Yom Kippur: Soul Journey Sermon by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell


 Beth El Congregation, Harrisonburg, VA

Kol Nidre

22 September 2015/10 Tishrei 5776

Sue Levi Elwell



שנה טובה / Shana Tova.


Id like to speak with you tonight about your journey.

Your souls journey. Each soul, and each journey is unique.


Were all on it. Yom Kippur is one of the times that were jostled into awareness and we may actually name this journey.


Were all on our way through life. Over the course of our days, each of us collects, or discovers, or trips over rocks, or creeks, or souvenirs that help remind us that were on our way. Sometimes those reminders come in the form of a birdsong, or a musical phrase, or a full blown lyric. Sometimes its a book title, or a line from a poem.[1]


The poet Mary Oliver has accompanied me on part of my journey. Although weve never met, her words walk with me. Here is the conclusion of her poem, The Summer Day.


I dont know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesnt everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?


For me, thats the challenge of Yom Kippur.

So Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?


What will distinguish this one, wild and precious day in the calendar of YOUR life? What is the impact of this day on our souls journey?


Tomorrow we join Reform Jews around the world in reading from Parashat Nitzavim, words from the fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy 29-30.


Our portion begins by addressing each of us, directly.

You are standing here this day: all of you.

We are being addressed directly, by name. EACH OF US.


ראשיכם your leaders

שבטיכם your officials,

זקניכם your elders

כל איש ישראל each man, woman and child


and the text continues:

The stranger in your midst,

from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water

each one, singled out, described more than once so that it is clear that all are included. No one is neglected, overlooked, left out.


The text continues:

for the opportunity I offer you today

is notbeyond you, nor far away.

It is not in heaven and it is not across the sea

No, this is so very near to youin your mouth and in your heart you can surely do it.


We read these words every year

because as much as we are people of remembering, we are also a people who forget. And so we read these words again, to know that

each of us matters, no matter how exalted, or how lowly.

Young and old, of many genders, varied professions,

each of us is addressed, challenged by these words.


This day is about EACH of us, and about the journeys of each of our souls.


So what are each of us going to do with our one precious day, our one wild and precious life?


In past years I have spoken with you about Yom Kippur as a day in which we practice dying: we do not eat, we turn away from our daily routines. Some of us wear special clothing, or choose not to wear leather shoes that create a distance between our feet and the earth.


On both Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we read the deeply challenging and powerfully haunting UNetaneh Tokef prayer, which challenges us to think about who shall live and who shall die. The composer Leonard Cohen writes:


And who by fire, who by water,

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,

Who in your merry merry month of May,

Who by very slow decay,

And who shall I say is calling?[2]



Death will come to each of us. Yet most of us are unprepared, and profoundly unready.


Today, each of us is called to account.


As some of you know, Nurit and I took part in a historic walk a couple of weeks ago. The NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, organized Journey for Justice, a 40 day, 1000 mile walk from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC, commemorating the 1965 Voting Rights March.[3] With the support of the RAC, the Reform Movements Religious Action Center, and the CCAR, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, over 150 rabbis from across the country took turns carrying a Torah. We were proud to follow in the footsteps of Reverend Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched together in 1965 in Selma. Heschel said I felt my legs were praying.[4]


Nurit and I spent Shabbat, September 12, walking with an erev rav, a mixed multitude of folks. A man from Colorado walked at the head of our group, setting the pace for the rest of us. He called himself Middle Passage, recalling the forced voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Middle Passage, who began the march in Selma on August 1, carried the American flag every day.  After trudging through the rain that morning, after leading the march for 920 miles, Middle Passage collapsed and died.[5]


Again, the words of Leonard Cohen:

And who by brave assent, who by accident,

Who in solitude, who in this mirror


Middle Passage died with his boots on, marching for justice. In his life, he embodied memory and resilience, as he marched with others for Our lives, Our votes, Our Jobs and Our Schools.


