Sermon for Kol Nidre Night 5775

October 3, 2014

In the Torah, in Leviticus 23:27, the holiday we now call Yom Kippur/ Day of Atonement is called Yom Hakipurim/ Day of the Atonements (plural).  According to the medieval Spanish Jewish commentator Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508), the plural “kippurim” refers to the fact that on this particular day each year transgressions from throughout the year would be expiated during the course of the rituals carried out by the Kohen Gadol/ High Priest.  This plural version of the name of this holiday gives rise to a classic pun:  The 18th century commentator known as the Vilna Ga’on interprets the phrase Yom kippurim – Day of Kippurim – Day of Atonements as Yom ki Purim.  “A day like Purim” since the prefix ki can mean “like.”[1]

Now there are entire sermons that can be built around the Vilna Ga’on’s teaching that Yom Kippur and Purim are two sides of the same coin.  Maybe I’ll do that sermon next year.  Come to think of It, I did speak of this “Yom Ki Purrim” theme last year on Kol Nidre night when I invited us to imagine Vladimir Putin in drag as Queen Esther…

(I guess you hadda be there….)

Anyway, this whole convoluted introduction is just my way of saying – I want to open with some jokes and you shouldn’t think that this is inappropriate for Kol Nidre night.

I know – I worry too much…


So……       An elderly Jewish man living in Century Village in South Florida calls his son Joshua in New York. The father says to the son, "I hate to tell you, but your mother and I can't stand each other anymore, and we are divorcing. That's it!! I want to live out the rest of my years in peace. I am telling you now, so you and your sister shouldn't go into shock later when I move out." The father hangs up, and the son immediately calls his sister Melissa in the Hamptons and tells her the news. She says, "I'll handle this." Melissa calls Florida and gets her father on the phone. She pleads to her father, "Don't do ANYTHING 'til Joshua and I get there! We will be there Friday." The father says, "All right, all right already." When the father hangs up the phone he hollers to his wife, "Okay, the kids are coming for the High Holidays!'' 


Rabbi to congregant: "Yes I understand that McDonalds calls it "fast food"...but you STILL can't eat it on Yom Kippur!"


A friend was in front of me coming out of the Synagogue one day, and as always the Rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed. He grabbed my friend by the hand and pulled him aside. The Rabbi said to him, "You need to join the Army of G-d!"

My friend replied, "I'm already in the Army of G-d, Rabbi."

Rabbi questioned, "How come I don't see you except for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?"

He whispered back, "I'm in the secret service."


On Yom Kippur morning, the Rabbi noticed little Adam was staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the synagogue. It was covered with names, and small American flags were mounted on either side of it.

The seven-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the Rabbi walked up, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, "Shalom, Adam."

"Shalom, Rabbi," replied the young man, still focused on the plaque. "Rabbi Resnick, what is this?" Adam asked.

"Well, it's a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service."

Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Little Adam's voice was barely audible when he asked: "Which service? Shacharit, Mincha or Ma’ariv?"


I really was just aiming for that last joke…

Because, all kidding aside, this idea of “dying in the service” does have some background to it.  For it is indeed true that some of the customs of Yom Kippur are meant to make it feel like a dress rehearsal for our own death.  The kittel that I’m wearing is reminiscent of “tachrichim” the shrouds in which Jews are traditionally buried.  The rejection of food and drink and other creature comforts points to the time when our souls will no longer inhabit these earthly bodies of ours.  The “vidui” or confession of sins that we recite in synagogue on Yom Kippur has its parallel in the “vidui” prayer that is traditionally recited by or on behalf of someone who is near the point of death.

We confront our mortality ---- and we confront the state of our souls --- during this Day of Atonement. 

The word “Shabbat” literally means “cessation.”  And Torah designates Yom Kippur (in the Yom Kippur morning Torah reading) as “Shabbat Shabbaton[2]” --- Cessation of cessations --- FULL STOP….

