High Holidays sermons
5783 Rosh Hashana Morning Sermon – Rabbi Allan Finkel
It’s an odd thing. So many of us — including me for many decades of my life — so many of
us navigate our lives comfortably over the course of the year out in the real world, but as the
High Holidays approach, we find ourselves drawn to the doors of our synagogues, here at
Temple Shalom and around the world. We are competent in our lives to varying degrees —
physically and intellectually and emotionally and even spiritually. And in the background, we
love knowing that our sanctuary doors are always available to us if the urge hit us. But it’s at
this time of year, as the summer winds down and the days get shorter, that somehow, we find
ourselves drawn back and through the doors of our chosen sanctuaries. Somewhere inside us,
we have a sense that part of “Who Am I?” – “Who I Am” — has a spiritual piece that we need to
express and re-engage, and that is tied into our Judaism, and that we are likely to find some of
that here at Temple Shalom, during the High Holidays.
But spirituality is tricky and finding our own ideas of a spirituality that might work for us is
even tricker. Judaism, like all religions, offers a pathway for self-reflection and spiritual growth,
including a relationship with God, and ways forward to be the best of who we can be.
But our challenge is that we don’t really know a whole lot about Judaism, or about Jewish
spirituality or God. So, how do we start? Most of us aren’t rabbis, some of us have had some
Hebrew school learning, but even then, we were probably were too young to grasp complex
ideas like spirituality or theology, and we simply were told what to believe, which either worked
for us or it didn’t.
We know, from the stories of our sacred text, the Torah, that being Jewish, being spiritually
Jewish is not meant to be easy. Our very name, Israel, and our identity as the children of Israel
comes from the name given to Jacob after he fought a spiritual being in his dreams. Jacob’s new
name comes with a story that still defines us today. Israel — Yisra-el — translates as the ones
who wrestle with God. This uneasiness with God as part our spirituality is part of our tradition,
yet it is something we don’t talk about much. We have so many ways of defining our Jewishness
that God is a topic amongst Jews that we can easily evade or avoid.
But when we seek that spiritual connection, we aren’t always sure where to find the
answers. As I said, most of aren’t rabbis. In many ways, we are like Jews in the diaspora 1,000
years ago, at the time that an unknown author created the U’Netaneh Tokef. We were
relatively uneducated and left it to our rabbis to find ways of teaching us when we were sure to
show up, places like our synagogues on the High Holidays, and through the prayers that they
The good news and the bad news is that our High Holiday prayers offer some ideas about
who God is and what our spiritual relationship with God might look like. The good news is that
we have powerful ideas presented to us in simple terms. The bad news is that the ideas are
quite terrifying and off-putting.
If we think back to when we arrived this morning, we began Rosh Hashanah with beautiful
greetings for each other — Shana Tova U’metukah — our wishes for a good and sweet year
ahead. This is a time for apples and honey. But by the time we reach Yom Kippur, we somehow
shift towards a more somber wish — “G’mar Chatimah Tova. May you have a good final
sealing,” based on an ancient belief that our fates for the next year are “written” on Rosh
Hashanah and are sealed by God on Yom Kippur. These last words, Gmar Chatimah Tovah
essentially capture the message of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that we recited earlier, that I said
I suggested that I would explore.
The prayer offers graphic images of some of the fates to which we might succumb in the
next year: “Who shall live, who shall die, who shall live their allotted time, who shall depart
before their allotted time, who by water and who by fire, who by the sword and who by the
wild beast… – with the final reminder that “repentance, prayer and charity can avert that harsh
As Rabbi Laura Geller notes about this prayer, “it is simple, it is powerful, and it is terrifying
— it offers images that are meant to grab us and shake us, to wake us up to the reality of our
mortality. Some of us will live through this year and some of us will die.” At a literal level, it
describes how God works in this world — that we are herded before God, one by one, and
written into the Book of Life by the end of Yom Kippur. Or not. And we reflect this story by our
final wishes to each other as we go through this day — G’mar Chatimah Tova — at the end of
this day, may you have a good writing by God, into the Book of Life.”
There is no way around it. The words of the Unetaneh Tokef are harsh and direct.
The good thing about this prayer is its simplicity. It is something that children can
understand, for better and for worse. And 1,000 years ago, it is something that uneducated
Jews — those who weren’t rabbis — could grasp. And it also gives us a convenient theme to
frame the High Holidays, if someone asks us what the High Holidays are about. “Oh,” we say.
