YIZKOR SERMON FOR YOM KIPPUR 5776

YOM KIPPUR YIZKOR 5776

REMEMBERING –AND APPRECIATING- EVERYTHING

It is Yom Kippur in ancient Israel.

The High Priest stands alone in the inner sanctum, the Kodesh HaKodashim Holy of Holies of the Temple.

He stands alone with the spiritual fate of the people hanging in the balance.

Our rabbis painted the scene for us: the Kohen Gadol performs the atonement sacrifice and then recites aloud a verse from the Torah: ki bayom hazeh yichapayr Aleichem litahayr etchem mikol hatotaychem lifney ado–nai “for on this day, atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all of your sins before God”.

He draws out that name of God using a unique pronunciation of the name used only at this moment.

And when the people hear the name said in this way, they prostrate themselves and respond Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed. Blessed be God’s glorious kingdom forever and ever.

When the High Priest hears the people’s response, hearing them acknowledge faith in God only then he would conclude the verse with the divine promise, “titharu”, you will be cleansed.

What a cathartic moment this must have been. The moment that atonement takes affect and the burden of guilt is lifted from the shoulders of the people.

But it was also a cathartic moment for a reason that might not occur to you. There was always a persistent, fear that the Kohen Gadol, God forbid, would make a mistake in the ritual thereby preventing atonement. The first chapter of the Mishna for Yom Kippur contains a detailed explanation of the preparations for the day including instructions that the High Priest rehearse the ritual in front of the elders over and over again for seven days before Yom Kippur to make sure he didn’t make a mistake.

When the ritual was completed, the people realized that nothing had gone wrong. The High Priest, their spiritual father, had done his job perfectly. Repentance had been accepted and the rest of Yom Kippur turned into a day of confidence and even, in some rabbinic descriptions, a day of celebration.

In our day, our shlichei tzibbur, our hazanim, our Torah readers and Haftarah readers practice, as the kohen gadol did, before coming up on the bima to conduct part of the service. We try very hard to be perfect, but none of us are. We all will make a mistake or two. And yet, as you have heard me say before on the High Holy Days, we don’t believe that occasional liturgical mistakes undermine the power of the ritual or the relationship built up with the congregation. No one is perfect. When we get things wrong, we assume that people still love us and respect the ritual and we believe things are ok with God.

Going back to the idea that the moment I described was a cathartic moment, I have a question to ask: When, in our observance of Yom Kippur, do we have such a cathartic moment, a moment in which our fears and our concerns vanish, yielding to a sense of satisfaction for a job of repentance well done and atonement achieved?

That time does not come until the blast of the shofar marking the conclusion of the fast. We think of neilah, the concluding service, the service of the closing of the gates, as the last opportunity for teshuva, repentance in the context of Yom Kippur. Until the shofar is blown and the gates are closed we still have the serious work of confession and repentance to do and that is reflected in the saying of the selichot, penitential prayers, right up until the end of the day.

But, clearly the mood of our synagogue lightens a bit as the day goes along and certainly that is true at Neilah here when this congregation engages in uplifting, powerful, confident and yes, even joyous singing. So, I’ll rephrase my question: when is the watershed moment for us on Yom Kippur, the moment that divides what came before from what potentially lies ahead, the moment when the burden of the day begins to lift? We are approaching that moment now. It is that moment when the divine gift of memory draws out the tears and the soft smiles which, once released, leaves us feeling a burden lifted from our shoulders.

That cathartic moment is Yizkor.

This is the moment. This is the pivotal moment and the most difficult moment of Yom Kippur in so many ways. It is so hard and at times, so painful. But, it is the one that we must experience and move on from in order to truly find the uplifting mood waiting for us as the gates begin to close.

This year, I want to give you something to think about as we enter into this critical moment in our day. This year, I want to share with you a simple thought to accompany this transforming moment of Yizkor. It has nothing to do with the High Priest or the sacrifice but you may find some foreshadowing in my description of the ritual with which I began.

I want you now to think about a beloved person, from an older generation, that you remember at Yizkor today, someone who taught you: a role model whom you still cherish today for the lessons that he or she shared. For those for whom this applies, I expect many will choose a parent or a grandparent. Some will choose someone else and I fully understand that. I will leave that to you but please permit me to talk generally about parents knowing that some of you will be thinking about someone else.

I want you to think about a specific lesson that this person taught you which guides your life to this day. Take a few moments to think. The more specific you can be the better.

Now, let me share with you an excerpt from an essay written by the author Verlyn Klinkenborg. It appeared in the New York Times on March 1, 2010. The essay was called “Sometimes the Smallest Things”.

“Lately I’ve been thinking of the things my parents taught me — all those habits that were handed over to me one by one when I was a child. These are the sorts of thoughts I always have when I’m teaching writing, which is partly the act of revealing bad habits to their surprised owners. What got me thinking this time was the discovery that I’ve been tying my shoes wrong for more than half a century.

I’ve been tying a granny knot in my laces, a lopsided knot that tends to come untied even when doubled. It’s the knot my mother taught me. But thanks to a tip on the Internet, I learned that if I wrap the lace around the first bow the opposite way, I get a reef, or square knot, which lies evenly across the shoe and doesn’t come untied.

I believe that if my mother had known about the reef knot, she would have taught it to me. What mother wants her child’s laces to come undone?”

The author then goes on to point out that his father taught him to adjust the car mirrors in a way that unfortunately led to an increased blind spot. He didn’t realize this until he saw a piece on the Internet about safe driving that taught him that he had been doing it wrong for 40 years.

He concludes by saying: “I’ll discover more, I’m sure — slight, but somehow significant adjustments to the things my parents taught me, the deep habits of a lifetime. Something has changed, and I welcome it.”

