September 25, 2012

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ

As we come together this holiest night of the year and begin our 24 hours of fasting, of living without material sustenance, I wonder what the proper title for this holiday should be.   We call Yom Kippur by several names: Yom HaKippurim, The Day of Atonements, Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, and Yom Tzom Kippur, the Fast Day of Repentance.  Tonight is Erev Kol Nidrei, the Eve of the Kol Nidrei melody.  All are appropriate names for this completion of the Ten Days of Repentance, the Aseret Yemai Teshuvah, yet another title for this season.  But after examining all of these names, I came to realize that for this particular Day of Atonement the most popular film of the year had given us a new one—and the ideal name for Yom Kippur 5773 should be, “The Hunger Games.”

Actually, beyond the obvious joke, the Hunger Games is a decent analogy for Yom Kippur.  This dystopian film, based on the hyper-popular book series, describes a world in which young people fight to the death to bring honor, and food, to their hungry districts.  It is a true battle for survival.  So, too, on this Day of Atonement, we traverse a minefield of spiritual and personal efforts at introspection, struggle to overcome our own personal demons, and only after the end of the game, the triumphant Ne’ilah moment at the climax of our own Hunger Games, do we finally get to eat…

Understanding Yom Kippur as a kind of test, a process through which we explore our own characters and find out where we are wanting, and how we can change and improve—with or without our survival actually being at stake—is very powerful.  It is also a very, very difficult thing to do well.  It is not easy to look at our own actions, and our own character, and see ourselves clearly.  We are not unbiased in that examination, after all.  What is it poet Robert Burns said?  “Would some power the Giftie’ gie’ us/to see ourselves as others see us.”  It is a great challenge to see oneself honestly.

Because human nature pushes us to deceive ourselves about who we really are.  A tiny example: most of us, when asked our height, suddenly become an inch or so taller than we really are.  Most of us, when asked our weight, suddenly lose 5 or even 10 pounds.  Best diet in history…  And then, when we go for an annual physical, we always say, “It’s those darned doctor’s scales…” 

We are very romantic about ourselves, aren’t we?  We remember what we looked like 5 years ago, or 10, and how fast we could run or how strong we were or how well we could dance.  And deep inside we believe we still are that person right now...  Almost all of us think of ourselves as better than we are.  But until we can shed some of that self-deception, until we can look at our actions and our inactions and view our failures and successes for what they really represent, we are not really doing Teshuvah, and our Yom Kippur will not succeed. 

Because atonement, and Yom Kippur itself, is a process of prayer, introspection, and self-analysis that insists that we face reality with the clearest possible vision. 

How often do you have the perception that you are better than you really are?  How many times have you fooled yourself about your own deeds?  Most of us really didn’t do anything so terrible last year that we can’t rationalize it away.  Most of us live in a kind of comfort bubble, believing that our small good acts offset any alleged imperfections we might have.  Alleged imperfections, of course.

Yom Kippur is here as a reality check.  Look, friends: you are probably not as good as you think you are.  Neither am I.  Neither is almost anyone.  The test over these 24 hours, the real purpose of this Day of Atonement, is to find out who we are right now.  And we do that by looking at what it is we have done over the last 12 months.  Because handsome is as handsome does, as the old proverb has it: not you are what you eat, but you are what you do, and did.

The tendency to self-delusion is ubiquitous in society.  In spring training every baseball team believes it can win the pennant.  Every college football team in training camp thinks it can beat Alabama.  Lance Armstrong and Roger Clemens probably still believe at some level that they didn’t really do steroids.  And some of us genuinely think that we were too generous in our gift to the High Holy Day Appeal…

But sooner or later you have to realize that, as two-time Super Bowl-winning football coach Bill Parcells said, “You are what your record says you are.”  On Yom Kippur we look at our real live record, as it truly stands.  Once we have done that we can start to change our actions to match our ideals. 

Last week I was asked why it is that the Torah decreed that the Day of Atonement should take place 10 days after the beginning of the new year. Why not do teshuvah first, and then start the new year fully atoned, clean, pure?  Why not Yom Kippur first and Rosh HaShanah afterwards? 

Besides the accountant’s answer—you can’t atone for the past year’s sins until the year is completely over; you can’t close the books until after the end of the moral fiscal year, if you would—there is another, more perceptive explanation. 

You see, first God needs to get our attention, to shake us out of our cocoon of self-satisfaction.  On Rosh HaShanah we began the process of examining our lives, and started to become more honest about ourselves and our lives. Rosh HaShanah was the Yom HaDin, the day of judgment, our day in court.  Tonight and tomorrow, on Yom Kippur, we are now in the appellate process, standing before the Divine Supreme Court arguing our case.  We still have the chance to avert an evil decree, the opportunity to turn a kind of spiritual death sentence into a renewed message of hope, renewal, and spiritual cleansing.  But that means we need to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth: about ourselves, about our relationships, about our commitments, about our actions.

That time for honesty is now, on Yom Kippur.  And the purpose of these Hunger Games is to recognize our own record last year, accept it for what it is, and dedicate ourselves to improving that record in this still fresh 5773 year.

May you each be blessed with the powerful gift of self-honesty over this Day of Atonement.  And may your teshuvah, your repentance and return, help make this an honest year of blessing, goodness, and life.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah. 

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