Sign In Forgot Password

Yom Kippur 5782        September 16,2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Gemar Tov – May our fasting and prayers today bring us to a good conclusion.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of California tells the Hasidic story called, “The Storyteller.”
When the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism died, his disciples gathered to distribute his worldly possessions. One was given his tefillin and another his shtender/lectern. One received his books and another his kiddush cup. 
At the end of the line waited one faithful Hasid. But there was nothing of worldly value left, so he was given only the master’s stories – and the responsibility of sharing them with the world.  
The Hasid was dismayed; he would much rather have received something of tangible value. But he was conscientious and therefore set out into the world to share the master’s stories. He didn’t starve, but neither did he make much of a living. 
So, when word came to hm that a wealthy Jewish man in a far-off land was prepared to offer a great fortune for the stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov, he praised God for the blessing and set off for the man’s estate. Arriving on a Friday afternoon just before Shabbat he was welcomed with great warmth and escorted directly into a magnificent banquet hall. After dinner the man and his guests turned to the Hasid and begged him to grace the evening with one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s stories. 
At that moment, the Hasid’s mind went blank. Not one story could penetrate the fog, not one anecdote, not one reminiscence – he could remember nothing. Blushing with embarrassment, he apologized.
“No matter” said his host, “You are no doubt exhausted from your journey. Perhaps tomorrow you will share your stories with us.” But the same thing happened at Shabbat lunch and again at supper. Just as he was about to tell a favorite story, his mind went blank. Fearing the wealthy man’s disappointment, the Hasid decided it would be best to just sneak away. But as he was sneaking out of the house, his host met him at the door. “I beg your forgiveness” said the Hasid, “I have spent years telling the stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov. I sat at his table. I know hundreds of tales, but for some reason I can’t remember any of them.”
“Not one” asked the host, suddenly distressed. “You were with the Ba’al Shem Tov for so many years. Can’t you remember even one moment of the master’s life?”
“Only one,” said the Hasid, “not really a story but a memory of when I was young. I was with him on Shabbat. He was distant and gloomy but would tell none of us why. As soon as Shabbat was over, he ordered us into his wagon, and we began a long trip. At dawn, we entered a town known for its vicious attacks on its Jews. And this was the worst of days to visit. Easter Sunday. We entered the town and found the entire Jewish quarter boarded up. No one would open a door to take us in. Finally, we found our way to the synagogue attic.
In this town there was a bishop famous for his fierce hatred of the Jews. Every Easter the bishop would preach to the town whipping the Christians into a vicious frenzy that they would let loose on the poor Jews. On that Easter Sunday morning the master ordered me to do the strangest thing: ‘Go to the Cathedral’ he told me, ‘And tell the bishop that the Holy Ba’al Shem is ready to see him.’
I protested, ‘Master, how can I go to such a place? They’ll kill me! I trembled in fear. But the Master insisted, so I went. The Christians looked at me in wonder as I ascended the pulpit to deliver the message. When I told the bishop that the Holy Ba’al Shem was ready to see him, he got up and left the cathedral and accompanied me to the synagogue. 
I don’t know what happened next. The master and the bishop spent an hour in private conversation. Then the bishop emerged and returned to his pulpit in the cathedral. All I know is that there was no riot and no killing that year. The bishop sent the crowd home and declared the Jewish community under his protection. After that, I heard he disappeared and was never seen again.”
At that, the Hasid turned to his host, and he saw that the man was weeping. “Thank you, dear brother,” he stammered, “You have no idea what you have done for me tonight. Thank you”. He embraced the Hasid and continued to weep. 
At last, he composed himself and explained. “Dear brother, I was that bishop. I was the one who sent the mobs to kill and plunder the Jews of the town. But months before that Easter, I was haunted by strange dreams. I was told that on Easter a holy stranger would come to release me from my nightmares. It was I you summoned that morning to appear before the holy Ba’al Shem Tov. 
