Time - Part 2: Sermon for Morning Yom Kippur 5774 by Rabbi Joe Blair

Time – Part 2

Yom Kippur Morning 5774

Rabbi Joe Blair

Shabbat shalom and Shanah Tovah.

Permit me to begin by repeating what I said last night: the overarching theme I want to follow this year for the holiday is “time.” I want to think of and explore the three segments of prayer we follow on Yom Kippur, the services of the evening, morning, and afternoon, in terms of the concepts of Heart, Head, and Soul.

Last night I talked about ‘time’ and Kohelet, and I suggested how the services of Yom Kippur could be seen in terms of Heart, Head, and Soul. We talked about how Erev Yom Kippur is about heart. The music of Kol Nidrei tugged and played on our heart strings. Our need for community and belonging arose and impelled us to attend. We needed each other for community, for confession, and for companionship. We needed to be together to open our hearts, and to be ready to face what we will encounter today.

This morning, we turn our focus to the rubric of ‘head’. The service is more cerebral, more about our thoughts and evaluation of our deeds. We take out our past and examine it, looking at what we did wrong, how we missed the mark and fell short, where we didn’t live up to our hopes and self-expectations. We focus on our understanding of the world and our place in it, our relationships to G-d and others, the balance of our self as an individual in contrast to our place in community.

We seek an understanding of the meaning of the day and the holiday – why do we fast and afflict our self, why do we spend the effort to examine our deeds and motivations, what do we want and expect from our relationship with G-d?  

We read the truly frightening text from Deuteronomy, telling us what is expected of us in our relationship with G-d and with others. The image it summons is one of the people on trial, standing ‘in the dock’ on the two mountains of Gerezim and Eyval, with G-d as prosecutor and judge, calling on the Earth and the Heavens as the witnesses against us should we fail to obey the orders of the court. We, imperfect and flawed humans, are being held to account by nature, the universe, and creation, before G-d, the ultimate judge. To fail in light of this image is unthinkable. This is not called Yom HaKippurim, the day of atonements, for nothing. We know our failings in past. Looking forward, how can we possibly measure up?  

We follow that up with the deeply troubling and demanding text from Isaiah 58 which challenges us as to what it means to serve G-d, what it means to be in community, and what it means to be in relationship. The very language is both a challenge and a rebuke.

G-d is asking of us, ‘is THIS the fast I desire?’. ‘Do you really think I am so blind as not to see that you continue to sin even as you ask forgiveness?’ ‘Do you mean any of what you say in the smallest degree?’ 

I can’t imagine anything that would be a tougher set of questions to seriously addresss and take on than these.  

This is the service at which we ask the hard questions about what we believe, what we stand for, what we can be, and how we measured up in the last year. This really puts us through the wringer; no mercy, no quarter, no pulling punches – it is all on the line.

Yet we cannot simply give up.

Let me return to Kohelet and read it once again.

1. To everything there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heavens.

2. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant,

and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

3. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down,

and a time to build up;

4. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn,

and a time to dance;

5. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

6. A time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

7. A time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

8. A time to love, and a time to hate;

a time of war, and a time of peace.

In light of the poetic passage from Kohelet, this service is the one at which we are looking at the message of that text as the spotlight, focusing inwardly, examining our self, our soul, and our deeds, and considering this as: a time to pluck up that which is planted inappropriately, a time to break down what has been built incorrectly, a time to gather stones and clear obstacles in our path, a time to refrain from embracing that which is easy and familiar and wrong, a time to cast away that which we do not value, a time to rend what is misshapen and ill-fitting, and a time to keep silence and not seek to justify our mistaken actions and choices to our self or others.  

This is hard work – no cakewalk. It takes effort, it takes strength, it takes persistence and fortitude, it takes concentration. And all this while we are also afflicting ourselves physically and psychically….

It is no wonder that we can’t do this alone. We need the community to support us in this effort, to help us hold the focus, to keep us on track. Having others around us who are also going through the same thing, experiencing the same questions, doubts, and afflictions really helps us as we push through this and seek to face our self, confront our errors, and resolve to work to be better.

We opened our hearts last night; now we open our minds. The time is ripe, and we are ready. The next step will be to open our souls.

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G’mar Chatimah tovah umetukah tichateimu. May you be sealed for a good and sweet year.  See you at 3 for the continuation of the service.