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Yom Kippur

September 25, 2007

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein

The new year we began just last week stretches before us like an empty canvas and we pause to reflect before it. What are we going to paint on it this year? What will we write upon it? How do we make a difference with our lives? What really matters? It is a fresh start, a new beginning and, like the school kids’ brand-new, blank notebooks, for me it comes with excitement and enthusiasm. How can I fill it, and fill it well?

This year I am concerned about the tenor of our conversations. In an age of 24/7 communication, we often don’t stop to think about the impact of our words in the political world, in our work world, in our congregations or in our families. We forget to take time to think before we speak. We have grown too accustomed to the soundbite. We write emails and instant messages without taking time to reread them to make sure they say what we mean before we hit “Send.” We allow our children to post to social networking sites like myspace.com and Facebook which can be wonderful tools for making friends and building communities, but too often can be used to be mean and to ostracize others. We have forgotten the adage our mothers taught: that if we don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. This is not a totally new phenomenon. When we look at the “al heyt” prayer, the list of sins, more of them have to do with speech and communication than any other category.

This year Yom Kippur is on Shabbat. Traditionally, the husband reads Proverbs 31 – Eyshet Chayil – A Woman of Valor – to his wife. In my home we use it as a check list for the week. Yes, I gave food to my workers and I shared what I had with the poor. Yes, I provided for my family. Yes, I worked hard from morning until night and “did not eat the bread of idleness.” But then we get to “she opens her mouth with wisdom and the law of kindness is upon her tongue.” Every week I struggle with this one and I have to admit, “No, not yet.” Unfortunately, the people who I hurt most with my words are my husband and my child who still rise up and call me blessed. This is another example of the ideal that words matter. They count.

Mishnah Yoma 8:9 teaches that for sins against G-d, Yom Kippur atones, but for transgressions of one human being against another, Yom Kippur cannot atone until peace has been made, one with another. It does not tell us how to do it.

Teshuvah, a difficult word to translate, but similar to returning, repenting, atoning, is the real, hard work that the holiday is about: Acknowledging the wrong, asking forgiveness, making restitution, promising to not do it again. This is difficult. Apologizing is difficult. It means acknowledging we made a mistake, that we missed the mark. It means saying I’m sorry, es tut mir leid. It means not doing it again. This is never easy. Songwriters understand this. A quick search on iTunes identified more than forty pop songs that have “I’m sorry” as a lyric.

Perhaps you have heard this story, but it is so good, it is worth repeating on this auspicious day. It is a story about a woman who liked to tell tales about her friends. Her neighbors did not like their gossiping friend. They decided to ask the rabbi’s advice. The rabbi asked the woman, “Why do you make up stories about your friends?”

She answered, “It’s only talk; I can always take it back.”

The Rabbi took a pillow from the couch and handed it to the woman. “Take this pillow to the town square. When you get there, cut it open, and shake out the feathers. Then come back.” She did as she was asked. When she returned, the Rabbi handed her a basket and said, “Now please go back and gather the feathers up again.” The woman sighed. “But that’s impossible.”

“You are right,” said the Rabbi. “So it is with words. Once spoken, they cannot be gathered again.”

Tonight we chant the beautiful Kol Nidre, absolving us of our vows. While it absolves us from this Yom Kippur to the next, what it really commands us is to take words seriously. Kol Nidre gives us the space to stand before G-d, in the presence of the sacred, in the presence of our friends, our family, our community, and think about what words of ours matter.

Immediately after the last note, with a sense of profound relief, we hear the powerful answer: Va-yomer Adonai: Salachti kidvarecha. And the Lord said, “I have forgiven as you have asked.”

This year, may we recognize the power of our words. May we use them to heal and not to hurt. And may we be sealed for a blessing in the book of life.

Ken yehi ratzon.