A sermon by the Rev. Barbara Wells
Paint Branch UU Church
October 1, 2000
Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book "To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking," tells how every year, his congregation of 200 some members, would transform its sanctuary into a hall holding a 1000 on the high holy Days. And even with this transformation, there would still be people standing in the aisles. For people who never did anything else as a Jew, would feel the need to participate in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Why?
In the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the New Year. In ancient Hebrew mythology, Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of Adam, the anniversary of the creation of human life. Even though it falls on the seventh month in the Jewish calendar, for millennia it has been celebrated as the beginning of time and creation.
Yom Kippur, which falls ten days after the first day of Rosh Hashanah, is called the day of atonement. It is a day of fasting, from both bread and water. People spend the whole day worshipping with their religious community, asking forgiveness of their sins, and praying to God to inscribe their names in the book of life. It is a day that by denying themselves the most basic of human needs, people develop compassion for those who have little, and have their hearts opened to charity.
It is believed that during the ten day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur God pays close attention to what you have been and done during the past year, and offers you the opportunity to ask forgiveness and start the new year with a clean slate. During these High Holy Days, also known as the Days of Awe, people are invited to look closely at their lives, to admit they are not perfect, to ask forgiveness and be accepted once again by their fellow humans and by God. The celebration of these two conjoined holidays is a solemn one marked by reflection, prayers and fasting. Yet, the result is to bring people to a closer understanding of their gifts, limitations and their relationship to all that is holy.
Unitarian Universalism stems from the Christian tradition, particularly American Protestantism. Yet throughout our history we have resonated with much from the Jewish tradition. And today, there are many Jews within our congregations who have encouraged us to take seriously the Jewish traditions and what they have to teach us.
I have always thought that the new year belongs in the fall. In our society, so much starts up this time of year, as the lazy days of summer fall behind us and we look forward to the crisp cool nights and the excitement of the winter season ahead. So, while I have seldom participated in the traditional Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur celebrations, I seem to have a gut feeling acceptance of their rightness.
While we are not a Jewish congregation, and cannot then celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as if we were, I believe that these Days of Awe can and should be reflected on here and now. For the ideas behind them are universal, though they have been particularized in a powerful way within the Jewish tradition. So this morning I want to speak to a few ideas that hold power for me, and invite you to reflect with me on them.
Let me begin by talking about the context in which these religious holidays take place. Practicing Jews celebrate many of their religious rituals in the home. The Sabbath meal, the reading of the Torah, even praying can and do happen as frequently in the home as in the synagogue or Temple. Yet on the High Holy Days, people flock to be with others, in the midst of a congregation. Why is that? I think it is because there is something in the human spirit that needs to be in community when dealing with powerful religious needs.
As a Unitarian Universalist, I can really relate to that. I know a lot of UU's who remind me that much of their religious practice takes place at home or alone. Whether it is through solitary reading and reflection, simple home rituals around a meal, or hiking in the woods to greet the dawn, religious liberals value the individual search for their spiritual needs.
Yet I would venture to say that even the most independent and solitary of UUs still needs community. We need to have a place to go where we can be accepted and cared for. Where we can have our grief acknowledged and our joy celebrated. We need a place where our spirits are paid attention to and where we are known by who we are, not by what we have or even what we do. That can't happen alone. And so we continue to create and sustain congregations, seeking somehow to build a religious home where what we value is cherished and what is of awe and wonder to us is celebrated.
The Days of Awe within the Jewish tradition reflect a similar need. The power of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to bring people together in community worship is great indeed. Yet, the context is only one aspect of their importance. There is a deeper meaning in these holidays than just being together. Why people come together is critical as well. One reason is to be in a supportive environment where we can share our burdens. Let me give you an example.
Many UUs (and many people from other religious traditions as well!) have found a great deal of power and hope through their involvement with 12 step support groups. Many years ago, I had the privilege of listening (with my heart full) to a woman who was completing the step about admitting before God and another human being all the things she had done to wrong others. It was a long session, as it would be for most of us I presume. The process was extremely healing for her, and surprisingly for me, too. Hearing her speak of all she had done to hurt those she loves, couldn't help but remind me of my own irresponsibility and lack of concern for others. At the end of the session, we both cried, held each other, and offered each other healing forgiveness and hope.