“We have a ten-day period every year, where we sort of have a group confessional, where we
figure out what we did wrong over the past year, either to others, to ourselves or to God and
we repair it. And we get focus by the idea that God is judging us and by the end of the High
Holidays, God decides whether we have done enough, sort of writing us into the Book of Life.”
The whole problem, though, with this image of God is how it becomes perhaps the
dominant Jewish idea of what God is, because this prayer is pretty much the only teaching we
get as Jewish adults on the topic. For the many of us who show up only for the High Holiday
services, this is what we get served on a platter year after year after year.
Think of those harsh images and it is hardly a surprise that this prayer offers concepts – of a
God on a throne before whom we tremble – that are hard for us to accept. That unknown
writer, 1000 years ago, tapped into our primal fear — of our own mortality. This prayer is in fact
consistent with some of the idea of God in the Torah — God as a judge, the one who creates life
and takes life, the one who blesses and curses, the one who punishes. It is the God of
Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah. But for me and for many people I have spoken with,
this prayer creates clear images of God that are so overwhelming that they sort of walk away,
saying “that idea of God doesn’t work for me”… and then they don’t look elsewhere.
And this is where I am so uncomfortable with this prayer, because it crowds out so many
other beautiful ideas of God might be for me, what our Jewish spirituality might be for me, as
expressed in so many different ways in our Torah and our rabbinical teachings and so many of
our other prayers.
So, what do we do with this U’netaneh Tokef prayer in our times? How do we make it
meaningful for us today? It is an often-asked question with many possible answers. Leonard
Cohen offered his perspective in his poem “Who by Fire” asking us to find our own answer to
the unknowable, in his haunting last line that completes every verse, offering us a question,
leaving it to us to find an answer — “Who shall I say is calling?”
And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?
And I will offer a beautiful understanding, again by Rabbi Laura Geller. She writes that “the
God I believe in is not the one described in the Unetaneh Tokef. God is not responsible for what
we do to each other. We are responsible. The God I believe in is a presence, not a person. The
God I believe in is the power that makes it possible for us to connected to each other…The God
I believe in doesn’t write in a book of life or death, doesn’t decree who will live and who will
die. The God I believe in animates a material universe where everything that lives eventually
dies, some by fire, some by water, some by sword…some by epidemic. The God I believe in is
the Divinity I experience in the gift of my life and my breath. It is…up to me to make something
meaningful with that gift.”
And she goes on to reshape the idea of the harsh decree of the original Unetaneh Tokef.
She writes, “Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. People will get sick. People will
get into accidents. People will die. We can’t change the truth of our lives, but we can change
how we experience what is happening, how we respond to what happens, through tefilla,
tzedakah and T’shuvah. Through prayer, charity and return.”
This is what I want to leave you with: Each of these remarkable voices looking at the same
prayer finds their own truths, and so can you. As we share and consider new ideas on old
themes, we speak to the essential beauty of Judaism and especially Reform Judaism, where we
are offered the individual autonomy to answer the question “Who am I?” in a way that
resonates within each of us, to learn, to discern, to choose what fits us best, what feels right in
our hearts and in our spirits. There is no right or wrong answer. There is only your answer.
I would like to offer you the broadest encouragement as you seek your paths over these
High Holidays and into the year ahead: as we go through our High Holiday prayers, we can each
choose our own internal shaping of what God is or might be, and build our own pillars to
support our spirituality and find ways to fill our spiritual fuel tanks to take into the world, in
personal ways that are meaningful to us — not just from our prayers and poems and music, but
as well from the incredible lore from our sacred texts or our rabbinical teachings.
Our Torah teaches us that our ancestors found and expressed their spirituality in unique
ways. We learn that God can be anywhere. For Abraham, God was a daytime experience, for
Jacob it was in his dreams, for Moses in a burning bush. For some of them, for some of us
today, it may have been a whisper, an inspiration out of nowhere, a tug inside of us that
nudged us towards the high road rather than the low road. It can be an oh-wow moment in
nature, or God as creator or as a father or as a mother or the protector or God as an artist, it
can be the loving God of the Ahavat Olam, who in love gave us the gift of Torah, or the warm
embrace of the Hashkivenu or the trusting God of the Modeh Ani that starts every morning
service. Or it can be a God who unconditionally loves us, even here during the High Holidays,
and shines a light to help guide us towards a good path. We can pray to God or pray with God
or with each other. It can be in a prayer or meditation that resonates with us that we say over
and over again. Or it can be in our actions and in the impact we have in the world around us,
inspired from the profound Jewish ethical teachings that somehow all flow back to our
experience at Mount Sinai, or it can be some of the above or all of the above or anything else
that simply resonates with you.
