Humility and Repentance and the Love of God

Yom Kippur Kol Nidre Sermon 5777/2016
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though it is a serious occasion, I would like to begin with that old joke about the rabbi and the hazan praying on Yom Kippur. Each was really getting into the Hineni, “Here I am, standing before the Holy Ark, hoping to be a pure vessel for the congregation’s prayers but knowing that I am unworthy. I am unworthy. I am unworthy. I am unworthy.”

The rabbi said it with full kavannah. The hazan chanted it with full emotional flourish. And, then they noticed on the side that the shamas praying fervently, too. “I am unworthy. I am unworthy. I am unworthy!”

At which point, the hazan whispers to the rabbi, “Look at that schlemiel! He thinks he’s unworthy, too!”

Though the theme of this day is our unworthiness, we can often get distracted. We can focus on a hundred other things, avoiding the real issue at hand:

חָטָֽאנוּ, עָוִֽינוּ, פָּשַֽׁעְנוּ.
We have gone astray. We have sinned. We have transgressed.

Most of us realize intellectually that we are not living our lives as well as we could or should, but moving us from that intellectual nod to the fullness of teshuvah takes some work. We can only begin this holy process when we realize the fact that we could have done better, and it is the work of our Machzor to coax us along this path.

One of the techniques is to get us to remember our indiscretions. Notice the wording of the mitzvah about wearing tzitzit on the corners of our garments: 

 וְהָיָה לָכֶם לְצִיצִת וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ 
וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹת יְהֹוָה וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם 
“They should be tzitit for you so that you see them and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them,”
וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם 
אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם:
“that you should not go about after your own heart and your own eyes after which you used to go wantonly astray.”1

The mitzvah assumes a history of misbehavior and uses it. Though we may try to put our mistakes behind us and focus on the future, the sense of this passage—and, of course, our High Holy Days—is that remembrance of our sins is really important. It is not just enough to say “I made mistakes.” We are instructed to confess our sins: to list them and to think seriously about the damage our indiscretions and evil have wreaked upon the world. When we pray the words “after which we used to go wantonly astray,” we are being instructed to reflect upon our shameful memories and use them as inspiration for improvement.

Sometimes, we see this repentance theme of our High Holy Days as a negative or unpleasant part of the experience and prefer Rosh Hashanah and  Yom Kippur to be more uplifting. “Give us reasons to feel good about being Jewish rather than yelling at us.” Fair enough. No one wants to get yelled at. And  yet, is there not a poignant connection between these two themes? Is not repentance one of the best ways to feel God’s love—and the special positive power of Judaism?

To make my point, I would like to bring in an unexpected source, Pope Francis. I recently had the opportunity to read his book, The Name of God is Mercy, and found some insights that, while Christian, are also very compatible with our own Jewish spirituality. What he says about God’s compassion and the nature of repentance is both close to what our own sources teach and instructive in a charmingly spiritual way.

In speaking of God’s interest in us and our repentance, Pope Francis quotes one of this predecessors, Albino Luciani (later Pope John Paul I) who writes: “God waits. Always. And it is never too late. That’s what he’s like, that’s how he is...he’s a father. A father waiting at the doorway, who sees us when we are still far off, who is moved, and who comes running toward us, embraces us, and kisses us tenderly....Our sin is like a jewel that we present to him to obtain the consolation of forgiveness... Giving a gift of jewels is a noble thing to do, and it is not a defeat but a joyous victory to let God win!”

Hold that image for a moment: our sin is a gift that we can give to God, allowing God the joy and pleasure of granting us forgiveness. And, of course, there is the metaphor that God is our parent--as we would say אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָׁמַיִם orאָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ . A parent wants to love his/her child--does love the child and wants desperately to be in meaningful contact. And, the parent wants the child to live up to his/her potential for goodness. It is a natural and beautiful and loving desire.

