Yom Kippur Morning – 5775

OCTOBER 5, 2014

Two great men died this summer:  First, Robin Williams, comedian, actor, and philanthropist, committed suicide on August 11th at the age of 63.  Then, three days later, on August 14th, Leonard Fein died, of natural causes, at the age of 80. 

I know that everyone in this sanctuary has heard of Robin Williams:  Some of us remember him from his “Mork & Mindy” days, while others of us remember him as the English teacher in “Dead Poets’ Society,” the Genie in “Aladdin,” the title character in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the therapist in “Good Will Hunting,” or as Theodore Roosevelt in the two “Night at the Museum” movies.  

Others of us remember Robin Williams as the co-founder, along with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal, in 1986, of the yearly Comic Relief program, benefiting the homeless.  His death was sad not only because he was so young, but also because of the circumstances that led him to take his own life. 

I’m less sure that everyone in this sanctuary has heard of Leonard Fein.  Mr. Fein was the founder of “Moment Magazine,” MAZON:  A Jewish Response to Hunger, and the National Coalition for Jewish Literacy. 

As “Moment Magazine” notes on its website, it

was founded in 1975 by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and acclaimed writer Leonard Fein….Moment is not tied to any organization, denomination or point of view and offers a balanced accounting of the Jewish experience in America.  As Fein proudly declared in the premier issue, Moment would include diverse opinions “of no single ideological position, save of course, for a commitment to Jewish life.” 


Of course, most of you know about MAZON:  A Jewish Response to Hunger, as our congregation is a synagogue partner of MAZON, and we collect monies year-round, but especially now during these holiest of days each year.  MAZON was founded in 1985 by Leonard Fein on the heels of the Ethiopian famine.  He wanted MAZON to be a bridge between our Jewish community and, as noted on the organization’s website, “the desperate need felt by millions of hungry people around the world.


In the late 1990’s, Leonard Fein took on another issue:  illiteracy.  In response to the need in our country, Mr. Fein founded the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy.  The National Jewish Coalition for Literacy’s mission statement notes that it

is the organized Jewish community’s vehicle for mobilizing volunteer tutors and reading partners for at-risk children in kindergarten through 3rd grade.  Our mission is to bring the skills and the concerns of America’s Jews to bear on the scandal of illiteracy by effecting a dramatic increase in the organized Jewish community’s involvement in the fight against illiteracy and in the number of Jews involved in that fight


Dr. David Ellenson, the Chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and its president from 2001-2013, wrote about his friend Leonard Fein:  

He provided a model of what it meant to be to be a mensch – a Jewish human being.  He made me want to do more, to be a better person…  In his hundreds and hundreds of columns, in his academic books and in both public and private talks, [Fein] prodded and provoked Jews to do more.  He taught that we could never be satisfied with either the state of the world or the condition of the Jewish people, and he goaded us constantly with his brilliance, his fearlessness, his directness, his ethics and his passion.  He took seriously the biblical command to offer rebuke to our people when reproof was needed – which he always felt it was. He taught that tikkun olam, the repair of the world, was always possible and demanded we strive for repair and improvement of ourselves, the Jewish people and the world.


As Rabbi Ellenson points out, Leonard Fein taught us how to be a mentsch, how to be a good person. 

In the 30th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, it says:

Truly, the Lord is waiting to show you grace,

Truly, God will arise to pardon you.

For the Lord is a God of justice;

Happy are all who wait for God. [v. 18]


The author is referring to the End of Days, when all will recognize the one God and will follow God’s teaching.  At the end of the verse, it literally says “Happy are all who wait for Him” – in Hebrew the words “for Him” are one word:  “lo.”  “Lo” is comprised of two letters:  the letter lamed and the letter vav.  As you know, each Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent; in this case, the letter lamed is the number 30 and the letter vav is the number 6. 

In the Talmud [Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkah 45b], and later further developed in Jewish mystical teachings, the number 36 represents the number of righteous people alive in the world at any given time.  So, we learn that there are 36 people waiting for / working “for Him,” for God.  The Rabbis taught that it is due to these 36 people, known as the lamed-vavniks, that the world continues to exist.  But here’s the catch:  No one knows who the lamed-vavniks are, not even the lamed-vavniks themselves! 

Are you a lamed-vavnik?  Or you?  Or you?  Were Robin Williams or Leonard Fein lamedvavniks?  I don’t know – and neither do you!  That, our tradition tells us, is the point.  Since none of us knows if we are one of the 36, or if the 36 even exist, we all must strive to act as if we are one of the 36.   

Psalm 118 contains the words “Pitkhu lee, sha’arei tzedek, avo vam odeh Yah – Open up for me the Gates of Righteousness (sha’arei tzedek, the name of our synagogue), that I may come to praise God.”  A midrash on this verse says: 

[At the Time of Judgment] in the Future World, everyone will be asked, “What was your occupation?”  If the person answers, “I used to feed hungry people,” they will say to that person, “This is God’s gate, you, who fed hungry people, may enter.”…“I used to give water to thirsty people,” they will say to that person, “This is God’s gate, you, who gave water to those who were thirsty may enter.”…“I used to give clothing to those who needed clothing,” they will say to that person, “This is God’s gate, you, who gave clothing to those who needed clothing, may enter.” …and similarly, those who raised orphans, and who performed the mitzvah of tzedakah, and who performed acts of caring, loving kindness.  [Midrash on Psalms 118:19]


Yes, this theme of tikkun olam is one that you often hear from me.  Why on this, the holiest day of our year?  Because this is our charge, our challenge, as is noted in the haftarah from the Book of Isaiah which we read each year on Yom Kippur morning: 

Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?

Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable?


No, this is the fast I desire: 

To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke,

To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.


It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. [Is. 58:5-7, translation from The Jewish Study Bible] 


This is the challenge that each of us faces.  We face it as individuals.  We face it as a community.  When asked “What was your occupation?” I pray that you and I will be able to say “I helped those in need.”  May we answer this question proudly, not just at the end of our lives, as noted in the midrash, but also each and every day.

Kein y’hi ratzon – May this be God’s will.