Yom Kippur Morning 2021: Open the Gates to Joy

I have to hand it to our man Moses – God’s beloved, and our most revered prophet. After all the grumbling and kvetching and threatening in which Moses has engaged through much of his farewell address to the Israelites – after all that, he finds the right words at just the right tiAs we’ve discussed for weeks now — going chapter by chapter in Deuteronomy on these Friday nights through the summer — Moses has spent an inordinate amount of time warning the people of the threats they face from the Canaanites who live just over the Jordan River. Chief among these threats is idolatry – the fear that the Israelites will find life just too hard on their own, and they will think it’s easier to blend in with the people who already live in the Promised Land. Including worshiping their gods. Everything Moses has worked for since God’s call to him at the Burning Bush could be lost to the lure of idolatry.

He’s tried to literally put the fear of God in them – warning them of the divine punishments that await them for their sins.

But in this morning’s reading, which comes close to the end of his oration, Moses pulls back on the pummeling and instead focuses on the promise.

The Eternal your God, says Moses, is establishing you “as the people whose only God is the Eternal, as you had been promised, and as God had sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Moses assures them that all future generations of their children, and all who will choose to join the Jewish people, are part of that covenant — as though we ourselves were standing on the banks of the Jordan.

And then, he gets to the most important message:

“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote. It is not in heaven … nor beyond the sea…No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it.”[1]

Moses is no less worried that Jews will find it much easier simply to stop living like Jews, eating like Jews, praying like Jews, or dressing like Jews. He’s still afraid they’ll find acculturation – or even assimilation – too powerful a draw. He’s, frankly, terrified that the experiment in Jewish self-reliance and self-governance will be too intimidating for the Israelites to do for themselves, once God has left them to their own devices.

But instead of threatening them with punishment because of their presumed weaknesses, he blesses them with kindness and promise and a future of freedom and joy because of their intrinsic strength.

And I’d like to take my cue from Moses this morning.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I focused on the threat that we all face from rampant anti-semitism, from the right and from the left. Of the Jew-hatred that lies at the heart of conspiracy theories of all sorts that spread like a plague in our country today. Like Moses, I warned what would happen if we capitulated. If we decided it was too hard for us to be Jews, and just assimilated into the larger society. In other words: What will happen if we let the bullies win.

But there’s another way to beat the bullies. And that’s not only to stand up for ourselves but to fully affirm our Jewishness. Embracing it. Rejoicing in Jewish life, in all its fullness.

There are so many ways that Judaism influences the way we behave every single day. Beyond worship and study and lifecycle events, our Jewishness permeates the way we see the world, and the way we live in it

I was inspired by a recent essay by David Harris of the American Jewish Committee. Harris took time away from his own regular warnings about antisemitism to pen an OpEd entitled “Time to Affirm Jewish Pride.” And I want to share with you my own version, in hopes that you, too, will be inspired to work for the better world that Judaism imagines for us all.[2]

I’ll use the model of Edmond Fleg’s iconic reading, “I Am A Jew.”

I am a Jew because Judaism brought to the world the notion of the one and only Creator God who established this world in all its beauty.

I am a Jew because Judaism brought to the world the notion that all of humanity is commanded to care for this world, to sustain this beauty.

I am a Jew because Judaism brought to the world the astonishing idea that every single human being is equal in God’s eyes – and therefore must be equal in our own.

As the Torah teaches over and over, without qualification: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And as the rabbis taught:

“All of humanity emanates from one single human being in order to maintain peace among people – so that one person cannot say to another: my father is greater than your father . . . .

“Any person can stamp out several coins with one seal and they’d look alike. Only God stamped people with the seal of Adam, the first human being, and not one of us is the same as any other. And since all humanity descends from one person, each and every person is obligated to say: ‘The world was created for me’ – since any one of us could be the source of all humanity.”[3]

I am a Jew because our experience of slavery reminds us that any group of people in any generation can be imprisoned by fear or hate – and because it is our responsibility to toil unceasingly for the redemption of anyone else who is enslaved. As Elie Wiesel said at his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance regarding the oppressed of the world, we must remember . . .

“that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”[4]

I am a Jew because, when we have been abandoned by the world – literally left for dead – we resurrect ourselves and recommit ourselves to not only surviving but thriving in the most inhospitable circumstances.

I am a Jew because I am so very proud that, generation after generation, my people have overcome the limitations and discriminations imposed upon us. With hard work and brains and creativity, both in Israel and around the world, we have helped the world cure diseases and explore the universe and purify drinking water — and create beautiful music and art and dance and literature and theater in astonishing volume and quality, far beyond our numbers.

I am a Jew because I believe in the responsibilities of mitzvah and tikkun: to spend each day looking for ways both to be grateful for what God has given me, and to look for ways to make life better for others.

As someone who has been through life-threatening illness, I have a deeper appreciation for being able to open my eyes every morning – and a deeper sense of responsibility for how I’m going to use the hours I/ve been given. As a Type-A who wants to complete every task with perfection, I accept what Rabbi Tarfon taught: “You are not required to complete the task, but you are also not free to refrain from it.”[5]

Or, as my wonderful commentaries professor Rabbi Ed Goldman taught: God expects us to do the best with what we’ve been given – no more, but no less.

I am a Jew because, as the song goes, wherever I go, there’s always someone Jewish. I can walk into any congregation in the world and lend my voice to the communal pleas and offerings and thanks to God.

I am a Jew – in short – because it brings me such joy. The lightness of Shabbat when it starts and the lingering sweetness when it ends. The smiles around the Seder table, and the eagerness of children to answer the four questions and find the afikomen. Dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, and dancing the hora at a bat mitzvah. Standing under a chuppah with a couple as they pledge themselves to one another according to the traditions of Moses and Israel. Seeing the proud tears of a parent at a bris or baby naming, knowing that their love of being Jewish remains alive in another generation.

I am a Jew because, every year, God grants me the gift of forgiveness and the possibility of advancement, using my brain and my heart and my hands to make this year better than the last.

I am a Jew because I have the honor of being part of a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community, that is dedicated to advancing Jewish life, and Jewish learning and Jewish prayer — year after year, generation after generation, with intense pride and immense joy. Despite the pains of loss and the pains of advancing age, despite the shrinking numbers and the financial challenges, I know that – in this new year — you all (WE all) will step up as one, and bring the world a little closer to tikkun, to the way that God intended for the world to be.

On this most sacred day – on this Sabbath of Sabbaths — Moses comes to remind us that we must look beyond the fear of failing, to the joy of success. There is no greater gift in living our Judaism this way, each and every day. It is very near to us. It is here, in our mouths and in our hearts. We can do it.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own mission here on earth, as we say together: Amen.


©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Deuteronomy 29:9-14, 30:11-14


[3] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, expanded.

[4] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1986/wiesel/26054-elie-wiesel-acceptance-speech-1986/

[5] Pirke Avot 1:16.

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