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Yom Kippur: Choosing One's Path Sermon

Sermon by Cantor Felder-Levy

Sept. 23, 2015

When I went off to college at almost age 18, I planned to study Hotel Management; but, the program was in the school of business and I was not going to make the GPA to get into the business school; so, I needed to change my major.  

But before officially changing my major, my family went on a vacation, giving me a chance to have a great conversation with my dad.  My dad said, “You have to be happy with what you are doing in your life, job-wise.  If you are not happy then it spills over into everything else, but most importantly, into your home; and if you are not happy, then no one else will be happy.”  These words hit home and so I changed my major to music, specifically music education, with the ultimate goal of studying to become a cantor.  

I was lucky on two fronts.  First, in the back of my mind, I knew that music and specifically, becoming a cantor were really my first choice.  I chose Hotel Management because I wanted to be in a career where I had a lot of connections to people.  When my GPA “forced me” to change my major, it became very evident that I was now truly on the correct path.  Secondly, I had the support of my parents.  My mother and my grandmother instilled in me my love for Judaism, as well as my love of Jewish music.  My father wanted me to be happy and successful.  It was clearly the right choice for me.


But what happens when we choose our paths and do not have a support system behind us?  In the car with my children, I listen to the radio with my children, driving them crazy, as I am always listening to the lyrics and the meanings of the songs.  While I had the experience of having supportive parents allowing me to follow my dreams, one of those songs, I Bet My Life, by the band Imagine Dragons and written by Dan Reynolds struck home because it was the opposite of my experience.  The song begins with these lyrics, “I know I took the path that you would never want for me. I know I let you down, didn’t I.”   The song continues that “you”, in this case, the composer’s parents, always waited up late at night, that he brought them too many tears, and that he went on a path, choosing to be a musician, that they didn’t envision for him.


The High Holy Days are a time for introspection.  We look at our behavior, our actions, and the words that we used over the course of the last year.  We forgive ourselves and forgive those we have wronged.  Once, we have done that, we then ask God for forgiveness.  But how do we ask for forgiveness, when we choose to go one way and someone else envisioned us going on a different path.  For some, this leads to heartbreak and may cause a tear in the family structure or friendship.  It is hard for the other person to place themselves in our shoes, just as it is difficult for us to place ourselves in their shoes.  When disagreements occur, harsh words may be spoken.  Words cannot be taken back and they can injure just as sharply as being stabbed by a knife.  


Family estrangements occur all the time and are nothing new in history, seeing as stories of estrangement go all the way back to biblical times.  In the Akedah, Abraham goes to sacrifice his son and though an angel stops his hand before he can see it through, the damage is done.  Isaac never speaks to Abraham again and the act ultimately causes the death of Sarah as well.  Jacob steals Esau’s birthright, causing a rift between the brothers, as Esau threatens to kill Jacob.  Years later they meet.   Esau greets him and the two reconcile and yet, they then go separate ways and never speak again.


How different is that from the many stories that I have heard in meeting with families before a B’nai Mitzvah or a funeral.  There are stories about siblings not speaking to each other or with their parents.  Sometimes the reason for the estrangement is clear and other times, there is even more hurt because there is no clear understanding of why the estrangement has occurred.  In some of these instances, reconciliation happens but slowly and in others, there is never any reconciliation and they were never able to heal. 


Often when we speak harsh words, they may be in the midst of a fight.  Experts suggest pausing 10 seconds before you speak in addition to taking a deep breath in order to know what words will be coming from our mouths. When we are fighting, pausing is hard enough, and probably the last thing we even begin to think about is our relationship to God.  But what would happen if we thought of God before we spoke.  Earlier this morning, we began the Amidah section of our service with the words from Psalm 51:17 “God, open up my lips that my mouth may declare your glory.”  Rabbi Karyn Kedar, my parent’s rabbi said the following in her book God Whispers: Stories of the Soul, Lessons of the Heart, “What if every time we went to speak, we said that phrase first?  If before I answered my spouse, I asked if what I am about to say reflects my spiritual aspirations? If before I went to share a story about another person’s life, I asked whether it would reflect the holiness in the world?  If before I engaged in idle conversation, I said, “God, when I speak, may it declare Your glory”?  If you paused before you spoke, maybe even connected to God, could our conversations be different.”


If we paused before we spoke, even if we didn’t say these words, but just took a moment to really collect our thoughts, would it make a difference in the outcome of the argument or discussion?  Would it keep us from opening our mouths and inserting our foot? What happens when we utter those harsh words?  We can’t really take them back.  Even if we don’t mean them, there is usually a small kernel of truth in those harsh words.  


Reb Nachman of Bratzlav said, "O God, help me avoid every abuse of speech. Let no untrue word escape my lips. I pray that I may never speak badly of others, or speak empty words of flattery. Help me stay away from profanity. Teach me, dear God, when to keep silent and when to speak; and when I speak, O God, save me from using Your wonderful gift of speech to humiliate or hurt others.”


This is where t’shuvah - returning comes in to play.  When we can acknowledge the wrong that we have committed, apologize to the person that we have wronged, commit ourselves to strive to be a better person, then we can experience true repentance and forgiveness.


At the end of the T’fillah section of the service, the rabbi’s gave us a time to offer our own prayers or a couple of prayers that speak to us personally.  The Elohai N’tzor, which the choir will sing in a few minutes, asks God to keep our tongue from evil, to ignore those who slander us and yet, help us to remain humble.  The text asks God to open our hearts that we may do mitzvot and that those who try to harm us don’t succeed.  The prayer concludes with “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be pleasing to you, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer.”


I have often recited this text when I have had those moments where I wish I could take back something that I said, or when I hear that someone has said something about me.  I draw upon my faith through our text and through our music.  


T’shuvah is one of the hardest things that we do.  It isn’t just about apologizing, its’ about doing some serious soul-searching, confronting our own behavior, and looking at the ways that we might stop ourselves from repeating these painful wrongs.


In the Imagine Dragon song, our singer had left home, saw the world and it seemed as if he would never go running home.  However, he sees his parents in everything he does and asks for forgiveness for the pain he caused them in his younger years.  It is not easy to break into the music business, but maybe, now that he has, knowing the road that it took to get there, he can understand a little of where his parents were coming from.  And through rebellious teenage years to his struggles in the early days as a musician, he sees the struggle that his parents had, perhaps in their own jobs and in raising him. And when he says, “Please forgive me for all I’ve done.”, it comes from a place of great compassion for his parents.


As the end of the Yamim Noraim, the 10 days of repentance, come to a close, we ask God to give us the strength to recognize within ourselves the strength to admit when we are wrong, and the power to open our lips with a sense of holiness and love.      


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