Yom Kippur Morning 5779
September 19, 2018
Thoughts and Prayers
by Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


I’m getting out of the business of thoughts and prayers.

That’s not intended to be a political statement.  It may sound like an odd thing to say given the fact that I’ve just spent an hour or so conducting worship that was prayer-filled and hopefully thought provoking.  Certainly there can be an appropriate time and place for thoughts and prayers and the introspection that they afford.  I don’t mean to fully repudiate the power of prayerful supplication or thanksgiving; it is the majesty of our prayers and melodies, steeped in ancient tradition, that has drawn us together today.

But while this is a moment that is particularly dedicated to prayerfulness and introspection, other moments call not so much for platitudes or for entreaties to the divine, but rather for action.

I’ve shared with some of you before that one of my favorite worship experiences of my life came in a United Church of Christ congregation in Denver, Colorado.  At the conclusion of the service—a shared program between the congregation I was then serving and this church that had been our host in the early days of the Temple’s existence—we exited into the main foyer.  Inscribed on the transom, visible only as one left worship, was the phrase, “And now the service begins.”  There was an explicit recognition that the thoughts and prayers we offer during a service can only be fully efficacious if they are supported by practical deeds in our day-to-day lives.

We have a phrase for this in English: “Actions speak louder than words.”[1]  But the precept is also found within Jewish tradition.  In the Mishnah, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel opines, “Lo ha-midrash hu ha-ikar, elah ha-ma’aseh; it is not the study that is essential, but the action.”[2]  We can pore over the texts of our tradition from morning until night, but we cannot claim that we have fully understood their core meaning until we have put the teachings into action.

We of the species Homo Sapiens are known as human beings.  But I think perhaps this is a bit of an unfortunate misnomer.  We were not brought into existence and blessed to be created in the divine image merely so that we could “be.”  In fact, while other items in the narrative of creation are brought into existence with God’s proclamation, “Y’hi!– Let there be,” humanity is created with an active verb, “Na’aseh– Let Us create.”[3]  Immediately, it is made clear that the tasks with which our species shall be entrusted are active ones.  We are called to be faithful stewards of the earth, “to till and to tend.”[4]  We are expected to be partners with God, “l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai; to complete the works of creation according to God’s ideal design.”[5]  We are asked to live in emulation of God—as we read in the Torah tomorrow: “K’doshim t’hiyu, You shall be holy, for I Adonai your God am Holy.”[6]  Thus, we are taught:

Just as God clothes the naked,…so too [should] you clothe the naked…Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, visits the sick,… so too [should] you visit the sick.  Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, consoles mourners,…so too [should] you console mourners.  Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, buried the dead, so to [should] you bury the dead.[7]

Our tradition is clear.  We must not content ourselves and feel that we have fulfilled our purpose in this world simply by “being.”  We must be human “do-ers,” taking an active role in our society to make holiness and peace and justice abound.

The prophet Jonah, whose story we will read this afternoon as our Haftarah—and who we’ll discuss in more depth in our afternoon study session—is a prime illustration of one who is content to “be,” rather than to “do.”  He feels so certain that the mission for which he has been called—preaching to Nineveh to solicit their repentance—is an unnecessary errand, that he tries to flee from this responsibility.  He never appears to act willingly in the service of God, even after enduring his punishment in the belly of the fish, and comes across much more as a “be-er” than a “do-er.”

Rabbi Steven Bob notes that unlike other figures in the Tanach who receive a divine call, Jonah never responds with the phrase, “Hineini.”  Had he done so, it would have signified not only an acknowledgment of the gravity of the task at hand, but also a willingness to be present as an agent of God, to be a “do-er.”  As Rabbi Bob writes, “When I say this word, I do more than simply describe my geographic location.  I proclaim my presence.  I am really here.  I am fully present.  I am here for you.”[8]

But Jonah cannot bring himself to answer in this way.  As Rabbi Bob states, “he is never…fully present to God…he has not committed himself to God’s cause.”[9]  The Book of Jonah ends somewhat abruptly and absurdly with the prophet moping beneath a withered gourd plant, seemingly having resigned himself to life as a “be-er” and not a “do-er.”

Why read from this text, then, on Yom Kippur, a day which surely spurs us to take active roles in the world?  I think our takeaway from Jonah is that his life is an object lesson of how NOT to use one’s prophetic voice.  Whether we feel personally called by God in the same manner as the classical prophets, or whether we navigate our way through life of our own volition, we are asked to interact with our world in a manner that does not merely satisfy our own selfish desires, but keeps our eyes, hearts, and mind open to the needs of others.

Being a prophet in the biblical period was undoubtedly tough work; I don’t envy Jonah and his peers feeling impelled by God to challenge the status quo and tell their fellow Israelites that God was displeased with their behavior.  The majority of the messages that the prophets proclaimed were merely shouts into the wind during their lifetime—decrees that largely went unheeded.  It is only through the canonization of these prophesies in the biblical text that their words have survived and resonated with a wider audience.  As modern Jews, we can hear these prophetic voices—in synagogue or in the public arena—and feel stirred to action.  Thus, Amos’ cry to “let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,”[10] or Micah’s instruction to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,”[11] to name but a few examples, serve as living charges and challenges to us in our own day.  They call us to act as do-ers and not merely as be-ers.