Just like death.

This is the climax of the process of cheshbon hanefesh/soul searching that we’ve been leading up to for the past 40 days, since the 1st day of the month of Elul.  Those 40 days from the 1st of Elul until the 10th of Tishri correspond to the 40 days that Moses communed with God on Mt. Sinai following the smashing of the 1st set of tablets in the wake of the incident of the Golden Calf.

Yom Kippur is a somber and serious day. 

But---- even without the warm-up jokes---- it’s not a sad day.  For, built in alongside the prayers of confession and the pleas for forgiveness, is the confidence that, indeed, we will be forgiven.

In the Song of Songs chapter 5 verse two – it says:  “I was asleep but my heart was awake. My beloved knocks! Saying --- “Pitchu li, achoti, rayati, yonati, chamati … Open up for me – O my sister, my friend, my flawless dove”. 

The rabbinic midrash on Song of Songs sees us as the sleeper and God as the one who knocks, interpreting the verse thus:

Amar Hakadosh Barukh Hu le-yisra’el: Pitchu li petach echad shel teshuvah ke-chudah shel machat --- The Blessed holy one said to Israel“My children, show me an opening of repentance no larger than the eye of a needle, and I will widen it into openings through which wagons and carriages can pass”[3]

That’s how the system works.

And with the long blast of the Shofar at the end of Yom Kippur, we are, as it were, reborn --- hopefully a bit wiser, a bit more compassionate, a bit more faithful than we may have been when we entered this day in the company of our fellow sinners. 


Yom Kippur --- “Shabbat Shabbaton” --- Cessation of cessations --- FULL STOP….

We certainly need these pauses, these way stations on our life’s journeys.  Our death bed should not be the first time we take stock of our lives.  And Yom Kippur should not be the only day of the year when we pause to reflect; when we pause to give thanks. 

Our tradition teaches of doing so three times a day morning, afternoon and evening (Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv).  And, more so, every time we are about to taste a morsel of food – and every time we have finished eating a meal, and every time we encounter a natural wonder of the world and every time we carry out a ritual mitzvah…  

But even if we don’t davven three times a day; and even if we don’t say 100 blessings every day --- we get the idea…..

Our lives are a collection of moments.  Moments of grace.  Moments of trial.  Moments of insight.  Moments of pleasure.  Moments of pain. 

And then they’re over. 

As it says in Psalm 103 – In words that the choir will sing tomorrow afternoon to open our Yizkor servie:


טו אֱנוֹשׁ, כֶּחָצִיר יָמָיו; כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה, כֵּן יָצִיץ.

15 As for the human being, our days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so do we flourish.

טז כִּי רוּחַ עָבְרָה-בּוֹ וְאֵינֶנּוּ; וְלֹא-יַכִּירֶנּוּ עוֹד מְקוֹמוֹ.

16 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone; and its place knows it no more.

This all reminds me of what I think is the best movie I’ve seen in the past few years:  Richard Linklater’s film “Boyhood.” 

Linklater and his cast of actors met for a few weeks every year for 12 years to create a film in which the main character grows from a 6 year old boy to an 18 year old young man – and we see the other characters – his sister, his parents, their friends – age as well… in real time.  Real time, that is to say, compressed into two and half seamless hours.

Spoiler alert:  For the most part there are no melodramatic cataclysms and plot reversals – and yet we are spellbound.  I was, anyway.  So much so that I saw the movie twice this summer, once when I was on vacation in London and again when I was back home in Duluth. The moral or theme of the movie seems to be just what we’ve been talking up here --- that life is made up of moments.  And that these moments can rush by before we know it. 

But we want to know it.  So we need these set times to help us acquire that knowledge.

We need that full stop.

And, now that we’re stopped – for this holiest of holy days – now that we are here observing Yom Kippur -- how shall we use this time?