And unlike what the Netanah Tokef suggests, maybe we can reframe those final words
“Gmar Chatimah Tova” in ways that are meaningful for us. It can be about a wish for a good
sealing by God in the Book of Life, but it can also be a different good writing – our commitment
by the end of Yom Kippur to find a good answer to the question “Who Am I” and to be able to
say, “This is Who I Am.”
May we use these days of contemplation to reflect on Who Am I, Who We Are. May we
choose to live life driven by our spirituality, recognizing that we do not live alone in the world,
that what we do and say matters, that we are meant to be connected to each other, and our
family, friends and community, and that we are each accountable for our actions, if not with
our fellow humans then most certainly in the knowledge that we were all created in the image
of God, so perhaps we ought to live that way.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.
5783 Yom Kippur Eve – Remarks before the Kol Nidre Prayer – Rabbi
Kol Nidre, the central liturgy as we step into these final 25 hours of Yom Kippur, expresses
the ideas that we can be released from the promises or the vows we made to God, but that we
still have a responsibility to acknowledge the vows or promises that we made to others and to
ourselves, and that is up to us to repair those promises. This prayer, then, is about
accountability, that it is always open to us to return (Teshuvah) — to be the best of ourselves as
we also commit show up exactly that new way in the lives of others, every day.
During these High Holidays, I have asked again and again, for each of us to consider the
question “Who Am I?” Rabbi Laura Geller, who I have cited before, offers an interesting
approach to the idea of Kol Nidre. For her, in her words, “Who Am I” is about “imagining who I
am without any of the promises I have made. Who am I if I am not a wife, a mother, a
daughter, a sister, a friend, a teacher, a rabbi: Who am I without my vows?” And at the end of a
long and exhausting day of reflection, she asks, which vows do I want to make again? N’ilah
[our closing prayer tomorrow evening] then is less about the closing of the gates than the
retying of the vows I want to make again.”
So that is my challenge and perhaps yours as well, as we approach this seminal spiritual
moment, as we stand in the presence of the haunting melodies and lyrics of Kol Nidre. “Who
am I”…this time shaped by the notion that “who I am” may be defined by the labels that adorn
me and the associated commitments, the vows, I make to everyone around, by the promises I
keep or don’t keep in every one of those relationships, with myself, with God. Tonight, because
of all those relationships with those around me, “Who I am” may well be restated as “Who am I
as part of the world of We?”
Rabbi Akiva suggests that WE may be the entire essence of the Torah — “V’ahavta Et
Re’echa Kamocha, love others as you would love yourself” — may be the central idea of who
we are as Jews and human beings defined by the quality of our relationships. For me, every one
of the labels that I own, each of my relationships has embedded in them a series of promises,
that are supported by identifiable spiritual values that I can define and choose to live by — as a
rabbi, the promise I make to you to ensure that my spiritual leadership comes from a good
spiritual place, consistency and commitment and kindness and connection and torah, to teach,
to listen and to learn from you as well. As a father, my promises are based on unconditional
love and healthy nurturance and curiosity in the passing on of good values. As a friend and as a
partner — I can turn to trust, open-mindedness, curiosity, steadfastness, loyalty patience and
healthy communication and good boundaries, and love and caring. Those are the promises I will
choose to keep and to honour. The Kol Nidre prayer is a reminder to me to work on the details,
where I have fallen short, where I have missed the mark.
5783 Yom Kippur Eve, The High Holiday Pitch – Rabbi Allan Finkel
Coming out of the pandemic and now into my fourth year as your spiritual leader and rabbi
here at Temple Shalom, I was asked by our Temple co-presidents to stand before you tonight
on Erev Yom Kippur, to deliver our annual High Holiday pitch on behalf of Temple Shalom. It’s
not something that rabbis are usually or sort of ever asked to do, but I immediately sensed
there were a lot of reasons for me to say yes, some related to the insights I have gleaned as
your spiritual leader for the past three years but more so as a congregant who has sat beside
you since Yom Kippur 1990, 32 years ago tomorrow, when I first walked into the doors of
Temple Shalom for the children’s service with my little daughter and somehow, I never left.
