Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5775

October 4, 2014


I spoke last night about how Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shabbaton --- literally a Sabbath of Sabbaths or a cessation of cessations.  Calling for us to stop dead in our tracks and take stock of the state of our souls.

But what about the rest of the week?

What about the rest of the year?

That’s when we carry our values out into the world.

The prophet Hosea describes the relationship between God and the collectivity of the Jewish people as that of a married couple.  There may have been times of estrangement, times of distance, but there is reconciliation at the end when God, as it were, declares:


כא  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, לְעוֹלָם; וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים.

21 I will espouse you to Me forever; I will espouse you to Me with righteousness and with justice, and with kindness and with compassion.

כב  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, בֶּאֱמוּנָה; וְיָדַעַתְּ, אֶת-יְהוָה. 

22 And I will espouse you to ME with faithfulness; and you shall know the Eternal.

We see here the purpose of such qualities as tzedek/righteousness, mishpat/justice, chesed/kindness and rachamim/compassion.  It is by means of exercising these qualities that we get to have communion with God; that we get to know God.

Moses gets a similar lesson when he pleads with God: הַרְאֵנִי נָא, אֶת-כְּבֹדֶךָ / Show me your Glory! (or as the Jewish Publication Society translates it): “Oh, let me behold your Presence!”  (Ex. 33:18).

And God responds that no human can understand God’s fundamental essence but what we can understand is God’s attributes. 

God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, extending kindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression.  (See Ex. 34: 6-8).

The implication is that we should do likewise.

More explicitly, in Deuteronomy 13:5, Moses charges the people אַחֲרֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ / “You shall walk after your God”

And the Talmud, in Tractate Sotah, deals with the question of how to do so:

R. Hama son of R. Hanina further said: What means the text: "You shall walk after your God" (Deuteronomy 13)? Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after God; for has it not been said: "For God is a devouring fire" (Deuteronomy 4)? But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One. Just as God clothes the naked, as it says, "And God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them" (Genesis 3), so do you also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be God, visited the sick, for it is written: "And God appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre" (Genesis 18), so do you also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be God, comforted mourners, for it is written: "And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son" (Genesis 25), so do you also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be God, buried the dead, for it is written: "And [God] buried him in the valley" (Deuteronomy 34), so do you also bury the dead.

And, of course, in Isaiah, in the haftarah that Ben chanted so beautifully this morning, the theme is stated even more strongly --- our fasting and our prayers and our worship on this Sabbath of Sabbaths are important – but they must be matched by our sense of justice and compassion for others. 

Our fasting this day – and by extension all of our ritual practices this day – are pointless if, in the words of the haftarah, “on the day of your fast you are preoccupied with your possessions and oppress those who toil on your behalf!” (Isa. 58:3)

And as our own stomachs are growling from our Yom Kippur fast, the haftarah challenges us:

6 Is this not the fast I desire?!
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin?!

That, of course, is what our response must be – at the local level, at the national level and at the international level.  Our politicians often speak about the middle class-- but I’m always looking for them to speak about the poor.

Depending on where each of us are on the American political spectrum, we may have various ideas regarding how much of this religious obligation of caring for the poor should be borne by government and how much should be borne by individuals. 

But, realistically, I can’t conceive of a way in which our religious obligations to:

Feed the hungry,

House the homeless,

Clothe the naked

Free the oppressed

Can be borne by government alone or by charitable organizations alone, or by individuals alone.  We have to do it together.

On the local level, that’s why CHUM – which describes itself as “people of faith working together to provide basic necessities, foster stable lives, and organize for a just and compassionate community” works on all these fronts:  lobbying governmental entities on behalf of the needs of the poor; providing services through the work of its own professional staff and community of volunteers, and raising funds from individuals and congregations to fund its work.  And that’s why Temple Israel is a member congregation of CHUM.

In your Yom Kippur program booklet there is a flyer about the Steve 0’Neil Apartments, which consists of 44 permanent supportive housing units as well as six emergency shelter units for long term homeless families that are being built on the northwest corner of Fourth Street and First Avenue West. 

There is much we can do as individual members of Temple Israel and as a congregation to take part in this CHUM initiative.  The flyer gives you information about how to donate to the “Community Housewarming Registry” for the purpose of stocking the new Steve O’Neill Community apartments with basic essentials.

In my recent conversations with CHUM Executive Director Lee Stuart and CHUM congregational outreach and volunteer coordinator Courtney Cochran, I’ve also learned that they are looking for volunteers in a number of different capacities to get involved in the “CHUM Families Connection” network.  For example:  Helping a family move into a new apartment;  helping drive families to appointments, school or shopping;  helping to run monthly birthday parties for kids living in the Steve O’Neill Apartments; Helping with child care needs;  etc.  Any of these opportunities would come with step-by-step guidance by CHUM staff.  Let’s do this!  See me if you have any ideas about how we can establish an organized presence from our congregation in these efforts.

Meanwhile, another way Temple members can help in the community is by taking part in a home rehabilitation project for a needy family through Habitat for Humanity.  We’ve been doing this during Sukkot week for the past few years, and this year will be no exception.  Please see Tom Griggs if you would like to take part in this year’s work day to take place a week from Tuesday, when we will join together with volunteers from Glen Avon Presbyterian Church.

And once again, the envelopes from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the shopping bags for the food shelf are here on your seats to remind us of how we can respond to the words of the haftarah.

Donate to the food shelf.

Donate to MAZON.

Donate to the Jewish Federation

Donate to American Jewish World Service.

Donate to the charity of your choice.

Vote for political candidates who you believe will be most focused on establishing and maintaining a just and compassionate society.

I read earlier this week a neat little dvar torah by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin that touches on these themes.  He notes that the closing service of Yom Kippur is called “Ne’ilah” a word which means “locking” and refers to the metaphor of the “closing of gates.”  And that the typical interpretation we might have is something along the lines of “Don’t lock me out!  Don’t close the doors or the gates in my face as long as there is still time, let me come in.”

But Rabbi Riskin suggests that instead when we get to Ne’ilah a few hours from now we should really be crying out --- “Don’t lock me in!”  Because --- after the many hours that we will have spent during these High Holy Days focusing on cheshbon hanefesh/ personal inventory and teshuvah/repentance and tefilah/prayer are done --- the next step is to “take it to the streets!” 

We literally do so when we leave the solidity of our homes to dwell in the fragile sukkah and when we experience the texture and fragrance of the arba minim – the four species of etrog, lulav, myrtle and willow.

But we also --- literally – do it by responding to the prophetic call to

unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
… to share our bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into our home;
… to provide clothes for those in need
In short, “not to ignore our neighbor”

It’s all very daunting. But the important thing is simply to get involved in the effort.  For it is not upon us to complete the work, but neither are we free to absent ourselves from it.

That is the message of this day.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah ve-Shabbat shalom.


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg

October 2014/ Yom Kippur 5775

Posted on April 13, 2016 .