Yom Kippur Gems: Prayer Insights 5772

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These Yom Kippur Gems are filled with new, inspiring material that explain and elucidate many of the prayers we say on this holiday. They are intended to both entertain and educate the audience between prayers. They are rich with Jewish wisdom, wit and joy, and will help bring greater meaning to both committed Jews and casual congregants. Below is a synopsis of the Gems.

The Evening Service

Yom Kippur Timepiece (p. 71)
Yom Kippur's liturgy is replete with metaphors that remind us of human weakness and mortality. As we say in this prayer, "Our days are like a fleeting shadow." Why is it that on the holiest day of the Jewish year we focus so much on death? We know we need to repent, but do we really need to be this depressing about it? Why does our focus on guilt move into being so outright morbid? In answering this question, we enlist an insight from pioneering psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, as well as a unique device developed in 1990 by a New York inventor.

Strike Your Heart (pp.71)
It is humanity's universal unfortunate tendency to instinctively blame others. Whenever something goes wrong, we immediately point a finger at someone else. It's never we who are at fault, but always "they," the other guy, the spouse, the powers that be, the system. On this day, we muster up the courage to examine ourselves and admit that most of our problems emanate not from outside of us, but from within. This point is underscored by a marvelous correspondence in The Times.

We Are All Responsible (pp.73-76)
We are about to recite the Al Chet prayer, the great confessional of Yom Kippur. Perhaps the single most striking element in this prayer is that the forty-four transgressions are listed under the formula, Al chet shehata'nu lephanecha, For the sins that we have committed before You. There is no "I" in the prayer. A joke about two judges gone fishing helps us understand the anomaly of this prayer. We conclude with the Rebbe's exploration of the Supreme Court's which challenges every Jew to take responsibility for their community.

The Morning Service

Every Mitzvah Counts (p. 142)
Tonight on Yom Kippur it is appropriate to reflect over the past year. We might feel down when conducting a personal inventory which reveals the unfortunate, sinful mistakes we have made in the past. But that is no reason to give up on yourself, as we see from Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev's inspiring response to a Jewish rebel who sought to prove that the Torah was not true.

Gates of Tears Never Close (p. 145)
The Talmud says that even when all of the heavenly gates of prayer may be closed, the gates of tears are never closed. A story from the Prophets and a creative insight by one of the Chasidic Masters brings this teaching to life. As we stand in G-d's presence today, let us remember that simple, heartfelt prayers are the most effective. The gates of tears never close.

Where G-d Can't Enter (p. 173)
One of the core Jewish teachings is that G-d cares about righteousness and goodness in the most profound way. As we say in this prayer: "The holy G-d is sanctified through righteous conduct". Therefore, wherever righteousness is perverted, there G-d is not sanctified.  From a joke about a poor Jew at a fancy synagogue we learn that it makes no difference how many times G-d's name is invoked in a place. Either kindness is there, or else G-d is not there either. Nowhere is the idea that G-d is sanctified with loving deeds more vividly expressed then in an exceptionally strange detail in the construction of the Sanctuary.

Forgiveness: A Two Way Street (p. 184)
Yom Kippur is G-d's magnificent gift, a day of grace and Divine forgiveness which enables us to cleanse ourselves and begin anew. As this prayer beautifully puts it: "Blessed are You King who pardons and forgives our sins… each year sweeping away our guilt..."  And yet, even though G-d grants us full forgiveness, people sometimes refuse to accept G-d's gift of forgiveness and are unable to begin the year with a fresh start. Why does this happen? A story about the world's best escape artist, Harry Houdini, leads us to the answer.

Purify Our Heart (p.187)
We ask G-d's forgiveness in our prayers. At the same time, we are asked to forgive others, especially when they ask to be forgiven. Sometimes, however, that forgiveness is not complete. We say we forgive our loved ones, but we nurture a grudge inside, and really do not let go of our emotional injury fully. When we say, "G-d, purify our heart" part of what we are praying for is to be made pure of grudges and resentments. A Chasidic parable about clear lakes and a bitter beverage teaches us that forgiveness requires that we become more expansive as human beings.

The Musaf Service

Remind Us to Live (p. 228)
Throughout the High Holidays we pray: "Remember us for life, O King who desires life." But the prayer also means something much more profound. A surprising story in the Hayom Yom and the Rebbe's explanation of it drives home the point of how we can live with depth of soul, and make a blessing over each day.

 A Spiritually Renovated Home (p.238)
Yom Kippur is the final Day of Judgment, the day each of us must answer before our Maker, and the moment when it is determined if we will be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. This prayer vividly envisions Yom Kippur as a formal trial, and sets the scene.  The stakes are high: Who will live, who will die. In a trial, there are witnesses. Who will be the witnesses either for or against us? This question is asked by the Talmud and the answer contains a wake-up call to all of us. A vort of the Rebbe further emphasizes this uplifting message. We will discover how to win over those witnesses and have them tell a wonderful story to the heavenly court.

Function of Azazel (pp.250-255)
At the heart of the Yom Kippur service was a ritual that has added a key word to the vocabulary of the West: the scapegoat. What does this strange ritual mean? What does the Azazel symbolize?  For Rambam, the ceremony of deciding which goat will be "for G-d" and which "for Azazel", is a symbol of the choice each one of us makes on Yom Kippur. A humorous story about an Indian chief describing his inner struggles dramatically illustrates Rambam's explanation.

The Neilah Service

Avinu Malkenu (p. 376-378)
This year, with Yom Kippur falling on Shabbat, we do not recite, Avinu Malkeinu. The reason is because Jewish law states that we should not make requests on Shabbat. However, at the last moments of Neilah, we do say it, because of the heightened urgency. The gates of heaven are about to close. Avinu Malkenu, our father our king. Ein lanu melekh ela atah. We have no king but you. You are our father and we are your children. A poignant story of the Tzemach Tzedek demonstrates that Hashem responds when his children call. Avinu malkenu, our father, our king. Tate, abba, avinu, you are our father and we are your children. Respond to our call. Bless us with a sweet new year, a year of health and happiness, of nachas, wealth, of peace.

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