Yom Kippur 5778

Rabbi Danny Rich, 29 September 2017

In my current post the High Holy Days becomes a ‘season of writing’ – not only of sermons, of course, but of articles including, for example this year, on the significance of the shofar for the Essex Jewish News, about fasting for the Jewish News and, in replying to an enquiry on the Liberal Judaism ‘Ask the Rabbi’ contact form, concerning the wearing of leather shoes on Yom Kippur.

Last week a person who knew I was a rabbi and officiated at funerals asked me if there had ever been an occasion where there was nothing nice to say about the deceased. I demurred but was reminded of the story of the rabbi of a small town which was dominated by two violent, criminal brothers. Unexpectedly one of the brothers died, and, since neither brother had ever appeared in the synagogue or made any contribution to a Jewish charity, the rabbi was surprised to learn that he was expected to officiate at the funeral. To offer consolation and prepare the eulogy he went to see the surviving brother who seemed rather more upbeat than might have been expected. The rabbi began, “Can you tell me what I might say about your brother?” The response was rather a shock. “Nothing! I am pleased he has gone. Now all the proceeds of our ‘security’ business will be mine! The rabbi made a quick exit but soon discovered that, whilst everybody in the town knew he was dead, not a single was prepared to talk about him. The day of the funeral came and, although the congregation was few in number, the rabbi asked if anybody would like to pay tribute to the deceased. Silence greeted him, and, looking at the surviving the rabbi found himself saying, “He leaves a successful business to his brother whom he is not as bad as!”

In our world today success – and its measurement- has become an overwhelming and loud motif hovering over much of what we are engaged in. It is, of course, possible to measure many aspects of our activities, and there is no excuse for waste, sloth and incompetence. Yet how is kindness or decency to be measured?

I was rather captivated by an idea in an article which was introduced to me by my colleague, Rebecca Birk at Finchley Progressive Synagogue, on this Shabbat Shuvah. She shared with her community an article by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, titled ‘The Moral Bucket List’:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues: the curriculum vitae (CV) virtues and the eulogy virtues. The CV virtues are the skills you bring to the market place. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral –whether you were kind, brave, honest, {and} faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the CV ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build an inner character.

Yom Kippur – and indeed a Jewish life centred upon Jewish values lived in a Jewish community – is about the eulogy virtues and, whether our CV virtues would be considered substantial or marked ‘room for improvement’ by ourselves or others, Yom Kippur is the opportunity par excellence to reflect upon – and yes perhaps to measure too-the depth of our eulogy virtues – or, at least, a chance to begin an appraisal!

We may be helped by the notion that the appraiser is not seeking to dwell on our failures – although we do need to reflect how we might not repeat them – but is much more interested in our successes. A dwelling on our failures will lead to self-destruction; a celebration of only our success will lead to self-delusion but an acknowledgment of both should lead to transformation.

Our tradition reflects this theology in well-known midrash:

A ruler had some empty glasses. Said the ruler, “If I pour hot water into them, they will burst; if cold water, they will contract {and snap}.” What did the ruler do? The ruler mixed hot and cold water and poured it into them, and they remained {unbroken}. “Similarly,” said the Eternal God, “If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of judgement alone, the world will not exist. Hence I will create it on the basis of judgment and of mercy that it may stand!” (Genesis Rabbah 12:15)

May we emerge from Yom Kippur mercifully judged.
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