Yom Kippur 2013 Sermon

Today, Yom Kippur the Shabbat of Shabbats we are here - why?

Today is the culmination of the month of Elul, Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Repentance. We think about what we have done over the last year.

We think about our responsibilities to our family, our friends, our employees, and ourselves, and we say that we will be better next year.

We will not commit the same sins and we will be better people – we say that many times. I am asking you to think about how you will make that happen how your life, your Jewish life, will evolve and how that affects your whole being.

As Jews are we different – yes we are different because of our heritage - because of our background, because of being one of God’s chosen people. Chosen I hear you say for what? Chosen for persecution, imprisonment, the Holocaust? Being chosen does not always mean chosen for good, it just means chosen. Chosen also of course means Jews by choice, they have made the supreme choice. Some of us were born Jewish and, therefore, had no choice; people who are Jewish by choice actually chose to encompass our religion and way of life rather than having it thrust upon them!

We are also different from Charedi Orthodox Jews. To us being Jewish is part of who we are – a very important part but it is not our sole reason for existence.

It is part of who we are, not all we are. We live ordinary lives, we interact with people of different races and cultures. We do not set ourselves up as separate and dare I say better than anyone else. We have non Jewish friends, colleagues and neighbours.

For all of us here, we interact with other Jews whether at services, choir rehearsals or the book group or having Jewish friends for a Friday night meal. All of this helps to further envelop ourselves in our Jewish culture.

The more interest we take in Jewish issues, whether through friends or through supporting Israel on line or through attending Jewish events, the more we are doing to further our Jewish ideals, the more we become closer to God’s ideals for us.

Can we do more? Of course - how? Well I am sure that you would expect me to say please attend more services so I won’t disappoint, but I recognise that services are not everyone’s cup of tea. Services do, however, have a social element to them as well and a kiddush is part of that. Getting to know other Jewish people who may live near you is also part of immersing yourself in Jewish culture.

The two chavurah suppers held a couple of months ago in Flitwick and Northampton in members’ homes, attended by approx 14 people each, showed, as if we needed proof, that you will attend events if they are attractive and by that I suppose I mean that they include food! We have many activities and could do more but we need your help.

The chavurah suppers which we try to hold once every month or two are successful and attract more people than ordinary services and if you have been to one and enjoyed it do please tell others. They consist of singing a couple of songs, a talk either by Rabbi Shulamit or a guest, a meal and grace after.

We would like to hold more of them and we would, with a bigger group of people to help.

Who can help us? Only we can help ourselves. A member of our shul once asked me – why can’t we be like Edgware? Why can't we have the activities that Alyth Gardens have? I wish we could, but we have a twentieth of their membership. A few days ago I was with Menorah community in Manchester which has over 1000 members and they have many activities: with many members you can have lots going on because different people are available to run, co-ordinate and attend them. For the numbers we have, I think we do well. Can we do better? Yes, but only with your help.

My abiding ambition as Chairman is to ensure that when people like me, the over 60s, are no longer here there is a strong vibrant Jewish community here and everything that I do is driven by that.

We owe it to our heritage and, dare I say it, the millions of Jews who perished and who were not as lucky as we are, to make the most of our Jewish heritage and to ensure that here in Milton Keynes we survive and grow stronger.

To do that we need the help and support of all members whether it be by attending events that we hold, by supporting the shul financially so we can carry on, and by helping to organise events and being active.  

Two weeks ago Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis was installed as the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue. He is only the 23rd in some 300 years so is likely to be the Chief Rabbi for some years to come. As with previous Chief Rabbis Rabbi Mirvis talked about reaching out to other faiths – now I understand that as the induction of the Chief Rabbi goes out to a worldwide audience he does need to say things like that. I have no problem with that but before reaching out to other faiths I would like to see the Chief Rabbi reach out to other Jews: to our Reform movement, to the Liberal and Masorti movements. What could he do? Attending Limmud, which his predecessor never did, would be a good start. Meeting with different movements would also help. Appreciating what is good across the different movements, showing some knowledge and also some interest. The initial signs seem to be good. Let us see how he deals with the challenges of leadership. Will he attend the funeral of a Jew outside the Orthodox community? Will he be seen in a Reform synagogue?

I sincerely wish him the very best – he has a wonderful opportunity to unite Jews and I hope he does so, but there will be some hard decisions for the Reform movement as well to remain relevant as we move forward. If we expect a new approach from the Chief Rabbi we have to be ready to work with him. A fresh start is difficult and is seldom done by one party alone.

However we know from our own family lives how difficult the task of reconciliation is.

