Yom Kippur Shacharit Drusha

Drusha for Shacharit Service Yom Kippur 2012 Stanley Cohen

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rod and redeemer.”

Yeheyu yerotzon imre fi, vehegion libi lefanecha adoni tsuri vegoali.

This drusha is really my meditation on the meaning of Yom Kippur for me which I offer to you to consider about as well.

How do we modern Jews make sense of the phenomenon of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement? How can we truly relate to its rituals, prayers, songs and Torah readings?  Can we relate to the need to fast, to reflect and seek forgiveness? How do we conceive of this God that we pray to and from whom we ask forgiveness?

How deeply do we let ourselves think about these questions? Do we have time to think about these things? Do we really think it demands much of our precious time….or is our presence here this morning driven by habit, obligation and some sort of passive resignation? Are we just content to enjoy the beauty of the music?

Yet coming here, being here, really is a big statement and, of course, an enormous commitment; so it must be important for us and its value, then, is worthy of some serious reflection. Today, we have plenty of time for such reflection.

Students of Jewish history will tell you that, over the thousands of years that we as a people have had a common identity, the purpose and nature of this day has changed and evolved enormously in order to meet the needs of a people whose lives, situations, understanding of, and relationship to, the Divine has itself changed and evolved often considerably.

However, some core elements that transcend time are expressed in Psalm 27 that we customarily read immediately after the blowing of the shofar, and that traditionally we recite every morning during the month of Elul that precedes the New Moon of Tishri and Days of Awe.

Psalm 27 expresses the writer`s - and the reader`s - trust and faith in God.

It is a beautiful psalm – you will know some of the verses- one goes as follows:

“God is my light and my safety whom shall I fear? One thing I ask of God that only do I seek to live in your house all the days of my life Your comforting presence before me, praying each morning in Your temple…….”

It ends with the words:  “ Wait for God! Be strong and let your heart take courage! Wait for God!”

 For me the psalm articulates the hope that we can develop spiritually and get in touch with God, or experience His presence, so that we will be able to rise above our worldly cares and problems.

During the month of Elul and these Days of Awe and Penitence we are encouraged to renew our relationship with God and Psalm 27 is a sublime expression of this wish.

Of course, we may ask the question: what do we mean by the word God? How do we understand this entity to which we pray? To whom are we praying? For whom are we waiting? To whom or what are we directing our prayers?

In the introduction to the book Really useful Prayers published by the MRJ the writers say: “Simply saying “God” as an answer is not enough as there are so many different versions of God in the Torah and Tanach, and in our heads, that we may identify with one in particular rather than with the others, or, indeed, hold together more than one image or idea at a time, or find different images appropriate at different stages of our lives.

The point, though, is that all these images and ideas that we have express different aspects of God, and we need not feel obliged to fit God into any theological straight jacket but should feel free to relate to God in our own way.

What kind of concepts do we have of God?

There is God the Creator; the first Cause that set the world in motion, that was responsible for life as we know it, and it does not matter  whether it was through Adam and Eve,  or through amoeba evolving, but somehow, somewhere, there was a creative force which for short we call God.

Then there is God the Revealer, who not only established the world but intervened in its affairs, condemning Cain for the murder he committed, saving Noah for his righteousness, the God who makes the Divine Will known and bids that we follow it.

Then there is the Jewish God who made a covenant with Abraham, declared that Israel was God`s first born, and chose Israel for a special role.

This is face of God with whom we have a special family connection: This is our God and the God of our ancestors.

There is also the Personal God who not only does majestic acts but who also has a relationship with individual men and women.

And the God that our psalm speaks of, the God who can enter into the lives of ordinary people and allow them to communicate with something so much greater than themselves.

There is also the Inner God who came to Elijah,” not in the wind, not in the earthquake and not in the fire, but in the small still voice”; and maybe this is the God we more closely relate to, the God who speaks through the silent promptings of the conscience, the mind and the heart, the God who is within us, a Divine element to which we choose to pay attention or ignore.

Amongst these images God can also be conceived of as a fierce judge as on Yom Kippur, our best friend, the distant law giver or the intimate lover.

All these are the same God but different aspects of what is really indefinable and which show themselves at different times. Like dew, ice, hail, water and snow are all different manifestations of the same essence.”

I think that it is a mistake to try to define God scientifically; we can only try to assess our own relationship with Him, how it is, and how we would like it to be. We do have moments of deep spiritual experience, whether prompted by a beautiful sky, a pang of conscience, a brilliant symphony or a moment of kindness or love. Sometimes, this may be a vague experience, but at other times the experience is a very real rooted, life changing moment or insight.

I will now go back to our reasons for being here and return to Psalm 27 which clearly indicates that we pray because of our cares and our problems - and because of our acute awareness of our imperfections, our incompetence and confusion when dealing with such a complex life and an even more complex world.

What are our cares and our problems?

What is the human condition that we share and so desperately seek help with?

