Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline
Kol Nidrei, 5773/2012 - Bad Jews - ©Rabbi Jack Moline
Let me start with my dilemma. Last year, all modesty aside, I presented two of the best sermons you ever heard. And I know this because there are some years I like my sermons and you don't, and some years you like my sermons and I don't, and some years you don't like my sermons and neither do I. But for the first time in a long time, you liked my sermons and I liked my sermons. We sang together at Kol Nidrei and we cried together on Yom Kippur morning, and I walked out of here after havdalah and said to myself, "What am I going to do for an encore?"
So let me say this: I didn't try for an encore. I went back to what I have always done and asked myself what I needed to say and what I thought you needed to hear. That's how I got to last year's sermons and that's how I got to this year's sermons, and if you want to sing or cry, this year you will have to listen to the soundtrack from "Les Mis."
Tonight I want to ask you a simple question: are you a bad Jew?
I know, the question is usually put the other way: are you a good Jew? Then the rabbi continues to answer it for you, and the answer is always "no," or at least, "not good enough." And the reason is you don't keep kosher or you don't keep Shabbat or you don't learn enough Torah or you don't give enough tzedakah or you didn't check the jacket you wore here tonight for a mixture of linen and wool.
I am not giving that sermon tonight. First of all, I am sure I have given some version of it once before. Maybe more than once. A year. But just in case you hoped to hear it, keep kosher, observe shabbes, learn more, give more and check the label. You'll find Yigdal on page 250.
Tonight I want to give you a question you will be able to answer more positively: are you a bad Jew?
I am asking that question because our liturgy seems to reflect the intuition that the things for which we really need to repent have less to do with ritual than you might think. There is no confession we recite in the five services of this day that proclaim, "For the sin that we have sinned against you with that cheeseburger. For the sin that we have sinned against you at the 9:30 Club last Friday night. For the sin that we have sinned against you for not going to minyan even though I said I would because there were two minutes to go in the game, the `Skins were down by five and they had the ball at their own forty."
The roster of our sins, the ones for which we collectively repent, are much less particular. I have to tell you, it looks to me like you don't even have to be Jewish to be a bad Jew.
So while you are sitting here anticipating this intensive day of particularly Jewish ritual - fasting, praying in Hebrew, refraining from intimacy, spending all day in shul - please let me remind you of what our mach'zor, what any traditional mach'zor, considers to be worthy matters of repentance on the holiest day of the year.
If you want to see the whole list, you can find it beginning on page 237. And while you are flipping through the pages, allow me a slight diversion on the subject of sin. Not for the first time over these past twenty-five years, let me remind you that there are categories of sin in our tradition. There are sins done belligerently, intending to reject the very notion of righteous behavior. There are sins that occur when someone crosses a line, the result of not knowing when to stop before a boundary. And then there are mistakes, simply missing the mark in spite of better intentions. You can call the first avon or toei'vah. You can call the second pesha or aveira. They are not my concern tonight, and neither do we confess to them in our liturgy. If you are purposeful in your transgressions or will not try to exercise a certain self-control, then pretending to change your ways on this day of atonement only adds to your culpability rather than erasing it. I prefer to believe - and please don't tell me if I am wrong - I prefer to believe in the goodness of everyone in this room. You are here because you realize how many times and how many ways you have missed the mark in the course of living a year's worth of days. Every one of those misses is called a chet. In the aggregate, they are called chata'im. And what our mach'zor lists as the attributes of a bad Jew are chata'im. They may be small shortcomings, but they are not inconsequential. Take a look at the list. Like the shorter confessional we recite - ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu - the list is an alphabetical acrostic. Actually, it is a double-acrostic, two declarations for each of the twenty-two letters in the alef-bet. It is a typical structure for a liturgical composition, especially when the idea is to convey comprehensiveness.
You have heard me say, "we have committed every sin from a to z, from alef to tav," and that's not my invention. We are reminded that collectively and individually both, we have found every opportunity to miss the mark.
But unlike the poems of praise for God which also make use of the acrostic and other devices, there is no metaphor or flowery rhetoric in this list. This recitation is straight-forward and comprehensive. No twelfth-century author claims to know that you took that $20 bill from petty cash or that you shared a friend's secret with a third party, but when you read a confession about deceit or gossip, you know that it includes you.
Of course, there is something artificial in a list of sins that occur in alphabetical order. Compare Hebrew to English and you will understand that gossip, greed, gluttony, graft and guilt-shlepping only begin the number of "g's" on a list, but "xenophobia" sort of exhausts this list for "x." The alphabet becomes the organizing principle.
Not only that, but we don't sin in alphabetical order. Our sins are committed much more randomly. And we do not have a soundtrack to accompany our sins. There is no one intoning, s'lach lanu, m'chal lanu, kapeir lanu in the background.
