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

Practicing for Death, Practicing for Life Sermon for Yom Kippur 5775 by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Practicing for Death, Practicing for Life in this Place 

Temple House of Israel, Staunton, VA

Temple Beth El, Harrisonburg, VA

10 Tishrei 5775

3-4 October 2014

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD.


Welcome back. Were here again, in this place.

Bmakom hazeh.

For some of us, this place is familiar. For some of us, this is a new place.

Lets all take a moment to look around this space, this place, hamakom hazeh.

When I was young, I attended a school where we taught not only how to think but also how to behave. We were taught that we should walk into a space, particularly any gathering space, with eyes straight ahead. Once we had found our seats, we should not turn around; rather our composed stature would ground us and prepare us for whatever would come next.

Tonight, I ask you to follow a different direction. Look around, look up, behind you, then in front of you. Notice something you may not have noticed before about this place, haMakom ha Zeh.


HaMakom means this place. It is also one of any names for the Holy One, for Gods Self.

In Genesis, Parashat VaYetzei, Jacob begins what becomes his formative spiritual journey, and the very first night after leaving home, he dreams of a ladder with angels going up and coming down on it. The Holy One appears and speaks to Jacob, and when Jacob awakes, he says, Mah norah haMakom haZeh!How awesome is this place! (Genesis 28:17)

How Awesome is the ONE who is in every place.

We have returned to this place tonight to be grounded, to remember who we are, to reclaim our identity as Jews. To remember and recover, in community, the why of our lives, the reason for our strivings, the ways we are held and challenged by our Judaism.

Mah norah haMakom haZeh!

A couple of weeks ago, I spent part of a day helping my best friend go through her closets because, after 41 years in this house, she is going to move. In three separate closets we found her fathers neckties, her former husband's tuxedos, and many items belonging to her mother: pants, jackets, blouses, and more. As gently as I could, I asked her if she was ready to part with the clothing of these three family members, all of whom are dead.

How do clothes, and other belongings, represent life, or, conversely, feed our fears of death? What are we carrying forward into this New Year that may be pulling us back into the past, or into our fears? How can we go forward, to new projects, new hopes, new homes, in this New Year?

Rosh HaShana is a call to life, with over 100 shofar blasts, with our declaration that Today is the Birth Day of the World. Ten days ago, with pageantry and ritual and symbolic foods for long life and wisdom, we sang the New Year into being. Together we proclaimed, may this year, 5775 bring to us and the whole House of Israel life and peace, joy and exultation, redemption and comfort. We ate sweet foods and engaged in conversation, strengthening community, affirming our connection. Some of us stood on the banks and cast away our transgressions, reaffirming life and hope. In synagogues and homes, in the practices of the devout and those who call themselves secular, the message of Rosh Hashana is simple and strong: CHOOSE LIFE.

Yom Kippur is a call to death. Throughout the 25 hours of this day, we descend into death, as we fast, eschew bathing, wear simple white clothes, go barefoot or wear no leather, and spend the day in the synagogue, turning our backs on the world. We leave both the natural and the material worlds, distancing ourselves from commerce and community, from the cacophony of the marketplace and the comforts of home. We enter into the subdued light of the synagogue, read prepared liturgies, and chant the Torah with the particular trope of these Awesome days. The day stretches on, and we go more deeply inward, discovering, perhaps, a well of quiet of which we were unaware. We may fear the darkness. But descending, find light.

In A Bride for One Night, Professor Ruth Calderon, the Israeli Knesset member, retells Talmudic tales. In one, she writes that when the Angel of Death was sent by the Holy One to Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi, The Angel of Death knew from experience that escorting sages to their deaths, whether they were still in their prime or had reached ripe old age, was not a difficult task.  Sages were prepared to die; they were not shocked and startled by his arrival like other men. With sages the Angel of Death was spared the routine crying and pleading and the paralyzed looks of those not ready to depart from the world. Perhaps the little pride they had countered the fear of death, overcoming that momentary pain when the soul escapes the body. Perhaps they were consoled by the fact that the Torah they had learned in their lifetimes would secure them a place in heaven. In any case the Angel of Death tended to interact politely with sages, as if conversing with equals. (p. 101).

