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Yom Kippur Alternative Sermon


                A question is asked by the rabbis: Two people are in a dark room. One person knows that the room is dark but does nothing about it. The other person doesn’t even realize that the room is dark. Who is worse off? The answer, says our rabbis, is that the person who doesn’t even know that the room is dark is worse off because he can’t even take the time to turn on the light.

                So much of our lives is spent in a dark room — and we don’t even realize it. Before too long we will miss the opportunity to turn on the light. If Rosh Hashanah is our wake up call, then Yom Kippur is our final chance to get out of bed and turn the light on. Often times, we experience life as a wonderful gift, full of blessings, but not too long after that, our moods dampen. Suddenly, we feel our gifts have been mere illusions — as if we did something wrong and deserve punishment.

                We try to find meaning by looking at popular culture, which is full of images of what we “should” look like - plenty of false advertisements that promise a quick fix to rid ourselves of perceived defects on the surface of our souls.

                But today, on this sacred day, we need to turn the light on. We need to turn the light on ourselves and on our actions. We need to turn the light on all the many blessings that we have been given — and we need to resolve to make changes.

                The negative force that surrounds us all of the time — known in Hebrew as the “yetzer harah,” the evil inclination — exists to make us think that good and evil are external forces that affect us. While bad things do often happen to all of us, Judaism teaches that everything that happens to us happens for a reason and is good. We just might not be able to see it or understand it. Like a beautiful tapestry that is woven together, we can see the design on the front end. That’s how God sees the world. But if we look behind the tapestry and notice all the frayed edges, the stitching, the apparent chaos and lack of order, that’s how we perceive this world.

                Sometimes we play a game with our own evil inclination that goes like this: “If I give in to this impulse, just this once, then I will never do it again. I will become more motivated to do better and make more productive changes in my life.” Just a few more calories, just one more cigarette, I’ll start my workouts on Monday.

                And, yet, the reality is that giving in to our negative impulses, doesn’t help us make any positive changes. In fact, it has the opposite effect. We simply shut ourselves down and convince ourselves that change is impossible. But this is exactly why we are each given a yetzer harah — so we can overcome it.

                Let’s make a commitment on this Yom Kippur to change our thoughts. By changing our thoughts, our actions will follow. Let’s remind ourselves of not just the negative forces that seem to weigh us down all the time — but let’s focus on the divine sparks of light that lie deep within our souls. Let’s turn the light on them.

                Judaism teaches that it is through the work of our own hands that positive changes can be made. The work need not be grand or large — but small changes, small improvements can have a huge impact and actually transform the world. Jewish mysticism teaches that our ten individual fingers correlate to the ten emanations that God spoke to create the world. Our fingers are designed to complete the process of creation — to make this world complete.

                Our Yetzer Harah plays another trick on us too. It makes us think that making any changes in our lives would be a waste of time because of perceived obstacles in our paths. “I don’t have time to make this change.” “I don’t have enough support to make this change.” “I can’t change because I am the way that God made me.” We imagine obstacles that are not really there. We must rise above these excuses and illusions and strive to make changes that can help us combine our physical needs with our spiritual needs. This is the message of Judaism, to infuse the spiritual with the physical. Our symbol of the Star of David reflects this. One triangle pointing up toward the spiritual dimensions, and another triangle pointing down to our physical world. Judaism is the practice of blending the two triangles.

                Even an act as seemingly insignificant as kindling Shabbat candles on a regular basis can have an enormous impact on us. This small, quick act, when practiced with the proper intentions, can make us feel not only closer to our families and appreciative of the blessings in our lives, but can also more closely connect us to God. Put a reminder on your smartphone or download a Hebrew calendar, and mark it as a recurrent event.

                Are there other rituals you are hoping to take on this year? Discuss it with your family. Choose one thing that each of you can take on in this new year. Come up with a goal and allow yourselves a reasonable time to reach it. Slowly and thoughtfully put your goals into practice so they become consistent.

                Old habits die hard. This is human nature, but it is human nature for a reason — so that those who choose to rise above human nature, to really make the effort, can be rewarded with even greater insights, greater truth, and more profound meaning in their lives. Our Jewish tradition is filled with prophets, leaders, kings, and judges who did just that. They started no different from any one of us.

                There is a saying that it is easier to study and memorize the entire Talmud and all of its commentary than to change even one of our negative traits. And, it has also been taught that the loudest sound in the universe is the sound of a habit being broken. Judaism recognizes how difficult making changes can be.

                Clearly, the odds are stacked against us. But instead of being consumed with the "should haves" and "could haves," instead of having our Yetzer Harahs control us, let us be the ones in control. And through our conduct, let us teach others.

                Perhaps it is our hope that as parents, teachers or role models we wish to emphasize the importance of treating others with profound respect. Perhaps we want to take on new challenges of refraining from gossip, from cursing, from saying anything negative around other people. If we model these particular behaviors, then they become contagious. According to social economists, modeling actions helps them become habitual. Moral and ethical habits are positive enhancements to who we are as individuals. This is what Adonai asks of us — and this is the true meaning of the High Holidays - to cultivate and develop our relationship with the Eternal, while staying true to ourselves.

                Judaism is not "Pollyannaish." We can’t ignore those evil impulses, and often times we give in to them. Our Yom Kippur liturgy is full of seeking forgiveness for these transgressions. We can be selfish, arrogant, and neurotic. After all, we are human. But our goals should be to keep these evil impulses in check — to rise above them. To do so, it helps to carve out sacred times in our days in the midst of all the superficiality, materiality, profanity, and other mundane experiences that occupy so much of our culture’s physical and emotional energy. Judaism teaches us how important it is to unplug and let go.

                There is a Chasidic teaching that says that each person should walk around with two slips of paper in our pockets. One paper should read, 'it is for my sake that the world was created,' and the other should read, 'I am but dust and ashes.' I would add that we should always strive to be in between these two extremes. We certainly need to stand strong behind our own convictions, even as we recognize the sacred sparks in all that is within us and before us.

                Self-reflection and change do not come easy. Judaism is a lifestyle aimed at making us wrestle. Sometimes we have to be in these uncomfortable places. We need to wrestle with ourselves, and we must wrestle with God. It is through this process that we begin to perfect ourselves and rise above our Yetzer Harah.

                It is a seemingly Herculean task before us. But, we also have an incredibly sacred and rich opportunity. Let this be the time when we ignite those sparks. Let this be the time to turn on the light. What are the goals we can accomplish in this coming year? What new goals can we take on? How can we get there? What will we need to assist us in effecting positive change? Who can lend us support and advice?

                Let us use the words from the prophet Jonah as our guide, "God, I know that you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment." One positive step at a time, with one finger and one toe, slowly we can emerge from the darkness that fills our world and truly make this a sweet and meaningful new year. Ken Yi Hi Ratzon.

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