Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5774/2013


Here’s one I’m sure you’ve heard before (and the last names don’t refer to specific people here who have those last names – It’s just how the joke goes….): 

Mr. Cohen's son: Dad, how come you go to shul?

Mr. Cohen: What kind of a question is that?

Mr. Cohen's son: I know you are a non-believer, an atheist, an agnostic, or whatever; so why would you go to shul?

Mr. Cohen: Goldberg goes to shul.

Mr. Cohen's Son: So what? What kind of an answer is that?

Mr. Cohen: Goldberg goes to shul to talk to God; I go to shul to talk to Goldberg!


I love that joke because it reminds us that the shared experience of coming together at Temple is as much about the sense of connection and community that we have with one another --- as it is about any of the particular prayers that we recite together or that we improvise individually while we’re here.  Judaism is not a solitary pursuit. 

The title of a famous book from the 1950’s about the shetls of pre-war Poland sums it up:   “Life is with people.”

Regardless of the theological or spiritual doubts or struggles that any of us may have individually, Torah nevertheless portrays God as saying:  Venikdashti btokh bnei yisra’el --- “I will be sanctified in the midst of the Israelites”[i]  .  That’s a verse that the sages singled out to use as a proof text for the halachic requirement of a minyan for public prayer.

The camaraderie is such an important aspect of all of this.

Indeed, one of the formative experiences of my life that helped steer me to rabbinical school was my experience of being a regular at the weekday Shacharit service at Temple Beth El in Portland, Maine back in the late 1980’s.  My friend Robert Levine, a newly-minted 20-something lawyer as I was back then, encouraged me to attend.  Unlike Cohen in the joke, I did in fact go to talk with God  ---- but I also came to talk to Levine ---- and to all the other regular “minyannaires.”   

Before you know it, Robert and I were co-presidents of the Temple Brotherhood which used to organize the morning minyan.  Really, all that my oh-so-important role as Brotherhood co-president involved was that I took turns with Robert making the morning announcements near the end of the service.  And whenever I did so, as I walked back to my seat a couple of the old guys in the back would say --- “very good David, very good….”

Hearing them say “very good David” actually meant a lot to me since at the time I wasn’t getting such great performance reviews from the partners in the big stuffy law firm where I was a lowly associate…

In any event, Robert and I would often go out afterwards to a local place called “Mr. Bagel” before heading off to our respective offices.  And at least once a week a whole bunch of us would go out to breakfast after minyan.

Of course, that sort of camaraderie and friendship applies not just to weekday minyanim but also to when we gather on Shabbat.  You never know how much a kind word or a warm greeting shared in synagogue might mean to someone – whether that person be a regular attendee or a rare attendee or a visitor or a newcomer. 

Never forget that the Friday night oneg and the Saturday morning Kiddush are just as important as the service itself. 

Okay, sorry about talking about food so much --- we still have hours to go before we break the fast…..


On Yom Kippur there is a particular poignancy to the communal nature of our tefillot.  Think, for example, of those introductory phrases just before Kol Nidre is sung:  Beshiva shel malah, uveshivah shel matah.  Al da’at hamakom v’al da’at hakahal. Anu matirin lhitpalel im ha’avaryanim/  By the authority of the heavenly court, and by the authority of the earthly court, with the consent of the Everpresent God, and with the consent of this congregation, we hereby declare it permissible to pray with those who have transgressed…


And of course --- “those who have transgressed” includes all of us.

Remember: “I am nothing,”  “I am nothing,” “I am nothing”…

As we engage with our innermost thoughts and concerns during services, the presence of our fellow congregants reminds us that we are not alone. 


In the last couple of years I’ve been thinking more and more about the importance of physical proximity.  Of actually being in the same place at the same time to forge those communal bonds as we do here in Temple. 

Many of us spend more and more of our time and mental energy interacting with others over the internet -- with laptops and ipads and smartphones.  Yes, it’s a way to keep connected with distant family and friends.  And yes, it’s a fun diversion to chat with people with whom we hav common interests yet who we may never even have met in person. 

But it’s not the same as interacting IRL – as the new shorthand expresses it --- “in real life.”  

