ROSH HA-SHANAH MORNING SERMON
September 10 & 11, 2018
RABBI AMY B. BIGMAN
The Midrash tells the story of a king who quarreled with his son. In a fit of rage, the king exiled his son from the kingdom. Years passed and the son wandered alone through the world. In time, the king’s heart softened, so he sent his ministers to find his son and ask him to return. When they located the young man, he said that he could not return to the kingdom. He had been too hurt and his heart still harbored bitterness. The ministers brought back the news to the king. The king told them to bring his son the following message: “Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to meet you.” [Pesikta Rabbati 44:9 as cited by Rabbi David Wolpe in “Finding A Way to Forgive,” a Jewish Lights Publishing’s Lifelights pamphlet]
This midrash can be understood in a few different ways: Some will read this as a story of a father and son, two human beings who could not see eye-to-eye. Rabbi David Wolpe, the well-known author and rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, explains that
The triumph of the king was that he overcame the rage that had mastered his feelings and led to the exile of someone he loved. Forgiveness is the lightening of our own hearts. The darkness that we harbor rarely injures the unforgiven as much as it does the one who will not forgive. We imagine that our anger is so powerful that it will bring sorrow and ruin on those against whom we hold a grudge. But its influence is far more dangerous to our own hearts. [emphases added]
Others will read this parable as a story of God and the Jewish people as a whole or as a story of God and an individual. Either way, our tradition tells us that we should return as far as we can and God will come the rest of the way to meet us.
You may be wondering why I am speaking about forgiveness on Rosh HaShanah. Isn’t this a more fitting topic for Yom Kippur? Well, yes — and no. Today we prepare for next week. Today and throughout this next week we must do the difficult work of self-evaluation so that we will be ready for Yom Kippur.
It’s not easy to do this. Just showing up for worship on Yom Kippur isn’t enough; just fasting all day on Yom Kippur isn’t enough. We have to spend time and energy before then to examine what we’ve done or said that hurt someone — even if we didn’t mean to — and ask forgiveness.
Our liturgy for Yom Kippur is replete with confessional prayers. When you look at them, you will see that many have to do with the spoken word: what we say is often more hurtful than what we do.
Sometimes something that is meant as a joke isn’t taken as a joke — or the “joke” hits too close to home and becomes something hurtful instead of something funny.
We should examine our words and deeds on a regular basis, but if we don’t, we have forty days set aside each year to do so: the entire month of Elul (the month leading up to these Yamim Nora’im [Days of Awe]), plus these ten days, also known as the Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah (the Ten Days of Repentance).
Regarding repentance, the Talmud says:
It was taught…that Rabbi Meir would say: Great is repentance because the entire world is forgiven on account of one individual who repents, as it is stated [in the Book of Hosea]: “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely; for My anger has turned away from the one” (14:5). It does not say: From them, i.e., from the sinners, but “from the one,” i.e., from that individual. Because the one repented, everyone will be healed.
And with regard to repentance, the Gemara asks: What are the circumstances that demonstrate that one has completely repented? Rav Yehuda said: For example, the prohibited matter came to the person’s hand a first time and a second time, and the person was saved from it, thereby proving that the person has completely repented. [Yoma 86b, emphases added]
This coming Shabbat, Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Return / Repentance), we will read from parashat Vayeilekh. It is a short portion, consisting of only one chapter: chapter 31 of the Book of Deuteronomy. As Moses prepares for his death, he passes the leadership role to Joshua. God tells Moses that the people will abandon the laws in the future, yet promises to still bring them to the Land.
Rabbi Yael Splansky of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, in her commentary on Vayeilekh, titled “Jewish Guilt,” notes that
Once upon a time, relieving ourselves of guilt and sin was much simpler and more immediate than today. In ancient Israel, religion not only defined what was right and wrong, but also gave people something to DO when they felt burdened by doing wrong (sins of commission) or by not doing right (sins of omission). Chapters four and five of Leviticus describe how when someone felt he had not lived up to God’s expectation, he could bring a sacrifice, a chatat (sin-offering) or an asham (guilt offering) to the altar. The purpose of the sacrifice was to remind the individual of his better nature, to say to himself, “I would like to be perfect, but I know I am not. Only God is perfect. Sometimes I am weak and thoughtless. And I have many regrets. But look here: sometimes I can be strong and generous and disciplined. I am not a bad person. More often than not, I do the right thing. Here is proof of that. Please accept this offering, release me from this guilt, and grant me forgiveness” [slightly adapted from Rabbi Harold Kushner, How Good Do We Have to Be? (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1996), p. 65].
…During the High Holy Days we gather in public to do a very private thing: we tally our sins. The all-knowing God does not need to keep score, so why do we do this? The machzor’s endless lists of sins come to teach that we are “only” accountable for our actions and inactions. We are not called to change our whole person, but “simply” our deeds. [In the Torah reading for this Shabbat, Rabbi Splansky reminds us:] Moses did not say in his rebuke, “You ARE wicked;” he said, “You will ACT wickedly.” He did not threaten, “God will be vexed by YOU;” rather he warned, “God will be vexed by your DEEDS” (Deuteronomy 31:29). Similarly, the Days of Awe do not say: “Be ashamed of who you are.” They say: “Do better.” They say: “You are created in the image of God. Now act like it.” [“Ten Minutes of Torah,” September 17, 2012]