Yom Kippur Morning 5774

Second ChancesMembers of our congregation are wonderful when it comes to asking questions.  Some of my best sermons, I think, are based on questions that congregants ask me.  I would venture to say that even the most inquisitive minds in our congregation have never even thought to ask the question I am about to address!  Now that would be an obscure question indeed!  The question:  Why is it that we observe Yom Kippur when we do? Now you are scratching your heads. Of course, the Torah tells us that we should observe Yom Kippur on the Tenth of Tishre, following Rosh HaShanah, and that is why we observe it when we do. If that were the answer – I would not have much of a sermon today!  What I mean is this – We know the reasons for why we celebrate all of our other holidays when we do. We celebrate Passover when we do because it is the anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt. We celebrate Shavuot when we do because it marks the day of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. We celebrate Chanukah when we do because it marks the anniversary of the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees. Rosh Hashanah marks the date of the Creation of the World. But, do you know what event occurred on Yom Kippur that makes it a propitious time to ask forgiveness from G-d? To begin to answer that question, we have to go back three Jewish months from our month, Tishre. That brings us to the Jewish month of Sivan. On the 6th day of the month of Sivan, Moses receives the Ten Commandments for the first time.  We mark that occasion with the holiday of Shavuot.  Moses then stays on Mount Sinai for forty days. Fearing that Moses will never return, the Israelites fashion a Golden Calf to worship in G-d’s stead. G-d tells Moses what is happening, and Moses descends Mount Sinai . As he approaches the Israelite encampment, he sees the people dancing around and worshipping the Golden Calf.  Moses smashes the set of tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written. Moses punishes those who are responsible for leading the people into sin. Then, on the first day of the month of Elul, Moses again ascends the Holy Mountain to ask forgiveness from G-d for the Israelite’s sin. Were the Jewish people still G-d’s people after all that had happened? Could G-d ever forgive us for the sin of the Golden Calf? Finally, after another 40 days on the mountain, G-d agrees to forgive the people and takes them back in love. The Jewish people would be given a second chance. G-d shows Moses how to prevent further calamities, which, like that of the sin of the Golden Calf, threaten to stir up G-d’s anger and lead to the punishment of the Jewish people.  G-d gives Moses a prayer, which we call the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The Jewish people can invoke this prayer throughout the ages to beseech G-d to turn from anger and punishment when we sin to compassion and forgiveness.  That prayer – Adonai Adonai kel rechum ve-chanun – is invoked throughout our Yom Kippur services, and at other services during the year as well. G-d forgives the Jewish people for the Sin of the Golden Calf on the tenth of Tishre, the day on which we celebrate Yom Kippur. As a sign of that forgiveness, G-d gives Moses a second set of Ten Commandments, which Moses brings down from the mountain and deposits in the Holy Ark. We have come before G-d on the anniversary of that date every year since, on a day that we call Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement — to ask forgiveness for the sins which we have committed as individuals and as a community in the past year. That means that the celebration of Yom Kippur rests on an event that we never even mention on the day itself – the giving, and the receiving, of this second set of tablets. This second set of Tablets of the Ten Commandments was different than the first. The Torah tells us that the first set of Ten Commandments was fashioned totally by G-d – G-d carved the tablets and wrote upon them himself. The Torah tells us that Moses carved this second set of tablets himself and brought them up the mountain, where G-d then wrote upon them.  That first set of commandments, carved and written entirely by G-d, imposed upon us, the Jewish people, demands that we could not bear. Our ancestors who left Egypt felt they could not possibly live up to the standards of such a direct encounter with divinity itself. They were overwhelmed by the preciousness of that gift and the godlike behavior that was expected of us — Hence, the flight into the worship of the Golden Calf. With it, at least, they would fashion for themselves a god to whom they could more easily relate.   With the second set of commandments, G-d appears to have learned a lesson. That second set of commandments was the result of a partnership, a collaboration, between Moses and G-d. Moses carves the tablets, and G-d writes upon them. This was a joint divine-human process. In the first set of tablets, G-d expects perfection. It is too much for human beings to handle. With the second set of tablets G-d recognizes that Jewish life would have to be a divine-human partnership. G-d would give the laws, but it would be for human beings to interpret them.  This left room for human frailties, and human inconsistencies, human vulnerabilities. It was this set of tablets that the Israelites carried with them in the desert and has kept us company ever since. This is the comforting message of Yom Kippur. We can be less than perfect. We can make mistakes and be forgiven. We can aim high and fall short. We can recognize our imperfections, our shortcomings, our faults, and know that just as G-d forgives us, we can forgive the flaws in ourselves.  