In that hour he revealed to me my own secret. I had been born a Jew. I had been stolen from my mother before I could know her and was raised in the church. I was taught how to hate the Jews and to spread that hatred. I rose up in the world, from a poor orphan to the bishop of the region. But then the dreams came, and in them were visions of the hell that waited me. I pleaded with your master; was there no way for me to repent those terrible sins?” and he showed me my only chance; to study Torah and live as a Jew, to open my doors to the poor and the homeless and use all my resources to support the helpless and the abandoned. That I promised to do. I begged him, Master, how can I know if my repentance has been accepted? And he told me, “When one of my disciples comes to you, one who remembers none of his own stories but tells you your story. When you hear your own story, only then will you know that your repentance has been accepted and you are again with God. 
Tonight, dear brother, you have brought me my story. Tonight, I am free.”
If anyone here thinks that their sins make them unworthy of Teshuva, let us end that thinking now. If the Bishop who was a Jew can find forgiveness from God, how much more so will God forgive our sins. 
We talk a lot about teshuva on Yom Kippur and during this holiday season, but the word “repentance” does not do it very much justice. Teshuva is a process that Jewish Law is very precise about. But just for a moment, let us consider what is not part of teshuva. Magic incantations are not part of teshuva. We can’t just say the right words and expect all our sins to disappear. In the Mishna, Massechet Yoma we read. “One who says, ‘I will sin, and then repent, I will sin [again], and then repent,’ will not receive an opportunity to repent; [for one who says] ‘I will sin, and Yom Kippur will atone,’ Yom Kippur will not atone.” We see that teshuva means more than just saying the right words. There is something else that is needed. 
The actions that require teshuva involve others beside ourselves. Sometimes our sin is against friends and family. Sometime against business associates. Sometimes we sin against strangers. Sometimes we sin against God. Before we can make things right with ourselves, we have to make things right with the aggrieved party. But just saying “I’m Sorry” is not enough. Again, we need to put something behind our words. Maimonides in his Mishna Torah as part of the section, “Repentance”, tries to explain what we must do. “Teshuva and Yom Kippur only atone for transgression between humans and God, such as one who eats a forbidden food, or has a forbidden sexual relationship, but transgressions between a person and her fellow, such as physical harm, or verbal harm, or stealing, those are never forgiven until he gives his fellow what he owes him, and he is appeased. 
Even if he returned the money he owed him, he must appease him and ask him to forgive him. Even if he only hurt him verbally, he must make amends and meet with him until he forgives him. If his fellow does not wish to forgive him, she should bring a line of three people who are friends with him, and they will approach him and argue that he should forgive him.”

Note that for Rambam, the action is not complete until there is restitution and forgiveness from the person who was offended. We already see that it is sometimes hard to convince someone who we have wronged to forgive us. Sometimes we need other friends to convince the aggrieved party that we are truly sorry, and they should forgive us. But if that does not happen, the Rambam has some more advice: 
If he does not give in to them, he must bring people a second and third time. If he still does not give in, they should leave him alone, and that person who did not forgive – he is the sinner. But if he was his teacher, he must come and go even a thousand times until he forgives him.” Clearly, if we try three times to sincerely repent and the person does not forgive, then the sin rests on the one who refuses to forgive. We have a duty to ask for forgiveness. We also have a duty to be forgiving. We can’t expect others to forgive us if we are not prepared to forgive others. This does not mean that we can’t get angry at other people. When somebody does something to anger us, of course we can lose our temper. This does not give us permission to be abusive; abuse is something we will have to repent ourselves. But anger too must give way to forgiveness. After 48 hours of anger, there is the danger our righteous anger will turn into a grudge, and a grudge is never allowed in Judaism. We always have to be forgiving. 
Teshuva is a complicated affair. Often the situations we find ourselves in are very complex. It is often not clear who has offended who. Sometimes there is more than one person at fault and sometimes we ourselves must take some measure of responsibility. Teshuva requires that we take stock in what has happened and see it with clear eyes.
Eva Mozes Kor, an Auschwitz survivor has written, “On January 27, 1995, at the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I stood by the ruins of the gas chambers with my children...while I read my document of forgiveness and signed it. As I did that, I felt a burden of pain was lifted from me. I was no longer in the grip of pain and hate; I was finally free.
The day I forgave the Nazis, privately I forgave my parents whom I hated all my life for not having saved me from Auschwitz. Children expect their parents to protect them, mine couldn’t. And then I forgave myself for hating my parents. Forgiveness is really nothing more than an act of self-healing and self-empowerment. I call it a miracle medicine. It is free, it works and has no side effects.” An act of forgiveness can be a healing balm. 
