Words Have Power! – Yom Kippur Morning

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One day a man said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”

God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.

The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, “You have seen Hell.”

Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.

The man said, “I don’t understand.”

God smiled. It is simple, he said, Love only requires one skill. These people learned early on to share and feed one another.[1]

This story stands out to me because we live in a culture and society that is “every person for themselves.”  We live in a society that allows for unfounded opinions to be an acceptable substitution for observable facts. The Oxford dictionaries word for the year 2016 was “post-truth.”  It is an adjective whose definition is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion and appeals to emotion and personal belief.”[2]

Our public conversations have become cruel. A place where callous comments and taunts are finding their way into everyday speech. Social media has been contaminated with lies and “fake news.”  We are not immune here at the temple from the negative consequences of these words.

The consequences of rumors are painful not only to those who they are about but also the people sharing them.   We are in a moment as a society when we are attempting to feed ourselves with very long spoons and the food is failing to reach our mouths.  By participating in the rumor mill, we are participating in a society that is making poor choices.

Today is Yom Kippur, the day we must confess our sins on as part of a path to return into a right relationship with God and with each other.  And so I confess and use the words of the confessional prayer found in our Machzor:

The ways we have wronged You God, deliberately and by mistake; and harm we have caused in Your world through the words of our mouths

The ways we have wronged You by hardening our hearts; and harm we have caused in Your world through careless speech

The ways we have wronged You through lies and deceit; and harm we have caused in Your world through gossip and rumor.

The ways we have wronged You by judging others unfairly; and harm we have cause in Your world through disrespect to parents and teachers.

The ways we have wronged You through insincere apologies; and harm we have caused in Your world by mistreating a friend or neighbor.[3]

By lacking integrity we have, in the words of a congregant, broken Humpty Dumpty.  Individuals have been hurt, though I’m sure the intention behind the words was not to hurt them.  We as a society are hurting because of words.  The transgression of l’shone hara, gossip, is that at its heart it is a failure of relationships. It invokes a belief that one person truly has the desire to hurt another – it demonstrates a lack of trust. It is essentially lynching the character of a person behind their back and failing to share honestly and openly what we are thinking and feeling.

Verbal wrongdoing strikes at the core of a person. It is considered such a heinous crime because it is impossible to determine the effects which are both deeply personal and yet abstract.  For this reason, we learn: “he who publicly shame his neighbor is as though he shed blood.”[4]

The rabbis believe because only God can be aware of the reasoning behind our actions, it is God who takes a “personal” concern.  They describe God listening, but especially hearing the prayers of those who were publicly wronged or humiliated.

How do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again?  The flames of fear and suspicion can be fanned with barbed words and deeds.  Those flames are feeding fear into our society and our community.

The Jewish philosopher, Emanuel Levinas, teaches that once we look into the eyes of another person, we are obligated to that person.[5]   We are aware of their sorrows and their joys.  We are responsible to them and for them. And so, I would like to ask you to please over the course of today make a friend, look into their eyes and find out who they are. Let us begin by acting with integrity.  Let us create a society and community which is kind and loving toward each other.

I want to share with you a story entitled “Two Brothers and Carpenter.”[6]

Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in forty years of farming side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch. Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.

One morning there was a knock on one of the brother’s door. He opened it to find a man with a contractor’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work,” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there. Could I help you?” “Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor. In fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber curing by the barn? I want you to build me a wall – an 8-foot wall – so I won’t need to see his place anymore, that would give me some peace of mind.”

The contractor said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.” The older brother had to go to town for supplies, so he helped the contractor get the materials ready and then he was off for the day.

The contractor worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, and nailing. About sunset when the farmer returned, the contractor had just finished his job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. There was no wall there at all. It was a bridge – a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work – handrails and all – and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched. “You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.” The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand.

They turned to see the contractor hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother. “I’d love to stay on,” the contractor said,” but I have many more bridges to build.”

We often let anger turn into a wedge driving us away from one another.  We place our pride and desire to be right before the other person.  As human beings, our ego can get in the way of things.

As Jews, we are commanded to be better than that.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Henschel wrote: “When I was young, I admired clever people.  Now that I’m old, I admire kind people.”  We need to bring kindness and compassion back into the community and society. We owe it not only to those who founded this nation, but also to each other, to work to feed each other and share in the food off the long spoons in front of us.

Let’s use that basis of kindness and love to be the wood that forms a bridge uniting us again. Let’s apologize out of the depth of our heart to those who we have wronged and let’s accept their apology willingly.

I cannot be sure whether this will work or not. And so I will share with you Hasidic parable by the Israeli author S.Y. Agnon which describes my hope:

A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing the way out. Suddenly he saw a man approaching him in the distance. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,” he thought to himself. When they neared each other, he asked the man, Brother, I have been wandering about in this forest for days. Can you tell me which is the right way out?” Said the other to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I, too, have been wandering about in here for many days. But… come, let us look for the way out together.”[7]

If we work together we can make this society bloom. In the words of the American author Henry James: “three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind.  The second is to be kind. In the third is to be kind.”

Let’s be kind and assume the best in each other.

“May our deeds exceed our speech, and may we never the lift up our hand but to conquer fear and doubt and despair.”[8]

May we strive to be community which is responsible to one another.

May we be a beacon of light to the city bringing compassion and openness through our actions.

May the love we have for each other bring peace to one another and to those around us.

As together we say: AMEN.





[1] https://theunboundedspirit.com/heaven-and-hell-the-parable-of-the-long-spoons/

[2] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/post-truth

[3] Mishkan HaNefesh, Evening Yom Kippur Service, confessional prayer P.86-87

[4] BT Baba Metzia 58b

[5] Emanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity

[6] https://storiesforpreaching.com/building-bridges/

[7] Agnon, S.Y. Days of Awe. New York: Schocken Books, 1995. p. 22. Parable attributed to Rabbi Hayyim 12 [Halberstam] of Zans (1793-1876)

[8] Mishkan Tefilah p. 591, Aleinu prayer – creative translation.

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