Middle Passages death catapulted me into asking these questions:


How do I want to live my life?

Do I want to take risks, walking forward with assurance, confidence, and pride? What banner do I carry? For whom do I set the pace?


Every day we open our eyes, and the day stretches out before us.

Every day each of us,

ראשיכם your leaders

שבטיכם your officials,

זקניכם your elders

כל איש ישראל each man, woman and child

chooses whether to say YES to the possibility of light and life.

Every day we are presented with this option, this choice, this discernment.


Yom Kippur reminds us of the power of this gift

this simple gift, this gift of time, this gift of choice.


Tell me, what do you plan to do

with your one wild and precious day,

with your one wild and precious life?


Will I, today, open my eyes to the world around me.

and see that the natural world is in danger? The icecaps are melting. The rainforests are disappearing. We are poisoning and polluting Mother Earth.[6] Is today the day that I will open my eyes to the destruction of the earth?


Will I, today, open my ears to the cries of the sixty million souls who are seeking a safe haven, this global exodus?

Is today the day I will hear the echoes of my own peoples stories in the voices of the Syrians and Afghans, the Somalians, the Sudanese, and too many more? Is today the day I will listen to the pleas of the children, parents, and grandparents who have been uprooted from their homes and now clamor to be admitted to countries that will offer a temporary resting place, and ultimately a permanent home? [7] Is today the day I will open my ears to the heartbreak of the greatest number of displaced persons in human history?


Will I, today, open my heart to my family: those who live in my home and in my city? Can I accept that each of us is created in the Divine image? And that my family is your family, our family? This is what the human family looks like. We are all humans beings sharing a fragile earth. Yes, there are differences between us. We have so much to learn from what distinguishes us, one from the other. Is today the day I will truly open my heart to my brothers and sisters, celebrating our differences and claiming our oneness?


Will I, today, open my soul to the journey that is uniquely mine? Will I claim, for the first time, or once again, with renewed conviction and determination, a path of commitment? Of engagement? Of intention? Of justice? Will I, on this Yom Kippur day, renew my vow to love myself AND the world?


The portion that we will read tomorrow from Deuteronomy concludes:


This day I call heaven and earth to witness regarding you.

REGARDING YOU, each one of US.

life and death I have set before youChoose life.


How will we choose life today?


If we live today to the fullest, if we intentionally choose life, choose to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to the world, if we stake out our souls journey, we will arrive at the end of the day with a different sensibility, with a sense of lightness, with greater clarity, and perhaps with joy. One of the powerful metaphors of Yom Kippur is that over the course of this awesome day, our names are written, and then sealed in the Book of Life by the מלך  המלכים Melech haMelachim, by the קדוש ברוך הוא Kadosh Baruch Hu, by the אדון הסליחות Adon haSlichot.


On this Yom Kippur day, I challenge each of us to grasp this metaphor of inscription in the Book of Life as our banner.


The question we must ask, with Leonard Cohen, is And who shall I say is calling?


Who is calling you, who is challenging YOUR soul? Who is calling you to take up the banner of YOUR journey? Is it a power outside of you, or is it a still small voice in your own head, your own heart?


The important thing is not who is calling but that we are called, each of us.


Each of us is called to open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our souls.


We, who live with so many material comforts, take this day to be discomfited.


May that discomfort lead us to a day of decision: to no longer stand idly by, to choose life, with all its heartbreak, with all its beauty. Will you join me in raising a banner for the essential and stunning humanity of each person, and the universal right of individuals to live in peace and unafraid. Will you join me in raising the banner of justice and compassion, not for ourselves, but for all people, everywhere. For we are the people who, again and again, choose life and hope and love.


May each of us claim our power to choose a life of meaning, a life of engagement, a life that makes this world a better place than we found it. May this be our journey. May each of us use our one wild and precious life for joy, for justice, for love.


כן יהי רצון Ken yhi ratzon.


