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Reconciliation – Yom Kippur 5778

11/13/2017 04:23:21 PM


Yom Kippur is all about Receiving Torah

You may recall a pivotal incident from our Tradition. It’s most clearly visualized in Cecil B DeMille’s, “The 10 Commandments”. I’ll set the scene for you. At God’s inspiration and command, our ancestors are raised out of slavery by Moses. They are led and brought through the red sea and the wilderness. Eventually our people arrive at the foot of Mt. Sinai and camp for an indefinite amount of time. Moses tells them that he must commune with God and that he’ll be back… eventually. 

Clearly this moment sounds like a recipe for success.

You know the theme: when the cat’s away the mice will play. Moses is gone too long and the people are uncomfortable. Yearning for stability, our ancestors rally against Aaron, Moses’ brother and build the golden calf-an idol!  Once completed our ancestors spend the rest of their time dancing and cavorting underneath the statue.

As the scene continues Moses returns to find the people worshiping the idol and becomes enraged. He is filled with a respect for God. And the betrayal at what the people have done is too much. In the process Moses smashes the tablets, destroying the first set of Commandments, the idol, and the participants. When the smoke rises, bodies are strewn on the ground and Moses has his head in his hands.

This scene was supposed to be a beautiful union between the people and God.

A covenant building moment. Instead it was tragically ruined. What occurred was the opposite of what was intended. As this scene ends, Aaron and the people are left to pick up the pieces, while Moses trudges angrily back up the mountain.


Think about all the work Moses put into leading the people and getting them to Sinai in the first place: Negotiating with Pharaoh and reporting back to God, coordinating 10 different plagues, reminding the people to not lose hope, and sticking his neck out when the people didn’t have faith. It’s understandable for Moses to take the acts of idolatry personally. I wonder about God’s reaction as well…

In the following scene, possibly weeks later, Moses returns with another set of tablets. The new ones are placed in the infamous are, alongside the first set of broken tablets. That moment with the new set of tablets seems benign in itself. Or so our Torah would have it appear.

Rashi, one of our greatest sages, is bothered by something. He’s trying to work out the math in his head. If Moses is gone for another 40 days, what time of year is it when he returns with the new tablets? Ultimately, Rashi determined that the day Moses came down with the second was Yom Kippur.

That might sound odd because normally the holiday associated with giving the Torah is Shavuot. Which is when we believe a spiritual revelation took place. What Rashi seems to deduce is that Torah may have been given that day, but it wasn’t successfully delivered. It was broken- along with the potential hopes and dreams for that moment. The laws may have been transferred, but the relationship was never sealed. The covenant with God would have to wait. It was also a moment of broken naivety between us, Moses, AND God.  We all came to see one another in a new light that day.

Which is what makes the second set of tablets so special. It’s not just a another set of Commandments. It’s a second chance. It’s God saying to Moses, I’m angry, you’re angry. If we remain this way, what will bring the people together again?.

Anger seems to be a central feeling in those scenarios.

Anger is rooted in the shame we feel for making a mistake and hurting someone else. Because we have transgressed. And anger is rooted in the trauma inflicted by someone else. Holding on to the pain makes us feel morally superior towards the sinner. This anger is not motivating, it’s paralyzing,

I wish I could say that out of this incident our Tradition birthed a lovely ritual of forgiveness and restoration. In my mind, it would involve the whole village, enumerating all the good things the offending individual had ever done. All their positive attributes and strengths are recited carefully and at length. And it would conclude with a joyous celebration as the outcast is welcomed back into the tribe.

Instead our Tradition teaches that when reconciliation is at hand we should be willing to accept the Torah of the other. Their experience, perspective and truth. Traditionally, during this season we would focus on repentance. And we should. But it would seem though that Rashi is saying that Yom Kippur is all about receiving. In particular, receiving Torah in all forms.

How do we receive?

