Part Four
A Sermon Series for Yom Kippur Atonement Day 5776
September 23, 2015

Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn
Congregation Temple Sinai
New Orleans, Louisiana

We Jews are called this day by our Sacred Covenant with God and by our desire to be people of character, to examine our deeds, and our sins of commission and omission.  Yes that is a big part of this moment’s challenge.

It seems to me, that as humans, each one of us is in at least one of three states of being; we have either done, are doing, or will do something which we truly and deeply regret.

And someone else will treat us in a way that he or she, sooner or later, will truly and deeply regret.  Every one of us will do something foolish and hurtful and that’s just the way it is.  But that doesn’t mean that we are hopeless!

I wonder did you get into the show MAD MEN?  The final episode was broadcast last May 7th and what a scene it contained, as Don Draper (actor Jon Hamm) performs a terrific scene of self confession. Don calls his co-worker Peggy Olson on an old fashioned pay phone.  Now, Don has disappeared for weeks from his New York Madison Avenue agency, all the while, the professional and private lives of his co-workers have gone through tremendous changes, some for the better, some for the worse.

Don’s once ever so promising life – based solely on his outward appearance, seems to be headed now only one way, and that’s down the toilet.

Peggy is surprised to hear him on the other side of the line and instructs him:  “Don, come home!”  He says:  “I can’t.”

And she asks: “What have you been doing?

And Don replies:  “I’ve messed up everything.  I’m not the man you think I am.”

Peggy pursues:  “Listen to me Don, What did you ever do that was so bad?”

And with that, the secrets of 7 seasons pour forth from him –
I broke all my vows.
I scandalized my child.
I took another man’s name and I made nothing of it.

Peggy, with an unbreakable crush on this man insists:

That’s not true!

But we viewers, we know better, it is all true – and plenty more besides.

The final question we viewers were left with as we said a farewell to Don Draper, was will Don change?  Will he ever find his soul?  Having confessed, will Don ever apologize to the ones whom he has so hurt and betrayed?

Jewish law is clear:  Yom Kippur only “works” if we apologize, person to person.  Yet we often evade anything even resembling so much as a direct, no excuses, “I’m sorry. I did it. It was wrong” – apology.

Consider the first book of our Torah.  Genesis holds many precious insights but among them is this:  when it comes to apologies, we human beings stink!  Read every verse of Bereshit – Genesis – and you will not find a sincere apology in the entire first book of the Torah.

•    Adam – “She made me do it!”
•    Eve – “It was the snake!”
•    Cain Kills Abel:  “What, am I my brother’s keeper?”
•    Did you hear Abraham apologize to Isaac on Rosh HaShanah morning when that knife was at his young son’s throat on Mt. Moriah?  Nor was there so much as a “By the way, I guess you ought to know I almost really messed up . . .”, to his wife Sarah either.
•    Rebecca doesn’t apologize to her sight-impaired elderly husband, Isaac, for her complicity in switching Jacob and Esau’s blessing.
•    Laban never apologizes to Jacob for marrying off Leah, the sister of Rachel, and Jacob’s intended bride.
•    Even Jacob, when reconciling with Esau can’t manage a proper apology beyond 7 bows, an offer of riches, and a tearful embrace.  Emotional reunion – yes.  A forthright apology – no way.
•    And that brings us to the portion we just read this morning.  You know this story!  You’ve seen the musical!  Those brothers sold Joseph – at best into slavery – most likely he was headed to an early and painful death.  They ultimately reunite when Joseph tearfully discloses his true identity to his now stunned and speechless brothers.

But, now the old man, their father Jacob has died.  And the brothers figure that this is the time when Joseph will get his revenge.  Now he’s gonna give us back what we did to him, they figure.  So what did they do?  Did they kneel and apologize before him?

No!  They lied and made up a story.

Our dad wanted you just to forget all that nasty stuff from so long, long ago.  If you want, we’ll even be your slaves. Let’s just put that other stuff behind us.

Did you hear an apology?  I didn’t either.

The Midrash commenting on this 50th chapter of Genesis informs us that what happened was Joseph went back and revisited the scene of the crime.  He went to the pit where his brothers had thrown him down waiting for the slave traders to capture him.  But instead of vengeance, Joseph was filled with love for his brothers and an awareness of how, from that forsaken place, the adventure of his life had really begun.

No, his brothers never did apologize, they just manufactured a giant lie but Joseph assured them – “Listen, am I in the place of God?”