Sin is never a good thing, but the possibility of rapprochement with God can turn a moral failing into an opportunity. Continuing from Pope Francis’s book: “At times I have surprised myself by thinking that a few very rigid people would do well to slip a little, so that they could remember that they are sinners and thus meet (God). I think back to the words of God’s servant John Paul I, who during a Wednesday audience said, ‘The Lord loves humility so much that sometimes he permits serious sins. Why? In order that those who committed these sins may, after repenting, remain humble. One does not feel inclined to think oneself half a saint, half an angel, when one knows that one has committed serious faults.’” A few days later, on another occasion, the very same Pope reminded us that Saint Francis de Sales spoke of ‘our dear imperfections,’ saying, ‘God hates faults. On the other hand, however, in a certain sense he loves faults, since they give him an opportunity to show his mercy and us an opportunity to remain humble and to understand and to sympathize with our neighbors’ faults.’”

This last sentiment sounds very Jewish to me, but, of course, ours is not the only religion that teaches empathy and sympathy and loving our neighbor. (We might have invented it, but others have wisely picked up on our theme!)

As the Pope explains it, “The more conscious we are of our wretchedness and our sins, the more we experience the love and infinite mercy of God among us...”

This is all to say that perhaps our laundry list of sins deserves another look. When we say

 עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָֽאנוּ לְפָנֶֽיךָ,

we are not only speaking of what we or our neighbors have done wrong; we are also being given an opportunity to realize our wretchedness, to feel God’s love and yearning for our companionship, and to draw close to the possibility of holiness.

You may be surprised at my use of the word wretchedness. I am a little surprised myself. Though we Jews readily admit our sinfulness, most of us do not employ this kind of terminology. It is harsh and perhaps demeaning. It does not speak to the image of God in which we are all created. And, yet, is not the great disconnect between our holy potential and our less-than-perfect performance the very reason we gather in prayer and repentance? As we shall read in our machzor:

"There is that in us which darkens the soul. Called to a life of righteousness, we rebel: arrogance possesses us. The passions that rage within us drown the voice of conscience: good and evil, virtue and vice, love and hate contend for the mastery of our lives. Again and again we complain of the struggle, forgetting that the power to choose is the glory and greatness of our being. When we succumb, life loses its beauty, and within us sounds the voice of judgment: Where are you? How you have fallen, O children of the Most High!"

When we recite our sins—each category beginning with

עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָֽאנוּ לְפָנֶֽיךָ ,

what kind of attitude do we bring to the process? Do we approach the list of sins with a kind of confidence that can border on arrogance? “These sins don’t apply to me.” Or, do we read them from the depths of our neuroses, self-indulgently assuming guilt for every evil in the world? Or, do we read them carefully, slowly, considering the ways that these general categories touch on our own indiscretions and moral failings?  

Traditionally, the word חֵטְא/sin referred to disobedience to the Divine will, to the mitzvot that God commanded. In the modern Judaism of personal autonomy, we understand it differently. We are given the freedom to decide which mitzvot help to us connect to God—and which ones do not, but this does not mean that we cannot sin. For us, sin is deviation from the best path, the path we know to be true and righteous. Sin is when we fall away from our higher selves, when we fail to live up to our own standards and belief. 

Some devotional writings speak of sin as separating from God: from the consciousness that we are a part of God. We have it in us to be God’s hands in the world. When we fail in this holy undertaking, it is a sin—a separation from godliness.

How do we know when we have sinned? For many of us, we hear an internal voice, the one ingrained in our minds by our parents and teachers and God—the ones who raised us, trained us, and expect the best from us. Elijah described this as the still, small voice of conscience. 
At a certain level, we could think of this persistent moral voice as a kind of spiritual personal trainer. Sometimes, the continual nudging can be too much, and sanity or practicality needs to set limits to our aspirations. But, sometimes, we need a nudge, or a wake-up call, or a moral kick in the pants. Only we can make the necessary judgments—about when we are doing okay and when we need to put some more energy into living a moral life, but we are blessed with a variety of reminders, and the High Holy Days is one of those blessings. 

The spiritual message for our souls today is twofold. We can do greatness, and we can really mess things up. The tzitzit on the tallit remind us of both. We should not go about so wantonly, sinning the ways we used to do. Rather, we should be holy unto our God: קְדשִׁים לֵאלֹהֵינוּ!
Is is possible—despite our wretchedness.