In the days of the Mishkan or Tabernacle of which the Torah speaks, and in the days of the ancient Temples of which the Talmud speaks  – Yom Hakippurim was about cleaning out the accumulated ritual impurities of the sanctuary.

The Kohen Gadol wore the right clothes and said the right words, the scape goat was sent off to the wilderness bearing the people’s sins, the animals and grain offerings were offered in the proper manner and “voila”


ל  כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם:  מִכֹּל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, תִּטְהָרוּ.

30 On this day atonement will be made for you, to purify you; from all your wrongs.  In the presence of Adonai shall ye be pure. [4]

A metaphorical way of viewing that Biblical conception of Yom Kippur might be to see it as about “cleaning out our spiritual shmutz, the accumulated gunk in our souls.”   

Sort of like how we go to the dentist every six months to get the plaque buildup removed.  Or how we use a cleaner app on our smartphones to clear out the junk files from our cache.

How many bad habits or destructive tendencies have we permitted to clog up our spiritual pores this past year?  May the power of this day enable us to purify ourselves.

I mentioned a moment ago that I was in London during part of my vacation this summer.  I got a lot of use out of the London Underground and, if you’ve ever been on the London Underground, you might recall that there is a ubiquitous phrase that you hear all the time on the recorded announcements and that you see posted on all the train doors: 

“Mind the Gap!”

I think that’s a good way of describing how the meaning of the Day of Atonement evolved from the “Yom Hakippurim” of the Biblical period to the “Yom Kippur” of susbsequent centuries.

Originally, kaparah/atonement was about cleaning out the shmutz –which, as we’ve just mentioned still does have resonance today even after the destruction of the second Temple so many centuries ago.

But it was in the rabbinic period, the period of the Talmud, that Judaism expanded upon the concept of Teshuvah/Repentance/Return as the major theme of not just Yom Kippur but of the enter High Holiday season.

What is teshuvah?  It’s about responding to that urgent message:


That gap/ that distance between the subway car and the station platform can be treacherous.

And so can that gap/ that distance between ourselves and God – or, if you prefer – that gap between how we are living our lives and how we know in our hearts we should be living our lives.

Our consciences, informed by our Jewish values, prompt us to mind the gap, to come to a full stop, to reflect upon how we might close the distance.

To complete the passage from Psalm 103 that the choir will sing tomorrow at Yizkor:

Yes --

טו אֱנוֹשׁ, כֶּחָצִיר יָמָיו; כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה, כֵּן יָצִיץ.

15 As for the human being, our days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so do we flourish

טז כִּי רוּחַ עָבְרָה-בּוֹ וְאֵינֶנּוּ; וְלֹא-יַכִּירֶנּוּ עוֹד מְקוֹמוֹ.

16 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone; and its place knows it no more.

But ---

יז וְחֶסֶד יְהוָה, מֵעוֹלָם וְעַד-עוֹלָם-- עַל-יְרֵאָיו;
וְצִדְקָתוֹ, לִבְנֵי בָנִים.

17 [T]he steadfast love of the Eternal is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who revere the Eternal, and divine righteousness extends to all generations.


And here we are.


Tomorrow in my Yom Kippur morning sermon I plan to focus more on where we might go from here.

In the meantime,

Tzom Kal/ Have an easy fast – those of you who are able to do so.

And may each and every one of us, and the whole house of Israel, be inscribed and sealed for a good year – a year of peace and blessing not just for us but for the world at large.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah ve-Shabbat shalom.


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg

October 2014/ Yom Kippur 5775


[1] See http://www.ou.org/holidays/purim/every_day_purim_every_night_kippurim/

[2] Lev. 16:31 – Part of the main Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning.

[3] Song of Songs Rabba 5:2.2 as translated in Kol Haneshama: Machzor Leyamim Nora’im, Reconstructionist Press, 1999, p. 17.

[4]  Leviticus 16:30 (The “signature verse” introducing the Yom Kippur Amidah).

Posted on April 13, 2016 .