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Ten Days of Repentance Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Sept. 12, 2015

This morning I’d like to talk for a few minutes about the 10 Days from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

These days have their own name- Aseret Yemei Teshuvah- the Ten Days of Repentance and were meant to be a time of special focus and special kavannah, intentionality and action. However that is not always the case. One article I read had the greatest analogy and asked, if Rosh Hashanah is a day of waking up to the sound of the shofar, how do we keep ourselves from just pressing the snooze button and dozing until Yom Kippur comes around? How do we make this more than just a time of waiting around until Yom Kippur?

Our tradition addresses that challenge in several ways.

We are most familiar with Shabbat Shuvah- the Sabbath of Repentance, which gets its name from the Special Hafatarah portion which begins, “Return O Israel”.

On this Shabbat, it is customary to use the High Holiday melodies to remind us of the work of repentance that we should be doing. The words of the prophet are also meant to prompt us to action.

Our tradition also uses changes in the liturgy throughout the ten days to get our attention.

In addition to the daily recitation of Psalm 27, which starts on the 1st of Elul also continues through the Ten Days of Repentance, we also traditionally add the recitation of Psalm 30 . It is a psalm of comfort, in which our pleas to God are answered and a better future is promised: “God is angry but for a moment, but pleased for a long life… One may lie down weeping at nightfall, but at dawn there are shouts of joy… You turned my lament into dancing, you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy.”

There are also subtle changes in the prayers especially in the Amidah. We add the “zochreinu lechayim”, remember us unto life, in the Avot, and the “mi chamochah av harachim”, who is like you a God who remembers us unto life, in the Gevurot. We change the chatimah of the third blessing from Ha-El HaKadosh, the Holy God, to HaMelech HaKadosh, the Holy King, emphasizing God’s aspect of sovereignty, the malchuyot theme of the shofar blowing, at this time of year. In the prayer of thanksgiving, Modim, we add “Uchtov lechayim tovim”, inscribe us for a good life, and finally in the prayer for peace, a plea that we be inscribed for life, goodness, and blessing, and for prosperity, parnassah tovah, literally a good salary or income.

In addition to Shabbat, there is another special day in this period, but one which is less well known and that is Tzom Gedalyah. Until the Rabin assassination you were most likely to have heard of this holiday in an old Yiddish joke that ended, “Why should I fast for Gedalyah? Would he fast for me”

But after the Rabin assassination, 20 years ago, this bit of history took on more meaning and serious discussions of this the fast which takes place on the 3rd day of Tishrei took place in the years after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. It is a fast from morning to night and remembers the assassination of the Jewish governor of Judah, who had been appointed by the Babylonians following the destruction of the First Temple. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, allowed for a modicum of local autonomy, installing Gedalya ben Ahikam as the Judean governor. Gedalya enjoyed the  support of the majority of the Jewish community. He was known as a wise, gentle and modest person. He accepted the limitations of Jewish sovereignty over Israel under Nebuchadnezzar and believed that the Jews needed to cooperate completely with their Babylonian conquerors in order to survive. They had been promised peace and security in exchange for their loyalty to Babylonia. Under the administration of Gedaliah, the Jewish community of Israel began to prosper. Slowly, more and more of the Jewish refugees began to return.

Despite these improvements in Jewish life in the land of Israel,  Gedalyah was viewed as a traitor by the more zealous in the Jewish community. Historians recount that even though Gedalya received intelligence reports that a political assassination was being planned and his life was in danger, nothing could convince him that a Jew would raise his arm against a fellow Jew. His assassination ultimately led to the total loss of even limited Jewish political control in the Land of Israel. The fast of Gedalyah is mentioned in the writings of the prophet Zechariah and also in the Babylonian Talmud. In some Orthodox sources the assassin is identified as having been hired by a foreign king, the King of Ammon, but this does not seem to have historical basis.

On Tzom Gedaliah 1996, one year after the murder of Yitzchak Rabin, a rally was held in Kikar Rabin, attended by religious leaders and Rabin`s family, stressing the dangers of religious extremism within the Jewish community.

It is hard to remember the divide in Israeli society at that time. One visitor to Jerusalem at that time recounted:  “I saw American yeshiva students raising their glasses in a celebratory “l’chaim” to the death of Rabin.  Waiting for the bus to arrive, I saw Tzomet party youth members asking passersby whether they supported or were opposed to the murder. I approached them and berated them for having the audacity to do such a thing. Although they responded by stating that they were simply performing a public service by polling the public, these same teenagers let out a loud cheer when the news-broadcaster announced that Rabin had been shot and killed.”

Perhaps a remembrance of these days is in order in our own time as well.
There are other less well known aspects of these Ten Days including a list of things  which we should refrain from doing.

Weddings are traditionally not held during the Ten Days. I always thought the issue was the distraction, but recently learned that this custom, which is not kept by all Orthodox Jews, relates to the belief that the bride and groom are given complete forgiveness by God on their wedding day. It’s like getting an out of jail free card. But in the eyes of some commentators that makes having a wedding during the 10 days of repentance a sort of gaming the system. You don’t have to worry about Yom Kippur because all your sins are forgiven on your wedding day. For similar reasons, some don’t recite the blessing on the new moon, Kiddush halevanna in Tishrei, and or participate in a rabbinical court because these are also credited with earning one a complete forgiveness.

Interestingly one is encouraged to adopt stringencies in observance, even if one can’t keep them up for the whole year. In that way, the tradition holds, you are expressing your ideal self. The example given in the Shulchan Arukh is pas ysiroel, not eating bread that has been touched anywhere in the process of its creation by a non-Jew. At the time of the Shulchan Arukh, that was not a widely observed stringency, but was adopted by a small minority. Perhaps for us today, it would mean, keeping kosher for the ten days, or saying hamotzi before eating, or studying for half an hour every morning, or making Havdalah. Each of these, or something else, might represent an aspiration of ours. We recognize we may not be able to keep these things up for the entire year, but for these Ten Days we will try even harder to meet this ideal sense of ourselves.

Finally, our tradition noticed that there are 7 non-holiday days between RH and YK that is one for each day of the week. Let’s take advantage of these day this year and snooze our way up to Yom Kippur.



Seal of Gedaliah



Jerusalem burning at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar's troops

A 16th century depiction of Jerusalem burning
at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar's troops





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