This is where I really grew into my Judaism, and I have lived and breathed with this
congregation, through its ups and downs and always through its resilience, as we have been the
single bastion of liberal Judaism in this great city of Winnipeg, the only Reform congregation
between Calgary to the west and Windsor Ontario, to the east, somehow a tiny light that shines
fiercely in a seemingly vast wilderness.
It is this light that I want to focus on this evening, and what it takes to sustain that light, our
own Ner Tamid, in a traditional Jewish community in Winnipeg that has little knowledge and
little awareness of North America’s largest Jewish denomination.
Some time ago, a rabbinical colleague wrote about heroism, and it is a term that has stayed
with me. He expressed the idea that we rabbis are not the heroes of our congregations, nor are
our volunteers, our presidents, our staff, our boards. So, don’t give because of us.
We are not the ones carrying that light. You are, everyone here today. Heroism resides
within each of us, every member of our congregation, every friend who has chosen to step
through our doors and to sit side-by-side with us. Heroism resides within every one of you who
have chosen to join us from your living rooms or hospital beds, online, or who have chosen
simply to drop in and visit us online, from Winnipeg or across Canada or around the world.
I have seen, heard and felt your individual stories of your personal heroism in how you
found Temple Shalom, what you discovered and why you stay, and it comes from many places
and means so many things. And your stories of heroism are each meaningful and powerful.
There has been one constant in all those conversations. We know why we are here. We feel
in our heart of hearts that we are liberal Jews, each of us seeking modern ways of living
Jewishly, and knowing that this community, this congregation in which we are sitting is filled
with “kindred spirits’ to borrow a wonderful expression from Anne Shirley in Anne of Green
We are interfaith families who broke from the traditions of our parents, in an act of
heroism, looked for and found a welcoming home that meets our needs. We are Jews by
choice, who found something warm and wonderful in our research on Judaism and especially
liberal Judaism that led us here and discovered an attractive way of Jewish living and an easy
acceptance once we were here. And so many of us are Jews who became Reform Jews by
choice, stepping away from the familiar traditional paths of our parents and grandparents,
because we wanted more and needed more from our Judaism, because we liked asking
questions that didn’t have easy answers, because we were seeking a Judaism that engaged us,
something that felt modern, that responded to changing times in meaningful ways. And we too
are heroes, because we have chosen to walk the road less travelled.
Almost no one here in this congregation in the middle of the prairies grew up in Reform
Judaism, and that is why I described us as Reform Jews-by-choice. We have struck out on our
own, away from our family traditions and said, “I need liberal Judaism, and this is the place that
represents it.” For us, Temple Shalom is not a building. It is an idea. It is the light that we
nurture, just like this Ner Tamid above us, an eternal light we aspire to pass on to the next
generation and the next and the next. This is the place and space, physically and spiritually,
where liberal Judaism lives.
But I sense that our time has come — where we are not looking only to survive but now to
grow, that we are and will be far more than this tiny light in this community in the years to
come. And I have come to believe this more and more, as we travelled into and through COVID.
Somehow, unlike so many other synagogues and churches that struggled and shrunk during the
pandemic, our membership numbers have stayed stable year over year –a quiet affirmation by
your quiet recommitments that we are on the right path into this new world ahead of us.
We have reshaped how we gather as a community, now with the option of doing everything
live or online, wherever we might be. And we are part of an extraordinary and deeply
connected Reform movement, here in Canada and as active members of the URJ (the Union for
Reform Judaism), where we are looking at the big picture of where Judaism is going and where
our Temples are going. And we are not doing this alone, but as part of a shared community who
are asking the same questions that we are asking, about “Creative Reimagining of Jewish
community” with ideas from everywhere, small congregations talking to other small
congregations and learning from bigger ones and the bigger ones learning from us, essentially
getting us out of the old boxes of “we do services, we have a building, we have a rabbi, we have
a religious school, we do life cycle events.” This is old thinking and it stopped working a long
time ago, long before COVID. Everywhere.