Our Tradition actually provides two pathways by which we receive Torah:

-Bein adam l’havero – people receiving it from one another; -and bein adam l’makom – people receiving it from God. I believe we can apply these relationships personally and globally. As individuals and as members of a larger community.

According to our Tradition, we won’t receive any Torah from God unless we open ourselves to receiving the Torah of our neighbor. I take that to mean that God’s going to forgive us anyway, and in some personal manner. So we can relax about that. That should allow us to focus on the people in front of us right now. The people we need to forge a new path with.

We can also interpret that priority to mean there are smaller, everyday problems that everyone experiences: -The time your boss took credit for something you did, -the time you were offended by your in-law, -or when you cheated on something or someone. No doubt those cuts run deep. The cuts are universal and they hold us back. We would do well to listen carefully when our tradition teaches us to reconcile with people before God. It’s saying that if we can’t work out these everyday problems with one another, what could we possibly know about reconciliation and healing in the long run? And how can we expect to solve the greater problems that plague our world. Especially if we can’t even work things out personally?

Receiving the Torah of the other, in order for reconciliation to occur, takes presence. Real presence. If the only thing you’re thinking about is how much “Torah” you’re going to give them in return, then you’re not really present. Receiving Torah takes listening to the best of our capacities to what is said and not said. And it means being willing to stand there and be present even if it makes you uncomfortable.

Most of all, being present means that we are responsible for how we work it out.

There are always two sides in any conflict: husband vs wife, Democrats vs Republicans, Arabs vs Israelis, UCLA vs. USC. If you want to receive Torah you have to be willing to change the way you think about conflict. How often do you have two mature parties who are equal in their desire or ability to reconcile? Someone has to be the bigger one and to take the lead.

More importantly those people must shift the dynamic from “us vs. them”, to “how can we work through this together”. Elizabeth Lesser of the Omega Institute, calls these people the new “first-responders”. The person who takes the first step in a conflict towards the other. Those are the brave people. Sometimes the conflicts we are involved in will call on us to be more than just a participant.

Consider this example about a woman named Antoinette Tuff. A few years ago, Antoinette was a receptionist at an elementary school where Michael Hill, a troubled teen, found an opportunity to inflict pain. One day Hill burst into the school with guns and ammunition, and took hundreds of students hostage. That day, Tuff was the only person who stood between both Hill, the students, and the police. The gunman proclaimed to Antoinette that he had no reason to live and that he was willing to die.

Instead of hiding, Antoinette entered the room where Hill had situated himself. She told him that she loved the him. And she shared her own demons and stories of personal struggle with the gunman. In doing so she received his Torah, found a way to validate his pain, and shared her Torah in return.  Antoinette talked him down and Michael gave himself up.

Later that day she admitted that she had never been more scared in her life.

Yet she somehow found a way to see parts of herself in that gunman. And not to demonize him, but to connect with him, in-spite of the conflict playing out.


It’s often easy two identify the two parties in any conflict. But we usually miss a 3rd side: the friends, allies, neighbors and family members around us who can play a constructive role.

If you care about the whole, the community, relationships, or the strength of our democracy, rather than just winning for yourself, then you are a 3rd-sider. Your job is to ensure that the Torah gets properly delivered between the giver and the recipient.A 3rd-sider is able to see beneath the surface of the arguments.

They see what’s bothering and motivating each of us. They also articulate what the two parties can only sense. They help each side “go to the balcony” and get perspective. When you consider how delicate some conversations need to be, it’s helpful to have a guide.

William Ury, co-founder of the Harvard Program on Negotiation, says that being a 3rd-sider is actually a survival technique. Long ago people adapted their behavior to serve as 3rd-siders in order to establish peace between nations. We learned to cooperate and deal with our differences.

If it’s anger that holds us back from receiving Torah; It’s empathy that makes it possible again. You see empathy makes it easy for us to locate the gaps in our knowledge about one another. Giving us a chance to learn more about someone. It strengthens us when we have a mission and it motivates us to be patient. And empathy it’s crucial in taking the first step to change the conflict and point out similarities between groups. It’s remarkable how much we learn about ourselves and others when we take the time to discover what we didn’t know.

