October 12, 2016
Rabbi Baruch J. Cohon
Here we are again, aren’t we! Joining in doing something we don’t do all year long. Spending the entire day here, together, for a purpose we all share. What brings us here? What can this concentrated day do for us that no other religious occasion does? Not a week with special food like Passover… not an 8-day party with songs and gifts like Hanukkah… just one solid day. Why?
We know why we’re here, don’t we? We have a goal to aim for, and it takes all day to hope to reach that goal. Last night in our services, we quoted from the Book of Numbers a desperate line that Moses prayed: S’lakh na la’avon ha-am ha-zeh k’godel khas-dekha – “Please forgive the sins of this people, in Your great kindness.” And he gets the answer: Salakhti kid’va-rekha – “I have forgiven according to your words.” Later in today’s services comes the poem that starts Yashmi-eynu salakhti – “Let us hear Salakhti – I have forgiven.” That’s our goal. That’s why we are here. We want to hear – to feel – that word of forgiveness.
Of course, that’s the most important word. But remember the second word of the answer to Moses’ prayer, the word kid’varekha – literally, “According to your words.” Moses spent a whole chapter on an argument, trying to convince G-d to forgive the people of Israel, stressing that if enemy nations could see Israel punished they would conclude that Israel’s G-d was not strong enough to save them. He got no answer to those arguments. Only when he appealed to the Divine attribute of mercy did he achieve his goal. Salakhti.
How can we achieve that goal? We certainly have the same tools Moses used. We have words. We already said many of them, and sang many of them, and we’re still pursuing our goal. And we know how to do that, don’t we?
All year long we pursue goals. Different goals at different times, of course. When we were infants, we searched for warmth, and for food – a mother’s arms, a mother’s milk, a favorite blanket. As a child we searched for curiosity and fun – what’s inside the box? Isn’t the clown funny? Watch me slide down the banister! The adolescent searches for status and acceptance – athletic prowess, cool style, sexual adventure. And adults pursue wealth and fame and honor. What waits at the end of the rainbow?
Indeed we seem to be engaged in a continuous quest. All of us, all the time. Once in a while perhaps we stop and wonder: what are we really looking for?
Is it honor? Our Talmud tells us, harodef akhar ha-kavod – One who pursues honor – hakavod boreyakh mimennu – honor runs away from him. And conversely, ha-boreyakh min hakavod – One who flees from honor – hakavod rodeif akharov – honor chases him.
Well, if it’s not honor, is it wealth? Is it fame? Is it how to beat the tax code? All kinds of goals there, with totally unpredictable results. Yet we all know people who spend their lives reaching for those goals.
Today we share worship. Today we share time to reflect on how we are using our lives. We repeat the words that generations of our elders repeated to aid in our search. One key word we recite – not just today but in every daytime amida throughout the year: kadosh, kadosh, kadosh – Holy, holy, holy. Quoting the prophet Isaiah’s vision, the heavenly creatures – the seraphim – call these words out to each other to describe the Almighty. And they continue: M’lo kol ha-aretz k’vodo – the entire Earth is filled with His glory. Divine glory is not limited to Heaven; it is here on earth too. Our religion teaches us to aim for Divine attributes, to imitate what we conceive as G-d’s way. “As He is merciful, so you be merciful,” says the Talmud. “As He is just, so you be just.” And so, as He is holy, we should strive to be holy. K’doshim tih’yu – be holy, we read in the Torah, kee kadosh anee haShem – because I the L-rd am holy.
Holy? What does that mean? And why do we say it 3 times?
In English, the word Holy is related to words like “hale” and “heal” and “healthy” – indicating a condition of spiritual health. A contemporary authority, Rabbi Berl Wein, writes that “holiness is self-control.
In Hebrew, the word kadosh that we translate “holy” signifies something special. Something not to be violated. When a Jewish bridegroom puts the ring on his bride’s finger, he says harey at m’kudeshet lee – “herewith you are sanctified to me.” Sanctified – made holy – solemnly reserved. Related words like Kiddush sanctifies the Sabbath. Kaddish sanctifies memory. And the Jewish wedding is called kiddushin. Judaism itself is a kind of wedding. Our tradition speaks of the entire Jewish people as the bride of the Almighty. The Biblical Song of Songs – besides being our most beautiful love poetry – is interpreted as an allegory of the love of G-d and Israel. Thus sanctified, we are taught that we should be a “Kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
So maybe that’s our goal, the fulfilling pursuit of holiness. All right, you say, but 3 times?
Those three give us three approaches to our quest. The Aramaic translation defines them as “holy in Heaven, holy on Earth, holy forever” – concept, reality and permanence. And the Baal Shem Tov taught that human activity takes three forms: makh’shovoh, dibbur u-maiseh – thought, speech and action. We can exercise control in all three areas. Self control. All kinds of thoughts go through our brains, and we need to focus on those thoughts that lead to the holy. A wide range of words comes to our tongues; let’s try to speak those words that lead to the holy . Different actions carry out our thoughts and our words; favor those actions that lead to the holy.
So here we are today observing what we call the “holiest day in the year” together with akheynu kol beys Yisroel – our brothers of the house of Israel. What do we think of them? What do we think of each other? They have holiness in them and so do we. Yes, holiness. The secular Jew in Russia, the primitive Jew in Ethiopia, the settler in Samaria, the Hasid in Brooklyn, the Reform Jew in Arizona – we all have holiness in us.
Just recently a prominent Chabad rabbi was approached with a challenging question. What is the most important thing we say on the High Holidays? He answered: Say something good about another Jew. That is even more effective than a prayer.
What do we say about each other? Do we agree? Do we disagree? Yes to both questions. Do we argue with each other? Of course we do – we’re Jewish! But do we condemn each other? Do we deny each other the respect of a brother? No. Let’s hope we don’t. Because each of us is holy in our own way -- not “holier than thou.” Our holiness is not a pose – the proverbial “holy Joe.” Ours is an inner confidence, a sincere faith.
Maybe you know the theory that there is a ladder of Jewish observance and each of us stands on a step of that ladder. Someone who is super-observant standing ahead of me on the scale of Jewish observance is insane – and someone behind me is not really Jewish. No. We are all part of that “holy nation.”
Do you know Shmeril? Of course I know Shmeril. What do think of him? He’s honest. If he tells me something, I can believe it. Maybe Shmeril is no hero, but he is my brother – and yours. His good qualities are worth acknowledging.
And finally, what do we do about each other? Do we support each other in danger? Do we help each other to deeper knowledge, greater observance, more acceptance in the community?
Do we say “Come on, my friend, here’s a really interesting book they’ll be discussing at the Temple tonight – let’s go!”
Do we look at the calendar and see that next week is Succos and – hey, you have room in your yard, I’ll help you, let’s build a succah together!
Do we tell our dinner guest: Bring your cousin with you, we’d love to meet someone new in the community?
Words like these can bring the answer Salakhti – forgiveness for our errors, a chance to achieve our goal. Let the words we say in our prayers today carry their message into our lives tomorrow.
My friends, G’mar khasimoh tovoh – Be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.