[1] For at least the past 400 years, people have been keeping “Commonplace Books,” notebooks in which individuals record insights, quotations, proverbs, prayers, and much more. Distinguished from diaries or journals, such collections support the compiler’s process of bringing together information that may assist in organizing or cataloguing a life’s experiences. Commonplace books have been adopted by some contemporary students of Mussar, the Jewish ethical tradition. For more information, also see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonplace_book.

[2] http://www.lyricsfreak.com/l/leonard+cohen/who+by+fire_20082835.html

[3] http://www.naacp.org/news/entry/take-the-justicesummer-challenge-walk-justicemiles


https://www.facebook.com/groups/190598967730541/; https://vimeo.com/139409835

[5] http://www.naacp.org/press/entry/naacp-official-statement-on-the-passing-of-justicesummer-marcher-middle-pas

[6] 360.org; pachamama.org

[7] hias.org

Atem Nitzavim - Blessing for the Weeders: A Benediction for a Small Congregation - Sermon by Rabbi Joe Blair Yom Kippur 5775

Atem Nitzavim - Blessing for the Weeders: A Benediction for a Small Congregation

Yom Kippur 5775

Rabbi Joe Blair

(adapted with kind permission from a concept by colleague Rabbi Ellen Lewis)

Delivered to Temple House of Israel in Staunton and Congregation Beth El in Harrisonburg, Virginia

  Shalom, and Gut Yontiff.

As you are aware, we have shared a year of difficulties and sad events, of tragic occurrences, and sad news. It was a year filled with trials, tribulations, and troubles, both here in our own community, and throughout the world. In light of all that has been, it would be easy to fall into the all-too common pattern of looking back with gloom and negativity, of focusing on the ills, and resigning our self to despair and expectation of nothing but bad news.

But let me assure you: on this day of Yom Kippur, that is NOT what we are urged to do, not what this holiday is about. As solemn as this holiday may be, it is also a time of happiness, joy, and looking forward, an opportunity to strive and be better, an entryway to hope and moving forward.

Those who came before us were wise in many ways, just one of which is shown today. On this day, the Day of Atonement, we are not encouraged to wallow in our past mistakes, or to give up and see the future as hopeless and bleak! Instead, we are taught that if we truly wish it and are willing to make the effort, we can overcome our faults and flaws, raise ourselves up and be better than we were in the year now past. We are taught, Im tirtzu, eyn zo agadah! If you will it, it is no dream.

We must acknowledge those errors and faults, in order to know what it is we must correct and work to improve, but we are not mired or anchored in what was. We are assured that whatever the past, if we arrive at this day having made a sincere effort, and ask for forgiveness and a chance to do better, G-d, the merciful, compassionate, grace-full, and loving sovereign and parent, will take that into account; we will have a chance to refocus, get back on track, and correct course. We can proceed with a sense of hope that we are moving in the correct direction, and that each of us working for the best for all will find the best for our self as well – and what more could we hope for or want?

So we see that part of the process of renewing our hope and sense of anticipation for the future is to take stock, not only of what went wrong, but also what went right. We need to acknowledge what we did and should continue to do as we move forward.

For our time together, I want to draw your attention to, and focus for a little time on us, as a community, and I want to highlight what we did that was good. I am sure you will find it no surprise that I want to look at this through the lens of Torah, with a look at who we are.

Allow me to remind you that the reading from Torah for the morning of Yom Kippur paints a powerful picture. It is spoken during Moses’ retelling of what happened, his final address to the people that makes up the book of Devarim. In this particular section, Moses describes that moment when all of the Hebrews who were Redeemed from Egypt, from the narrow place, who ventured into the wilderness and walked for days, until they had gathered in one place to encounter G-d. ALL of them were part of that unique moment, the Revelation of G-d at Sinai, and all of them entered into the covenant between G-d and the Hebrews.

