Yom Kippur Sermon
From the Rebbe’s Torah
- Intellectually and emotionally stimulating
Humor to begin with:
A group of men is at the gym club when a cell phone rings. One of the men answers:
"Yes?" he says.
"Is that you, my dear? I can hardly hear you."
"Are you at the gym?"
"I'm in front of the fur shop and they have this beautiful mink coat. Can I buy it?"
"How much is it?"
"About five thousand dollars."
"Okay, but buy a matching purse that goes with it too my love."
"Well, it also turns out that I stopped by the car dealership today, saw they have a brand new BMW on sale, it's the last one."
"How much is the sale?"
"Only sixty thousand dollars!"
"Fine, buy it, but you have to get it with all of the accessories, and if it costs a little more, I won't get mad."
The woman, realizing all of her requests were being approved, decided to take a risk.
"Honey, remember that I told you that my mother wants to come live with us? Is it okay if I invite her over for a month, just to try it out, and after a month we can talk about it again."
"Okay, fine, but don't ask me for anything else okay?"
"Yes, yes, I love you so much."
"Love you too, bye."
As soon as he hangs up the man turns to look at the group and asks:
"Does anyone know whose cell phone this is?"
Indirectly connected: When one is in a completely joyful mode, they tend to be very generous. Their usual inhibitions come down, and they are usually much more open than they would be in regular circumstances.
Take a wedding for example: When a father or mother is marrying off their son or daughter. Say the parent is wealthy, and people come over asking for donations, I bet there’s a much bigger chance for them to part with their money, even if they are usually on the more cautious side. Because when someone is unusually happy, they tend to be overly generous.
Will this behavior still be around a month later? Hopefully. But not definitely.
That seems pretty simple and obvious — but why? Why should their attitude change? Didn’t the parent learn a new perspective on life?
Well — not really. More probable is that they were uplifted, out of their usual selves, and were therefore more generous. It was probably not something they thought through much, or internalized.
Now, you may be wondering — what does this metaphor about a happy, joyous time have to do with Yom Kippur — the most somber day of the year?
Well, Yom Kippur is, in fact somber, but also uplifting.
The somberness of the day is the idea that it is a mitzvah — especially today — more than every other day of the year — to do teshuva.
What is teshuva? We’ve all heard the word before, but what does it actually translate to?
Teshava is most commonly translated as “repentance.” The dictionary’s definition of repentance is: “sincere regret or remorse.” And yes, teshuva means to regret our past misdeeds — and then, to decide that from today onward, things will be different. That’s what all these “al chet’s” are about, when we’re knocking our chests. “For the sin of — — and for the sin of — —” etc.
But why is there a special mitzvah to do this, specifically today? I mean, teshuva is for every day — it is, it’s a mitzvah which is not dependent on time — every day is a day for teshuva; there’s just an extra mitzvah, to do it specifically today.
Well, we first need to get to another meaning of teshuva — actually, the word’s literal translation: “Returning.” That is what the word teshuva actually means, and that is what teshuva actually means.
Teshuva isn’t only something technical — to think back on our year, regret what we should have done better, and decide what we will do better in the future. This “technical” process itself is actually part of a larger process, which is: returning to G-d.
For sins distance our souls from G-d. Our souls are connected to G-d via 613 strands — corresponding to the 613 mitzvos instructing us what to do and what not to do. When we miss a mitzvah, we are weakening our connection. So, when regretting and deciding that we will now do better, we are taking part in a process of returning to our true existence — our oneness with G-d.
This is a practical and emotional returning; like a son or daughter returning to and making up with their father.
They were separated, and now they return. We may have been separated, but now, we return.
But, every father has an everlasting place in their hearts for their children. Yes, it’s possible for there to be a falling out — and overt lack of connection. But a father or mother will never turn their backs and never look back. For their children are a part of them. The lack of connection will always bother the parent, and they will always think of their child.
For at the deepest part of their soul, the connection is full and wholesome — it is impossible for it to be diminished.
Separation is outwardly, but it does not, and cannot affect the connection at its essence.
Same with us and G-d, our father. Outwardly, we may become separated. But that does not and cannot affect the connection we have with him, at our essence and his. For we are a part of him.