And everything I am hearing tells me that we are on the right track, that we are exactly
where the changing demographics of our North American Jewish community are moving, the
same demographics we have here in Winnipeg. 72% of all Jews intermarrying. Young people
still wanting spirituality, but in new ways, and especially wanting to be part of communities that
care, that place Tikkun Olam – the repair of the world – front and centre. Truly open doors for
people of colour and the LGBTQ2+ community seeking an easy and accepting and welcoming
home. Our greater use of English and responsive readings helping us to connect more deeply
and find new meaning in our traditional Hebrew prayers. New music from new Reform
composers everywhere including our own Len Udow and Janet Pelletier-Goetze, and creative
services with new ideas overlayed with the traditional. All these reflect a movement that is
committed not just to survive but to thrive, bringing Jews closer to Judaism in the broadest
sense. This is a movement where the light shines bright, and has the courage – the heroism – to
move to where Judaism needs to be. This is our movement.
And we are not just watching, we are doing. Yesterday, our new website went online, a
beautiful beacon for Reform Judaism in Winnipeg, incredibly accessible, incredibly positive and
reflecting who we are, not what we wish we could be. And as we move forward, we are looking
at all sort of new initiatives here. Judaism unwalled. Judaism unboxed. Building on our
incredibly successful Intro to Judaism course that has been of equal interest to Jews and non-
Jews alike, that will start again in January, and taught by Sherry Wolfe-Elazar. New ideas on
experiential Judaism that aren’t centered in the sanctuary. And you will see these unfold over
the course of this year and next year as well. And of course, I encourage you test the waters
with us, as we explore with curiosity new ways of expressing, of getting closer to our Judaism.
And we are renewing here at Temple Shalom structurally, creating an incredible
opportunity for new growth and new ideas. Last May, Judith and Ruth, our Temple co-
presidents advised they would step down in one year and take on other responsibilities with
the Temple in areas that they truly enjoy doing. As for me and my future role, I’d like to quote
Mark Twain: “Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” As many of you know, I
will be stepping back from being your rabbi next June, after Shavuot. At age 65, I thought I
would do this for five years, but spiritual leadership through the COVID years, as wonderful as it
was, got me thinking that four years might be a better fit. But I’m not leaving. I will always be a
rabbi, maybe more in community settings, but this is and always will be my congregation, my
home, and I have offered to help Temple Shalom where it feels right going forward– maybe
even right here on the bima at next year’s High Holidays.
But oddly enough, or happily enough, these are exciting days for our Temple. A wonderful
planning group of both Board and non-Board members has already been struck and with all this
change, I have seen only excitement and already, new ideas in play as to how we move
We are all trained for this. To walk into Temple Shalom, to choose this as our home has
always been not just an act of heroism, but also an underlying act of faith.
My question of you throughout the High Holidays has been “Who Am I?” And I cannot help
but think that one element of that personal question is for me to ask myself “Who are We?”
Where do I belong — because my chosen communities are an integral part of who I am. We
empower each other and ourselves by our commitment to a common cause and a higher ideal.
This is how we grow and this is how I grow. We push forward. We have walked these paths,
alone, together, side by side. We see each other and we know we are in this together.
So, let us give. And let us each consider the gift of time as well, simply to participate, to try
new things or enjoy the familiar, to deepen our ties to this community, to grow, to lead, to
learn, to help. Let us support and feed and nurture that light, and bring its beautiful glow
forward into the world. Let it grow strong, let us be confident in our voices and in our mission.
This is what Temple Shalom represents.
Thank you. Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.
5783 Yom Kippur Morning Sermon – Rabbi Allan Finkel
All through my High Holiday sermons this year, I have been touching on a central theme,
pulled like toffee into different directions. “Who Am I?” On Erev Rosh Hashana, we touched on
the creation story, and how the turmoil of the cosmos might reside within each of us as well. It
was a story ultimately about self-acceptance and self-compassion.
On Rosh Hashana, we explored the spiritual component that resides within “Who Am I” that
we seek to awaken during the High Holidays, and how there are so many spiritual options that
we can find within Judaism. We looked at the Unetaneh Tokef prayer and its harsh decree that
describes a judging God, and we explored so many other beautiful ideas of God in our Torah
and our prayers that we can turn to for solace, for spiritual growth and spiritual centering and
for ethical living.
Yesterday evening, Erev Yom Kippur we explored how “Who Am I?” is inextricably linked
with “Who Are We?” It can be the labels that define our relationships with others and the
promises to others that are embedded in each of those labels. It is why we choose to sit with
others here at Temple Shalom in prayer and community, and in our essential need to nurture
and support the connections that really matter – how “We” is very much a part of “Who Am I?”