What will it take to be worthy of receiving Torah from God and one another?

I wonder, what did God learn about our ancestors when they received the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur. Did God have faith that the people learned anything at? Does God have faith that we will learn from our sins and mistakes as well?

We’re going to spend a lot of time beating our chests and acknowledging our sins.

We’ve already done it twice and we’ve got three more times to go! -We’ll say ashamnu. – for the times we have taken advantage of other people, -and hirshanu– for the times we have done wrong, -or kizavnu – for the times we have lied.

With all that chest thumping and sincerity, will it be honest enough for each other, for God? Do our neighbors wonder if we will pay more attention to our actions instead of just brushing them off? Perhaps we should admit that some wrongs cannot just be glossed over. Perhaps then those who need to forgive us will receive our Torah.

Watching our ancestors grow in-spite of their mistakes it becomes obvious that to forgive is to step out of the narratives that define us. To begin to define our own narrative. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, calls forgiveness “the most compelling testimony to human freedom. It is the refusal to be defined by circumstance.” However, something tells me that for Torah to be received by the offender, one has to forgive willingly and actively.

Waving our sins around and taking forgiveness seriously are really important elements of our lives. Torah might never have been successfully given and received if both God and Moses had persisted in their anger and disappointment. With one another and with the people.

Instead, owning up to their limitations, Moses and God decided to move forward.

They let go of their anger, even if justified to hold on to it. Instead their hearts gave love in the form of Torah- in wisdom and guidance. And I believe our ancestors recognized their flaws and still decided to open their hearts to receiving the gift being bestowed to them.

That must be what makes this day so awe-inspiring and holy, then and now.

It’s a day which reminds us that despite our limitations we can still move forward.

Think about how intractable our lives are when we can’t apologize or forgive.

When we can’t learn from our mistakes and move forward. Or let whatever it is, go, and evict the person that’s been living rent free in our heads.

Being active in reconciliation makes us worthy of receiving the Torah. Because it contains a willingness to hold more tightly to the future than to the past. I have to imagine our ability to get along with one another and work things out matters to God precisely for that reason.

So much relies on this day and our giving and receiving Torah. Yet that’s become difficult in such a divisive political year. It’s so easy to follow our selective flocks, to point a finger and vilify anyone we don’t agree with. And it happens in our own community, right here at PJTC, too.

My friends, if we allow ourselves to fall into the gridlock of tribalism we are in trouble. The difference between communities falling apart and doing something wonderful rests on the difference between talking ABOUT each other, and talking TO each other.

Conflict can be a good thing because it’s a part of life, it’s how things get done. We can’t get rid of conflict, but we can transform it. We can transform destructive forms of conflict to constructive forms of conflict, like: dialogue, democracy, and cooperation. However, we will never be able to fix the greater problems of the world if are incapable of looking at each other honestly, accept responsibility, and letting go of anger. We need a Torah that challenges us to be present, pushes us to respond lovingly even if it frightens us, and guides us to reach a mutual truth between parties.

I wonder, what would today be like if God and Moses had never come down that mountain so long ago? It would have been so easy to ruminate up there. Recalling all the evidence that would justify leaving the Israelites behind.  Who would guide us? Had our ancestors never accepted fault and learned from their sin, would we still me wandering the dessert now?

It would be a mistake to think that this moment today is far different from that moment long ago. The same pressure and obligation to reconcile rests on our shoulders as it did for our ancestors.

May it be year in which we act bravely, taking the first steps to reconcile with those whom we’ve wrong; and reaching back to those who have wronged us even if it frightens us a year in which we look for common ground with our neighbor; a year when we take our transgressions seriously and seriously forgive.

And may it be a year in which we come down from the mountain top to give voice to and receive a Torah that we might really need to hear.

Shabbat shalom
Shana tovah
Gmar hatimah tovah

Tue, September 17 2019 17 Elul 5779