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Yom Kippur 5777 – Rabbi Celia Surget

In 1955, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote the following words: “As civilization advances the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Humankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.”[1]

As we look around us, observe the year past, consider all that has happened and try to look ahead to what could be, it might be tempting to interpret Heschel’s words in a bleek and daunting way. And on a day like this one, where so much of the language invites us to focus on the less attractive aspects of our persona, of our communal identities, it might feel odd, perhaps out of place or even inappropriate to choose to focus on our achievements and our successes as a way of engaging with the process of teshuva, the idea of returning, of turning on ourselves to consider our past and how it might affect our future. With this process we are invited to take into consideration all that has brought us to a specific moment, and to take action, to be proactive, and claim what lies ahead. We are confronted to our own image, our own reflection, and must learn to embrace it.

One of my favourite authors is the 17th century French playwright Moliere. Through his work, especially his comedies, his satires really, he described and explored in depth the customs of his time, he painted the portrait of his society as he saw it, and was particularly keen to single out the bourgeoisie, the upper class of whom he was especially critical- their aspirations to ranks of nobility, the place of women in society, the practice of arranged marriage. However, despite this, his plays were very popular with the very people he was criticising, except with the Church and the religious intellectuals Inspiring himself from the Comedia Dell’Arte, he combined those elements with the more specifically French comedy traits, and created individual characters, of complex psychology that rapidly became stereotypes, and are still used today in the French language to describe moments or individuals.

In two of his plays, “The Imaginary Invalid” and the “Physician in spite of himself”, “Le medecin malgre lui”, Moliere offers a stinging criticism of 17th century French medicine- essentially, and without giving away the whole plot, in both plays, an ordinary, untrained person has to pretend to be a physician, so that in the end, love can triumph. I realise I have just given the endings away, but I assure you, that there is so much more do the plays, that I have not really ruined it that much. This untrained person dresses like a physician, speaks like a physician and through their character, the spectator is meant appreciate the absurdity of some of the medical profession- that essentially, if someone dresses the part and speaks the talk, they fit the image. A scary thought.

Perhaps it was the absurdity of the situation that generated such success or maybe the inability of the upper class to confront itself to the reality that Moliere was criticising. However a common thread through all of his plays, or a recurring them seems to be the focus on the façade, the right language, to the detriment of reflection and true action.

While searching for a modern example of the archetype of the physician, I was presented with the perfect example to illustrate some of what I am speaking about today. Apparently, you can put a suit on someone, slap a red or blue tie and on them, give them a microphone that may or may not be working, and call them a presidential candidate. Whether we like it or not, hopefully not, and whether we agree with much or hopefully little of what he is saying- we cannot deny his current position- he is a presidential candidate. He is wearing the uniform, speaking the words and has been elevated to the position of nominee. Another, scarier thought.

As we journey through Yom Kippur, we are offered a number of time the opportunity to confess our mistakes, to name our wrongdoings and our errors, whether out loud, silently individually, or communally. As we read through the suggested lists of possible sins that are listed in the machzor, we might also take the time to reflect on our year, on those moments that we were not that proud of, those moments we wish we had acted differently, and perhaps think ahead of how to not feel that same way again. Or do we? Let’s be honest, it is so easy to let ourselves be carried through the liturgy of Yom Kippur, to go through the motions, we wear the clothes, real or metaphorical, we speak the words, but are we truly, sincerely and honestly engaging with the process that is asked from us on this day?

Are we talking the talk, or are we actually walking the walk?

Over the last 10 days, a number of us have been engaging in some online text study with our new study session: ten texts for ten days (it even has its own email address). One of the more challenging texts was from the Mishneh Torah, by Maimonides,

Repentance and Yom Kippur atone only for sins, such as eating a forbidden food, having prohibited intercourse, etc, which are committed against God. Sins such as injuring, cursing, stealing, etc, which are committed against one’s fellow are never atoned for until one has paid any necessary fines to the person against whom one sinned, and discussed it with them. Even though one may have paid back any due money one still has to discuss the sin with them and ask for forgiveness. Even if one teased someone else just verbally one has to appease them and make up for it, in order to be forgiven. If the person against whom one had sinned did not want to forgive then one has to ask them for forgiveness in front of three of their friends. If they still don’t want to forgive then one asks in front of six, and then in front of nine friends, and if they still don’t want to forgive one simply leaves and goes away. Anybody who does not want to forgive is themselves a sinner. If one had to ask one’s Rabbi for forgiveness, one should keep approaching even a thousand times until one receives forgiveness [2]!

