At the risk of sounding rude, why are you here? Why are any of us here? Why do we always come together on this eve of Yom Kippur?
A week ago I asked my 10th graders that same question: why do you come to services on the High Holidays. Of the 15 or so kids who happened to be sitting in the classroom, I got about 25 different answers. Some of them said they were here to be with family. Others said they’re here to see their friends. Some of them said they love to come because of the amazing music. A couple of them mentioned some ideas of introspection. And some of them said that they came to pray. (A couple even mentioned the sermons. But I was sitting right there. What were they gonna say?) Most of them expressed some combination of the above, family, music, praying, friends, thinking, meditating.
They are all wonderful and good answers: to be with family and friends and community? To experience the music of the high holy days and find something transcendent there? Those are brilliant Jewish reasons: to be intellectually challenged and stimulated and emotionally moved. I was impressed. This is not a holiday constructed for kids. To be honest, when I was in HS and we used the old book, the maroon Gates of Repentance; I can’t say that as a teenager I really related to with the repenting part.
I remember looking at these pages in synagogue when I was a kid, and I didn’t really feel personally connected to all those Al Chet She’Chatanu sins that were listed there: For the sin that we have sinned against you
by malicious gossip, sexual immorality, gluttony,
fraud, arrogance, insolence, irreverence, hypocrisy
I don’t think most kids exactly see themselves anywhere in that list. It must look more like a list of SAT words then actual issues in their lives. Perhaps in my day if it had read, “for the sins we have send against you by wasting way too much time watching television, by annoying my little brother, by hardly cracking a book or and homework time, by occasionally doing some of the things that you know your parents really don’t want you to do behind their back’s that you’re really not going to tell them about until you are at least 35 . . .
I might have beat my chest with a bit more sincerity and enthusiasm.
But as we grow up, that strange, distant, incomprehensible list of words – year by year –becomes more and more accessible and relatable:
Gluttony? Arrogance? Gossip? Hypocrisy?
These have becomes a bit more real and relatable.
But, why were we invited here in the first place? Long ago? To get together like this on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? The answer to that question is pretty wonderful. We were invited first in Torah – and then centuries later by the rabbis – to get together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because of a brilliant core belief of our people:
That belief?: We human beings can change ourselves, we can improve ourselves. How amazing is that: we are changeable, improvable, and fixable.
This whole season of High Holidays exist because of that fundamental idea: that with self-awareness, and a commitment to work at it, and with sincerity, we can actually become better versions of ourselves.
Now that might not seem all that amazing, except that a lot of today’s cultural noise tries to tell us otherwise; and other religions traditions teach us that we are who we are. ‘Learn to live with it.’ ‘You’re not going to change.’
I think it was Popeye who expressed that point of view so brilliantly when he said, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” This is it. Never gonna change.
And certainly there are some of us here that indeed feel that way, at least at different times in our lives, who just believe that we are who we are and can’t really change that?
Some may feel:
I’m impatient, there’s not much I can do about it. I’ve always been this way. Or, ‘I’ve tried to start eating healthier 100 times, I’m just not a healthy eater.’
Or, ‘Everyone says I’m just like my uncle Fred, he was a grouch. I’m a grouch. It’s in the genes.’
‘I have a temper. That’s who I am. You want to be my friend? Learn to live with my temper.’ I yam what I yam!
Many in the world of psychology think otherwise. Dr. Douglas LaBier writes, “Though many people believe that you – specifically, your personality – is fixed. In fact, much conventional thinking in psychology holds that our personalities remain constant.
“But that’s not accurate: We’re always changing and evolving, in some way – for better or for worse. Many of us mental health professionals witness that change occurring among our patients.
“Change occurs from awareness of what aspects of our personality we want to develop, and working hard to ‘practice’ them in daily life.
Doctor Jenev Caddell wrote about the physiology, the medical science of that kind of change: “As it turns out, your brain is likely more flexible than it was ever believed to be. Researchers once thought that after a certain age, your brain was set in its ways, never to change, other than to grow old and decay. Science is now demonstrating more and more how flexible and changeable our brains actually are. “The term ‘neuroplasticity’ is a combination of the words ‘neuron’ and ‘plastic,’ referring to the approximately hundred billion nerve cells in our brains and their changeable nature.
“As it turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks, as brains can, and do change in positive ways, even well past our childhood years.”
None of this is news to the Jewish people. We might not have known the terms “neuroplasticity” or had in hand the DSM5, to figure out a diagnosis.
