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Yom Kippur: Teshuvah & Creating Spiritual Community

10/05/2022 09:14:25 PM


Rabbi Minster

What does it mean to stand before God and freely admit the sins we committed? Sins we committed with indifference and those we did with forethought?


In the Bible, there are three forms of sin. These are included in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy – the incredible excerpt from Exodus Chapter 34 verses 6 and 7 which we chant during these days, and where we learn:


Nose avon, vafesha, vechata’ah, 


Now, the rabbis have been discussing this description of God since Judaism has had rabbis. It is discussed in the Talmud in tractate Rosh HaShanah 17b. Rabbenu Tam, who lived in France in the 1100s, stated:


Nose avon: Forgiving sins committed with premeditation.


Vafesha: and sins committed in rebellion


Vehataah: as well as those committed unwittingly


Avon: when we decide to ignore our conscience.


Vafesha: when we relish in acting against our better judgment


Vehataah: when we cause harm without realizing that our actions will cause harm.


Rabbi Max Arzt wrote a foundational book for the modern understanding of High Holy Day Liturgy that was published in 1963. He reminds us that “these are three gradations of sin, the stages by which humans ‘throw off the yoke of God’s rule and subject themselves to the yoke of man’s rule.’” [192]


Have you ever felt the yoke of God?


Honestly, I didn’t know what a yoke was until I started attending services as an adult. It is the contraption put around two animals to guide them as they work in a field. 


This Day of Atonement is trying to remind us that God is real. That virtues are real. That we should define the values we want to live into each year and hold ourselves accountable to those values. 


When we take this seriously, we can understand how slipping away from those values leads us astray from God. 


Now, maybe you don’t like the idea of being personally responsible for actions that were unwittingly wrong. After all, there was no intention of malice on your part. 


If that makes sense to you, you’re agreeing with Rabbi Alan Lew. In his book, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, he wrote: “there is really nothing we can do about it when our complex of impulses and dysfunctions prevents us from doing what we know we should do.”


How do we reconcile these two images of the transgression? Are we helpless to prevent transgressions? Is it possible that we are required to develop spiritual discipline to avoid acting on our complex of impulses and dysfunctions?


In the shorter confession, we do ask God to forgive us for all three types of sin. In the longer confession, we acknowledge a litany of ways we transgress unintentionally.


I think it’s relatively easy to agree to the Viddui, the long confession. It’s harder to look at unintentional transgressions that reflect on us more directly. 


We often pride ourselves that as a Reform community, we are welcoming and inclusive. Let’s pause to consider how we might look to a stranger.


I recently met a Jewish woman who was wary of attending services here at Temple Israel. Since her husband was Asian, she was worried her family wouldn’t fit in here.


I knew in my bones what she meant. 


I know what it’s like to be in a Jewish space where your kids are exoticized and their features talked about as if they’re this year’s take on fashion rather than human beings.


I know what it’s like to be told how beautiful your kids must be, because mixed kids always are. 


I know what it’s like for racial differences to be the first thing people talk about, rather than whatever shared interest brought you together in the first place. 


And yet, I also know that with my white skin and my easy to pronounce name, I’ll never know what it’s like to be a person of color in a Jewish space. 


I do know that I’m a fiercely protective mama bear and I sniff out situations before exposing my Chinese Jewish kids to them. 


I knew that if I was going to move them from Alhambra, a minority-majority city east of Los Angeles, that I needed to choose a place where they’d meet other Asian Jews. 


I knew that our family couldn’t be the token representation of Asian Jews in our congregation. And magically, we found Temple Israel. 


As part of my outreach to our membership, I plan to ask real questions about how comfortable our members are participating in our events. Do any of you experience microaggressions at shul? Do you stop yourself from participating because you don’t feel as knowledgeable as other members? 


It is vitally important to me to get this right. Our doors must be open and welcoming for everyone seeking spiritual sustenance – not just folks that look like me.