That oneness and connection is expressed by G-d to us on Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year happens only once in a year — symbolizing the idea of unity; and on this day of oneness, the Kohen Gadol — the High Priest, who is the “one — most holy — Jew” enters the most holy room in the Holy Temple — the Kodesh Hakadashim — “The Holy of Holies,” and there, he atones for the Jewish people.
When he is there, no one else may be there. Not even the angels! It is a time when G-d is with his Jewish people — alone.
It is that place of the essence — the most sacred and reserved chamber where G-d says: You and I are connected, and nothing can touch that connection. You are a part of me and I am a part of you. You are mine and I am yours. There’s nobody and nothing else over here.
These days, this idea is especially expressed through the 5th and final prayer through which we connect to G-d on Yom Kippur — it is called “Ne’ila,” which means “closing.” This 5th prayer — prayed only on Yom Kippur — corresponds to the 5th and highest level of the soul — the Yechida, which means “oneness” — the level which is completely and always one and united with G-d. This level of soul is revealed to us during the Ne’ila service. This is a time when G-d says: It’s only us here — you are mine, my child.
At this place, it's as if you have never sinned. The connection is there, always, because it's part of your and G-d’s essence. At that place, your sins are automatically forgiven — they never even started — your connection was never diminished. It was always there — full force.
That is how the High Priest atones for the Jewish people — he brings them up to that level of connection.
Here’s a story about the power of Yom Kippur and Ne’ila:
Torrents of rain beat down on his face, but the tempest did not prevent chassidic master Rabbi Leib Sarah’s from reaching the village. It was only several hours before the beginning of Yom Kippur. He was some distance from his intended destination, but he was relieved to learn that in this village, too, there would be a minyan (quorum of ten) with which to pray — eight local villagers would be joined by two men who lived in the nearby forest.
Rabbi Leib immersed himself, in preparation for the holy day, in the purifying waters of a river which ran by the village; ate the meal which precedes the fast; and hastened to be the first in the little wooden synagogue. There he settled down to recite the various private devotions with which he was accustomed to inaugurate the Day of Atonement
One by one, the eight local villagers arrived in time to hear the words of Kol Nidrei. Together with Rabbi Leib, there were now nine. But there was no minyan, for it transpired that the two Jewish foresters had been imprisoned on some malicious libel.
“Perhaps we could find just one more Jew living around these parts?” asked Rabbi Leib.
“No,” the villagers all assured him, “there’s only us.”
“Perhaps,” he persisted, “there lives here some Jew who converted out of the faith of his fathers?”
The villagers were shocked to hear such an odd question from the stranger. They looked upon him quizzically.
“The doors of repentance are not locked even in the face of an apostate,” Rabbi Leib continued.
“I have heard from my teachers that even when one pokes about in the ashes, one can light upon a spark of fire . . .”
One of the villagers now spoke up.
“There is one apostate here,” he ventured. “He is our paritz, the squire who owns this whole village. But he has been sunk in sin for forty years now. You see, the gentile daughter of the previous squire fell in love with him. So her father promised him that if he converted and married the girl, he would make him his sole heir. He didn’t withstand the temptation, so he did exactly that . . . They had no children, and his wife died many years ago; he now lives alone in his great big house. He is a cruel master, and deals especially harshly with the Jews on his land.”
“Show me his mansion,” said Rabbi Leib.
He removed his tallit in a flash, and ran as fast as he could in the direction of the mansion, with
his white skullcap on his head and his white kittel billowing in the wind. He knocked on the heavy door, opened it without waiting for a response, and found himself confronting the squire. For a few long, long moments they stood in silence face to face, the tzaddik and the apostate. The latter’s first thought was to summon one of his henchmen to seize the uninvited intruder and hurl him into the dungeon in the backyard. But the luminous countenance and the penetrating eyes of the tzaddik softened his heart.
“My name is Leib Sarah’s,” began the visitor. “It was my privilege to know Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, who was admired also by the gentile noblemen. From his mouth I once heard that every Jew should utter the sort of prayer that was first said by King David: ‘Save me, O L‑rd, from blood-guilt.’ But the word used for ‘blood’ (damim) can also be translated as ‘money.’ So my teacher expounded the verse as follows: ‘Save me, so that I should never regard money as my L‑rd . . .’
