October 11, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
There is something surprising about a Jewish year that begins in October. Mostly, it’s that we expect Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur to fall in September. Last year, for example, the beginning of the 5776 year, Rosh HaShanah was in the expected range, September 15th; Yom Kippur was September 23rd. By this time, October 11th, we were nearly done with Sukkot. Three years ago, in 2013, Rosh HaShanah actually began September 4th, and Yom Kippur was September 13th. So of course this year everyone is saying that the High Holy Days are so late… especially Yom Kippur. October 11th and 12th! That’s much too late, rabbi.
Actually, I kind of agree with writer Mitch Albom, of Tuesdays with Morrie fame: he says, “It’s never too late or too soon. It’s when it’s supposed to be.”
That is, Rosh HaShanah always begins on the 1st of Tishrei, and Yom Kippur comes on the 10th of Tishrei, according to a Jewish calendar established more than 1500 years ago. Rabbi Hillel haNasi, the president of the Sanhedrin, balanced the astronomical cycles of the moon, sun, and earth and created most of the remarkable Hebrew Calendar we still use today. It has been adjusted several times, most recently in the Middle Ages, but it has served our people all around the world through the better part of two millennia. I think we can safely assume that this is the correct date for Yom Kippur 5777. It’s when it’s supposed to be.
And yet it seems late…
Which may be the most appropriate way to think about it anyway. You see, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, this grand conclusion to our great Days of Awe, is when we finally have to admit to ourselves that, in our own lives, it’s late. We had all of last year to do things well. We had all of last year to do the right thing. We had all of last year to heal our relationships, to apologize for what we did wrong, to come back to God. We had the whole month of Elul to begin our teshuvah, to work on ourselves and our lives. And then in this brand new year we have even had ten more days to focus on repentance.
So by the time we come to Kol Nidrei Eve, it really is late.
Late, but not too late.
Because the central idea of Yom Kippur is that it’s late and therefore it’s time to return. Time to return to the best within us. Time to return home. Time to return to those we love.
Because it’s never too late to begin to make things right. No matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong road, it is never too late to turn around. No matter how estranged you have become from those you love, you have one more chance to return, to repair, to restore. Yom Kippur gifts you with that opportunity. Yom Kippur gives each of us that chance. We can try again.
The great comic actor, Gene Wilder, passed away recently. He created many memorable roles, Leo Bloom in “The Producers”, Young Frankenstein, “The Waco Kid” in Blazing Saddles, and of course the Polish rabbi in The Frisco Kid. As a college student, I met him on the set of that film, for which my dad taught him to daven; whenever I see that movie and hear him praying the weekday morning service, Shachris, I hear my dad… Gene Wilder once said, “I love the art of acting, and I love film, because you always have another chance if you want it. You know… if this isn't going well… you could say - let's stop. Let's start over again...”
I think of Yom Kippur in that way. It’s like reshooting the scene. It’s a chance to restart, to try to get it right this time.
Maybe we didn’t get it right last year. Maybe we still haven’t made it right with our spouses, our children, our parents, our siblings, our friends. Our God, even. Maybe, for some of those relationships, it feels like the first take didn’t work.
Yom Kippur is here to give us the chance to start again. This Day of Atonement makes it possible for each of us to try one more time, with all our hearts, to return to those we love. To return to the best we can be. To return to God.
May your teshuvah on this great Day of Atonement be fervent and sincere. May your tefilah ascend to God unencumbered by hesitation or embarrassment.
May you be inspired to do tzedakah in this new year with generosity and justice.
And may you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.
It’s late, but it’s not too late. Now is the time.
G’mar chatimah tovah