When I first read that piece five years ago, I immediately thought about how my father taught me to shoot a basketball. My dad had actually been a basketball coach for a small high school in Vermont at one time- it was a really small school and I think he was the only male teacher. And, he taught me that he shot a basketball like this, with his elbows right up against his body, and that I should try it too. I took his word for it. After all, he was my dad and he was the coach. I soon realized how foolish it looked and how it really didn’t work besides. Maybe that’s why basketball is the one sport I really never liked to play.

But, when I read the essay again a few months ago, I didn’t think of basketball but of the bigger picture courtesy of one of the most powerful scenes I have ever seen on television.

In a classic episode of the iconic TV Series; All In the Family, an episode called: Two’s a Crowd, Archie Bunker and his son in law, Mike, have accidentally locked themselves in a storeroom overnight and must wait to be let out in the morning. Over a bottle of brandy these two classic antagonists talk with each other through the night in a way that they never had done before.

At one point, Archie starts to reminisce about his days in elementary school, revealing to Mike his childhood nickname: Shoebootie, for the fact that his family was so poor he had only one mismatched pair of footwear to wear to school. All that he has heard from Archie brought sympathy to Mike and that sympathy continues until Archie mentions one African American child, Winston, who Archie says used to beat him up in school. When Mike asks why, Archie says, no reason. But, then he casually mentions that he used to call Winston by a certain well known racial epithet. And Mike says: “Well that’s the reason”. And Archie says that’s no reason everyone called him that.

Archie says then: “That’s all my old man used to call them.”

Here is the rest of the dialogue and I’ll do my best to do it justice.

Mike looks at him and says: “Archie, your father was wrong.”

“No, he wasn’t”.

“Yes, he was. Your father was wrong”.

Archie then says; “Don’t say Your father was wrong! Don’t tell me my father was wrong.

Let me tell you somethin’ Father, who made ya? wrong? Your father the breadwinner of the house there. The man who goes out and busts his butt to keep a roof over your head and clothes on your back? You call your father wrong? Hey, hey.

Your father. Your father. That’s the man that comes home, bringin’ you candy? Your father’s the first guy to throw a baseball to ya? And take you for walks in the park? Hold you by the hand?

No, he says, don’t tell me that my father was wrong.”

And this dialogue goes on but here it needs a Rashi. It needs a commentary.

Archie, I’m glad you remember all those right things your father did for you. Life is so deeply enriched when we have such good memories. This would be a far better world if everyone could talk as glowingly about their parents.

But, Archie, your father was wrong for using that word. He was so, so wrong even if people didn’t know it then. He was wrong.

But that’s no surprise because all parents are wrong on occasion. And, admitting that and recognizing that and changing the way they taught us to do things from tying shoes to adjusting mirrors to shooting a basketball to talking about people does not mean we don’t love them or respect them. When we realize they were wrong and change the way we do things, it is simply called growth.

Assuming they truly loved us and embraced us and sought to be good to us, the fact that our parents were occasionally wrong must not change the way we honor their memory and hold them in our hearts and in our minds. We can love them. We can honor them but as we do, it is all right, in fact it is critical, that we also remember those inaccurate, frustrating, embarrassing, infuriating things they that taught us or made us do. They were human beings and human beings aren’t high priests on Yom Kippur. We’re all sometimes wrong.

We must embrace the fact that they were sometimes wrong just as we must accept the fact that our children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and students will, if they haven’t already, realize the same thing about us one day and they will be right too.

There can be no progress in our world or in our lives unless we are willing to say it: “Our parents were sometimes wrong”. If people hadn’t been willing to say that, a confederate flag would still be flying over the capitol building in Columbia, South Carolina. If we hadn’t been willing to say that, marriage would still be denied to same sex couples who love each other so deeply. If you and I don’t occasionally say that, we would still be tripping over our shoelaces, missing free throws and living our parents’ lives not ours.

When we are old enough, and be careful kids and listen to those words: when we are old enough to decide to do things differently than our parents do, to see life differently, or to do a simple task in a different way than our parents taught us, we become the people that we need to be, people who find our own way in our world.

So, before we start Yizkor, we’ll take a moment for you, if you haven’t already, to think back to the person you thought of so lovingly a few minutes ago and think of something that person taught you that you always knew or more recently learned was just plain wrong- something that they told you that you do not follow today, something that through change has made you less likely to trip over your own feet or fall victim to a blind spot in your life.

Then, after you’ve done this, celebrate their memory with a full heart: cherish their memory as a person you learned from. Learning from the right most of the time and learning from the wrong occasionally.

When we say the memorial prayers, I hope that you will realize that of all the things that we have to thank those who came before us for, we should remember to thank them also for the things they taught us that we now know were wrong. Because it is only by recognizing and acknowledging and changing things which turned out to be wrong that we become the grown ups we yearn to be: the grown ups they wanted us to be.

Archie, let me tell you: my father, whose 15th yahrzeit will be observed this year, a man whom I loved deeply and whose memory I honor today and every day, was wrong about more things than basketball. I know it now even if I didn’t know it then. And all of our children and our grandchildren will inevitably someday say that about us and like we do today for our parents, I pray that after saying it, they will still love us and honor our memory all the same as they become the adults we want to them to be and that they need to be:their own people in their own world.

Take a few moments to think and then we will begin Yizkor that cathartic moment: the moment when we remember the people whom we will always love, including, for many of us, the people that taught us how to tie our shoes.

Take a few moments to think and then we will begin Yizkor that cathartic moment: the moment when we remember the people whom we will always love, including, for many of us, the people that taught us how to tie our shoes.

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