Yom Kippur 5777
October 12, 2016
To the Class of 5777
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


I often get asked how I go about writing my sermons. For me, it’s a process; crafting High Holiday sermons in particular is a task that is ongoing. Throughout the year, I’m taking notes, collecting stories, consulting colleagues, and refining what messages I want to offer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These are, after all, the most-attended services of the year, and so I strive to find a message that I feel will resonate with the greatest number of people. The process is almost how I imagine it would feel to write and deliver a commencement address.

Now, that’s something I’ve never been asked to do. But I’ve attended, listened to, and read enough graduation speeches over the years that I’ve begun to appreciate the way that their messages are crafted: rousing speeches that seek to inspire the listeners—graduates and well-wishers alike—to go out and do something truly monumental in the world.

As a rabbi, I hope to do the same with my sermon, particularly during the High Holidays. I work to carefully select my words and my themes in the hopes that I can do justice to the awe of the day. I strive to have my messages be complimentary to the liturgy and the music so that the overall experience of these Days of Awe becomes one of spiritual resonance and uplift. If I succeed, you not only chat about it at the break-the-fast; you also take action to change yourself or to change the world for the better.

It’s a tall order, and I follow in the footsteps of giants—not only my predecessors in this particular congregation, but every rabbi, prophet, and teacher who ever stood before an assembly of our people and tried to impart wisdom to the masses. All of us owe a debt to the skillfully crafted rhetoric of Moses (ironically, a man who early in his career protested that he was “slow of speech”). In his valedictory addresses to the Israelites, which comprise the bulk of the book of Deuteronomy, he delivers several important charges to the people, seeking to impart a few last bits of wisdom during his waning days.

In the passage that we read today, Moses sounds like a graduation speaker. “Atem nitzavim,” he begins. “You stand here today, all of you, assembled before Adonai your God. The heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, and the strangers who are in your camp, from those who cut your wood to those who draw your water…”[1] It’s a bit like starting off, “Chancellor Jones, President Killeen, faculty, students, honored guests…” isn’t it? Like any good speaker—at a commencement or elsewhere, Moses draws in the listeners by reminding them that they each have a stake in what he’s about to say, from those most established in the community all the way down to the those engaged in the manual labor needed to keep the community functioning.

In the case of the Torah, the message that Moses has come to convey is one of a covenantal relationship. As he prepares for his imminent death, and transfers the mantle of leadership to Joshua, he urges all those assembled to pay heed, emphasizing that they are each a part of the sacred agreement between God and the Jewish people. The blessings of God’s love and protection are extended to them all, and God’s teaching is accessible to them all. “Lo bashamayim hi,” Moses declares. “It is not in the heavens.”[2] The treasure of the Torah is not reserved for an elite few, but is offered to all in the Israelite community.

There were some equally powerful messages, with universal lessons, that were delivered during the spring cycle of graduations and commencements. There is one in particular that I believe may be instructive to us and inspire us as we spend today engaged in the act of teshuvah. It goes beyond the stereotypical generalities of “follow your passions” to charge the listeners—not just the graduates, but all the listeners—to make a difference in their world. And isn’t that what we all seek to do, on this Yom Kippur and throughout our lives? Don’t we all wish to know that we’ve made an impact, that there has been some higher purpose to our existence?

The text I want to focus upon was delivered at the University of California at Berkeley by the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should share that Sheryl and I grew up together; we attended the same synagogue and the same high school, though she was a year ahead of me. Though we have not remained close in adulthood, I have admired how she conducts herself in the public spotlight.

Sheryl is known not only for her work at Facebook but also for her book Lean In, and the movement it inspired. But just over a year before her address at Berkeley, shewas faced with the loss of her spouse. Sandberg’s husband, Dave, died from a sudden cardiac arrhythmia while on vacation. She noted, “Dave’s death changed me in very profound ways. I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void—or in the face of any challenge—you can choose joy and meaning.”[3]

Sandberg went on to talk to the graduates about resilience. She reminded them, “You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”[4] Resilience is an important trait to draw upon during these High Holy Days. As I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, we need to be willing to visit and re-visit our shortcomings and errors each year; this is the act of teshuvah. And it can be daunting, even upsetting, to realize that we’re consistently “missing the mark.” But resilience reminds us, just as our tradition does, that we have been given the power to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again.[5]

Sheryl told the story of trying to make an arrangement for her child to participate in a father-son activity following Dave’s death. She cried to a friend, “I don’t want alternatives, I want Dave!” And her friend gently responded, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the [heck] out of Option B.”[6]

Sometimes our best-laid plans will go awry. Sometimes the options we long for are not actually available to us. It is the way that we respond in those moments that shape our character. Sandberg, quoting psychologist Martin Seligman, notes that researchers have pointed to three “P’s” that are critical to understanding how we bounce back from hardship. I would argue that they are also crucial to processing what we wish to do when we make teshuvah. These “three P’s” are personalization, pervasiveness and permanence.

The first P is personalization. This is the tendency to believe that we are at fault for things that happen in our lives. There is a fine line between this sort of personalization, which can be harmful, and taking responsibility when you have indeed done something wrong. In fact, there’s a whole book of the Tanach dedicated to parsing this distinction—the book of Job—that we are currently studying in our Shabbat morning Torah study (all of you are welcome to join us)!

But personalization seems to be a natural human tendency. In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the sad story of a college student who collapsed and died of an undetected aneurysm while jogging. When Rabbi Kushner went to pay a condolence call to her parents, they asserted that they were facing God’s wrath because they had not fasted on Yom Kippur.[7] In their grief-stricken struggle to find some meaning in their daughter’s death, they engaged in personalization, and decided that their actions (or lack thereof) had placed their daughter’s health in jeopardy.