But even all of this does not make complete and true teshuva. Giving a sincere apology is important. Making restitution is critical. Asking for forgiveness is a requirement. But there is still one more part of teshuvah that we must address. Again, the Rambam addresses this in the Mishna Torah on Repentance.  What is complete teshuvah? When a person has the opportunity to commit the same sin, and he possess the ability to do it, but he separates and does not do it because of teshuvah and not out of fear or lack of strength. What is an example? A person who had illicit sex with a woman, and after some time he is alone with her, and he still loves her and possesses his physical power and is in the same country where he committed the sin, but he separates and does not sin – that person is a complete ba’al teshuvah, about whom [King] Solomon said, Remember your Creator in the days of your youth (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
We must atone for our sins, make restitution, forgive others what they have done and finally do battle with the Yetzer HaRah, our inclination to do evil, we must win our battle with temptation. What good is all our sincerity if the next time the opportunity comes along, we go right out and sin again? Judaism does not require us to be perfect. Human beings sin. That is in our nature. But it is also in our nature to try and do better. It was the great tennis player and inspirational speaker, Arthur Ash who said, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” If the journey to teshuva seems long and hard, we are not asked to become perfect right away, rather we must be constantly doing all we can to find our way to living our lives better. Teshuva is filled with frustrations, people giving us advice on how we can be better, others who take out their own frustrations on us because they can’t see themselves getting any better. But teshuva is not about them, it is about us. We stand alone in shul, in prayer, before God, and we have to not only know who we are, but we have to be prepared, in this moment to begin to make ourselves into something better. 
Rabbi Yael Sadoff, a teacher at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, publishes lessons based on the teachings of the Hasidic teacher Rabbi Kalonymous Kalmish Shapira, she writes, “Have you ever had someone tell you that “you should be more grateful” when you are venting your frustrations? How useful was that advice?...   Being told to dismiss our feelings and just “be more grateful” is doubly irritating. But knowing in our heart of hearts that the advice is actually correct? That’s the irritation icing on the frustration cake! We tell ourselves that we “should” be more grateful... but we’re not. … We blame ourselves for our unhappiness, so our low self-opinion feeds on itself. The only way to disrupt this loop of negative thinking is to stop and accept where we are.
 Intellectually, we all know that we cannot change the past or the condition of where find ourselves now. The past is in the past, we are wherever we are, and it is futile to waste our energy trying to resist these facts. And yet–we do it all the time! As a result, we divert our attention from the present moment, the only time in which we can actually effect change. Unwittingly, we use our frustrations as a justification for our inaction. We tell ourselves a story about what needs to happen first-before we can embark on something new. 
Rather than hoping for some imagined reality, we are mandated to accept our starting position and take action. The good news is that we are all naturally aware of what we want to improve in ourselves. We all know how to be dissatisfied with something in our lives. So, this is exactly where we begin! “... we must not repress any inner stirring towards prayer ... [Instead, we orient ourselves to whatever desire is alive for us in that moment,] until we are awakened to true prayer. We must just pray with energy and outpouring [of the soul] about our needs, and in this manner, we will [ultimately] arrive at true prayer. But this is not the end point! …” We must start where we are, but we mustn’t stay there. All parts of our spiritual progression are interconnected. No step along our journey is dispensable. We can’t skip the anger and instantly get to forgiveness and peace. We can’t get to “Z” without first traversing “A, B, C…” We can’t skip past any part of our being, any more than we can have the English alphabet without all 26 letters.
It doesn’t matter whether we believe that we “should” have gotten over being bullied in fifth grade. Until we acknowledge that little girl, that 11-year-old still feels frozen and powerless. We have to take that girl’s hand, acknowledge how much pain she is in, and give her permission to speak up for herself, or walk away, or ask for help. That is how we become whole NOW. We can’t skip this part simply because we wanted to be someone who was never injured in the first place. We might wish that we could just be enlightened, but: “our soul [simply] does not have the ability… yet, and [in at the meantime] the arousal to pray for fulfillment of our needs will already be forgotten.” Whether we are praying “From the depths” [Psalm 130:1] of our pain, or about “silly” frustrations, we begin where we are. By accepting our experiences, we can transcend our stories about who we “should” be and open ourselves to a reality that is much more real and much more profound.

