Reflections Before the High Holy Days

Sermon delivered September 15, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

The Shabbat immediately preceding Passover has a name. It’s called Shabbat HaGadol, “the Great Sabbath.” The Shabbat between the High Holy Days has a name. It’s called Shabbat Shuvah, “the Sabbath of Repentance.” This Shabbat, the one immediately prior to Rosh Hashanah, has no special name.

In certain times, and in certain places, in Jewish history, rabbis preached only twice a year, on the two aforementioned Sabbaths, before Passover and between the High Holy Days. No sermon was prescribed for the Shabbat leading up to Rosh Hashanah. In today’s Jewish world, when rabbis offer their most important sermons of the year on the High Holy Days, when rabbis are consumed with writing these all-important holiday homilies, what fool rabbi would plan to give a sermon tonight at all?

I stand before you: a fool rabbi.

Be that as it may, our ancient rabbis did ordain this month, if not this Shabbat, as a significant time of preparation for the High Holy Days. During this month of Elul, each of us is commanded to reflect on who we have been, and on what we have done, during the last year. Our tradition says that forgiveness is actually possible, not just until the gates close at the end of Yom Kippur, but even through the end of Sukkot, extending the total period of repentance to fully fifty days, roughly one-seventh of the year. That’s nearly as long as the malls are decorated for Christmas.

Have we been so bad, that we need to spend nearly two months meditating on our sins?

Are we so sinful, that we need to come to the synagogue, in our largest numbers, for the purpose of finding forgiveness?

Apparently, the answer is “yes.”

Let us, though, emphasize the word “we.” We are laden with sin. Our tradition calls upon us to confess our sins in the plural: al het sh’hatanu l’fanecha, “for the sin that we have committed against you.” Therefore, as we prepare for the High Holy Days, we must be concerned not only about our own sins, but those of our family and friends. We must prepare for penitence, not only for ourselves, but for all who worship with us. The implication goes even further: We are responsible not only for our own misdeeds, but for all sin in this world.

As we prepare for the High Holy Days, then, let us think not only of what we can do to cleanse our own souls between now and Yom Kippur; let us take responsibility for the repentance of others as well.

One of the most difficult mitzvot for many Jews to perform is called tochehah. A tohechah is a rebuke. Torah teaches: Hocheiah tochiah et amitecha, “You are required to reprove your friend,” when she or he has committed a sin.

Jewish law prescribes the manner in which we are to issue the rebuke. When we are aware of the sin of another individual, we must let that person know in private. We are required to minimize the other person’s embarrassment. And yet, providing our fellow the opportunity to seek forgiveness, to change his or her ways, is required. We must offer the correction even when avoiding that person’s humiliation, at least to some degree, even privately, may be impossible.

I said that this mitzvah may be the most difficult of all God’s commandments. So many among us are loathe to tell other people when we disapprove of their actions. We rationalize: Who am I to tell him how to behave? She’ll never change anyway. If I tell him what I really think, no matter how gently, our friendship will come to an end. We tell ourselves that we’re being judgmental, and we imagine that thinking badly of sin is somehow wrong.

Jewish tradition is resolute, however. Our High Holy Day liturgy constantly reminds us: “although some are guilty, all are responsible.” When people we care about do something wrong, we do have a responsibility.

Often, that responsibility is to ourselves. How many of us have let a friend or family member hurt us, but never raised a voice in protest. What is the result? We bear resentments, some of them never resolved. The other person may imagine that hurtful words or actions don’t bother us, or even that they aren’t harmful at all. The behavior is repeated, and we become angrier. The relationship is ruined, not because we have issued a rebuke, but because we have failed to do so.

I relate to this issue personally, on a number of levels.

Part of a rabbi’s duty is to be judgmental. When I sit with a couple preparing to be married, I need to help them identify potential pitfalls in their relationship. When I meet with prospective converts, I am required to point out issues that may stand in the way of a successful conversion to Judaism. When I am asked to counsel a family, I do them no good if I do not tell family members how I think they could do better. From time to time, after meeting with a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student and parents, I cheerfully excuse the young person, and I speak about parenting problems I have observed.

My rebuke is not always met with equanimity. From time to time, a person becomes angry at me, probably more often than I am told. Once, a psychologist to whom I referred a couple, who was authorized to speak with me, told me that the couple was highly ambivalent about what I had said to them. On the one hand, they were grateful that I had moved them to get help. They had successfully addressed a serious problem in their relationship. At the same time, they were hurt, feeling that I didn’t think they were a good couple, even though I had told them otherwise. I asked the psychologist, a very prominent and well-respected practitioner, whether he thought I should have handled things differently. He said that he wished more clergy would do what I did. Most, he said, are too afraid that their congregants won’t like them if they are told the truth.

What’s the moral of the story? Perhaps I should not have pointed out the problem. Although I did later officiate at the couple’s wedding, and they retained their Temple membership until they moved out of town, the likelihood that they would feel very close to me was diminished. On the other hand, I was apparently effective, when I pointed out the couple’s problem. Perhaps, down the road, the couple would have moved past their ambivalence. They might have felt particularly close to their Rabbi, who helped them head off marital discord. I have experienced that, too. To me, the scenario is an illustration of how offering a rebuke is the right thing to do, even if it causes at least a temporary rupture in the relationship.

Sometimes, of course, I find myself on the other side of the rebuke. Rabbis, as everybody knows, can be subject to a great deal of criticism. We’re not the only ones. Other clergy, politicians and other public figures can be targets. And yet, I very rarely receive complaints directly. Oh, I hear about people being angry at me, or about something I have said or written, but I don’t hear it myself.

Poor Sylvan Lang there, he hears it all, or at least some of it. He’s extremely responsive. He tells me all about the critiques, whether he thinks they are warranted or not, and offering his own analysis. He never tells me who complained, unless he is authorized to do so. Sylvan always asks the other person to tell me, to my face, what they think.

I recall Rabbi Stahl’s annual confession of sin before this congregation, on Kol Nidre night. Each year, he would implore congregants, if they had any issue with him, to contact him in person, by telephone, in a letter, or by email. He merely asked for the opportunity to address the matter with the hurt party directly.

Like Rabbi Stahl in those days, I’m eager to be rebuked more regularly. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m most likely to change for the better, when a person I trust tells me that I’ve done something wrong. If nobody says anything to me, I imagine I’ve done no wrong. If I am to have a successful High Holy Day season, adequately changing my ways and repenting of my sins, I need to know how I have caused harm. We all do.

Rebuking another person, not just a rabbi, is hard to do. We can all think of good reasons to refrain, to keep our thoughts to ourselves. And yet, in the weeks ahead, as we sit in this holy Sanctuary, as we pray our confession, we should know that we are guilty of our neighbor’s sin, if we know of it, and have done nothing to help that other person repent. Let us cleanse our own souls and assist others in their repentance. Then, may we all be forgiven. Then, may we be a holy community, blessed in the sight of God.