Today, I would like to peek into another facet of the “Who Am I” jewel, and see what we
might learn from the story of Cain and Abel, of Adam and Eve, the first human family in our
Torah. Their story is sharply written, concise and powerful, and we are presented with their
profound drama in only 13 lines of Torah.
In these few lines, the authors of the Torah laid out a universal story that lives in and
around all of us today – about family dysfunction, of parental favoritism of one child over the
other and the inevitable consequences, the seeds of anger and rebellion, about children
disconnecting. And as we follow Cain’s trajectory in particular, we see an all-too-familiar story
about our internal landscapes, the power of anger and of boiling resentments arising from
perceptions of injustice. And finally, Cain’s actions remind us of a real truth about human
nature, the capacity within each of us to unleash our Yetzer Hara — our inclination towards evil –
- that can lead human beings to do inhuman acts, things that cannot be undone. And we
certainly can feel Cain’s guilt, his pain and shame, and understand how the burdens of his past
will always stay with him… and if we are honest with ourselves, we might find parallels in our
own lives as well, pages of our own pasts that still occupy space inside us today.
Ultimately, I look at Cain as a sympathetic character. Life happened to Cain. There is nothing
to suggest that he chose to be unfavoured or less popular or to be second in everything that he
did. His emotions were something to which we can relate, and we can even understand the
fantasies of revenge that Cain might have entertained.
And even after he committed his horrific act, we aren’t entirely surprised by his reaction –
to deny what he did. When God asked Cain a simple question “Where is your brother?” he
deflects the question, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” But then, almost moments
later, Cain grew into himself. He pauses, and in an outpouring of emotion, he acknowledges to
himself and to God the enormity of his wrongdoing, Gadol Avon Min’soah… How great is my
So, why didn’t he die? Cain took a life. And as we know, the prohibition against murder –
thou shalt not kill – is one of the central teachings of the Torah. It becomes part of the Noahide
laws for all human beings and later a part of the 10 commandments for the Jewish people.
So, why didn’t he die? I’d suggest it was Cain’s profound awareness – his self-awareness and
ownership of his actions — that opened up other possibilities, in the same way that we are told
we too can avoid the harsh decree during the High Holidays. Cain, we read, didn’t blame Abel
or his parents or God for how he got to that dark place. Instead, he found the courage to look in
the mirror and he sees himself. He did a wonderful thing — he looked inward and he saw his
So, Cain is not punished, in turn, with his own death. Instead, he is marked, on his forehead,
for all the world to see, and he is sent off away from his family and into the world.
As we look at “Who Am I?” I encourage each of us, especially on Yom Kippur to ask: How
much different is Cain from the rest of us, today? Who amongst us isn’t carrying a mark or
marks of our own, cast by genes or our family histories, or our childhood experiences, of things
we did to others or that happened to us, that now affect how we navigate our own worlds
perhaps in less than healthy ways.
Is it possible that each one of us is marked in some way, carrying an external mark like Cain
into the world for all the world to see, or perhaps we are marked internally by our own
childhood experiences, marks that have us navigate the world in less than healthy ways.
Some of our marks may be obvious — our genetics that determine our height or our weight,
bad hair or no hair, a lack of athletic prowess, our complexion, the gift or curse of beauty or
good looks or the lack of same, a physical frame that falls short of a societal ideal or learning
styles that lead to failures to fit in at school, or intellectual or cognitive or physical or mental
health challenges that showed up at birth or when we were in school or in our adult lives. Fairly
or unfairly, those are our marks, and they separate us from others, our own marks of Cain.
And some of our marks may be less obvious. Our interior landscapes. Our view of the world
as a cup half full. Or half empty. Or mental health issues that colour our view of the world and
of ourselves, how we interact or don’t interact with the world, and in how that in turn affects
how the world chooses to interact with us, sometimes choosing to embrace us but more often,
leaning away or turning away, because our internal marks, although not visible like those of
Cain, are nonetheless felt by the world around us.
And even if we do not carry any of these huge burdens, we all do carry marks within us,
stories within us that define us, that may be true or that we believe to be true. These stories,
just like Cain’s from his own youth, have the capacity to define us.
“Who am I?” Perhaps our Torah teaches us, that we are all Cain, each sent out into the
world with our own marks.
But surprisingly, Cain’s story has a good ending.