AND --

We need to be careful lest addiction to these devices takes away our ability to be emotionally present with the people with whom we are actually physically present.

Hiney mah tov u’mah na’im shevet achim v’achayot gam yachad.   How good and pleasant it is that we gather together as brothers and sisters.  Physically.  Here.  IRL.  In Real Life.

Without withdrawing ourselves from one another to post about it on Facebook or Tweet about it on Twitter while the gathering is still taking place.


I never remember the meaning of all those Myers-Brigg personality type designations – INTJ, EFXQ, LMNOP .  However, I do recall that one of the letters refers to where each of us is on the introvert-extrovert scale.   But, wherever on that scale any of us are, we need some amount of connection with others  --- AND --- we also need some amount of solitude and privacy.

We need community, but we also need individual space.

A classic Jewish teaching about this is found in Rashi’s commentary to Numbers 24:5. That’s where the foreign prophet for hire Bala’am  (You remember him – He’s the guy with the talking donkey) --- That’s where he makes his famous observation:  “Mah tovu ohalekha ya’akov, mishkenotekha yisra’el”:  “How good your tents are, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”  This verse is traditionally recited when one enters a synagogue, and we usually start our Shabbat morning service with it. 

Rashi, commenting on the words “Mah tovu ohalekha”/ “How good are your tents”  (and citing an earlier passage from the Talmud) says that Balaam found those tents to be good על שראה פיתחיהם שאינן מכוונים זה מול זה “because he saw that their entrances were not facing each other.”[ii]  -- even though those tents were arranged in close proximity to each other.

In other words, the Israelites who camped together in the wilderness had achieved an ideal balance of private space within cohesive community.

In our own day, mores are changing as more and more of us are willing to reveal more and more of our private information on websites and social networks.   And we may question whether the balance between privacy and publicity is becoming imbalanced to our detriment.  

Sometimes we have an overly optimistic idea that any information we share on the internet is safely up there in a metaphorical cloud.   The folks behind the various companies and organizations on the web assure us that our information is confidential and that our personal data is used only in abstract algorithms that help them better market goods and services to us without invading our privacy.

But one wonders where it all will lead. 


In our Yom Kippur liturgy, it’s daunting but also in a way comforting to meditate on the Machzor’s words:   Atah yode’a razei olam, veta’alumot sitrey kawl chai.  Atah chofeysh kawl chadrey vaten, uvochen kelayot valeyv. Eyn davar ne’lam mimeka, v’eyn nistar mineged eynekha/ You, O God, know the mysteries of the universe, and the best kept secrets of every living thing.  You search out all the innermost rooms of our life, With care You examine all our feelings, all our thoughts.  Not one thing is hidden from You, nothing escapes your gaze.[iii]     

And those images recall the words from the hymn Yigdal that we sing throughout the year: Tzofeh veyode’a sitareynu/ God beholds and knows our secrets.

What this means to me is that in prayer and meditation we can dig as deep as we dare because God, however we understand God, has already seen it all.  And so teshuvah and mechilah/ repentance and pardon can come.

“HIney, lo yanum ve lo yishan shomer Yisra’el –  Behold, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.”[iv]

But, it’s another story when we’re talking about the National Security Agency.  I’m not sure how much I want them to know all about those innermost rooms of my life. 

I have a certain sense of resignation about this.  A feeling that, even though I try to lead a good, moral, upstanding life, that there’s no real privacy anymore in the face of governmental spying on its citizens.  The case of Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who now has temporary asylum status in Russia, currently divides the nation. Some have called him a traitor, others a hero.  I personally tend towards the latter opinion.  But no one denies that his leaks concerning the extent of governmental surveillance have brought important issues to the fore.

In the meantime, I hope that each of us, myself included, can find that sweet spot between individual integrity and communal solidarity. 

Lives in which we have ties that bind yet space to breathe.

Gmar chatimah tovah, may we all be sealed in the Book of a Life for a a good year.

Shabbat shalom.


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5774/2013 


[i] Lev. 22:32

[ii] Rashi on Num. 24:5, citing Bava Batra, 60a.

[iii] Yom Kippur selichot liturgy, introduction to Al Chet.

[iv] Ps. 121:4

Posted on September 24, 2013 .