Yom Kippur Gems: Prayer Insights 5777

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Below are sketches of the insights:

כָּל נִדְרֵי

On Saints and the Selfish (p. 36)

The Kol Nidre prayer is a legal formula created to release us from personal vows. To be sure, it cannot absolve us of any contractual agreements with business associates or promises made to loved ones, but it does annul well-intentioned commitments made to ourselves.

Kol Nidre expresses our fear that the lofty resolutions we make during the High Holidays often have no substance — “our vows are no vows; our oaths, no oaths.” At the same time, it also expresses our regret at our failure to follow through on those commitments we did make. That failure is a serious one, because it is only by taking seriously our obligations to others and to G-d that we grow in the New Year.

But what if there were something we could do that would dramatically improve the odds that we would follow through on our vows?  Well, guess what? There is.

Ingenious researchers at Stanford designed a simple but elegant study that examined why…

…What’s inspiring about this study is that it tells us what is too often lacking is not the will to do good, but the understanding of how to do it.

The lesson here is clear: when you make a High Holiday resolution, don’t think in general terms, like, “this year I will start wrapping tefillin.”  Take a few moments to consider the details and specifically lay out the steps…

If we remind ourselves of this simple fact as we contemplate the New Year, and identify clear, specific steps we can take, we can fulfill our vows and commitments.

עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיך

For All the Sins Which We Have Committed (p. 73-75)

Virtually every year I have been asked by someone in the congregation, “Why must I confess to this long list of sins? I’m confident that I have not committed many of them.” This brings to mind the man who came to see the marriage counselor about his twenty-year-old marriage which was threatening to fall apart…

Each sentence specifying a sin begins with the words: “עַל חֵטְא,” – “for the sin”…

…Thomas Carlyle, the famous 19th century philosopher and writer, was considered one of the most important social commentators of his time…

The Morning Service

בְּסֵפֶר חַיִּים

The Book of Life (p. 158)

Throughout the High Holiday prayers we ask G-d to inscribe us in the Book of Life. As Jews, we envision life in terms of a book. The metaphor is significant. You see, the author of a book does not write his or her work word by word, line by line, page by page, waiting to be moved by inspiration. She has an idea, a plot, and a theme in advance. She expresses the idea and develops the plot to create a work of literary value.

There is a wonderful two minute YouTube clip in which the camera…

…Today the Book of Life is open and G-d invites us to write a new chapter in our own story. Today G-d invites us to be His co-authors. Today G-d invites us to greatness.

בחלוי וצום

Fasting on Yom Kippur (p. 160)

People who work in the software industry will tell you that all too often, the developers, who are responsible for writing new software programs, fall in love with their code. When their programs are tested by customers, they can be skeptical of the feedback.

At Microsoft, for instance, one test of a new feature showed that six out of ten users couldn’t figure out how to use it. When the test lab shared that data with the developers, their reaction was…

…Rabbi Moshe Schreiber (author of the famous Chasam Sofer) used to collect money to help needy families….

…The fast is a bit of a hardship; but in reality, it is a blessing, for it opens our hearts to repentance and it reminds us to re-committing ourselves to action that enhance other people’s lives….

עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּוִדּוּי פֶּה

All the Vows on Our Lips (p. 180)

“עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּוִדּוּי פֶּה” — “For the sin we have sinned against You with the confession of our mouths.”

This refers to times when we confessed great truths with our mouths without translating them into deeds. It is the sin of lip service, words that become not a motivation to action, but a substitute for them.

I have a Jewish friend who calls his…

מוחֵל לַעֲונותֵינוּ בְּכָל שָׁנָה

Forgiving Oneself (p. 187)

Prior to the High Holidays, a man asked his rabbi for guidance in doing proper repentance.  The rabbi instructed him to make a list of all the people he had offended and to try to make amends wherever possible, for unless one obtains forgiveness from those whom one offended, repentance is incomplete.

Before Yom Kippur, the man returned and showed the rabbi the list he had made of people he had harmed. “Your list is incomplete,” the rabbi said. “Go back and finish it.”

The man was bewildered…

…This idea is expressed in a seemingly odd line in the weekday evening prayer. We ask G-d to…

…I am reminded of a classic Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy missed yet another fly ball. As she apologetically approaches Charlie Brown…

…Rabbi Shneur Zalman in his book, Tanya, goes one step further. He suggests…

The Musaf Service

כְּבודו מָלֵא עולָם

Where We Let Him In (p. 239)

Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk was once sitting with his disciples at the conclusion of Shabbat. They had eaten the traditional Third Shabbat meal, Seudah Shlishit. They had sung the Shabbat songs. Now they were waiting for the Master to teach them a lesson of Torah. For a long while, the Rabbi was lost in thought; then he lifted his head and said…

…To better understand Rabbi Mendel’s answer consider the San Francisco cable cars. What enables those cars to move up and down the city’s steep hills?

…That is what daily prayer does. It helps us become aware of, and connect to the G-dly force that runs through our lives, day in and day out. It lets G-d enter our souls.  It opens our eyes to the wonders of creation. It opens our minds to Torah.  It opens our hearts to those who need our help. G-d exists where we let Him in. We find that place when we pray.

כִּי בַיּום הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם

Cleansing the Parthenon and Your Soul (p. 69 or 271)

“כִּי בַיּום הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם”— “For on this day you will be atoned and made pure.”

What is the difference between the words “atoned” and “pure”? They are indeed different, and each has a different but essential role to play as we reflect on our actions at the start of the new year.

For almost 2,500 years the Parthenon in Athens has been a symbol of the beauty and strength of Greek civilization. In the last few decades, however, this magnificent structure has been showing signs of decay… The Greek government called upon eminent scientists to figure out how to save the building from crumbling into ruins.

The verdict of the scientists is…

...Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest sages in the Talmud put it this way:

“אשריכם ישראל לפני מי אתם מיטהרין ומי מטהר אתכם? אביכם שבשמיים!”

“Happy are you, Israel. Before whom are you purified and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven, as it is said, ‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean, and ‘G-d is the hope of Israel.’”

…Yom Kippur is the birthplace of hope and joy, because it tells us that, however badly we’ve lived our lives, we are not held captive by our failures. We can always begin again with a clean slate, and pure heart.

The Neilah Service

A brief introduction

My dear friends, we find ourselves in the final moments of Yom Kippur, Neilah. This is precious time. One powerful, awesome hour left and our fate for the coming year will be sealed.

I will finish my words momentarily and leave the rest of the time to you.  Take advantage of it. In this golden hour, you can connect to G-d like no other time in the year.

This is the hour we appeal to G-d, to grant us a year of good health, a year of nachas from the children, from the grandchildren. A year of success, of prosperity, joy and celebration. A year of peace.

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel laureate, died this summer.  He once delivered a lecture in a certain city, and after wrapping up his remarks he was approached by an audience member.

“I’m sure you are asked this question all the time,” the woman said, “and I know it’s a long-shot, but being that you were in Buchenwald during the time period you mentioned in your talk, I was wondering…”

…My friends, Elie Wiesel is gone, and indeed most survivors of the Holocaust have now passed on. I challenge myself and you today…

And so, as you appeal to your Father in heaven for all your heart’s desires, for all your needs, make a resolution right here and now: this year I will sing! This year I will celebrate Judaism like never before! Select just one mitzvah and run with it, make it your personal banner for this coming year.  And may it indeed be a year of chaim tovim ulsholom, a year of life, of peace, goodness, of happiness, of health, a life of joy. A year in which the melody of Judaism lives in us.

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