Let me remind you again that it is understood that not only those who were present, those who had come out of Egypt, who stood there in the conventional sense, are included. No, instead we understand that ALL who were there at that time, along with ALL the souls who would ever be part of the covenant, every one of them - EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US - were understood to be present at that moment. So YOU, TOO, were there at the moment of Revelation. And YOU, TOO, are part of that Torah and the sanctity that came about as the outpouring of Revelation.

With that understanding as the background for what we read, the words that we read from the Torah on this holiday have a particular resonance for us. Listen closely.

 “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d – your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer – to enter into the covenant of the Lord your G-d…”Deuteronomy 1:9-11

 Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem….

Again: You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d. From woodchopper to waterdrawer….

With this in your ear, permit me to expand on what is here, and show you how it speaks to us today, in our community, as a benediction, a promise, and a blessing. Listen, and hear yourself in it.

Shema, Yisra’el….. Listen and Hear, Israel.

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d;

From woodchopper to waterdrawer  ….

From weeder to planter

From painter to bulb changer

From flower arranger to ark curtain hanger

From Torah holder to Torah reader

From hedge trimmer to newsletter editor

From artwork selector to tallit ironer

From plaque hanger to fruit picker.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d;

From service usher to back row worshipper

From craft-creator to memorial board hanger and lighter

From potluck chef to greeter of strangers

From gatherer of rummage to seller of treasures

From maker of sandwiches to deliverer of orders

From break-fast planner to air conditioning filter installer

From light bulb changer to tablecloth washer.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d

From lawn cutter to Torah repairer

From ritual planner to snack provider

From Haftarah chanter to challah baker

From student of Torah to teacher of Torah

From student of the Alefbet to teacher of adult education

From teacher of Hebrew to student of Hebrew

From religious school teacher to religious school parent

From writer of notes to reader of announcements.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d;

From mopper of floors to unstopper of sinks

From pourer of wine to raiser of Sukkah

From unlocker of doors to twister of yahrzeit bulbs

From maker of coffee to purchaser of cups

From sender of shalach manot to mailer of bulletins

From singer of songs to performer of mitzvot

From organizer of oneg to assigner of honors

From plotter of gravesites to maintainer of cemetery.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d;

From discussants of books to deliverers of mishloach manot

From blower of shofar to decorator of Sukkah

From installer of carpet to bearer of Torah

From hoster of oneg to performer of talent

From member of Sisterhood to member of the men’s club

From committee member to principal of the religious school

From member of the board to trustee

From elected officer to volunteer.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord Your G-d

The one who says yes when asked

The one who say yes before being asked

The one who brings challah for eating

The one who watches for the sun’s setting

The one who arrives first and the one who cleans up last

The one who provides snacks and the one who picks up trash

The one who sits and the one who stands.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d;

The one who judges talent and the ones who share their talents

The one who convenes and the one who attends

The one who welcomes the stranger and the one who blesses the sick

The one who mourns and the one who rejoices

The ones who shed tears and the ones who wipe them away

The one who pursues justice and the one who performs mitzvoth.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d

Those who are standing here with us this day

Those who are not with us here this day.

Those who were here in years past

Those who will come to join us in future

And those who are yet to be born.


You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d, and together you encounter the divine, together you create the kehilah kedosha (the holy community), together you elevate the lives of others, and together you sanctify your own lives in the way you live them. All of you, together and individually, form our community and create the world around us. Our task is to strive, to do our best.

We are told that we are not obliged to finish the work, but we are not permitted to desist from it. It is our honest, heartfelt, and sincere efforts and striving that are our offering today, and everyday. And I pray that all of can continue the work that we have done in past, and accomplish even more in the year ahead. What we have done is good, what we will do is even better. Stay strong, stay connected, stay focused and together we will reach new heights.


To all of you – I wish a g’mar chatima tovah umetukah; may you be sealed for a good year and sweet year, and may you have a tzom kal, a meaningful and light fast. Chag sameach.