Even with the mark he carried, Cain was offered the Book of Life, and so it is with us. No
matter what he had done in that one moment, or the pain he had experienced earlier in his life,
we are reminded by his story that what God also saw in him was pure goodness. And so, Cain
was given a path forward, towards self-repentance, towards self-forgiveness and towards self-
love. And in so doing, as Cain came to understand both his own fragility, his frailties and his
Cain might have also come to understand that everyone around him was carrying a mark as
well, just like us, external or internal, that no one really fits the box called “normal.”
And with his self-awareness, we can imagine that Cain came to understand a different way
of navigating the world – with compassion, forgiveness and love towards all those he met on his
own journeys. And in so doing, while Cain always carried with him the mark that God had set
upon him, Cain in turn was able to make a mark on the world.
Here on Yom Kippur, now in the last hours of our journey through the High Holidays, we are
asked, in our tradition, to acknowledge the harms we have caused to others and in our
relationship with the Eternal, and to undertake those repairs. These High Holidays are, by their
nature, a time for self-contemplation. And perhaps, we can learn from the story of Cain, that
maybe we can devote some of that time to the marks that we too have carried throughout our
own lives — external marks and the internal ones — and maybe we too can find the honesty, as
Cain did, to acknowledge the harms we have generated within ourselves and to ourselves, and
the barriers they have created between us and the world around us.
Cain was compelled to answer the question “Who Am I?” He faced his truth, willingly, and it
is from there, I imagine that he was able to step forth into the world, as a better human being,
sympathetic and empathetic to the human condition and to everyone around him. May this be
our path as well, as we journey through the High Holidays, individually and together, and into
the year ahead, fully experiencing and engaged in the Book of Life.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.
5783 Rosh Hashana Eve sermon – Rabbi Allan Finkel We now enter our third High Holidays together under the cloud of a pandemic that has swept the world, upending our lives in ways that we cannot have imagined, in ways that have affected us internally, in our relations with those closest to us and with the world around us. All our previous assumptions about who we are individually and as a community have been tossed up into the air, and as we look up, we can see them floating down, with new writings that we cannot yet read. The High Holidays have always been our safe place for self-reflection. In a typical year, it would simply part of the rhythm of our lives — we work, we play, we travel, we engage with our families and those around us and to Jewish life within certain well-established patterns. But these past 2.5 years have been anything but typical. But it is from all those crises — of isolation, of disruption, of new learning that our greatest growth can come. Not one of us can say that we are the same people we were three years ago. So, maybe we can take these High Holidays as a time not to deal with incremental changes from one year to the next, but perhaps to ask ourselves maybe the biggest question of all: Who Am I? This is the question that I will ask at the beginning of each of my sermons this year, on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, pulling out different threads each time. And so, let us start. Tomorrow morning, during our Torah service, we will read the very first words of our Torah, our creation story, the first six days where God created something out of nothing and then the seventh day, when God rested, much as we are asked to do on Shabbat, our own seventh day. Our ancient rabbis built our Hebrew calendar beautifully, and assigned incredible themes to our holidays that go well beyond the rituals of the day, to help anchor us as a Jewish people, living in the Diaspora far from the land of Israel. Rosh Hashanah, not really a special day in the Torah, became imagined not only as the first day of the Hebrew calendar, but also as the day of creation of the world, tied to the first words of our Torah that starts on Day 1 – “Be’reshit. In the Beginning God created…” In describing the cosmos that existed at that moment of creation, the writers of the Torah use the words “Tohu va’vohu” — Topsy turvy, tumbling up and around, confusing and chaotic — ideas that resonate with how modern science describes the universe, as mixtures of gases, atoms and protons and neutrons, dark matter, black holes, planets and galaxies and huge spaces in between, cosmic dust and solar winds and big bangs, a huge cosmic soup that creates or destroys randomly it seems. But also, in some places at exactly the right time, in a Goldilocks zone around a warm yellow sun, it also created life, not homogeneously, but plants, animals, birds and fish, and dinosaurs at one point and even a species called Homo sapiens, humans, in a rainbow of colours, race and creed, and religions and beliefs.