On Yom Kippur, we all become sages. On Yom Kippur, we are welcomed into the world of death. We wrestle with our pride, in both communal and individual confessions. And together, we study Torah.

Here are two pieces of Torah that we study on Yom Kippur:

We began the seamless flow of this day with Kol Nidre. listening to the words that remind us that we are absolutely accountable for everything that comes out of our mouths.{C}[1]{C} The version of Kol Nidre that we use names the words that we may speak between this Yom Kippur and the nextMi Yom Kippurim zeh  ad yom Kippurim ha ba, and expresses the hope that we use words judiciously, intentionally, and with care. Kol Nidre is understood to serve us as a prophylactic, a protective shield, if we are forced to utter words we do not believe, to articulate views with which we disagree, to acquiesce to opinions or positions we do not hold.

The Kol Nidre prayer, then, reminds us to be mindful of our speech even as it says, youre covered. The community, those who witness Kol Nidre, has our back. Were not alone if we stumble in our speech. The words we will say, from this Yom Kippur to the next, are protected.

What of the vows we make willingly, without coercion, with joy and intention, with clarity and commitment?

Tonight, I would like to challenge each of us, as we enter into this day of discernment, to consider a vow, a commitment, that we WANT to and CAN keep in the coming year: ““Mi Yom Kippurim zeh  ad yom Kippurim ha ba.

I would like each of us to spend some time on this day that begins tonight, this Sabbath of Sabbaths, this day like no other in the Jewish calendar, thinking about one vow that we can make to ourselves that we can PRACTICE for the next year.

I looked up that word, and heres how the dictionary helps us:

rehearse, run through, go over/through, work on/at; polish, perfect.

train, prepare, go through one's paces.

carry out, perform, observe.

What would you like to work on, polish, and observe this year?

What is one achievable ongoing practice, commitment, engagement FOR YOU in the new year that begins now?

Weve all done thismany, many times. Weve all started projects that weve then put aside. Weve all made commitments that, for a range of reasons, weve not completed or followed through on. We may be jaded, or resistant. Not again!

Can we make this year differentby choosing ONE ONGOING COMMITMENT TO OURSELVES THAT, a year from now, we will be able to say, I worked on this.

The Torah portion that we read tomorrow includes these words:

Ki haMitzvah hazot asher anochi mitzavcha hayom lo niflate he vlo rchocha heelo va shamayim hee

The opportunity which You have given us today is not too hard for you, nor too remote; it is not in the heavensno, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it.

On this Yom Kippur day, each of us, I believe, can become sages, committing ourselves to living fully, even with the knowledge that each of us will die. The sages knew that looking death in the eye can help us to embrace life. I want to encourage each of us to do that: to immerse ourselves in the work of this Yom Kippur Day and to go forth into this year with a renewed sense of the powerand the beautyof life, and our own ability to increase that power and beauty.

Do you, like my friend, like me, have closets that need attention, belongings and memories that need to be sorted through?

Another friend, Susan, told me that as she prepared to move, she delightedly engaged in what she called revisionist history. I kept the mementos and the papers and books from the happy times in my life. I discarded all the rest.

This is a perfect time of year for us to clean our hearts closets. This is challenging work, but not impossible. We all have, intentionally or unintentionally, kept memories, and grudges, costumes and protective clothing that we no longer need or want. Weve begun a new year, and to better live in the present, we need to acknowledge, honor, and move beyond the past. For some of us, this means packing up our sorrows. Someone else will, perhaps, know how to use them. {C}[2]{C} And we, less burdened, can move on.

What is your vow, your commitment for this new year, Mi Yom Kippurim zeh  ad yom Kippurim ha ba that will help you move into this New Year with a greater sense of purpose, of clarity, of being fully yourself? This is your one precious life. Whatever your age, whatever your capacity, as this new year begins, you can claim your freedom and chart your next moves, moves towards life, towards health, towards engagement, towards service.

I want to encourage each of us here to identify ONE practice you would like to beginor set your mind to beginningfor yourself. This is between you and yourself, although, if appropriate, your commitment can involve service to another.

