.  May God bless them”  The student continued to eavesdrop.  “Woe to us rabbi!” he exclaimed. “I have just heard two of them telling each other of the thefts they committed.” “If that be so,” said the rabbi, “they are truly observant Jews.  They are confessing their sins.  As you know, no-one is more righteous than she who repents.”

In other words, repentance, a pre-requisite for divine forgiveness, consists of genuine remorse for the wrongs committed. But there is another demand: the conversion of penitential energy into positive action. The Bible teaches that three tasks must be undertaken by the repentant sinner: sorrow for sin (2 Sam. 13.13), an end to evildoing, doing good (Ps.24.4).

This means, I’m afraid, showing up in synagogue (even digitally), fasting, repeating Unetaneh Tokef are not enough. It is the action, the doing of good deeds which contains the power to change the character of our lives, to make us better people, to make the world a better place.

This can be expressed another way. According to a midrash, God looked into the Torah and then created the world. Whilst Shakespeare suggests that drama puts up a mirror to nature, Jews are exhorted to build our lives around and act according to what we see in Torah, not on expediency, not on the impulses of a morally compromised world, where power is garnered more by wealth than by good deeds.

So what are we expected to do? Maimonides addressed this very issue in his Mishneh Torah, a compendium encompassing the entire Jewish legal system, in a text known as Sefer ha-Mada’, the Book of Knowledge.  No-one, Maimonides argued, is above the law.  The law is not simply a product that is crafted to suit the whims of the leaders – or even of God Himself! Torah is not a matter of ritual cleanliness or maintaining prohibitions against working on shabbat; no, Torah demands discipline, intelligence and conscience in the moral sense.

Yom Kippur reminds us to restore the value of justice through forthright honesty and integrity.  We need a horizontal society where law rules supreme and where the poor individual is classified as no less important than the powerful leader. It is not power or material wealth that are the measure of a community, but the measure of its knowledge and kindness – values central to Progressive Judaism: protecting the weakest members of society, especially those vulnerable to exploitation of “Might makes Right”, epitomised in intransigence, in a rigid concept of Zionism, in determining who and who is not acceptable in the Jewish world, in creating a monolithic ideology for the Jewish community. In other words, overcoming contempt for pluralism.

When we see wrongdoing – as we have seen in so many ways this past year – we are duty-bound to tackle, not sanitise it, regardless of the personal cost:  such is the essence of repentance; such Is the way to overcome “Might makes Right”, to escape the cage, to turn the corner, to exemplify in Progressive Jewish terms, the eternal values of the Torah, and insist on the principles of humility and integrity; to rediscover the pluralism of our heritage.

Today, even Jews who do not observe other customs, will fast, ‘afflict the soul’ and atone for the sins of the past year. It is true that tender memories and customs, tradition and habit may account for some of the multitude attending services; there may be some among us for whom Yom Kippur is a kind of insurance policy, who hope that by fasting for 24 hours they can achieve some sort of atonement. Some friends of mine who are not at all observant (even devout atheists) will, I dare say, watch at home this morning, and think about how to break out of this sinful condition.

Yes, Ecclesiastes stated (7:20), “there is not a righteous man upon earth that does good and sins not”, but Judaism teaches that repentance, prayer and good deeds provide a way out.  As the prophet Malachi (3:7) stated, “‘Return unto Me and I shall return unto you’ says the Lord”.

It is God’s desire to respond to us that ensures the Day of Atonement is the most religious of the 5 biblical holy days. Jews who have little sense of religiosity can enjoy Pesach, celebrating the holy day as the festival of freedom.  And likewise observe Shavuot, as a festival of civic morality.  Rosh ha Shana could be observed as the day on which the lessons of fragility of life could be considered; while Sukkot could be the festival of nature and its beauty.  But the Day of Atonement is not so easy. It has no meaning without an acknowledgement of God and of sin.

By sin, I mean something more than error, than crime, than wrong-doing.  Parliament may enact laws, and it may be agreed that to violate these laws is wrong or criminal; we may create for ourselves ideals of virtue, and society may create taboos and traditions of offences against itself.  But sin means something more.  Sin means that the wrong-doing is an offence against God.  When, on the Day of Atonement, we reflect upon our lapses and faults, our yielding to this temptation or that, upon our shortcomings and imperfections, we connect them with God.  They are offences against God, against the Creator, the divine Law-giver, the divine Judge. It is not only our British law that we have broken, it is not only our ideals of morality from which we have fallen short, but it is also failing to fulfil the divine teaching.  More than any other day of the year, we acknowledge that God is the ultimate source of righteousness, and our violation, our sin, of which our conscience declares us guilty, is an offence against Avinu Malkenu, our Father Our King.

It is my hope and prayer that your participation in the Yom Kippur service, listening attentively to Unetaneh Tokef will sharpen, deepen, and intensify your consciousness of God and of sin.  Only then, only then, will we have some real hope of achieving reconciliation and repentance, atonement and forgiveness.

Genuine repentance, then, is no mere momentary spasm of remorse.  To be worthy of the name, repentance must influence and leave its mark in terms of character, action and life.  True repentance requires acts of goodness and the pursuit of tz’dakah and ends with a profound change in the way we live our lives and give sustenance to our communities.

Kein Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s will.  Amen.