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Yom Kippur 5779 - Our Past Does Not Define Our Future

09/20/2018 11:44:54 AM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Here is what Yom Kippur means to me: Our past should not define our future.  Just because we did something in the past –made a mistake, got into an argument, did something we weren’t proud of—that’s not who we are.  We can be different moving forward.

I am really glad that this Yom Kippur, on our holiest night of the year, we are joined by Joshua Lopez.  I am proud that he accepted my invitation to sit next to me for prayers.  

In case you don’t remember who Joshua Lopez is I will remind you.  Back in May, there was a DC council member who said terrible things about the Jewish people. These bigoted comments caused a furor and he was severely criticized.  In response Joshua organized a rally –which he called a unity rally – and at that rally a person said horrible things about Jews.  In response to that I said that Joshua should resign from his position as a board member of DC’s Housing Authority.  After a few days, Joshua did indeed resign.

As far the public is concerned the story ended there.  

But I actually view that as the beginning of the story.  Here is a short movie that Ezra Einhorn made about our relationship: view here.

After Joshua resigned, we texted about getting together and talking face to face.  I give Joshua much credit for even being open to meeting with me.  It is often the case when public figures are criticized that they shut down.  But Joshua was just the opposite.  He went out of his way to try and connect with me.
And the more time I spent with him the more I grew fond of him. 

I also want to mention out for praise his mother who is also joining us tonight.  Joshua told me about how hard his mother worked for him to succeed in life and I found his story inspiring.  Joshua told me his roots and I was moved and impressed. 

I believe over the last few months that a genuine friendship has developed between me and Joshua.  There have been multiple times over the last few months where people have come to me and they were in desperate need of housing in DC, and I had no idea where to turn, so I called up Joshua and asked for help.  

Do you think Joshua might have said?  Well, geez, rabbi, maybe if I hadn’t resigned my post, I could really help out.  No!  He never even hinted at that.  Instead, he always dropped everything and said, how can we help this person.  

In retrospect, what I would have done differently after hearing about the “unity rally,” is I would have called Joshua directly and asked him, “why did you do this?” Don’t get me wrong, I am very glad I got to know Joshua, but there would have been better ways to get to know him!

I am sharing this story because this to me is what Yom Kippur is about: we cannot let our past define our future.  We cannot live stuck in the past.  We have to try to move forward and create a better world.  Yom Kippur is about the opportunity for all of us to achieve redemption.  We can’t erase the past but we can all move forward in a way that makes sure that our past does not define us.

I want to pivot from this story about Joshua and me and share some of our traditional texts.  But I want to be very clear that these texts –some of which portray very serious sinners -- are not in any way a reflection on Joshua.  I shared that story only to make the point that we should not be defined by our past.

The Kol Nidrei service begins with the words: anu matirin lehitpallel im haavaryanim, we allow ourselves to pray with sinners.

Why are these the opening words of our service?  What is the point of emphasizing that we can pray with sinners?

It is because we are all sinners to a different degree.  On Yom Kippur we begin by reminding ourselves that just because we sinned in the past does not mean we will sin in the future.  We must not dwell on our past mistakes to the point of paralysis.   

If we do this, then we are making space for the possibility of redemption--both in ourselves and in others.

Redemption means we will change our ways.  Just because yesterday I was bad doesn’t mean that tomorrow I will be the same.

The message of Yom Kippur is never give up on the possibility of improving—not in others, and most of all, not in ourselves.

There is a story that stands at the center of the Yom Kippur liturgy: the story of the ten martyrs who give up their lives for the Jewish people.  By calling this the story of the ten martyrs we overlook one of the main themes of the story—the 11th martyr.

We tell the story of the holy rabbi, Chaninah ben Teradyon.  The Romans decreed that the Jews were not allowed to teach Torah.  But R. Chaninah persisted.  He taught Torah in public.  “Hayah yoshev veosek betorah vesefer torah munach be-cheiko, he sat and taught Torah with the Torah scroll in his bosom” (Avodah Zarah, 18a).

