Note: This sermon by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky was first delivered at a synagogue on Yom Kippur 2000/5761:
As I look around this crowded sanctuary, seeing people who frequent this holy space only on occasion, I am always intrigued, wondering what motivates the infrequent shul goer to come to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. And certainly after a long day in services, what motivates that person to come back the following year. This is not merely a question that I ask of you. Nor am I trying to be critical or judgmental. Even as I articulate the question, I know that I am asking aloud the same question that I ask myself each year. What is it that motivates us to come here?
Is it guilt that brings us here? Is it habit? Is it the desire to be with family and friends? Even for those who come late or leave early, there is something special, something “other,” something holy that bids us to draw close to this place. It is certainly not the spiritually imposed “quick loss weight plan”! Maybe it is simply to hear the stirring strains of Kol Nidre at the beginning of the holiday or perhaps it is the blast of the shofar that marks its successful conclusion, successful, that is, because we are still here to listen to it—something that, in itself, offers us pause.
We get dressed up. We make arrangements, we make plans. We juggle our busy schedules and struggle to fit our obligations into the remaining days of the week. Then we rush to the synagogue, dodging the cars that line the street and overflow the parking lot. But it is the one time of year in the Jewish calendar that seems to me to be rather counter-intuitive. Think about it: We spend a lot of time planning for something that we just don’t look forward to doing.
Let me explain. I am afraid of this day. I am scared of it. Petrified, terrified. And it is this fear that tells me to stay away from the synagogue while at the same time forcefully draws me near to it. Where else should I go when I am so frightened? As I read and re-read each line of the liturgy, hanging onto one word or idea, often falling behind while the cantor and the rabbi rush forward to make sure that they get everything in, I am filled with dread. I am overwhelmed by the profound depth of the experience that I fear is missed by many. The words sear my soul. They become stones that weigh my soul down heavily. I become broken upon reading them, worrying that they were written specifically for me: “Who will die this year? Who by fire and who by water?”
And if I close my eyes, which I dare not do, I can see the fluttering wings of the angel of death, the malach hamavet, hovering close by, waiting, just waiting to hear what takes place inside this sacred precinct. I know because she has come close to our family before and it took all the strength we could muster to force her away. She left unfulfilled but I know, she waits at the door, lurking mischievously for the opportunity to pounce on someone more deserving.
I am frightened because I know that she will have the opportunity to visit someone, somewhere, someplace before we will all come together again next year.
These words are not meant to be critical nor chastising nor will I segue into the familiar and uncomfortable company line—you know, come to shul more often, observe Shabbat, the holidays and kashrut. I need not coerce you nor need I stand in judgment, certainly not in a time or a place where God is plenty enough judge.
I know that I have not been all that I could be over the last 12 months. I have made many mistakes. There are people whom I have hurt. There are plans that I left unfinished. There are things that I did that I should not have. And there are things that were left undone that I should have completed. And there are many whom I wanted to help and just could not find the inner strength to do so.
There were times when I disappointed my family, my friends, myself. And as a result, there were times that I disappointed my God. Of that there is no doubt. And so I drag myself to the synagogue, this evening and tomorrow, worried not at the length of the service or at the length of the fast, but, ironically, I am worried by its brevity. I am only given about 24 hours to plead my case. I am helped along by the tradition, given the opportunity to focus by not having to attend to my daily needs—no work, no food, no drink, no intimate relations. I am even prohibited, in large measure, from worrying about what to wear or how to dress. But only 24 hours to convince God that I deserve to be given another chance at life, another opportunity, another year before I come back and humbly present myself once again.
As I list my sins, hidden behind cleverly constructed proems like ashamnu and al chet shchatanu, I realize that there are too many to be glossed over in the words of prayer. And this kol nidre, as I am released from the vows that I have taken and may yet take, I know in my heart that there will be promises that I will make, promises that I swear that I will try to keep, knowing full well that I will be unable to keep many of them. And I imagine that you will do the same.
And so, before you leave this evening, or finish your prayers tomorrow, before the gates of Neilah close and we have one last time to plead our case before God, I ask you now to do just one thing. Take this day more seriously than you may have perhaps ever before done so. Your life truly depends on it. Consider what you are doing here, what it is that really brought you here, and what you need to do while you are here. Know that it is indeed a day of awe, a day filled with trembling. It is a day when we all stand equally naked before God, humbly asking for forgiveness, for mercy, so that we may be sustained in the coming year through the blessings of health, life, and well-being.
May I take the liberty of leaving you with my own simple prayer—May it be God’s will to enable us all to come together next year, knowing full well that we might not find our way here during the days in between. And when the angel of death returns to threaten once again, may she leave this place empty-handed.