This sermon was published in the Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-edward-bernstein/yom-kippur_b_3916468.html
A slightly updated and corrected version appears below.
Writing the Next Act on Yom Kippur
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
September 15, 2013
I recently discovered some lost treasures. My late grandfather, Sam Lesner, of blessed memory, came back to life after 23 years when I heard his voice once again after finding and digitizing some old cassette tapes. My Grandpa Sam was the film and entertainment critic of the former Chicago Daily News. In the early 1930’s, while working in an entry-level job filing clippings in the newspaper’s library, it became known to the editors that he was a trained musician and that he was fluent in Yiddish. As a result, his first “beat” was covering Chicago’s Yiddish theater and reviewing these productions. Nearly fifty years later, he recalled the golden years of Chicago’s Yiddish theater in a lecture to the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. A cassette tape of that lecture in November, 1978, is among the old tapes that I rediscovered this summer. He opened this lecture as follows:
“It has been written that ‘[a]ll the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely the players’ (Shakespeare). For Jews everywhere, that is more than a literary catch phrase. It’s a philosophy for living, for surviving. For, do we not daily reenact our traditions? Do we not daily reenact our faith? And do we not daily rededicate ourselves to continuity of a vast, varied and colorful heritage, the Jewish heritage?
Grandpa Sam continues, “It has also been written that ‘[t]here is that smaller world which is the stage, and that larger stage which is the world.'” (Isaac Goldberg, early 20th century journalist)
“And yet another sage has written the theater is not a game. It is a spiritual compulsion. Once it celebrated the gods. Now it broods over the fate of man. Mensch trocht, Gott lacht (Man plans, God laughs).”
My Grandpa Sam’s voice emerged from the past to discuss the vital role of theater in capturing the human condition and the remarkable interplay between the theater and Jewish values. In reflecting on this lecture, I’m reminded that Yom Kippur is a play of sorts. Each one of us is a player, and we are acting out our own deaths. We wear white costume, just like we dress a loved one to be buried. We have a script, the mahzor (High Holiday prayer book), that guides us with language to confess our sins, just as one does before dying. We fast and deprive ourselves of bodily pleasures that the dead don’t enjoy. We can call these rituals method acting. If ever there was a day to act out as if it’s our last, it’s today, Yom Kippur. Everything up until now has been Act I, maybe also Act II. We can shape the next act and how we interact with the characters in our lives.
Over the High Holy Days, we prepare to raise the curtain on the next act. We reflect on how we can live a life that matters in which we enrich our lives through our relationships with others. In that context, if today were our last day, what would we do to ensure such a legacy? Would we seek to settle old scores and exact revenge for past wrongs done to us? Would we do nothing because a day is too short for anything meaningful? Chances are, we’ve tried those scripts already, and they’re getting stale.
On Yom Kippur, our day of renewal, our tradition provides us with stage directions and a powerful script. The day is further enriched by the improvisational theater that we provide ourselves.
Our stage directions that we’ve inherited call on us to emulate the Master Player on our world’s stage, God. The Torah instructs us lalechet bidrachav, to walk in the ways of God. In the 13 divine attributes, God tells us in the Torah that He is El rachum v’chanun, merciful and gracious God, erekh apayim v’rav hesed v’emet, slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness and truth. The Midrash says, mah Hashem rachum v’chanun, af ata tehiye rahum v’chanun. Just as God is merciful and compassionate, so too you should be merciful and compassionate (Sifre Devarim, Ekev).
Next, we turn to the script of our tradition. The mahzor attempts to capture the complexity of God that we strive to emulate. As I wrote for Rosh HaShanah, in the Un’tane Tokef prayer, we declare that God is zokher kol ha nishkachot, God remembers everything that has been forgotten. In other words, God is the ultimate data bank of everything in human history. Or is He?
God is a versatile cast member who plays many parts. Our rich liturgy offers another metaphor: not God the data bank, but God the parent who uses selective memory. Avinu Malkeinu, zochreinu b’zikkaron tov lefanecha—Our Father Our King, remember us before You with a good memory. Use Your selective memory, God, for good. God knows how to let go, but do we?
Here’s a classic story about not using selective memory. A man complained to his friend that whenever his wife gets angry, she becomes historical. “You mean hysterical,” the friend corrected him. “No,” said the husband, “I mean historical. She starts listing everything I did wrong in the middle of an argument that begins with: “You always…” or “You never….”
Why do we opt for the blame game script? We do so because this satisfies our sense of outrage and indignation. Since we are the injured party, we feel righteous. Our victimhood makes us morally superior as we look down with scorn on the person who hurts us. It provides us with the weapon of guilt to use against the offender. Our mahzor script invites us through prayer to think differently.