I can vividly remember getting in an argument with my mother on Yom Kippur. Whether it was the enforced togetherness or the time spent in synagogue or what I am not sure, but I suspect we can all imagine this kind of family squabble.

On the days when you are most of all supposed to be with family, loving one another and reconciling and uniting, and you somehow find yourselves screaming at each other instead.

I think it is one of the truly great ironies of our High Holy Days – a time ostensibly given over to repentance, renewal, and forgiveness – that the necessary family proximity more often causes angry “airing of grievances," as an episode of Seinfeld once so sagely put it. There my mother and I were, me at 15 and she an adult, screaming at one another on the way to shul. We went immediately from that argument into services to intone the familiar words of the Mishnah, about the Day of Atonement:

“For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”

And then, in some nice lines we said:

“I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have wronged me, whether deliberately or inadvertently, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account.”

Looking back, it’s very clear to me now how wrong I was, but sadly this is only something you learn with age, knowledge and experience and as children you have none of these. If I could take it all back I would, but sadly we can't. As we get older and remember what we did when we were young we can look back and think how differently we would do things, but sadly there is no going back. I yelled at my mother when I should have spent my time loving her. We cannot change how we reacted to parents who are no longer alive for us to apologise to.

The great irony of these days – that we should be focused on forgiveness but are often at odds instead – is that the High Holy Days are really about a very simple truth. We all know it, but we could use a little reminding: life is a series of forgivenesses, and you have to, above all, forgive the ones you love, continually.
Life is a series of forgivenesses, and while we may focus, on one hand, on getting ourselves forgiven, what we really badly need is practice in the forgiving of others. We are all fallible, and we all fail each other. The image of this time, the gates of repentance opening for 10 days, soon ready to close, means we have to find a way to forgive others before it’s too late. It is on our heads and in our hands.

 We don’t have to forgive someone before they’re even remorseful or asking for our forgiveness. We do, however, need to be open to forgiveness – to make ourselves available for forgiving, even if that means just physically putting ourselves around someone else -- even if we’re angry.

 That is to say, there must be some sort of forgiveness in our own hearts even before we have been asked. Each person has a role to play, and it is not solely the responsibility of the “sinner” to make the peace. That’s why it says: "

But for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”

In a sense, we, the injured party, are the masters of our injurer’s future, for only our pardon can make atonement possible. We have a lot of power, as forgivers.

Let me tell you a little secret..... God forgives us already. It's written into our liturgy at the very end, on Yom Kippur: “In the greatness of Your faithful love," it reads, "forgive the sin of this people, as You have accepted this people from Egypt until now.

And the Lord said: ‘Salachti kee dvarecha.’ ‘I have forgiven them as you ask.’” That’s our liturgy, our machzor, recording each year that God has already forgiven us. God forgives us for our sins, thus it is our task to be the God-like ones and forgive those who have hurt us.

Be like God of whom we say over and over again during these days: “Erech apaim v’rav chesed v’emet; notser chesed la’alafim, noseh avon va’fesha v’chata’a v’nakeh…” “This is Your glory. You are slow to anger, ready to forgive.”

We are not saying it over and over again because God has forgotten. We are saying it to remind ourselves of how we need to be -- more like God, who forgives others every year.

There’s a story on this subject I have not told you before. I have rarely if ever mentioned my brother Kenneth. He and I were very different. As he became more religious I became less, and frequently did things just to annoy him. Looking back I really was the rasha son who we mention at the Passover Seder. We never got on. When visiting his grave recently I was struck not by what we had, but by what we had missed.

Had I been better to him he would have been different and nicer to me. We could have got on so much better and not allowed our religious differences to drive a wedge between us. Who knows, he might have lived longer, and even if he didn’t his time would have been spent with less friction and arguments. Certainly when he died it totally devastated my mother: no mother should die before her child.
It’s no less true for being cliché. Life is short, but love is long. “Salachti kidvarecha.” “I have forgiven them as they ask.”

As Philo, a Jew from Alexandria, put it 2,000 years ago:

“Some people make vows out of hatred of their fellow man, swearing, for example, that they will not let this or that person sit at the same table with them or come under the same roof. I certainly know of grievances which have gone on so many years often the reason for the grievance is lost in the mists of time. Often it was about something trivial when an apology may or may not have been made but may not have been accepted at the time. People are not speaking to each other but forget why not. 'Such people should seek the mercy of God, so that they may find some cure for the diseases of their soul.”

“The disease of their soul.” A pretty harsh phrase. But we all have such diseases.

And we also know, we really know, that the only way to get through life is to be constantly in a state of forgiving others and of being forgiven. “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”


Wishing you all a happy and Healthy New Year

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