Yom Kippur Morning 2021: Sermon Lev Chadash Milano

In “the Mirror and the Light”, the finale to Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, she has him say while contemplating his own diminished future “We are all dying, just at different speeds”

Yom Kippur is a day that reminds us not only to consider how we are living our lives in the light of our values and hopes, but it speaks to us of our own mortality – it is a day out of time, a day we travel through as if dead, with no food or water, no ordinary business to transact etc. Yom Kippur is a dress rehearsal for death.

To be clear. We are not supposed to feel dead in the sense that we might feel nothing, or no longer care for the things of this world; rather we can take twenty five hours where we subsume the wants or desires of the body into the perspectives and expression of the soul.

As close as we can be, we become disembodied. We pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that are usually drowned out in the busy-ness of everyday living. The tradition is that we wear white – the colour of purity. Many of us wear a kittel – quite literally the shrouds that will wrap our bodies in the coffin. We are practising a death of the body in order to free the life of the mind or the soul.

Judaism is famously a religion of life. We toast each other “Le’chaim” – to Life! We focus on our actions in this world, and leave unexamined what may happen beyond this world. But we build into our practise this one extraordinary day when we rehearse our dying, in order to understand our world a little differently.

The point of Yom Kippur is not to remind us that we are mortal, that, as Mantel says we are all dying, just at different speeds. It is to remind us to think about how we are living our lives – specifically how are we living them in relation to the teachings and expectations of our traditions.

Rabbi Eliezer famously taught that one should: “Repent one day before your death.” So his disciples asked him: “Does a person know which day he will die?” Rabbi Eliezer responded: “Certainly, then, a person should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die—so that all his days he is repenting.” (Talmud, Shabbat 153a)

In my work as a hospice chaplain I recently had a long conversation with a patient, a strict Catholic woman, who was terrified that she might not die in a state of grace, and that if she was not entirely absolved of her sins she would not be allowed to enter heaven. I was so perturbed by her distress and her certainty that the gates of heaven might be still closed against her even though she had made her final confession, received full absolution from her priest, and had had no obvious opportunity for further sinning given the frailty of her health, that I rang her priest to see what else could be done. There was nothing more to do, he told me, it was all in the hands of God.

It got me thinking back to Rabbi Eliezer. He is not talking about dying in a state of grace, not suggesting that we need to get our timing right so that we die shortly after repenting our sins. He is talking of being in a continuing state of teshuvah, not so much its colloquial meaning of “repentance” as its real meaning – “returning” or “turning towards God”. Eliezer is not terribly interested in the purity of our souls at any given moment, but in the fact of our being engaged in some kind of understanding of our purpose in this world, some kind of intention and action towards making ourselves and our worlds a better place.

Taking a day away from our routine, blocking it off in our diaries and using it for introspection and for the evaluation of our lives in the light of the values and teachings and the expectations of our tradition is a valuable and important activity. Doing it from within our community with a liturgy that provides a map for our journey of return is a supportive and sustaining factor in the day. Knowing that across the world Jews are coming together in real meetings and these days in virtual communities too, gives us the strength to keep going during the times when the prayers seem endless or pointless or inappropriate or trivial.  A day set aside in order to consciously attempt teshuvah, turning ourselves and our lives around in search of meaning, in search of God, is a gift to ourselves, the gift of time and of space to hear the needs of our souls which have so often been ignored or silenced in our quest for material success or even just to get through the daily routines we must complete.

When Rabbi Eliezer tells us to repent one day before the day of our death this is not a rhetorical flourish, but a reminder of the value of our lives. He is not suggesting that we live each day as if it were our last, cramming in all the things we might like to have done as we tick off as much as we can from our bucket list,  or fearful of a coming darkness and doom. He is saying we should live each day as well as we can, maybe not procrastinate so much, maybe say the words that need to be communicated to others, maybe enjoy the moment of sunshine playing on our skin or watch the clouds scooting across a beautiful sky. He is reminding us that each day we live we should strive for the understanding that this day is unique, it is providing us with an opportunity that may not return on another day to do the things that this day makes possible. How do we turn towards God today? How will we demonstrate our love for the Divine in our behaviour towards other human beings? And how will the choices I make today shape me and my relationships in the world? Am I making sure to appreciate what each day offers, to acknowledge the blessings in my life, to show that appreciation in my actions?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said that “if you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need do you have for a tomorrow?”

Each day we try to work on ourselves, try – in the words of the prayer – to bend our will to do God’s will.

The work of the day of Yom Kippur can be done on any day, it is simply helpful for us to block out the time to do it together with our community. And the day of Yom Kippur is not just one of prayer and of teshuvah, not only about atonement and about considering our lives from the outside as if we are dead.  It is a day that signifies the endless possibility of rebirth. The sound of the shofar at the end of the service is the cry of the reborn, it is our signal to go back into the world refreshed and renewed to do the work we are here to do.

There is a famous inspirational quote found on many a social media site “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” – and essentially that is what Yom Kippur is also helping us to understand and enact. But never forget, that if today doesn’t work out, there is also tomorrow, and the day after that.  

But don’t wait too long. Live every day searching for teshuva, for closeness with God, for aligning our will with God’s will, and then when the day of our death finally comes we will be able to say that we tried to live as fully as we could, we have no more need of a tomorrow.

12th Elul: repentance is not a substitute for responsibility

The official ideology of Yom Kippur is found in the words of Resh Lakish, a third century Talmudic sage, and can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b–“Great is repentance, for the deliberate sins of one who repents become as inadvertent ones.”

In effect the argument is that Teshuvah, the action of repenting, causes the person to allow their real self to emerge, and as they move into a new direction they show that true self. The person therefore who sinned deliberately can be understood to have been not really themselves, and so, when they become their real self, those sins are clearly inadvertent – and inadvertent sin cannot be punished or judged in the same way as deliberately flouting the rules of behaviour.

It is a theology of new beginnings and a clean slate, teaching us that renewal is always possible; counteracting the guilt and despair we may be feeling about the bad choices we have made with the belief that good intentions for the future must redeem us and make up for the past.

It is certainly an attractive proposal, but the reality is that we can’t rely on Teshuvah to remake the world exactly as it was or should be. Teshuvah may be a potent force but it is not an all-powerful one. Even if it can change our deliberate sins into the more manageable and less terrifying category of inadvertent ones, it cannot erase the effects of those sins. If we were to truly face reality we would have to say that repentance is not, and never can be a substitute for responsibility. And more than that, we would have to acknowledge that some things cannot be rectified, however mortified and ashamed we may be to have committed them. What is done cannot always be undone, and the mark it leaves on our lives (and those of other people) will not be erased.

The word Kippur is related to the verb “to cover over”. When we try to make Teshuvah and to uncover our real and ideal self as we turn towards a good way of being in the world, we also cover over the mistakes we made and the bad actions we did. They do not go away, but we take away their power to hold us back, through our shame or our fear. I do like the notion of Teshuvah providing us with a new start, of the freshness of starting again unencumbered by a past that has the power to haunt us, but I shudder a little at the notion of a rebirth. For we are not in any way born again through our actions over the Yamim Noraim, we continue to live and continue to remember and continue to be the person who has real responsibility for our lives, but at the same time we cover over and leave behind the place that is stopping us from going forward into our new and more true way of being. Repentance is not a substitute for responsibility – repentance gives us the means to become much more responsible for who we are, and the power to use that responsibility to change not only ourselves but also the world around us.