Yom Kippur Sermon 5783/2022
Hazzan Louis (Labish) Goldman
Listen to the Sermon (scroll down if you prefer to read the text of the sermon):
Watch and listen to the song "Neshome'le" by Abie Rottenberg:
Read Hazzan Goldman's Yom Kippur Sermon:
Forty days before a child is conceived, G-d summons the angel who is in charge of souls. And G-d says to the angel, “There’s a soul that I want you to bring me.”
G-d gives the angel a description of the soul. “Its name is such-and-such, and it looks like such-and-such.”
The angel runs and brings the soul before G-d. The soul bows down. And G-d tells the soul, “A child is going to be conceived soon. A new life. And I have selected you to be the soul for that child.”
The soul gets nervous… and a little upset. The soul starts to argue. “There is so much pain and evil on Earth. Let me stay here up in heaven, where it’s safe and I’ll be pure. Please don’t make me go away. Can’t you see I’m so afraid?”
According to this Midrash (Tanchuma, Pekudei 3), this is how each of us began.
A holy and pure soul. Hand-picked from Paradise by G-d Himself, and sent to Earth with a purpose. A mission. Something to do. Something to accomplish.
The soul was nervous. The soul was scarred. The soul had seen what happens on Earth. The kinds of choices people can make. The ways that people can treat each other. The soul didn’t want to come.
But the soul didn’t really have a choice. It came. And it became one with that body.
Whether you take this figuratively or literally, the idea is foundational to Jewish belief. We enter this world with a pure soul. A clean slate.
If you recall, on Rosh Hashanah, we discussed about G-d writing about us in a book… and about other people writing about us in their own books as well.
Well, there’s another side to that. And that’s the writing that we do ourselves.
Because while it is true that we enter this world with a pure soul… with a clean slate… we quickly start to grow up. And we start to write things on that slate. Every decision we make. Good or bad. Right or wrong. We write that on our slate.
So it’s an image. All our actions summed up on a slate.
But it’s more than an image, isn’t it? Open your memory. There are things we’re proud of… and things we’re not proud of. Times we know we did the right thing… and times we know we fell short.
So the “slate” or “book” or whatever metaphor you want to use is a nice way to think of it. But the concept is very real. We are the sum of our decisions and our actions. Some of those are positive, and some of those are negative. We’re human. And that’s the way it goes. If we really try, if we really work on it, hopefully the positive will outweigh the negative.
But to continue the metaphor, Yom Kippur comes along. We stand before Hashem.
We refer to Him on Yom Kippur as the Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness.
We say that He completes the indictment, brings the case and enumerates the counts.
We say that He recalls everything.
And then? There we are on the witness stand. The Almighty is before us. And what does He do? He pulls out the evidence. In our davening, we call it the Sefer haZichronot. The Book of Remembrance.
And G-d, the Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness, holds up the book and reads from it.
And again, in our davening, we say:
G-d opens the book of remembrance
Which speaks for itself
V’chotam Yad Kol Adam Bo: For our own hands have signed the page.
It’s poetry, I know. We daven with imagery and poetry.
But it couldn’t be more true, could it? Every day we live, we do sign the page. Our actions are our signature. And they go in this book of remembrance. Or this blank slate. Or whatever you want to call it.
So forget the imagery. Because sometimes we look at the imagery and we say, “Okay. That’s not meant to be taken literally.”
But nothing could be more literal. Our decisions and actions are who we are. We really do sign the page with the behaviors we choose and things we do. The words we say; the way we interact with other people. We very much sign that page.
There’s that classic movie, “Tootsie!” with Dustin Hoffman. He plays an out-of-work actor. And there’s a cute line. He says, “I don’t believe in Hell. I believe in unemployment, but I don’t believe in Hell.”
So let me paraphrase a bit. “As Jews, we don’t believe in Hell. We believe in Gehennom, but we don’t believe in Hell.”
The concept of “Hell” as people think of it, is not a Jewish idea. The idea of eternal damnation for souls that didn’t properly repent.
We have a very different idea. We believe that souls come into this world completely pure. And after a person dies, that person’s soul will return to Paradise. But while that soul was here on Earth, maybe it got a little shmutzik. It did some things it shouldn’t have done. It said some things it shouldn’t have said. So it goes to Gehennom for a time so it can be purified before it returns to the land of souls.
