Kol Nidre Sermon: Teshuvah, Calling Out & Calling In

Last spring, I felt buoyed by Governor Cuomo’s daily COVID updates. I know people who rearranged their schedules around them. He talked about New York being “tough smart united disciplined loving.”

His weird poster of the COVID mountain (remember that?) had at its foundation the words:

Love, Community, Support

and at the top it read: Love Wins.

It was so beautiful to hear our state’s highest elected official essentially echoing Rabbi Akiva, that ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha, loving our neighbors as ourselves, must be the foundation of all we do, and that through applying it, we will take care of each other and get through the hardest of times. His message, his confidence in New Yorkers, his leadership, sustained me and others through the initial months of the pandemic.

So, for many of us, it’s been heartbreaking to see what has happened since:

  • It seems he obscured the true number of COVID deaths by not counting people who died anywhere other than hospitals
  • It seems he pandered to the nursing home industry, which led to policies and practices that may have contributed to more deaths

And, as we all know, it was the accusations of 11 women of sexual harassment and assault that forced his resignation.

With the Attorney General’s report and the Governor’s resignation coming in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays, I could not help but connect the time period, our consideration of our lives and relationships, our journeys of return and repair, and what he did and was going through so publicly.

Now, some of you may say: accusations aren’t proof and he did a good job as governor, he should not have resigned, and I’m still a Cuomosexual, no matter what. And others may say: he’s a power-hungry, “ends justify the means” scumbag and always was. I think that the truth about him, and about all of us, lies somewhere in the middle.

Most of us do good in our lives and also cause harm. It can be hard for us to hold these truths at the same time, and it seems there is an increased tendency to put people into categories of “good” and “bad”.

This has me thinking about King David, whose psalms we still recite and about whom we sing:

David, Melech Yisrael, David, King of Israel, lives and endures.

What did he do that endures? Well, he saved Israel from the Philistines by killing Goliath, conquered Jerusalem and set it as the capital of the Israelite nation and the center of worship. And you can still visit the City of David today.

And yet; David was pretty complicated. Once he was king, he saw a woman he was attracted to, took her to his bed, and when he discovered she was pregnant, he had her husband sent to the front where he arranged for him to be left unprotected and killed so that David could hide his actions. And what Batsheva thought of any of this goes entirely unmentioned.

Neither the Bible nor Jewish tradition hide King David’s transgressions. He is presented to us, warts and all. Despite committing atrocious crimes, he continues to be revered. Why? Why can we take him in in his wholeness and have trouble doing that with others?

David’s own actions make all the difference: he is held accountable and takes responsibility. But not on his own.  

The prophet Nathan came to David and told him a story:

“There were two men in the same city, one rich and one poor. The rich man had very large flocks and herds, but the poor man had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him. One day, a traveler came to the rich man, but he was loath to take anything from his own flocks or herds to prepare a meal for the guest who had come to him; so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”

When David heard this, he flew into a rage against the man, and said to Nathan, “As the Eternal lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He shall pay for the lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and showed no pity.”

And Nathan said to David, “That man is you!” and laid out the comparison, to which David responded: “I stand guilty before the Eternal!”

David did not say, I didn’t do it, not my fault he died. He owned up. This is the first step in teshuvah.

Jewish tradition lays out a specific process to true repentance:

First, is owning the harm perpetrated (ideally publicly)

Second, do the work to become the kind of person who doesn’t do harm – this is an inner process

Third, make restitution for harm done, to the person harmed, in whatever way possible

Fourth, THEN apologize for the harm caused in whatever way that will make it as right as possible with the victim

And finally, when faced with the opportunity to cause similar harm in the future, don’t do it. Make a better choice.

David did not do all of these steps, but he acknowledged responsibility, accepted his many and severe punishments, and became a more humble person who lived a more righteous life afterwards. (Neither the Torah nor tradition seem to ask whether, if, how, the wrongs against Batsheva and her husband were ever compensated).

