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.