Lucille Frenkel “The Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur”
Mankind, judge of all things, does now await
Life’s Judge to weigh its actions and its fate,
Most cognizant that one who would a judge be
Will understand of failing and of mercy.
The High Holy Days is all about having the permission to move. We began with the month of Elul, hearing the Shofar as a clarion call to wake us up. The sounds of the Selichot liturgy made it all the more urgent, asking us ‘what are you waiting for’? Rosh Hashanah beckons us to heed the sound of the shofar and for it to lead us into action. Now we are at Kol Nidre, one more attempt to move ourselves into the people we are meant to be.
The transition from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is one of particularism to universality. Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, a day on which we rejoice in all creation. The Torah readings we read on Rosh Hashanah are particularistic: the birth of Sarah’s son, the struggles between Sarah and Hagar, the agreement between Abraham and Avimelech, the almost sacrifice of Isaac. The story read on Yom Kippur, however, is a universal one: the Kohen Gadol taking a goat, which has the sins of the entire community cast upon it, and leading it into the wilderness. On Yom Kippur we transcend our personal stories and come together as a community. Our main prayers are in the plural, from אשמנו, detailing all the things which we as a community have done wrong, to על חאט שחטאנו, the longer confessional, to אבינו מלכנו, read when Yom Kippur is not on Shabbat to beseech G-d, “our heavenly Father,” to write us in the book of life.
At the same time, there is an individual element to repentance on Yom Kippur, and it begins by examining tomorrow morning’s Torah portion. The text on the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, atoning for the people of Israel through the goat offered to G-d and the goat offered to Azazel teaches us three things about repentance. First, the Kohen Gadol must prepare for seven days prior to Yom Kippur in order to be familiar with the laws of communal purification. Similarly, Yom Kippur is preceded by the entire month of Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and the ten days of repentance, all of which deal with preparation for this moment. Also, the Kohen Gadol must do the entire atonement service, which we reenact with the Avodah service tomorrow, by himself. Similarly, atonement can only be achieved by each of us for ourselves. Finally, the Kohen Gadol atones for himself first and his family first, followed by his tribe, and finally for all of Israel. Concurrently, we are responsible to take care of ourselves first, then our families, and then those geographically closest to us, infinitely extending outward.
Two years ago I spoke about Yom Kippur being a joyous day in our being forgiven for all our sins. Today, I want to teach another aspect of that joy. Too often we look at our shortcomings rather than undergoing הכרת הטוב, a recognition of all which is good in us. A contemporary prayer, written by Rabbi Avi Weiss and modeled after the אשמנו (we are guilty) but called אהבנו (we have loved) does just that. It goes as follows:
אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוּ, דִבַּרְנוּ יֹפִי
We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.
הֶעֱלִינוּ, וְחַסְנוּ, זֵרַזְנוּ
We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically,
חָמַלְנוּ, טִפַּחְנוּ אֱמֶת
We have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth,
יָעַצְנוּ טוֹב, כִּבַּדְנוּ, לָמַדְנוּ, מָחַלְנוּ
We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven,
נִחַמְנוּ, סָלַלְנוּ, עוֹרַרְנוּ
We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred,
פָּעַלְנוּ, צָדַקְנוּ, קִוִּינוּ לָאָרֶץ
We have been spiritual activists, we have been just, we have longed for Israel,
We have been merciful, we have given full effort,
תָּמַכְנוּ, תָּרַמְנוּ, תִּקַּנּוּ
We have supported, we have contributed, we have repaired.
The Ashamnu, unlike most prayers in Selichot, is written in a major key. As we say it, we are hopeful about changed behavior. Similarly, by saying Ahavnu, we can be grateful for all the positive things we do in life and use them as examples to propel us forward.
This year I would like to develop more patience, more satisfaction with what I have and increased understanding that things will work out in the end. Too often we focus on the things we don’t have, or our inadequacies, instead of all the things we do have. What if the balance was reversed-that we spent the majority of the time counting our blessings and only a minority of it looking at what we lack?