“Now my mother, whose name was Sarah, was a holy woman. One day the son of one of the local gentry took it into his head to marry her, and promised her wealth and status if she would agree, but she sanctified the name of Israel. In order to save herself from that villain, she quickly got married to an old Jewish pauper who was a schoolteacher. You did not have the good fortune to withstand the test, and for silver and gold you were willing to betray your faith. Realize, though, that there is nothing that can stand in the way of repentance. Moreover, there are those who in one hour earn their portion in the World to Come. Now is that hour! Today is the eve of Yom Kippur. The sun will soon set. The Jews who live in your village are short one man to make up a minyan. Come along now with me, and be the tenth man. For the Torah tells us: ‘The tenth shall be holy unto G‑d.’”
The squire paled at the words spoken by this white-clothed man with the singular face. And meanwhile, down the road, the eight local villagers waited in shul, huddled together in frozen dread. Who could tell what calamity this odd stranger was about to bring down upon their heads?
The door burst open, and in rushed Rabbi Leib, followed closely by the paritz. The latter’s gaze was downcast, and his eyelashes were heavy with tears. At a sign from Rabbi Leib, one of the villagers handed the apostate a tallit. He enveloped himself in it, covering his head and face entirely. Rabbi Leib now stepped forward to the Holy Ark, and took out two scrolls of the Torah. One he gave to the oldest villager present, and the other — to the paritz. Between them at the bimah stood Rabbi Leib, and he began to solemnly chant the traditional tune for the opening lines of the Kol Nidrei prayer: “By the sanction of the Almighty, and by the sanction of the congregation, . . . we declare it permissible to pray together with those who have sinned . . .”
A deep sigh broke forth from the depths of the broken man’s heart. No man there could stand unmoved, and they all wept with him. Throughout all the prayers of the evening, and from dawn of the next day right until nightfall, the paritz stood in prayer, humbled and contrite. And as his sobs shook his whole body as he recited the confession, the other nine shuddered with him.
At the climax of the Ne’ilah service, when the congregation was about to utter together the words “Shema Yisrael,” the paritz leaned forward until his head was deep inside the Holy Ark, embraced the Torah scrolls that stood there, and in a mighty voice that petrified those present, cried out: “Hear, O Israel, the L‑rd our G‑d, the L‑rd is One!” He then stood up straight, and began to declare with all his might: “The L‑rd is G‑d!” With each repetition his voice grew louder. Finally, as he cried it out for the seventh time, his soul flew from his body.
So, Ne’ila has an immense power. It reveals who we truly are, as Jews.
However — for this connection and resulting atonement of the day — and especially Ne’ila, to be effective, we must engage in the literal idea of teshuva — regretting and deciding what the coming year will be like; the emotional return home to our father, because we have been distant.
Just like the happy parent at the start of our talk. He’s not really his usual self at his child’s wedding. He’s being really generous. But has he changed? Maybe yes, maybe not.
Same with us. We may feel very inspired and uplifted on this holiest of days — and that’s very good — let’s soak up that feeling. But we also want that state to be internalized, so that it saturates us through and through — so our everyday life will be different.
Thus, Yom Kippur is a balancing act: Feeling the deepest connection to G-d possible, and also, recounting our sins, and internalizing how we will channel this inspiration throughout the year.
This way, we will be changed people; and next year, on Yom Kippur, we will reach for even greater heights.
This is why today specifically is when there is a unique mitzvah to do teshuva.
(Choose if to say this: First of all, if we don’t do our part, G-d won’t let the power of the day actually atone for our sins — even though it has the power to; because It’s got to be a two-way street... And secondly — in a more uplifting sense (wink:))
For the day itself uplifts us above and beyond sins — and we just need to draw down that inspiration — through returning to G-d “on our own.” We should not miss this opportunity!
(If before Ne’ila:)
Each time is unique and must be focused on, on its own — that’s how we get its full worth.
Now, as we approach the final prayer of Ne’ila, when we are given extra access to the essence of our soul — the Yechida — let’s allow our Yechida to shine forth. Experiencing Yechida is the ultimate feeling of oneness and closeness with G-d.
As we prepare for this momentous and climaxing prayer, let us realize and remember that we are G-d’s children. That nothing can reduce that connection. Nothing. He is a part of us and we are a part of him. He is our father and we are his children.
לזכות הרך הנולד שי'
בן הרה"ת לוי יצחק וזוגתו חיה מושקא שיחיו
שלוחי כ"ק אדמו"ר
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