For the last 33 years, I have walked into this sanctuary during the High Holidays and greeted people I have seen at no other time of the year at Oak Park Temple. Sometimes the reason I had not seen those people was because I wasn’t here very much and, at other times, it was because they hadn’t been here very much. I’m not pointing fingers. There are people in the sanctuary today who were not born when I first entered it to worship for the High Holidays at Oak Park Temple in 1979. There are too many people who were here then who are not here now. These facts are incontrovertible evidence both of the passage of time and of the finiteness of my life.
The High Holidays, the Days of Awe, are a time of serious reflection. Few other prayers attract our attention as that which begins,
On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
On Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die….
I, and probably many of you, have a keen awareness of the absence of members of our congregation who may have performed a particular High Holiday honor year after year after year, and then, no more. I remember them today. We remember many people in our lives who are not here today. The High Holidays are a powerful reminder of the continuous chain of which we are a part.
In my psychotherapy practice, I have a client who is in recovery from addiction to alcohol. He doesn’t drink, attends AA regularly, has a sponsor and he sponsors others. As we say, he’s “working a good Program.” He works hard to be the person he wants to be and knows that he can be. If it’s not clear, I have a great deal of respect for him.
I canceled our regular appointment today and he asked if I would be doing anything “fun.” I said that that wasn’t exactly how I would describe my time away from the office on this particular occasion. I told him that I would be observing Yom Kippur. He said he’d like to know more about the meaning of the observance. I gave him a brief explanation. He’s an observant Catholic and when I finished my explanation he said “like confession, but only once a year? That must be really intense!” I told him that the observance is like a serious Fourth Step. For those of you not familiar with The Twelve Steps, the Fourth Step reads: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. To me, that sounds a great deal like what Yom Kippur, and indeed the entire season of the High Holidays, is about. It is a time for us to measure our lives.
In business there is the well-known maxim, “you get what you measure.” If you are not measuring something, it is likely that you’re not paying attention to it and you will not get the results you want. One of the many functions that the Days of Awe, the High Holidays, serve is to measure ourselves.
Great spiritual traditions, all over the world have rituals of self-examination. Yom Kippur is one of ours. But make no mistake, Yom Kippur is not the only opportunity for self-examination and self-improvement that we have here at Oak Park Temple. For the past two years I have participated in a very thought provoking study of Pirke Avot, a Jewish “how to be a better person book” that has been around for more than 50 generations. The study has been led by Rabbi Weiss most Saturday mornings before services. Beginning on October 13th our group will turn its attention to studying Musar, a discipline of Jewish moral conduct and discipline from the 19thCentury. I think that it is not possible to engage in such study without simultaneously measuring ourselves against this Jewish wisdom. Am I living a life that is in keeping with the values that I profess? Our many Torah study groups wrestle with this every week. Every worship service that we have is an invitation to, and opportunity for, self-examination, not just on Yom Kippur. We can take our inventories,measure ourselves and improve, all year long. It makes the work on Yom Kippur easier. And, we can do it at Oak Park Temple.
A few months ago, I was given a book by a friend, who told me that it was a must read. It is a memoir called My Dyslexia by Philip Schultz. Philip Schultz won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He poignantly and eloquently describes the painful struggles that he experienced as a child and in adulthood due to his being dyslexic. I tell you this because Philip Schultz is Jewish and, because of his dyslexia, he said that he often has felt isolated by his own ignorance in the synagogue. I suspect that each and every one of us here today has felt overwhelmed at some time by all that there is to know about being Jewish.
So, being one for simple explanations, I would like to end with a poem written by Philip Schultz. I think that I will also share it with my client to better answer his questions about this day. It is called, appropriately enough, “Yom Kippur”:
You are asked to stand and bow your head,
consider the harm you’ve caused,
the respect you’ve withheld,
the anger misspent, the fear spread,
the earnestness displayed
in the service of prestige and sensibility,
all the callous, cruel, stubborn, joyless sins
in your alphabet of woe
so that you might be forgiven.
You are asked to believe in the spark
of your divinity, in the purity
of the words of your mouth
and the memories of your heart.
You are asked for this one day and one night
to starve your body so your soul can feast on
faith and adoration.
You are asked to forgive the past
and remember the dead, to gaze
across the desert in your heart
toward Jerusalem. To separate
the sacred from the profane
and be as numerous as the sands
and the stars of heaven.
To believe that no matter what
You have done to yourself and others
morning will come and the mountain
of night will fade. To believe,
for these few precious moments,
in the utter sweetness of your life.
You are asked to bow your head
and remain standing,
and say Amen.
G’mar chatimah tovah. May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life…