Is it not our constant wild ponderings, the chattering of our minds, our dissatisfactions, our alienation, our physical and mental ailments, our awareness of our sins and shortcomings, our selfishness, our weaknesses, our failures and our inability to control our impulses and emotions?  

And, sometimes, more troubling perhaps, is our awareness that others may see and be affected by our faults and that this itself affects the kind of relationship we have with them and the world, and sours our experience of life.

In the language of our liturgy today we collectively confess our sins, and by sin we mean all that I have just spoken of, not just wrong doing or a failure to keep the commandments.

Sin seems such an old fashioned word and has been taken over by a particularly Christian view of man as intrinsically evil and bad, but its Jewish meaning reveals a painful sense of separation from God, and from potential happiness and contentment.

In the old Temple days the ritual of sacrifice, in a way that we do not really comprehend, was  experienced as a way of making things whole again, of making them better, of clearing the decks of all one`s mistakes and poor judgements.

Thus, what our ancestors did, and what we do by fasting and praying so lengthily, both take us on a journey from disarray and dissatisfaction, and sometimes despair, hopefully, towards a sense of Shalom, of peace, and Shalem, a sense of wholeness, and thereby towards a better sense of self-worth and self-respect.

And why do we do this soul searching in our special place, our Synagogue? Why do we need a special place to pray, and why is it better to pray together?

We could pray anytime and could probably do it at home, and on our own, so you could argue that we do not need a special building, a temple or a synagogue, that we do not need to do it together with other people.

Our tradition and custom is that we pray together and confess our sins collectively in our communal place of meeting, denoting that we are not just responsible for ourselves as individuals, but responsible also for each other, responsible for all the wrongs that are done in a society and world that we are part of.

 We stand here as individuals, with our special and unique problems, issues, histories and self- awareness, and our blindness to our own faults and arrogance.

We stand here as a people, a Jewish people, with an awareness of our specialness, our covenant to which our ancestors bound us, our acceptance of a moral code of conduct.

We stand here as citizens of a particular country to which we are bound by a sense of loyalty and obligation because it tries to protect our freedom and our welfare.

We also stand here as members of a world civilisation with its numerous economic, ecological and political problems; climate change, hunger, conflict, extremism to name but a few.

So praying together adds an enormous extra burden onto us than if we were only praying for our individual selves.

A few months ago, on one Erev Shabbat, Martin Neville delivered a drusha which prompted quite a discussion.

Some bad things were happening that week in Syria, in Britain and elsewhere. Martin listed all the horrible things that were happening that week- and that had been happening for a while- so many, that it seemed that, short of a miracle, there seemed to be no solutions, only more problems. He was tempted to conclude that there were therefore no answers and this left him with a sense of utter hopelessness and despair.

It was understandable, when looking at things this way, that our belief, and our trust in God mentioned in our psalm, would be sorely challenged, and we might feel that our prayers were utterly futile. Indeed, in times of real despair people have asked the question:

If there is a God why does He let all these terrible things happen?

But, of course, the answer that we have to give is that it is not God that lets bad things happen, it is us. And if we sink into despair then we may not address the question of our responsibility, and what we can do to contribute towards effecting change.

Can we truly repair the world?

Can we really repair ourselves?

On Yom Kippur we have to face these questions again and again.

Yes, we may realise that we have to accept responsibility, but taking responsibility through political or personal action can be a very difficult and daunting task.

And even if we take this line of thinking, we are still left with the question, and may be a touch of resentment, that God seems to have created the world, departed from it, and left us to sort out all the remaining problems.

So in looking for solutions we may ask:

Where does God come into it? Does prayer help? Does our ritual help? Does our fasting help?

We can start answering these questions by reflecting on the usefulness and importance of clearing our mental and emotional decks, dealing with the detritus of past and present, in order to seek inspiration and strength to move on and chip away at the challenges that face us as individuals and world citizens.

We have to have faith in the Jewish teaching that the performance of Mitzvot, good deeds, loving kindness, prayer and charity do make a difference, not always in a big way, but in lots of different little ways that cumulatively can effect great changes in the people and the world around us.

Finally, how does ritual and prayer help us?

Our prayers put into words many of our collective problems and concerns and force us to reflect on them. Often in that process we do find that we can gain inspiration and understanding, and it is this that enriches and empowers us to deal with the problems and concerns we face.

By dwelling on our mistakes and faults we begin to remember how we would like to be and how we should be. We call this process T`shuvah which means both return and repentance. We return to ourselves, to God and our teachings. We repent for our sins, mistakes and for the things we have failed to do.

By coming to Shul on Yom Kippur we identify with our people and the amazing personal, literary, cultural and historic resources we have to help us to live a good, fulfilling and useful life.

In the end, to answer the question I posed at the beginning, I suggest that we only make sense of Yom Kippur by experiencing its benefits.

May we all find the process of prayer and reflection today fulfilling, stimulating and meaningful so that we can go out of here tonight embracing life and ready to face the many personal and collective challenges we have with renewed vigour and understanding in the coming year.

I wish you all Chatimah Tovah

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