Instead, our sins are very much everyday occurrences, committed in the course of our lives as opportunity presents itself. What we confess tonight has to do with causation - are our shortcomings intentional or unintentional, thoughtless or malicious, knowing or deceitful, purposeful or accidental? What we confess tonight has to do with rationalization - are our shortcomings an effort to scratch an itch, line our pockets, over-compensate for an appetite? What we confess tonight has to do with the windows of opportunity that life affords - are our shortcomings in business, in conversation, in anger, in pursuit of love, in eagerness to please, in response to a sense of vulnerability?
Listen to some of what populates the list - sexual immorality, defrauding others, violence, scorning parents and teachers, foolish talk, condescension, superficiality, betraying trust. Maybe you know some people who perform these acts belligerently; maybe you know some people who know where the lines are but cross them because of lack of self-control. As I said, those folks are not my concern. My concern is with the people in this room who want to be good, and who are just human enough to miss the mark. They are the people who bring their broken hearts, their acute self-disappointment or their agonized sense of failure into this room and pray for relief, worried that it will be withheld. They are you. My friend David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Each week he sends out to a listserv a snippet from a sermon in a column called "Off the Pulpit." As I struggled with a way to frame what I wanted to say tonight, I was rescued by one such email. It was entitled, "I'm Too Many People," and here is some of what it says:
On Yom Kippur we confess to sins we did not commit as well as a bunch we did commit. One explanation is that we do not only speak individually, but also confess as Klal Yisrael, the entire people Israel. Another is that the confession is intended to remind us how many impulses, ideas - how many selves - we truly are.
Rabbi Wolpe's ultimate message is uplifting, as mine will be, but I can't get there quite as quickly as he did in the next two paragraphs. There are unhappy truths to speak first.
The fact is that we cannot hide behind the collective sins of klal yisrael. Perhaps by focusing on the sensational sins - forbidden trysts, taking bribes, oppressive interest - we can overlook the mundane ways we have failed. Foul speech, foolish talk, clever cynicism. Conspiratorial glances, stubbornness, gossip. Perhaps by creating a hierarchy of malfeasance we can excuse what we think are the lesser of these evils - gossip, empty promises, baseless hatred. But in that dark night, when the noise of the day has abated and the wave of sleep has yet to wash over you, I know that you are wondering about yourself. I know that you are asking yourself if you have been honest with yourself. I know that you are asking yourself if you are a gossip. If you are glutton. If you are an addict. If you are a bigot.
In those moments between waking and sleeping, in the middle of the night when your eyes pop open and your head fills with doubt, you ask yourself if you are unfaithful. If you are judgmental. If you are superficial. If you are abusive.
You try on every suit of clothes and hope it doesn't fit. You look for a euphemism and hope that it mitigates the coarseness of the real trait. You flip through a rolodex of explanations and beg your soul to believe them. You are too many people.
And I want to suggest to you that if you want to know what it means to be a bad Jew, then you can ask any one of those people that you worry you are. A bad Jew is less the person who shops on Shabbat than the person who neglects the poor because of unnecessary purchases. A bad Jew is less the person who drinks a glass of milk with a hot dog than the person who turns away from the hungry. A bad Jew is less the person who ignores the laws of family purity than the person who is gratified by pornography and objectifying people because of their looks.
Please, please, don't walk out of here saying Jack Moline gave you permission to have a chili cheese dog in the mall on a Saturday afternoon. You know better than that. But you may, by all means, walk out of here and say that Jack Moline did not give you permission to atone for the sliders and neglect the slanders.
But though I will criticize us all, myself first among us, for the list of behaviors and misguided justifications that are the focus of our repentance tonight and tomorrow, and though I will argue against our ritual failures serving as the scapegoat to carry away our moral failures, my purpose tonight is not to convince you of how awful you are. God forbid.
Instead I want to persuade you of how good you are, and how much better you can be if you will stop being too many people, just for a day, one day, this day. If today is the only day in twelve months that you are persuaded of your ability to set aside the sins that have haunted your dreams and weighed heavily upon your heart, if it is the only day, then you will at least acknowledge in the days between now and the next time you hear the strains of Kol Nidrei that you have the capacity to be a good Jew.
Can I tell you something funny? Most of you expect to see me wearing a kipa. (That's not the funny part.) I generally put on my kipa when I davven in the morning and leave it where I can find it. But sometimes I take it off -- when I go the gym, if it is windy outside, if I am wearing a baseball cap because it feels funny, if I am going for a haircut. Many times I have run into one or another of you having just gotten out from under my bike helmet or run to the hardware store for some yard work supplies and my head will be bare, and you say some version of, "Did you lose your yarmulke?" You expect to see me wearing a kipa and it disorients you when I am not.