Instead, we’ve long had in our possession the process of teshuvah, repentance. The difficult and challenging process of changing ourselves for the better.
That’s why we’re gathered here. Always has been. Repenting, changing, improving: it’s a slow and hard process.
That’s why we don’t have just one day for Teshuvah. We have a whole season, from this past month of Elul, through Yom Kippur.
That’s why the “January 1st” kind of New Year’s resolutions tend to not really take. The secular new year’s resolution, in a sense, the pop psychology version of teshuvah.
It happens on that one day a year, usually really late at night; on TV the ball is dropping in Time Square; Guy Lombardo plays somewhere; and people are often really drunk. Not the ideal circumstances for serious introspection and personal growth.
Changing ourselves can’t be done quickly:
There was a funny old movie called The End from 1978, starring Burt Reynolds:
There’s a great scene that shows just how ineffective flash-in-the-pan repentance can be.
Reynolds character is a self-centered but redeemable guy, who is mistakenly given a diagnosis of a terminal disease. Feeling despondent, he decides to take his own life by swimming straight out to sea until he drowns. Predictably, when he’s really far out in the ocean, and exhausted, he has a change of heart and starts to negotiate with God to save his life.
He starts towards shore and yells: “I want to live! I want to live! I’m never going to make it. Help me Lord! I promise I won’t sin anymore.
“Oh God, let me live and I promise I’ll follow every one of the 10 Commandments. I shalt not kill. I shalt not commit adultery. . . . I shall learn the rest of the 10 Commandments! And then obey every one of them! Just get me back to the beach!
“Help me make it. I’ll give you 50% of everything I make. 50% God. I want to point out that nobody gives 50%.
(The shore is now in sight. And reachable.)
“I think I’m gonna make it. You’re not going to regret this Lord. I’m going to follow every commandment. I’ll see my parents more often. No more cheating in business . . . (once I get rid of those 9 acres in the desert.)
“And I’m going to start donating that 10%. Right away. I know I said 50% Lord, but 10% is a start. And if you don’t want your 10%, don’t take it.
“I know that it was you that saved me. But come to think of it, it was you who got me here in the first place.”
He collapses safely on the beach. Not terribly repentant, not all that changed.
Real change can’t happen that fast.
900 years ago, Maimonides gave us the most brilliant and still applicable work on teshuvah in his Hilchot Teshuvah in his Mishnah Torah. on repenting and changing for the better.
He made it very clear that it is difficult and takes time.
He beautifully spells out the process. The sincerity needed; the probability that we might well slip up; the ways to test over time if the changes we’ve made are real and lasting; he writes about the ways that we, as family and friends of the person working on Tshuvah can be supportive and helpful; how community can be supportive; how different repentance can be in your youth and middle age and different again when we are older;
Maimonides words demonstrate a magnificent and deeply accurate understanding of human nature. His words provide core and essence of Teshuvah found in our Machzor.
More than 1500 years before Maimonides, the Torah gave us a great story of changing oneself, with a bit of a surprise to it. It’s the story of Noah: It’s another one of those biblical stories that where a key character learns a profound lesson at its end.
At the beginning of the story God is very angry at all of humanity, because God saw, “that all human beings were corrupt and acting violently all over the earth.”
So as we know God decided to destroy all of humanity and have a fresh start with Noah and his family.
When we come to the end of the story, there’s a great scene of Teshuvah, of repentance, of change.
God says, “Never again will I bring destruction to the world because of what human beings do.” God continues and says, in essence; Guys, I seem to have made a mistake. I didn’t fully get you human beings; and apparently the human mind tends to do evil things from youth onward. So I promise to act differently from now on: I swear that never again will I destroy all living beings as I have just done. As long as the world exists . . . life . . . will never end.”
In the story of Noah, God learned something. God changed. Human beings didn’t. They were corrupt before it was a flood and they were corrupt after.
As we are taught, we are created in God’s image. So, if the all-powerful Creator of the universe can come to a new realization and change, then we human beings created in God’s image must be able to change as well.
ֶא ְהי ֶה ֲא ֶשׁר“ ,When Moses asked for God’s true and full name, God responded .I shall be what I shall be”, forever becoming, forever changing“ ,” ֶא ְהי ֶה
So when we come here for myriad good reasons; to be with family, to see friends, to be transformed by music, to be stirred emotionally. May we not lose sight of the original and ever-present reason we gather on Yom Kippur:
Teshuvah; to repent, to change, to grow, to become more fully human and perhaps a bit closer to the Divine.