This dedication in the face of intense persection could not last.  He was captured by the Romans and tortured.  They wrapped him in a Torah scroll and then wrapped around him branches of wood.  They then set fire to the wood.  After that the evil Romans took pieces of wool and wet them and placed them upon him, so as to delay his death and cause him more pain.  The rabbi’s students urged him to open his mouth and die a quicker death, but he refused as he felt that that would be a sin.

At that moment the wicked executioner said to him:

“Rebbe, if I increase the flame and take off the wool will you bring me with you to the World to Come?  The rabbi said, “yes.”  The executioner made him swear, and so the rabbi did.  At that moment the executioner increased the flame, took off the wool, and thereby caused R. Chanina to die at once.  The executioner then jumped into the flame and joined R. Chanina.

A heavenly voice came forth and said, “R. Chanina and the executioner are destined for the World to Come!”

Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi then wept and said, “Yesh koneh olamo beshaah achat veyesh koneh olamo bekamah shanim, some acquire the World-to-Come in one moment and some acquire it over many years” (Avodah Zarah, 18a).

This executioner did not allow his past to define his future!

A person might be a wicked, wicked person like this executioner.  But then in one moment this person was capable of transforming himself from a sinner.  Through this single act of holiness he was able to achieve a height that many deeply committed people are never able to reach.  

If this wicked person could transform himself, then of course we too, can transform ourselves.

If we too can transform, so too can the person who has till now been a great disappointment to us.

We never know the spiritual potential of people in our midst.  We never know what others are capable of.  So we must never give up on a single soul.  Even this horrible executioner was able to achieve redemption.  We must always recognize the possibility that the person next to us who appears to be horrible, and who may in fact have really been horrible, is capable of a powerful transformation in a moment.  

This is a powerful lesson of Yom Kippur—we can really change.  We can really be better.

And if we don’t give up on people, you never know, they might really surprise us.

The Bluzhover Rebbe used to tell his Chasidim the following story about a Yom Kippur he experienced in Janovska.

Janovska was a concentration camp in Lviv where more than 100,000 Jews were murdered, often after being tortured.  On a shul trip this summer we visited Ukraine and as part of that visit we went to Janovska in order to raise awareness of the horrible conditions of this camp.  I visited the camp three times on our trip.  At Janovska we saw bones being desecrated by grave robbers and we saw that the camp was basically a garbage dump of sorts and a haven for drug users.  We came upon the bones of our holy ancestors strewn around the camp basically being treated like animal bones.  On all of my three visits to the camp I did not see a single other visitor.  At that moment I promised myself I would mention Janovska on Yom Kippur night in order to raise awareness about the holiness of those murdered there and the current desecration of their memory.

The Bluzhover Rebbe was very well known, but his identity was kept secret in Janovska.  Without his beard he was less recognizable and there was a fear that if the Nazis knew that the Rebbe was in the camp they would especially target him.

In the camp there was also a Jew named Schneeweiss.  But this Schweeneiss was not a friend of the other inmates.  He was the foreman and he was feared greatly by all the other Jews on account of his ruthlessness.

On the eve of Yom Kippur some of the Rebbe’s chasidim came to him and asked if the Rebbe could make a request that on this day they not be given work that would violate the prohibitions of Yom Kippur.

The Rebbe knew that even making such a request was incredibly dangerous.  First of all, the Nazis loved to especially torment the Jews on Yom Kippur.  Second, it would draw attention to himself and blow his identity.  But the Rebbe felt so moved by the dedication of his chasidim even in the horrors of Janovska that he agreed to make such a request.

The rebbe approach Schneeweiss and revealed himself.  He said, “You are a Jew like me.  Tonight is Kol Nidrei.  Is there any way you can help a small group of Jews who do not wish to violate Yom Kippur as it is the essence of their existence?”