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a legendary and beloved scholar and a friend of Temple Shalom, wrote an essay on Sin at the front of our Mishkan HaNefesh, our High Holiday prayer book, that offers his views of the tumultuous nature of the cosmos from a spiritual perspective. In his first paragraph, he writes that “The world that gave birth to Rabbinic Judaism imagined a cosmos that was moral to its core — the locus of a struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, sacred and profane. The sacred forces of pure goodness…inhabiting the heavenly realm where the sun shines brightly and the stars illuminate the night. By contrast, the profaning forces of evil were demonic, preferring the netherworld of utter darkness. Some say that we human beings inhabit the world in between: mixtures of good and evil.” At that point, Rabbi Hoffman goes on to a conversation about humans and sin, but I will take his first thoughts about humans and the cosmos, and go on a detour at this point. I look at what science and the James Webb telescope tell us about the cosmos, and I look at what our ancient rabbis tell us about the cosmos, and I can only see the similarities: All those descriptions of the cosmos, of the spaces beyond our world are stunning in their complexity and in their chaos. And this brings me to the first contemplation of that question that I posed earlier: — Who Am I? — and perhaps we can explore if all those descriptions of the cosmos might apply to each of us as well, that maybe the cosmos is not only outside us, it is inside us as well. We are, each of us, familiar with our insides, and perhaps we can each ask ourselves: is there really much difference between our understanding of the cosmos around us and our own internal landscapes? Thoughts and feelings and knowledge and partial truths and intuitions all roiling against each other, our battles between our brains and our hearts on what do to or not do next. The whispers of the past always present in our minds carrying with them the stories we tell about ourselves, the coping mechanism we create in our heads and our hearts to manage or at least cope with either ourselves or the world around us. We read and we know we should eat right, but still go to the sugary cereals, or maybe our cars — okay, maybe my car still drives itself to Dairy Queen on the way home to a healthy dinner. Or maybe it’s just soothing comfort food instead late at night as a form of calming, or a television show instead of a workout, or a to-do list that remains undone, all these things leading to an endless cycle of regret and guilt and even shame that makes all these small things feel so big. How much different is this, really, in our minds than the rabbinical descriptions of the cosmos, that within each of us is the locus of ongoing struggles between light and darkness, good and evil, sacred and profane. Is it really a surprise to any of us that within us too, we hold space for both the sacred forces of our goodness and the profaning forces of evil? What goes on in the cosmos goes on within us as well. The language of the Torah about the cosmos — Tohu va’vohu— resides absolutely everywhere, not just in the cosmos but within us as well, because other Jewish scholars also tell us that we are part of the cosmos, not separate from it.
The teachings of our Mussar scholars, in particular, go to these same places, offering a central Jewish teaching that we are all ocean, that the air we breathe in and out is the same air shared by everyone, that we are part of a continuum that has no beginning, no end, no boundaries. This visual idea of ocean, that we are all droplets of water in a vast ocean inextricably interconnects us with everything in the world around us, and everything else with us. And so, the forces that swirl all around us will swirl within us as well — Tovu va’vohu — everything topsy turvy, tumbling up and around, and confusing and chaotic, that equally describes our internal cosmos as well. But our Mussar teachers also tell us that we are not lost in the ocean, that each droplet is unique, that we are also waves, ripples and eddies, and that much as the ocean shapes who we are, so we too can shape the ocean. What we are, who we are, what we do matters. And this is why we are here again, gathering on Rosh Hashanah to start our ten days of contemplation. To make sense of the indescribable, to repair what we can, and to appreciate our complexity and to commit to move forward, la’shuv to return, to aspire. We may be frustrated, even overwhelmed by the chaos and the noise within us. But as Rabbi Hoffman noted, our ancient rabbis remind us that the cosmos — despite its tumult — is moral to its core. The struggle is ultimately meant to be won. Our Mussar teachers come to a similar place — at the moment of our own creation, a spiritual energy was given to us, that climbs through us, through the Sefirot towards the Divine, and that it our life’s work to unblock the internal barriers that we have created within us, to lessen the chaos of our internal cosmos especially by connecting to our inner goodness, and find again that moral core that resides as well, within each of us. Ultimately, we are taught that we are intrinsically moral, intrinsically good, and that we can set aside our feelings of guilt and frustration and even shame triggered by the tovu va’vohu within us, and replace those thoughts with self-acceptance – this is who we are all are – and from self-acceptance, let us find self-compassion and self-love, and offer acceptance and compassion and love for everyone around us. Over the next 10 days, let us each do our part, knowing that we are not alone on these journeys, as we seek to find within ourselves the divine spark that was part of our own creation stories. That is who I am, this is we are, that is who we are meant to be. Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.