A traditional prayer recited on Shabbat morning asks God’s blessing for “kol mi she-oskin b’tzorchei ha-tzibbur—all those who busy themselves with the needs of the congregation.”[12]  There’s a recognition that synagogues would not function without people to “provide for their maintenance, [and arrange for] wine for Kiddush…, food for guests, bread for the hungry, tzedakah for the poor, and shelter for the homeless.”[13]

Synagogues can measure their success by any number of metrics.  Some boast of their financial solvency, and certainly it is important to secure sufficient funds each year to support our congregation’s religious, educational, and social programming.  Some synagogues are constantly counting how many tuchises they can get into seats at various services and events, and this, too, is significant to consider.  But I’d argue that the clearest indicator of the health of a temple—or any religious organization, for that matter, is how much people are willing to invest their time, energies, and passions toward supporting the institution.

In many regards, Sinai Temple is abundantly blessed in this area.  When there is a special Simcha or a meal of consolation, there is rarely, if ever, a concern that we will be lacking in food.  A number of people are regularly present at Temple assisting with the upkeep of the building and its grounds, including the recent Labor of Love.  For nearly forty years, the Egalitarian Traditional Minyan has been shepherded by dedicated volunteers.  The mailings that go out to the entire congregation are processed and sorted by a dedicated group of congregants.  The list of those who have discovered their niche—their means of acting as “do-ers” rather than “be-ers”—goes on and on.

But at the same time, there are important committees that are underpopulated or are seeking new leadership.  It is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves in the aforementioned blessing, to become “oskei be’tzorchei ha-tzibbur—busy with the needs of the congregation.”  The opportunities are manifold: serving on the membership committee to welcome new and potential members; helping out on the building committee to ensure the upkeep of our spiritual home; assisting with the delivery of our bimah flowers to those who are celebrating a happy occasion, or who have experienced an illness or loss.  In the broader CU Jewish community, our Chevra Kadisha performs the sacred tasks of helping to prepare beloved community members for burial.  During the month of October, our Sunday morning adult education series will be focused on the work of this important group, and I hope that many of you will come and explore this topic.  Of course, as our Y’sod Le’Atid– Foundation for the Future renovation project continues to take shape, there will be ample opportunities for gifts of time, energy, and money from everyone who is invested in some way in the ongoing health of Sinai Temple.

These are just some of the ways in which we can ensure that we are “do-ers” and not “be-ers” within our local Jewish community.  Some tonight may feel inspired to be proactive, in which case you may contact me or Temple president Rob Ore to volunteer for a role.  If you can’t yet imagine the capacity in which you might serve, I hope that you will accept the honor of a volunteer position when you are called.

Some of you may recall the children’s story of the Little Red Hen.  In short, the Little Red Hen wishes to bake a loaf of bread.  But this requires harvesting wheat, milling it into flour, mixing the dough, and so forth.  As the Little Red Hen asks her fellow animals to assist her in these tasks, none is willing to do so.  Yet when the bread is finally baked, each wants to taste of the fruits of her labors.  The Little Red Hen declines to share, because they did not participate in the process of making the bread.

The moral, of course, is that if the animals wished to eat the bread, they should have joined with the Little Red Hen in making it.  No institution or civilization can survive if all of its constituent members act as bystanders.  Each individual must find his or her own way to be a “do-er” so that the groups’ missions can be achieved.

This morning we will read from the final chapters of Deuteronomy.  In the opening sentences of this passage, Moses proclaims:

Atem nitzavim kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem… You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer— to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God.[14]

Moses names these different categories of people specifically in order to show that every individual who finds a home within the Israelite community—no matter how elevated or diminished their status might seem—plays a part in upholding the covenantal relationship between God and Israel and ensuring its success.  As Constantin Stanislavski would say many years after Moses, “There are no small parts, only small actors.”[15]

In the coming year, may we each find meaningful ways in which we can “do”—for ourselves, yes, but also for others and for our community.  May we contribute whole heartedly to the betterment of our society and our world.  As we do so, may we be found worthy of having our names inscribed in the Book of Life and Blessing.  And someday in the future, when we are remembered with fondness and love, may it be not only because of who we showed ourselves to “be,” but also because of all that we have striven to “do.”


[1] A 17th century proverb, evidently first recorded in the U.S. in a speech by Abraham Lincoln

[2] Mishnah Pirke Avot 1:17

[3] See Genesis 1, particularly the creation of humanity at 1:26.  There is much commentary on who constitutes the “Us” in this statement, but that is not germane to this particular sermon.

[4] Cf. Genesis 2:15

[5] A reference to the language of the Aleinu prayer.  The Kabbalists of the 16th century were the first to shift the understanding of this phrase and apply it to human action.

[6] Leviticus 19:2

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 14a.  The text provides citations for when in the Torah God performed each of these acts.

[8] Bob, Steven.  Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2016). P. 149

[9] Ibid., p. 150

[10] Amos 5:24

[11] Micah 6:8

[12] See , for instance, Feld, Rabbi Edward (ed.) Siddur Lev Shalem (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2016), p. 176.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Deuteronomy 29:9-11

[15] Stanislavski, Constantin. My Life in Art (Abingdon, UK: Taylor & Francis Books, 2008)