By the way, sometimes it is a liability. Ann often notices when strangers spot my kipa and begin to circle, and she leans close to me to whisper, "Incoming." (That's not the funny part.)
Here's the funny part. Most of you dress in a certain way when you come to synagogue. Like me, a lot of men put on a kipa when they are in the building, even for something completely non-religious, like a meeting or to drop off forms. Some women in the shul are careful to dress a little more modestly in these quarters than they might be on the way to exercise or socialize. When I see you in unfamiliar circumstances and your head is bare or your shoulders are exposed, you don't look right to me. You look like a different person, one of those other people that you are. I see you as a good Jew most of the time, so it is disorienting to me the way it is disorienting to you when the uniform of that good Jew is incomplete.
Am I any different without that circle of crocheted fabric on my head? Are you any different because I can see a birthmark or a tattoo? Of course not. But we have the expectation of each other that, in our case, is an expectation of holiness, just a touch of holiness. Something is amiss when even that little touch is absent.
Righteousness, right behavior and right approach, is dependent on those little touches. When those missing touches aggregate they can be big, but individually they are very small indeed. The harsh word. The pitying look. The stolen kiss. The extra drink. The channel you change or the page you turn or the web site you close because you don't want to know what is on it. These are the actions that separate you from the person you hope to be. They separate you from feeling in right relationship with God. And they certainly separate you from feeling in right relationship with the people who are important in your life.
And that's what sin is -- it is what separates you from wholeness. The large transgressions, the monstrous abominations, they cause gaping holes that everyone navigates around. But the small things that just for the moment make you unrecognizable, like the rabbi without his kipa, they are the actions that incrementally separate you from one another, that separate you from God.
And that's why they bother you, because they change you almost imperceptibly. And as every small change accumulates with the others -- a forgotten "thank you," a crude remark, a withdrawal of affection as punishment for a perceived slight -- you begin to be lost to yourself. You are too many people. And most of those people, you believe, are bad Jews.
No one is immune from this affliction -- there are no saints, no pure souls. Everyone -- you and I alike -- feels fragmented and heartbroken over the inability to cohere. We have shattered into so many pieces that it feels impossible to gather them, let alone put them together again.
If only there were a way to be whole again, to be that good Jew who does not recognize forty-four different selves in an alphabetical listing of missed marks, of small shortcomings, of sins.
There is. You have come here tonight and tomorrow to be reassembled. Just as our congregation musters tonight to present itself whole and complete, all of yourselves arrive with you to this place yearning to be one again.
I have used religious language and now I use it again. The notion of one-ness is our tradition is familiar even to the most distant of Jews. God is One. God alone cannot be segmented or divided -- not into hundreds, not into 70, not into 44, not even into three. God coheres. And God presents us with the opportunity to be un-separated with a simple and gracious act of love.
It is forgiveness. We pray many times over these twenty-five hours s'lach lanu avinu ki chatanu, "forgive us, our Source, for we have sinned," and God responds, salachti kid'varekha, "I forgive you as you have asked."
Such a simple thing, forgiveness. With a simple phrase, just a word in Hebrew, every little gap is bridged, every bump is smoothed, every breach is repaired. I forgive you. With the small phrase you walk out of here at the end of a long day put back together, innocent and at one with yourself. I am not the first to point out the sacred pun of this day. At one -- atone. The Day of Atonement -- the Day of At-one-ment.
That is why you are here today -- because you know that the answer to my question is yes. Yes, you are a bad Jew. If you didn't commit all forty-four sins on pages 237 and 238, you committed enough of them to know you need to be healed. You committed enough of them to separate you from the good Jew you want to be.
Do we need this day to be forgiven? No we do not. I am not revealing any secret in saying that forgiveness is a daily opportunity. We need this day in order to forgive. We need this day to express what one local scholar calls The Big Sorry so that we know, all of us, that if forgiveness can be offered to all of us by God, it can also be offered to each of the people from whom our sins have separated us by each other.
Such a simple thing, forgiveness. It is all we need to be made whole again. If you receive it today, then you ought rightly give it tomorrow. You have the power to make someone whole. You have the ability to make the people you love less fragmented, less separated, less than hundreds, less than 70, less than 44, less than 3. You have the power to make them at-one, and in doing so complete your atonement.
Tonight, you are indeed a bad Jew. By tomorrow you will be a good Jew once more. Your chata'im will be wiped away, and if you un-separate yourself from your husband, wife or partner, from your child or parent, from your sibling, your friend, your enemy, you will be a good Jew the next day, too.
And then, with all of us having taken care of the important stuff of the day, the important stuff of life, I will feel just fine saying to the congregation: keep kosher, observe shabbes, learn more, give more and check the label. You'll find Yigdal on page 250.