And our text concludes –

Thus did he comfort them and
speak straight to their hearts.

Here is where the High Holy Days come in. Our liturgy seeks to persuade God to move from Judgment to compassion upon humankind in all of our frailties. But – listen to this – just as we wish to know God’s mercy, so should we show mercy to each other.  Haven’t you been amazed by what many of the precious family members of those Charleston bible class victims have said about forgiving the man who took the lives of their loved ones?  As Jews, when are we expected to forgive?  Should we – for that matter, can we – forgive the Boston marathon bomber or the bible class murderer?

The Talmud teaches us that when someone seeks our forgiveness with sincerity, we must work to overcome our resentment and hurt in order to grant their request.

We must be aware, however, that the question of whether we can forgive the wrong done against another person – including on behalf of someone who has died as a result of the wrong – is in question.  When asked whether he could forgive the Nazis who murdered his little sister when she was a small child, the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, responded:

No one can forgive crimes committed against someone else.

So, as to whether Roof or Tsarnaev can or should be forgiven, I must tell you there is no singular Jewish answer.

Thank God, you and I are not confronted with such extreme cases. But sometimes growing up and our success along the way in life seems to encourage us to become very full of ourselves and our egos puffed up. We have a tendency to become too easily offended.

There was once a woman who received a promotion to the position of vice president of the company for which she worked. That promotion went to her head, and for weeks on end she bragged to anyone and everyone that she was now vice president. Her bragging came to an abrupt halt when her spouse, who had become so embarrassed by his wife’s behavior, said,

“Listen Jill, it’s not that big a deal. These days everyone’s a vice president. Why they even have a vice president of peas down at the supermarket!”

“No they don’t!,” She protested.

Somewhat deflated, Jill called the local supermarket to find out if this was true. When someone answered the phone, she asked, “May I please speak to the vice president of peas?” There was a brief pause before the person said, “Of fresh or frozen?”.

The greatest thing that could eventuate from this sermon would be if one individual who hears it will forgive another and let them down easily bringing them once again into their lives with friendship or even with love. In our egos and our insistence upon being right, and occupying the “high ground” at every turn of life, sometimes we are too quick to cross off people, even those whom we love and with whom we have spent a lifetime experiencing success and failure, but somehow we conclude this is too much to countenance! Whatever “this” is, isn’t it time to get over it!

Against whom do you bear a grudge or nurse a slight on this Atonement Day? A brother or sister, a mother or father, a precious child with whom you have become distant, God forbid! Could it be a former business partner?  A husband or wife who strayed, or lied, or just gave up on their better selves, or someone who gave up on you too soon? Is there within you no forgiveness; no desire to let go of our hate?

Loren Eiseley was a famed American anthropologist and scientist who died in 1977. He left a well known story of a time when he found himself wandering along a beach at dawn after a storm. Eiseley discerned a human figure, standing upon the shore gazing fixedly at something there in the sand of the beach. Eventually that figure stooped, picked up an object from the sand and flung it far beyond breaking surf. By the time Dr. Eiseley approached, the person was starting to stoop again and do the same. There was a starfish in his hands.

“It’s still alive,” Eiseley ventured.
“Yes,” the man said.

And with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the starfish and spun it far out to sea. “It may live,” the man on the beach told Eiseley, “if the offshore pull is strong enough…”

Eiseley then turned and walked away from the star thrower but he wrote:

“I turned as I neared a bend in the coast and saw him toss another starfish, skimming it skillfully far out over the  tumultuous water. For a moment, in the changing light, (he) appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some greater sea.”

It seems to me, my friends, that in the wake of human storms, star throwers keep a lookout for broken hearts, for downcast people, for battered partners and outcast souls, for suppressed voices and lovehungry faces.

Here’s a worthy lifetime goal for every one of us. Patrol the beaches of life for signs of fear or symptoms of despair. Start with the ones who live under your roof!

We are here this morning to awaken our sense of the sacred and to renew our resolve to transform ourselves for the better. The beaches of our lives are strewn with struggling starfish, all around us – in our city, in our nation, in this world, but especially in our personal lives there are those struggling who have been devastated by indifference or meanness.
If my entire rabbinate with you whom I love so much comes down to four words, then I would surely choose these: “Forgive! Forgive! And live!” So should they ever ask you what did old Cohn have to say on that last Yom Kippur, in that “P.S. – I love you Temple Sinai sermon,” you tell them, at the end he said just four words: “Forgive! Forgive! And live!”