There is a balance that we, as individuals and as a society need to find: to

hold ourselves and others to account, and to recognize that part of being human is screwing up, sometimes in a big way. Seeing our beautiful, flawed, transcendent selves, does not mean there are no limits. There are boundaries, and Jews have used them. Our own movement’s founder Mordecai Kaplan was excommunicated by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, who held a cherem, excommunication, ceremony at which his 1945 prayer book was burned. He was not the first. In fact, the Mishnah, a nearly 2000-year-old text, makes it seem commonplace. It describes the communal process for reconnecting when people would come up to Jerusalem, the City of David, on Festivals:

People would come into the Temple Mount and circle it clockwise, except for those to whom something had happened since last there. That person would come in from the other side and walk in the opposite direction.

People would ask: “Why do you go round to the left?”

If they answered, “Because I am a mourner,” they would say, “May the One who dwells in this house comfort you.”

If they answered, “Because I am excommunicated,” Rabbi Meir said they should say: “May the One who dwells in this house inspire them to draw you near again.”

But Rabbi Yose objected: you make it seem as if they treated him unjustly. Instead, they should say: “May the One who dwells in this house inspire you to listen to the words of your colleagues so that they may bring you close again” (Mishnah Middot 2:2).

Rabbi Meir seems to think that the community must reintegrate the person.

Rabbi Yose objects and says that the person has to do the work. Of course, both are true. This is why we come together. We can’t do the work alone. The sins, the errors, that we recite on Yom Kippur range from the daily, perhaps more minor things that many of us commit regularly, to the most serious, from the unintentional to the deliberate. We recite the confessions in the plural, taking responsibility as a community, for ourselves and each other.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; (John Donne) – we live and learn and grow in community. There is an extraordinary contemporary story of the importance of relationship and teshuvah.

You may have heard of Derek Black. He was raised in a white supremacist environment, and not just any white supremacist environment: his father was the founder of Stormfront, one of the largest online gatherings of racism and Holocaust deniers in the world. Derek is the godson of David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He had some serious white nationalist yichus.

And it wasn’t only his origins: Derek followed in his father’s footsteps and aided his work. He created a page on Stormfront’s website for children. He joined his father’s radio show, promoting their beliefs. He ran for public office to try to set policy based on the supremacist agenda. Then he went to college.

It was his first time away from home, exposed to different points of view. It didn’t take long for his classmates to discover who he was, tremendous controversy ensured. Some students organized a petition calling for him to be expelled, others disagreed.

Matthew Stevenson lived directly above Derek in the dorm. An Orthodox Jew who regularly invited guests for Shabbat dinner, he invited Derek – and was explicit that people were not to discuss his background or white nationalism at the table. It was to be an opportunity to build relationships. These dinners continued for 2 years. True friendships were made. And his friends began to ask him about his beliefs, and challenge him.

Often, when the story is told, it jumps from here to Derek’s renunciation of white nationalism. But that is not the whole story. Derek himself says: “I worry that my story gets told as a piece of evidence that the only way that you change people’s minds is by having friendly conversations with them, when it’s clearly not true. It’s essential that you speak up loudly and condemn something that’s wrong. It wasn’t just these conversations.” It was also knowing that “I would never have begun my own conversations without first experiencing clear and passionate outrage to what I believed from those I interacted with….. the outrage alone would have made me a more firm adherent to being a white nationalist. But the quiet conversations couldn’t have happened without the outrage.”

We need community and our communities need us to be held accountable. We cannot go around hurting people, even unintentionally. For a few years, folks have contrasted calling out and calling in. Calling someone out is a public denunciation of their behavior. Calling someone in is, in the words of – Ngọc Loan Trần (pronounced nyop lo-awn chun):

a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do screw up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes…. (adapted)

In a few moments, we will recite the first confession of this Day of Atonement. We do so together, holding our limitations in gentleness and understanding and love. There’s a Zen saying: Like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish each other. Let us make each other beautiful.


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