Gehennom is not a punishment. It’s a purifier. A cleansing experience. An opportunity for our soul to return to its purest state so that its ready for the next adventure on its eternal journey.
But here’s the thing.
We don’t have to wait until we die. We don’t have to wait for Gehennom.
We have Yom Kippur. We have this day to cleanse ourselves. Look at what we’re doing:
We’re getting ourselves in the mood. We dress in white. We want to act the part. Dressing in white doesn’t make us pure, but it helps remind us why we’re in Shul today… and what we’re supposed to be doing today. That we strive to become pure again, just as our souls were pure when we were born.
We don’t eat. We want to let go of the earthly parts of ourselves. So we don’t eat so we can feel less like a body that needs physical nourishment… and more like a soul that needs spiritual nourishment.
We refrain from luxuries like bathing for pleasure—or wearing leather shoes—because we want to be like angels who have no physical needs for comfort.
But those things, as symbolic and full of meaning as they are, don’t actually do anything on their own. They are simply reminders…
aspirational reminders of how we want to shape ourselves for the coming year. How we want to enter the new year with pure souls.
So if that’s all symbolic… if the clothes we wear… and the food we don’t eat… and the shoes we don’t wear… if that’s all symbolic, where’s the action? What are we doing here?
It’s coming. Because in addition to the white clothes, and the fasting, and the refraining from pleasure, we will soon be thumping our chests and chanting a list from A to Z of the many different ways that we missed the mark in the past year. We did it last night, we did it earlier, and we’ll do it again. Three more times today.
And we do it not to punish ourselves, but to remind ourselves that we have so many opportunities to do better in the coming year. So many varied and unique ways that we can be our best selves.
We say Zadnu. We have intentionally done the wrong thing. Not only that, but we have compounded our misdeeds by rationalizing them. By justifying them. By devising arguments and philosophies to tell ourselves that what we did was okay. Even when we know deep down that it wasn’t. And we give ourselves a little thump on our hearts to remind us to not do so much of that in the coming year.
We say Dibarnu Dofi. We sometimes translate it as “we have spoken slander.” But literally, it means we have spoken with two mouths. “Do fi.” We’ve said one thing and done another. We’ve spoken of people behind their backs. We’ve told lies and we’ve publicized the mistakes of others. And we give ourselves a little thump on our hearts to remind us to not do so much of that in the coming year.
And we say Shi-chat-nu. We have done things that have corrupted our character. We’ve been arrogant. We haven’t controlled our anger. We’ve shown apathy when we should have shown care and concern. All of these things that corrupt our innermost selves. And so again, we give ourselves a little thump on our hearts to remind us to not do so much of that in the coming year.
Yom Kippur is this extraordinarily powerful gift. A day of introspection. A day to dress and make-believe we are like the pure souls that live inside us. And if we do it right, it’s a day to actually become more pure. T’shuvah means “return.” So let’s do some real T’shuvah today. Let’s return our souls to their natural, pure state.
Today is a day to decide what we will do differently in the coming year…
To think before we speak.
To judge less.
To be more thoughtful. More tolerant.
To be better friends, husbands, wives, parents, and children.
And what of that neshomele? That little soul that we spoke of earlier? The one that was afraid to come to earth? The one that wanted to stay in paradise so it could remain holy and pure?
The Midrash doesn’t say. But there’s a beautiful song based on the Midrash. It’s called “Neshome'le” by Abie Rottenberg. Honestly, I can’t listen to it without shedding real tears. So bear with me as I attempt to share these thoughts with you.
In the song, the neshema finds its way. It gets to study Torah. It gets to pray. It gets to partner with it’s earthly body to do great things. To make the world a brighter place. To enrich people’s lives.
And when Hashem sends the angel to bring the soul back to paradise, the soul, once again argues. The soul says:
I’m not ready to go with you.
Let me stay right where I am, there’s so much more I need to do
Please don’t make me go away, can’t you see I’m so afraid.
And the angel reassures the soul, saying:
Come with me, little Neshomele,
I’ve only come to take you home,
There is no need to fear your destination,
You’ve earned a place right by the throne.
Our time here is short.
And our own hands will have signed the page.
V’chotam Yad Kol Adam Bo.
It’s hardly even a metaphor. Because the fact of the matter is that in everything we do, we are writing on that page. So let’s make our lives say what we want them to say. Let’s make them say something we can be deeply proud of.
And let’s start… today.
A sentiment to which I invite you to join me in saying, “Amen.”