Now, I want to add an important aside: this is not the God that Kushner, or I, believe in. I cannot promise, much as I would like to, that none of us will see sadness or calamity this year. But I don’t believe that those in this room who are not fasting today—whether by choice, or out of medical necessity, or for any other reason—are at any greater risk of misfortune than those who are observing the fast.

Personalization can be detrimental to teshuvah when we come to believe that our missteps are because of some internal failing. If we are convinced that we are hard-wired for sin, so to speak, then we may eventually become disinclined to attempt any realignment of our behavior. If we feel that there is no possible way to move beyond our misdeeds, if we classify it as an ingrained quality of sinfulness, then we may reject that teshuvah is a worthwhile endeavor.

But our liturgy is designed to snap us back to reality. None of us individually is unworthy of God’s attention and love. It is our behavior that God rejects, not our being. You’ll note that our liturgy is all composed in the plural: Ashamnu—we are guilty; Al chet she-chatanu, for the sin that we have committed. No one is made to get up and say, “Yoo-hoo, over here…I’m the one who harbored evil thoughts yesterday…I’m the one who gossiped on July 16…I’m the one who behaved arrogantly last week.” We collectively stand in contrition, asking God’s forgiveness, for we understand that sin is not personal. When one person has done a wrong, the community accepts responsibility for getting that person back on track.

The second P is pervasiveness. Sandberg speaks about it in the context of her grief, remarking that, “There’s no place to run or hide from the all-consuming sadness.” Yet she notes that eventually she was able to see that “there were other things in my life that were not awful. My children and I were healthy. My friends and family were so loving and they carried us— quite literally at times.”[8]

It’s easy to see how the theory of pervasiveness could prevent one from accomplishing teshuvah. If one believes that he or she is irredeemably “bad,” then why would that individual even bother to attempt to get back into God’s good graces? But breaking free from the trap of pervasiveness requires us to recognize that just because something historically has always been so, that does not require it to continue to be so. If one has always yielded to certain temptations, or continually disregards the needy, for instance, that need not mean that such behavior cannot be corrected.

A quote currently being popularized on the Internet maintains, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”[9] The statement underscores the insidious nature of pervasiveness. A fish, a child, any human being who is consistently led to believe something about himself or herself will soon have that imprinted on his or her psyche as truth. So, someone who is continually scolded for wrong behavior or straying from what God desires, will come to believe that he or she is branded for life as sinful. Indeed, many conservative faiths operate under such principles. But we are fortunate to have a God who desires teshuvah. As we have been taught, “[God says,] ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that they turn from their ways and live.’”[10] We have been assured that if we merely make an effort—if we break through the pervasive messages that tell us we are not worthy—God will always receive us with love.

The third P is permanence—the belief that a feeling (or a behavior, or a condition of our lives) will last forever. As Sandberg put it in her address, “We often project our current feelings out indefinitely—and experience what I think of as the second derivative of those feelings. We feel anxious—and then we feel anxious that we’re anxious. We feel sad—and then we feel sad that we’re sad. Instead, we should accept our feelings—but recognize that they will not last forever.”[11] Overcoming the sense of permanence is significant to teshuvah, as well. We need to assure ourselves that we start this New Year with a clean slate, that the way things have gone in the past year (or, perhaps, for the past several years) are not the way they will always be.

A parable holds that King Solomon, well-known for his wisdom and for his constant thirst for more knowledge, wished to compile all the teachings of the world into a single source. His advisors eventually manage to distill everything down to a single three-word phrase, “Gam zeh ya’avor; this too shall pass.”[12] Solomon has this inscribed on a ring that he wears for the rest of his life. When things look good, and he feels powerful, it serves to remind him that fortunes may change quickly. And when things are going poorly and he is upset, the ring assures him that he will not always feel this way.

So it is with us. We can overcome the sense of permanence that holds us back. We can remind ourselves, “Gam zeh ya’avor; this too shall pass.”

We have begun the year five thousand seven hundred seventy-seven. In Hebrew, those last two numbers are represented as ayin-zayin. They spell the word “oz,” meaning “strength.” May we each find the strength to engage in teshuvah that will be pleasing to ourselves and to God. As Moses teaches at the conclusion of his address in Nitzavim, God has given us each the opportunity to choose life and goodness. May this path indeed be our choice. May we learn to overcome the “three P’s” that tend to hold us back from making positive changes in our lives. May we, the class of 5777, be blessed with a happy, healthy, sweet, and meaningful New Year.

[1] Deuteronomy 29:10-11
[2] Deuteronomy 30:12
[3] Sheryl Sandberg, commencement speech delivered at the University of California at Berkeley, on May 14, 2016, retrieved from http://fortune.com/2016/05/14/sandberg-uc-berkley-transcript/
[4] Ibid.
[5] An allusion to the 1936 Jerome Kern/ Dorothy Fields song “Pick Yourself Up.”
[6] Sandberg, op. cit.
[7] See Kushner, Harold When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Random House, 1981)
[8] Sandberg, op. cit.
[9] Though attributed to Albert Einstein, there is no evidence that he ever said or wrote this. See http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/04/06/fish-climb/
[10] Ezekiel 33:11
[11] Sandberg, op. cit.
[12] There are many versions of this folktale, which may originate in Persian tradition. For one telling, see http://www.theemotionmachine.com/this-too-shall-pass-a-lesson-in-impermanence/