The process that Maimonides describes is not for the faint hearted, and certainly challenges us to reach out beyond our own comfort zones. It requires deep sincerity and unfaltering commitment to the task. We know what an “apology” can look like, one in which the talk is talked, a “fauxpology” as the twitter hashtag calls it. But an apology, a true attempt at teshuvah, requires walking the walk. The words “I am sorry” are difficult to articulate, there is fear, there is pride, there might also be hurt, and so many other reasons that make it so difficult for us to say them.

On this day, when such a difficult process is asked of us, are we being actually being true and honest with ourselves? Are we taking them time to indulge ourselves and to really observe the people that we are? Are we exclusively focusing on our errors, as part of teshuvah or are we taking the time to list what is not in our machzor- our successes, our qualities, the positive impact we had on others and ourselves. That journey is as important as the more traditional one- to return, to appreciate who we fully are so that we can learn and grow, and measure that progress in more than simply negative comparisons. Instead of using “I am no longer” to be able to say “I am still”.

And let us have the strength, the courage to truly embrace that journey- it is not about becoming arrogant or self-absorbed but rather, we have the obligation to go beyond the niceties with which we acknowledge the positives aspects of our personalities. There are the conventional responses to compliments and congratulations, and how often do we dismiss those, out of a sense of obligation, of expectation. We talk the talk of welcoming the positive, but do we actually walk the walk? Do we well and truly let ourselves be washed over by the warmth and positivity, and truly embrace and welcome it as it is deserved?

Moliere’s comedies always have what we could call today a happy ending- all is well, wrongs have been righted, the couple kept apart is finally reunited, and the character who represents whatever aspect of society which Moliere has chosen to criticise has seen the light, almost as if to remind the spectator that all is not lost, that though there are some dysfunctional aspects of the society, justice, goodwill and determination will somehow triumph. A naïve message perhaps but such an important one- one which expresses hope and aspiration for his contemporaries.

If we look back over the past year, we have seen so many examples of individuals and communities choosing to stand up, to go beyond the talk, to embrace action, whether in supporting the refugees stuck in a camp in Calais, or those fleeing war-torn countries. Some chose to stand up and act against the vile discourse of an ignorant and arrogant man, others walked in protests of terrorism. There are so many ways in which we as a society have taken steps forward, and let this not stand as an illustration of the way we re-acted as opposed to having acted proactively.

“As civilization advances the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Humankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation”

I would like to conclude with a vidui, a confession, written by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a modern orthodox rabbi, who offers us a play on the traditional vidui, Amshamnu in which we confess our darkest, deepest sins. With this version, we are, dare I say it, forced to acknowledge our strengths and our successes, and confess them out loud. Communally, yes, but let it be with the hope that our voices will be heard above all others, so that we and those around us can celebrate with us and us with them.

דִּבַּרְנוּ יֹפִי
We have loved,
We have blessed,
We have grown,
We have spoken positively.
טִפַּחְנוּ אֱמֶת
We have raised up,
We have shown compassion,
We have acted enthusiastically,
We have been empathetic,
We have cultivated truth.
יָעַצְנוּ טוֺב,
קִוִּינוּ לָאָרֶץ
We have given good advice,
We have respected,
We have learned,
We have forgiven,
We have comforted,
We have been creative,
We have stirred,
We have been spiritual activists,
We have been just,
We have longed for Israel.
We have been merciful,
We have given full effort,
We have supported,
We have contributed,
We have repaired.[3]

[1] God in Search of Man

[2] Mishneh Torah Hilchot Teshuvah 2;9

[3] Rabbi Avi Weiss – Vidui


Celia Surget


Radlett Reform Synagogue.

Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781