We start with the Machzor and with prayer. We look to the ancient liturgy to help us find the words that express who we are and where we find ourselves today. Then we consider what we have done, who we have hurt and how we can find forgiveness for the pain we have caused. But solving our issues with other people only points out to us in starker terms, the issues and the pain we bring upon ourselves. It is not that we are bad people. The issue is not that we are all “sinners!” We need to understand that we are human. We are not angels nor are we demons. We are people who are trying to make our way in this world by being kind, caring and considerate. We want to help others in need and fill our hearts with compassion and concern. We are able to do this sometimes, but not all the time, and our failures disturb us. So, we set our minds on being better, but before we can really change, we have to explore our past to discover why we do the things we do. 
When, through our teshuva, we find out who we really are, and how we became that way, only then can we begin the real work to make fundamental changes today that will help us attain the kind of life we truly want to live. That kind of life when we discover where we have failed, where we have sinned, we can address the issue right away and not have to wait until Rosh Hashana and the Asseret Yemay HaTeshuva, the Ten Days of Teshuva, to fix the mess we made of our lives. 
The point of Yom Kippur is not to see how long you can sit in the synagogue. It is to see how long you can sit with yourself. Pesach is a communal holiday where we gather as a family and sing and tell stories together. Yom Kippur is a day for self-reflection and self-awareness. I know that it is easy to see all the other people sitting around, all dressed up, and think about how perfect their lives are or ponder whether that family really deserves to be forgiven for what they have done. But Yom Kippur is not about judging other people, it is about judging ourselves, or even better, seeing ourselves as God might see us, stripped of all the fancy excuses and delusions that we tell ourselves so we won’t appear to be so bad.
As your Rabbi, I can tell you that, in the grand scheme of the universe, we really are not so bad. We are not like the Bishop who rained so much death and destruction on the Jews in his district, only to discover that he was a Jew and he was destroying his own people. But the solution of the Ba’al Shem Tov does hold up for us as well. If we give ourselves over to the study of Torah, that is we set up our lives so that there is time to read and consider what a good life, a meaningful life, a holy life might look like; if we open our hearts and our hands to those who need our assistance, to bring a few cans of food for the food pantry today, to speak out against injustice next week, to give voice to our protest against discrimination, racism, and bigotry whenever it rears its ugly head. If we can do our part to discover the lies and misinformation that are being used to convince some people to do things that are just not in their own best interest. And if we can turn away from the places where we have done wrong and be determined not to visit those places again. If we can find all the roads where we made wrong turns and decide to try the other road, the one that will lead us to where we really want to go. IF we can do all these things, then we will be well on our way to a better life, to a better world and we will bring ourselves closer to the Divine. 
The only question left then, is how will we know if we have succeeded in creating the kind of life we sincerely desire. How will we know if we have been forgiven for the mistakes that we have made? First of all, we can be sure we are forgiven because God is gracious and full of compassion. God wants to forgive us as much as we want to be forgiven. Is that enough, is it enough to believe that God always forgives our sins?
How will we know for certain that our sins have been forgiven? How will we know that we are right again with God? When we hear someone else tell us our story, then we will know that we are free. The Machzor that is in our hand; the book that contains the service for this day; its purpose is to tell us our own story.  Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu – we have offended, we have betrayed, we have deceived … This is our story, Al Het sh’chaltanu lefanech, For the sins we have sinned against you. This is our life; Avinu Malkenu Hatanu lifanecha – Our father our King, we have sinned against you. This is the story of the year that is past. This is the story that is between God and us. The Machzor knows our story. We see ourselves in its pages, we see our lives spelled out in the prayers on this holy day. 
And we know what we must do. Teshuva, Tefilla and Tzedaka, Repentance, prayer and righteousness are what we must do in the new year. So, when we hear this service, when we hear our story that is told by the storyteller that lives in our heart, then we will know, then we will truly know, that we have atoned for what we have done wrong and that we have been forgiven. When we hear the blast of the shofar tonight, we will know that we are free.
May God, who knows our story, help us return to the path from which we have strayed, and may the words that we pray show us today and every day, that you have sent us your divine forgiveness. Shema Kolenu – Hear our voice, and let us feel your forgiveness, today and every day as we say ….
Amen and Gemar Tov.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782