Your commitment to life might be as simple as spending 30 minutes a week walking outside. Or learning the Hebrew alphabet. Or taking up piano again. Or writing to an aging or lonely friend or relative once a month. Or volunteering, gardening, or learning carpentry. Or researching and then giving time or money to a cause or campaign you believe in.

What will enable you to mobilize your heart and claim an opportunity that is waiting for YOU in 5775?

By attending to our lives with intention and clarity, we are, consciously or not, preparing to meet the Angel of Death. Like the sages, each of us can cultivate equanimity, developing the muscle of calm so that when our time comes, we are not shocked or startled. We may not welcome the Angels knock, but we may acknowledge the inevitability of its arrival.

I invite you to write down your vow, your commitment, and to seal it in a self-addressed envelope. As you leave this service, you will find note cards and envelopes and pens at the front and at the rear of the sanctuary. I will collect the sealed envelopes. Three months from now, as the month of December draws to a close and the Hebrew month of Tevet begins, I will mail your letter to you. You will then have an opportunity to see how youve done for the first quarter of this new year, and to renew or revise your vow. Youll keep growing as the seasons and the months change. You will be making your way through the Jewish year, and through your own life. How alive will you be to each days opportunities and challenges?

In a few weeks, we will read Parashat VaYetze. Wherever we are on our own journeys,  I hope that we will hear Jacobs words echo in your own experience of the New Year that is unfolding: Mah norah haMakom haZeh: How amazing is this place; how fortunate am I to be here, now, in this place.


{C}[1] Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Absolutely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (Boston: Little Brown, 2003).

{C}[2] Johnny Cash, “Pack Up Your Sorrows” http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnnycash/packupyoursorrows.html

Elul's Comin'

Elul's Comin' 

Rabbi Joe Blair

August 6th, 2013/30 Av 5773

Tonight, at 8:18 pm local time is sunset, which will mark the start of the first day of the month of Elul. Elul is the last month on the Jewish calendar, used to establish the cycle of holidays for the coming year, leading up to the month of Tishrei, the start of which is also known as Rosh Hashanah, which kicks off the Yamim Nora'im (ten days of awe).

Because of the nature of the holidays in the period of the Yamim Nora'im, especially Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), the month leading up to them is thought to be a time of introspection and self-examination. Elul thus takes on a sense of collective and personal internal focus. The questions we ask of our selves include: How did we do compared to how we could have done? Have we identified, acknowledged, and repented of the things we did that were not reflective of who we wish to be or become? Have we sincerely apologized, made every effort to repair damage we did, and done what we are able to seek to avoid repeating that mistake again? These are the steps of Teshuvah - repentance and return. 

We also are obliged to work at forgiving. When someone comes to us and sincerely apologizes, we have an obligation to work at forgiving them - which is not to say that we forget, or that we act as if nothing happened, but we seek to let the anger and the desire for justice or revenge go.  

I have said before that one of the hardest of all the difficult tasks in forgiving is forgiving our self. No one else is ever a harsher critic, no one else can know just how far we fell short of the mark, no one else is as aware of our own failings and shortcomings, or a harsher judge. So one of the goals of this time is to find a way to recognize our own humanity in all its imperfection, with all its flaws, and to find a way to accept our own sincere apologies and forgive what transpired so we can move forward and try again, seeking to do better.  

The sense of hope that we can gain from knowing that forgiveness is possible is part of the power of what happens on erev Yom Kippur when the Kol Nidrei is chanted. This ancient prayer that asks that all the vows and promises we could not fulfill be annulled and made as if we had never uttered them is part of the holiday rite, allowing us to clear the books and start with a clean slate before G-d.  

The music that this prayer is chanted to is deeply moving and powerful. It is almost indescribable how much it touches those who have heard it and felt the power of the words and the longing for a way to approach and return to G-d after errors, transgressions, failures, mistakes, sins, and unfulfilled promises and vows.  

To help in setting the mood, here is a version of the Kol Nidrei performed as an instrumental piece. I hope that it touches you, as it does me, and helps you in your own work at this season. The music begins at 1:47. 


Kol Nidrei - http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=4955739&m=4955759