Since we pray, and since the rabbis envision us imitating God’s best attributes, the rabbis reach the conclusion that God also prays. The question is what, and to whom, does God pray?
“The rabbis ask: What does God pray? May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7a)
God understands the enormous negative power of anger and so He prays to be rid of it. God’s vulnerability is a mirror image of our own. God models for us openness to vulnerability and change. So, having engaged with stage directions and a rich script, we now have the task of turning to “improv.”
The renowned Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist, Abraham Twerski, provides some guidance on how we can essentially write our own play, or at least the next act. He writes about some of his patients feeling paralyzed by resentment and the liberation that forgiveness brings about. He quotes one of his patients saying: “I came to realize that hanging on to anger was not affecting the people who hurt me. They don’t have headaches, indigestion, or insomnia. I do. Why should I suffer because of their wrong behavior? So I just stopped thinking about them, and my anger evaporated. Hanging onto resentment is akin to letting people you don’t like live rent-free inside your head without paying rent. I’m not the kind of person to let people do that, so I evicted them from my head.”
Rabbi Twerski’s anecdote resonated with me earlier this spring in a deeply personal way. I was forced to confront a demon from my life’s first act that was occupying space in my head without paying rent, and I suddenly had to do some “improv” to chart my path. A guy I went to school with from pre-school through high school sent me a friend request over Facebook. It gave me great pause. My recollection is that from preschool through fifth grade this fellow teased me relentlessly. In later grades, the memories of those early years haunted me. We then went our separate ways, and I haven’t seen him since high school. However, as I moved through adulthood and became an educator, any time I encountered the concept of bullying, the image that came to mind was being tormented by this fellow when we were young boys. In recent years, as I connected with more and more friends from childhood on Facebook, I noticed that several old friends from school were friends with my old nemesis. While I have many Facebook friends whom I barely know, I just couldn’t pull the trigger and send him a friend request. My image of this guy from 35 years ago was renting space in my mind. Then, out of the blue, he asked me to be his Facebook friend. Part of me wanted to accept it right away, but I also wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to ask him to bear witness to my pain. I felt it was the honest thing to do.
I wrote him an email. I hit the send button. Then I waited. The next day, I officiated at a funeral. At the cemetery, I finished the service and walked from the grave site to my car. I pulled out my phone to check my email. I saw there was a response to my Facebook message. Despite the long car ride back home ahead of me, I had to read it in full. It was a beautiful, contrite letter that was completely validating. The writer not only apologized for the way he made me feel, but out of his own initiative he went on to describe in vivid, accurate, detail a specific incident from childhood in which he teased me and his deep regret over it. He concluded his letter: “I do understand. I do acknowledge. I am sorry.” I accepted his friend request.
I couldn’t have staged the scene any better. I was sitting in a cemetery. It was the perfect setting to bury the fear, dislike and distrust I had of this person for most of my life. I felt the curtain rising on a new act. I was so moved by the risk this man took in “friending” me, for his courage in responding to me, and for his eloquent and humble note. I said the blessing of thanksgiving:
Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life and sustained us and allowed us to reach this moment. It was liberating writing back and officially forgiving him and signing off as “Your Friend.”
If life is a play that is carried out on the world’s stage, then sometimes we have to consider that our total life experiences up to the present moment are only the first or second act. We have the ability to shape the next act.
For those of us who have unresolved tensions with people who are living, the time is NOW to get to work towards healing. Our loved ones whom we lovingly recall in Yizkor would expect nothing less from us. We can write the next act of our lives.
Writing a successful next act requires teshuvah, a complete return to shleimut, wholeness or integrity. This process includes saying selichah, I’m sorry, to others for wrongs we’ve committed towards them, and it includes granting mechilah, forgiveness to others for their slights towards us. We say to God, “Selah lanu, mehal lanu, kaper lanu, forgive us, pardon us grant us atonement.” What we expect of God, we must also demand of ourselves.
So, those of us giving free rent in our minds to the anger and resentment that we hold towards someone, we give ourselves a gift to evict those thoughts. Let’s change the script from a tragedy to a story with a happier ending. If there are relatives or friends with whom there is unresolved tension, speak to them on Yom Kippur or immediately thereafter. Say that you’ve given thought to your relationship and want a fresh start. Each of us can raise the curtain on a new act.
We recall our departed loved ones on Yom Kippur because we acknowledge our own mortality. We are acting today as if it is our last day. Recognizing our mortality, as we do now, reminds us of the urgency to change our ways. It may be the last act.
Let us honor the memory of our loved ones with a Jewish Tony Award of zikkaron tov, remembering them for their goodness. Let us bring zikkaron tov, good memories, into our present relationships. Let us not live like we’re going through the motions on stage. Let us live a life that matters.