- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 15, 2006

The following are excerpts of a sermon preached by Rabbi Jack A. Luxemburg at Rockville’s Temple Beth Ami on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Fresh from a big meal and early into our 24-hour careers in repentance, we give voice to our first expressions of contrition: “I forgive everyone for everything, except for those who did things to me that are unforgivable. God, I’m sorry for whatever I did that was wrong, but it wasn’t really my fault, and I didn’t mean it anyway. Having said all that, I expect quick and complete forgiveness.”

I can just imagine God’s response: “OK. How about we deflect from you the consequences of every one of your wrongful acts? What you sent around will never come around. You’re relieved of responsibility for your actions even while others suffer from the harm you inflicted. You’ll have blanket permission to blame everyone else for anything you get caught doing. How’s that in return for a few hours in synagogue?”

“You’re kidding,” we say.

“Of course,” God says. “But you started it.”

How about this for a Yom Kippur promise: no more kidding around. In particular, no more kidding ourselves. Yom Kippur, a day of reflection, requires us to look into that honest mirror and see ourselves as we really are.

It is difficult. That is why the “Vidui,” our prayer of confession and contrition, begins with the paragraph, “Tavo Lefanecha.” In effect, it says “Our God, we really want our prayers to reach You, and not to be ignored as You might ignore the insincere mouthing of the insensitive or the arrogant. As hard as it is, we confess, we humbly acknowledge the truth. Chatanu, avinu, pashanu: we have gone astray, we have done wrong, we have transgressed.”

According to “Tavo Lefanecha,” the first thing we need to do in order to stop kidding ourselves is to overcome “kashay oref,” or the rigid arrogance, and “ahzay panim,” the unyielding insensitivity, that makes it difficult for us to recognize wrongs we have committed and hurts we have inflicted.

It’s no virtue to insist that we are the “captain of our own ship” while ignoring the course we are on. No one of us is so smart, so savvy, so well-equipped for life that we can ignore the warnings and cautions that suggest that we may be cruising towards disaster. It is this type of rigid arrogance that insists that there is nothing about who I am, or what I am doing, or about the course I am on that suggests that I should change direction or alter my actions for any reason or for the sake of any person.

It seems ironic, but the second quality we must free ourselves of is “ahzay panim.” Our unyielding insensitivity towards others reflects precisely the opposite attitude as “kashay oref,” our rigid arrogance. In the first case, we kid ourselves about our own self importance. In the second case, we kid ourselves about our own insignificance.

“Ahzay panim,” our unyielding insensitivity towards others, is often rooted in our own self-neglect, our own reluctance to enjoy the best that we can reasonably provide for ourselves. There is no virtue in living beneath our means if we use it to justify being unmoved by the needs of others. If, for some reason, we forgo the respect and consideration to which we are entitled, it does not excuse us from showing others the respect and consideration due them.

Yom Kippur prods each of us to recognize our own true selves, faults, flaws and all, in order to promote growth, change and fulfillment. The language of this day, with the emphasis on the first-person plural, the “we” and the “us,” points to an understanding that communities, too, have an identity and a collective character for which all are responsible, and that character needs be subject to honest and open scrutiny in order to flourish and to endure.

Tonight, we Jews engage in our annual effort to find our separate ways — a course for our community, a direction for our county and a path for our people — in a world that is like a house of mirrors. We know that our success depends on finding our true reflection. But distortion and illusion surround us. Some is of our own making. Of these, we repent for ourselves, and vow to remove them. Some is the result of the warping influences abroad in the world — cynicism, prejudice, violence, militarism, fanaticism and greed, to name just a few. Of these, we repent on behalf of all humankind, and we vow to resist them.

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