I wrote this little doozy to present at Yom Kippur today. I kind of hate it, super vague and grimly stylized. I didn't want to make it too narrow, though, and I feel pretty angry about the state of my putative soul, so bring it on! Ultimately it's just whiny, maybe. I wanted it to be "from the heart" but I guess my heart just whines:
As is appropriate for today, I’ll begin by apologizing. I really wanted to speak today but when I was writing this I realized I’m not a scholar or a rabble-rouser and I don’t have a great story to tell you. This is more vinegar than honey. I’m sorry. I’m just angry at the insanities in our world and frustrated with my own tshuva failures. I’m afraid that other people don’t mean it. I am not trying to make you feel guilty. It’s better to mourn, learn, and change. Do we really regret our failures, or is this an empty ritual of self-pity and denial?
Let me be clear. When I say “we” I really mean each of us. I don’t want to be sloppy. I’m not acting out a rhetorical device. I’m not trying to speak for you. I want to be brave this year. It is ridiculously hard to be brave alone. I want to do what is right even if it is not easy and not fun and not fulfilling. I want us to be brave together.
It is easy to regret relational failures. I’m not always generous with my partner. I leave dishes for my housemates to wash. I come late to work, and have to be reminded to do what I say I’ll do. I don’t return phone calls. I am too hard on myself. People near you can be asked to forgive. That is acting like a private individual. We are part of something larger.
Maybe I am too gentle with myself. I have done things that only god can forgive. The machzor’s alternative Al Chet is very specific: we polluted our environment. We cut ourselves off from people of other races and cultures. We ignored important issues in our own country and community. We gave less tzedakah than we could afford. It’s just true. Ask yourself, what could I have given up in my life so that a hungry person could eat? Do I drive a car when I don’t have to? Who can forgive us?
I think, if I had more money, or more time, I could do better. That is an excuse, and a lie, and a sin. We have enough. We have enough to make us comfortable and to make us cowards, afraid to change or challenge the privileges we enjoy. You know what the things are, that you do, that are wrong. That seems petty, you say to yourself, this is not a big deal! I do enough. No. We have enough to do more.
We have become artists of the status quo—doing what is normal even when it is destructive, ignoring what is unspeakable because we didn’t make it happen. The Talmud says that silence is assent. When were you silent? Our many silences have led to horrors, even deaths. We are the lucky ones.
As liberal Jews we have a vague idea that the best authority is the community. We got rid of the priestly and rabbinical hierarchies for good reasons. We haven’t chosen other authorities by which we will consent to be commanded. We’ve grown out of being god’s children and into being god’s co-creators. Without a god that we can beg and placate, do we know how to repent any more? We have failed, again this year, to fulfill the work that we know is just and right. We like to call sin ‘missing the mark’ because if we called it evil, we might have to consider the foundations of our lives. We didn’t just miss the mark, we turned our backs on the bow and arrow. We gave up archery.
I want us to use what we do have—this community—to feel grounded and strong. Let us call each other to commandedness. We are who is commanding.
Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi said, “there is more good than evil in the world—but not by much.” What if we were really commanded to do right? What if we loved this fragile world enough to change it? Let’s imagine that we do have power. Let’s fantasize that there is a force of love and transformation in the world that we are part of. And let’s notice that when we settle for passivity, it is a crying shame and a cosmic moral failure. If there are angels, they weep.
This is not a guilt trip. Let’s reclaim commandment. Not blind obedience, but deep passion for the true. Let us do what is right, because it is right, even when it’s crazy and unpopular and troublesome and expensive. Let us be brave together this year, as it is written: the holy one gives us strength in our struggle, and blesses us with peace.