Rabbi Sharon Brous teaches (and I took her words as the title of my sermon) that Yom Kippur gives us “permission to move.” We need to ask ourselves what we are waiting for in order to transform our mindsets, “the inflexibility, insecurity and inertia of our lives.” One of the main things we have control over moving is our mentality. We can’t always control what happens to us but we CAN control how we respond to it. What are the messages of love, strength, and healing that we can carry with us into the new year of 5778?
We often look at our world as stable until something shatters that stability. We think we are in control until something comes along that demolishes those feelings of control. How do we own our lack of control, believing that we have agency when it feels like we have anything but, affirming that the world is good when it does not feel that way? How do we move ourselves to feeling that we can make a difference as opposed to sighing and saying what difference do we make?
We can illustrate this by means of a story. A Chasid once asked his Rebbe: “Why pray on Yom Kippur? After all, we inevitably sin again.” In response, the Rebbe asked him to look out the window. Outside was a toddler learning to walk. “What do you see?” asked the master. “A child, standing and falling,” replied the disciple. Day after day, the Chasid came back to witness the same scene. By the week’s end, the child stood and did not fall. The child’s eyes expressed the joy of having attained this milestone. “So it is with us,” said the Rebbe. “We fall again and again, but in the end, a loving G-d gives us the opportunities we need to succeed.”
This story resonates deeply with me, as I’ve watched Ariela learn how to walk. I saw her transition from being scared to stand in place on her own to now running all over the place. In May the pediatrician said she was behind and might need PT yet within one day of getting our puppy Simba, she was walking after him. Sometimes in life we need something to jar us out of our rut, to get us over the hump after failing numerous times. Even after walking, I watched Ariela develop numerous scrapes and bruises from falling yet saw her determination nevertheless. If only I had that spirit to continue forward encountering obstacles rather than staying back and resting on my laurels. What would give me the oomph to feel I have the permission to move forward despite the potential pitfalls lurking in my path?
This Yom Kippur, I hope that each of us will feel that we have permission to move forward in all of our pursuits, that we will not be pushed back by the challenges that we will encounter, that we will move forward recognizing that we are imperfect beings and that’s ok. It does not stop us from continually working on ourselves. As in the immortal words of Rabbi Tarfon, לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא עתה בני חורין להבטל ממנה, “It is not up to you to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it.” Let us always understand that we are a work in progress and may we give ourselves permission to move forward, one step at a time. If we are faced with a challenge, like a child learning to walk, let us never give up but always propel ourselves forward with the determination that G-d will give us the strength we need to succeed. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.
Before we return to prayer on the most spiritual day of the year, we continue with a cute poem sent out by Young Israel of Jamaica Estates entitled “Time to Pray” sent to me by Steve Mann.
I got up early one morning
and rushed right into the day;
I had so much to accomplish
that I didn’t have time to pray.
Problems just tumbled about me,
and heavier came each task.
“Why doesn’t God help me?” I wondered.
He answered, “You didn’t ask.”
I wanted to see joy and beauty,
but the day toiled on, gray and bleak;
I wondered why God didn’t show me.
He said, “But you didn’t seek.”
I tried to come into God’s presence;
I used all my keys at the lock.
God gently and lovingly chided,
“My child, you didn’t knock.”
I woke up early this morning,
and paused before entering the day;
I had so much to accomplish
that I had to take time to pray.
We continue with the reverse acrostic Yaaleh on Page 227. Please rise as the ark is opened.
 Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 130.
 Idea from Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles from New York Board of Rabbis High Holidays Sermon Seminar, September 8, 2016.
 Taught to me by Rabbi Avi Weiss and found here: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ahavnu-beirachnu-yom-kippur-is-also-a-time-to-confess-our-good/
 Taught to me by Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles at New York Board of Rabbis High Holiday Sermon Seminar, September 8, 2016.
 Rabbi Avi Weiss, “Four Reasons to Rejoice on Yom Kippur,” in The World of the High Holy Days, edited by Rabbi Jack Reimer (Miami, FL: Bernie Books, 1992), p. 231.
 Mishnah Avot Chapter 2 Mishnah 16.