Temple Israel is committed to supporting our diverse community. I hope most of you will stay after services for the conversation sponsored by our Social Justice Committee on our state’s obligations to provide reparations to Black citizens.  


Our community has also affiliated with Keshet, to ensure that all of our activities are welcoming to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, and queer members. 


And let’s not forget that some of our families have non-Jewish members. Some of our families are raising their children with more than one faith tradition. 


We are making space for all of these identities while staying firmly rooted as the Jewish spiritual community of Alameda, who welcome members from across the East Bay and beyond. 


Yet we cannot rely on the fact that we mean well. 


We must look closely at our internal biases and figure out ways to engage with our cultural heritage while making space for each precious soul in the larger community of spiritual seekers. 


This is what it means to stand before God and freely admit the sins we committed with indifference as well as those with forethought. We each have the strength to do this work because whatever we’ve done, we have the power to change. 

We have the power to stop clinging so fiercely to the way things used to be and allow the future to unfold in new ways. 


I’m an Ashkenazic Jew who grew up with a lot of cultural markers of Judaism. Most of my family rarely joined synagogues; but we always found a way to be together for Pesach. I understand wanting to hold onto the ethnic aspects of our culture. 


I am not speaking to disparage anyone for how you are Jewish. I am asking that in the coming year, we make space for the possibility that we have more learning to do. That we can stretch ourselves even further to be known as a spiritual community where every seeker is welcome. Our heritage is so deep and so transformative. Let’s make sure every Temple Israel gathering thoughtfully makes space for the variety of people seeking sustenance from the Tree of Knowledge.


I must confess: this is one of the most difficult sermons I’ve ever given. I’ve spent most of my rabbinical time diving deeply into our spiritual tradition and keeping daily life on the edge of my consciousness. I have so much work to do, simply to live into the truths, small t and capital T Truths, that I hope to discuss with our community.


I confess, the hardest part of my day is getting my kids ready for school and convincing my youngest to walk there. Sometimes, I think the entire island can hear him articulating his desire to stop walking towards destiny. 


As much as there’s a part of me that only wants to sink into the spiritual significance of the poetry in our machzor and the meaning of rebirth, I know none of that is truly meaningful if it isn't available to everyone. 


Tzedakah is perhaps the most important of the three pillars of return. Our wealth is not our’s alone. We are responsible to hold up our community: to support our communal institutions and to support our fellow human beings. If we do not acknowledge that obligation, we get nowhere. 


One of my favorite books about the Hasidic movement is Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society by Glenn Dynner. Hasidism translated the profound insights of Lurianic Kabbalah into a way that all Jews could access it, and not just the rabbinic elite. More than that, they transformed Jewish society itself. They made it possible for people without yichus, without a long lineage of familial leadership, to have an impact. Polish Hasids placed emphasis on inner transformation and kavanah, intentionality within Jewish practice. They challenged the rabbinic authority that elevated academic debate on theoretical aspects of Halakhah. Instead, they focused on the very real lives of their communities. 


What would it mean for us to focus on our very real lives in our spiritual practice? How can we commit to our inner journeys and the world around us?


It is not enough to dive deeply into our tradition for ourselves. We must make space for everyone to wrestle with our texts, to clarify our individual and collective values. Tefillah can’t simply be the thing those people do on Friday night. We must challenge ourselves to bring authentic prayer, authentic spiritual discipline, into each day.


Teshuvah: what are our souls calling us to return to?


Tefillah: how will we create a daily practice to bring that vision to fruition?


Tzedakah: how will we embrace our responsibility to financially support the individuals and institutions of our community?


G’mar Chatimah Tovah. 

May we dedicate ourselves to living a little more deeply into ourselves.


G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

May we include a bissel, a small bit of spiritual uplift into every day of the coming year.


G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

May we be sealed together in our work to create a good year for ourselves, for our wider community, and for the entire world. 


Ken Y’hi Ratzon. May it be so.


Mon, May 20 2024 12 Iyar 5784