The annual experience during the Days of Awe, of acknowledging our shortcomings is a powerful and difficult process. Nobody enjoys admitting they're wrong, particularly in front of others. But, part of being human is being imperfect. In an article written some years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that it is a misunderstanding that God expects human beings to be perfect. He believes "in a God who knows how complicated human life is, how difficult it is to be a good person at all times, and who expects not a perfect life but an honest effort at a good one." (Parade 9/8/96)
Whether we believe in God or not, I think all of us can relate to Kushner's words. Trying to be perfect just leads to frustration and unhappiness. Trying to be good, however, can benefit not only ourselves, but others as well. And when we fail, which we will, living religiously means admitting our mistakes, and making a real attempt to do better the next time.
UUs struggle with this a lot, I think. We cherish the intellect and the ability to learn and grow so much, that sometimes we forget that making mistakes is a part of the process. I know I find it difficult to admit when I'm wrong or when I have hurt someone. So let me take a moment now and say to you, this congregation I love so well, if I have hurt you in this past year, forgive me. When I have botched something badly, or not been there when I might have been, please forgive me. I am sorry and hope to do better this year.
Can I ask you to do the same? Take a moment and reflect internally on someone you might have hurt this year. Something you did that caused pain or anger or hurt. Can you admit to it? And can you ask for forgiveness with your whole heart, promising to do better? This time of year is a good time to do that and perhaps you will take time during this next week to open your heart to another and share your mistakes.
For you can be forgiven. That's the last thing I want to reflect on today. I've often laughed at the bumper sticker which reads, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." Well it's not just Christians. All of us, if we can learn to accept our own limitations and 'fess up to our wrongs, can and will be forgiven. First, we must forgive ourselves. I know I was taught at an early age that if I made a mistake I was somehow flawed. As I grow and change, I am trying hard to see that mistakes are life's way of teaching us. If we can't let go of guilt and shame toward ourselves, then why should anyone else forgive us?
But they do. It has been the kind and generous people in my life who have seen me fully and accepted me, faults and all, that have helped me grow the most. Can we learn to forgive each other for not being perfect? Can we lighten up a little, laugh at our foibles, and just accept each other as best we can? That's what our first principle is really about. Seeing inherent worth and dignity even in those who make us madder than hell. This season is a time for us to accept ourselves, and accept others. It is not enough just to ask others for forgiveness of our past wrongs. We must also offer them the same acceptance.
And finally, there is the greatest forgiveness which comes from the great spirit. If there is a God, God is truly unconditional love and acceptance. I believe that the Divine Presence that lives in and around us loves us at all times. But I also believe that when we humble ourselves, when we accept that we have done wrong and will try to do better, the holy part of ourselves enlarges and grows. For as we learn to accept ourselves and others, we discover the great joy of love that transcends judgment and which is truly the most holy thing in our universe.
I am not a Jew. But I am a deeply religious person who values the traditions of other religions and seeks to learn from them how they might help me live my life.. While every religion has ideas or traditions which we may be uncomfortable with, I believe most religions of our world also have great gifts to give us, which enhance our spiritual tradition and our religious lives.
The great gifts the Jewish people have given me, through the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is the reminder that each year, even each new day, brings with it the hope for transformation, for possibility, for forgiveness and acceptance. And that when we bring those qualities of acceptance and forgiveness to our religious community, all of us grow and become better people. All over the world, Jews are celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I am grateful to them and for their forebears for understanding the deep religious need we all share to start each new year with humility and acceptance of others on our lips and in our hearts.
It is hard and challenging and wonderful and mysterious to be alive in these times. Yet the powerful religious rituals which come down to us from many religious traditions, have much to teach us about life and living and love. As you go forth this day, may you remember to accept yourself even as you admit to failure and mistakes. May you accept others, even as you recognize the common human frailty we all share. And may you accept that in the eyes of God, all of us are written in the book of life.