We can forgive others. Just as G-d gave the Jewish people a second chance at Sinai at the beginning of our history as a people, so G-d gives each one of us a second chance to mend out ways, again and again, and again, year after year. We need those second chances. We fall short of our own aspirations all the time.  If you are have had a bar or bat mitzvah here, did you make a promise to yourself to continue coming to services on Sunday mornings, only to decide that it was easier to sleep in. Did you say, “After my bar mitzvah I am going to come to services once a month” …. But then always found a reason you could not come? If you are an adult, did you promise to yourself that you would learn more about Judaism this year – but you never followed through on your promise, and here you are, a year later, knowing nothing more about your religion than you did last year?  Did you resolve to work harder last year, to grow your business, to pursue that promotion, only to fall short? As a husband and wife, did you promise you would work on your relationship last year, only to find it was easier to put things off than to confront difficult issues? Did you say you would be more financially responsible this year, save more for your children’s college fund or your own retirement, give more to tsedaka, only to fall back into the same old spending habits? Did you promise yourselves to break that old habit, to improve your diet, to learn a musical instrument, to read more, to watch TV less, to spend more time with your family, to enroll in that continuing ed course, to volunteer for your community, to be more environmentally conscious, to take up a hobby, to live a healthier lifestyle. Do not be discouraged. It is never too late to achieve to start something new, to achieve a goal, to reach for a dream. One exceptional recent inspiration is Diana Nyad. She is the 64 year old woman you may have read about a couple of weeks ago.  After 53 hours of swimming, fighting the tides, the weather, the jellyfish, the danger of sharks, fighting off sleep and exhaustion and nausea, Diana Nyad completed the 112 miles swim from Cuba to Key West. Emerging from the water, she fell into the arms of a friend and said, “I did it, I did it!” It really did not take Diana Nyad 53 hours of swimming to reach the beaches of Key West. It took her 35 years to swim from Cuba to Key West. She had tried and failed four times previously. In her first attempt, in 1978, she was 29 years old! Experience, determination, learning from her past mistakes, a lot of courage and a little luck combined to bring a successful conclusion to Diana Nyad’s fifth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. When asked by reporters what she had learned from her experience she replied: “I learned three things. First, never give up on your dreams. Second, you are never, never, too old to pursue your dream. Third, swimming may seem like a solitary sport. It is not. It takes a whole team to help.” I believe the same lessons are applicable to Teshuvah, to repentance.  First, we should never give up on our desire to change, to grow, to make our lives better.  Judaism teaches that mankind is created in the image of G-d, that we are “little lower than the angels”. There is greatness, nobility, a spark of the divine, in each and every one of us. Diana Nyad’s accomplishment just hints at our potential to accomplish the impossible and the improbable in our own lives. The second lesson of Diana Nyad’s that applies to Teshuva – We are never too old to change and to grow. Harvard professor Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot has done research into the learning process of older adults. She notes that the things we learn in school – “competition, speed, the single pursuit of achievement, and hiding our failures” give way as we get older to qualities that support growth and change such as “patience, collaboration and restraint.”  As we get older we tend to let go of our fear of failure, of our sensitivity to being criticized, and are more willing to take risks, to put allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Lawrence-Lightfoot tells stories of people who after long, successful careers take tentative, courageous steps into uncharted adventures—such as painting, sculpting, jazz piano playing—where failure is public, and growth requires the ability to seek and appreciate criticism of one's work. We can change, we can grow, we can become better human beings, no matter if we are 64, 84 or a hundred and four! And her last lesson was: “I couldn’t have done it by myself. If it were not for the five support boats and the 35 people who went with me, if it were not for my coaches and my companions, if it were not for the people who designed my face mask and my bathing suit, and who went into the water to send those electronic pulses that kept the sharks away—if it were not for all those people, I would not have made it. That too is a lesson for Teshuva. We are not alone. Remember that we have friends, we have family, we have fellow congregants, we have clergy and teachers who will help and support us in our desire to change and grow. There are people in our synagogue, in our community, who are on the same journey that we are. “For a permanent solution to easing tension and soothe the rough waters of the world that cause people to go to drugs, drinking, gambling, pornography, overeating, or anything that will give them some temporary relief, you can’t beat the support and encouragement of a friend,” writes the author Jonathan Anthony Burkett. With the support of friends and our confidence in G-d’s love for us, no change, no challenge, is too great. Shana Tova Tikatevu