The Rebbe noticed that Schneeweiss was visibly shaken by the request.  The rebbe took his hand and said, “I am begging you to do this and I promise you that as long as you live, it will be a good life.”

A spark of humanity emerged from Schneeweiss.  He said that that night he was not in charge, but tomorrow, on the day of Yom Kippur, he would do whatever he could to help.

That night they were taken to work in Lviv cemetery.  Many years later the Rebbe still showed his scars from the vicious beatings he received that night.  He came back to his barracks at 1 am expecting to go to sleep.  He was crying as he climbed into his bed as he remembered the beautiful images of Yom Kippur in the past.  Suddenly, his chasidim burst in.  They ran to the Rebbe and begged him to lead them in Kol Nidrei prayers.  The Rebbe knew that they were all risking their lives, but they arose and prayed Kol Nidrei from memory.  As these few chasidim started to pray the word quickly spread around Janovska.  Before long many more prisoners began to sneak into the barrack to join in prayer—looking for a moment of inspiration in their otherwise horrible reality.

The next morning the Rebbe and his core group of chasidim were summoned to Schneeweiss’s cottage.  Schneeweiss said, “I heard what you did last night.  I don’t believe in prayer.  But I admire your bravery, as you know that the penalty for what you did last night is death. Schneeweiss then took them to a large house that served as the SS headquarters.  (Today that house is an ordinary apartment building, which makes not mention of the SS or Nazis.)  He told them that their job that day would be to clean, but they would use only dry rags so as not to violate Yom Kippur.

The rabbi was standing on a ladder cleaning the window and his chasidim were on the floor below him.  As they cleaned they prayed and the Rebbe said that he remembers the floor being wet with the tears of their prayer.

Suddenly around noontime, two SS men stormed into the room.  They brought a food cart filled with plentiful amounts of bread, soup, and meat.  Obviously these were unheard of delicacies for the prisoners.

The SS commander came forward and announced, “You must eat or you will be shot.”  No one moved.  Everyone froze -- unsure of what to do.  How could they violate Yom Kippur!

The SS commander summoned Schneeweiss.  He shouted at him, “Schneeweiss, if these dirty dogs refuse to eat, then I will kill you along with them.”

Schneeweiss pulled himself to attention.  He looked the SS man directly in the eye and said, “Today is Yom Kippur, our holiest day.  We Jews do not eat on Yom Kippur.”

The SS man roared at Schneeweiss, “I command you in the name of the Fuhrer and the Third Reich, fress!”

Schneeweiss held his head high and repeated, “We Jews do not eat on Yom Kippur.”

The SS man pulled out his revolver and shot Schneeweiss in the head and killed him on the spot. 

The Rebbe and his chasidim were in shock.  Here was this sinful man who everyone had only seen wickedness from, now acting in the holiest possible way.

The Rebbe finished this story by quoting the Talmudic statement, “Even the transgressors of Israel are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate is full of seeds”
 (Eruvin, 19a).  (This story appears in Eliach, 189-193.)

Schneeweiss did not let his past define his future.  And neither should we!

This Schneeweiss had lived a horrible life up until that point.  But luckily he never gave up on himself.  He had a spark in him and he changed.  In that one moment he transformed his whole life.

Thankfully all of us in this room are very far away from the depths that Schneeweiss fell to. 

We are not Schneeweiss, but we must learn from him.  We must never give up on anyone.  

The only thing worse than giving up on others is giving up on our selves.

We are always tempted to say, “I can’t do this.  I am too far gone.”

Yom Kippur is about redemption.  About giving ourselves a chance to succeed.

Yesh Koneh Olam Habbah beshaa achat.  Some people acquire the World to Come in one single moment.  There is always an opportunity for redemption.

Our past does not define our future. Yom Kippur reminds us that we still have a future to write.  Let's make it a good one!

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780