Selected Sermon/Article
2005-10-13 Yom Kippur/ Kol Nidrei Drasha by Rav Ze'ev Smason
Why We Need a Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur/ Kol Nidrei Drasha 5766/2005 Why We Need a Yom Kippur

There are a number of things I do to prepare for the High Holidays. One of them is to get my talis cleaned. After all, I'm the rabbi and I stand in front of quite a few people, so I have to look my best on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. A few weeks ago on a Monday I took my special Shabbos talis -- the one I'm wearing now -- to a Jewish-owned dry cleaner here in town that cleans taleisim for free. When I picked my talis up that following Thursday and looked it over, everything looked great. Everything, that is, except this quarter-sized stain that those of you who are sitting in the front can see.

I was a bit bothered by this stain on my Shabbos talis. So I asked the lady behind the counter if there was anything more that could be done to try to get it out. I didn't want to complain too much, since it was being cleaned for free; but on the other hand I wanted my talis to look just right.

I was a bit taken aback when the woman said to me, 'Sir, you really shouldn't have waited so long between visits to get your talis cleaned. If you leave a stain uncleaned for too long, it just won't come out. Please don't wait until the High Holidays next year to bring your talis in for a cleaning.' Until that moment, I thought that I had been a nice guy for not taking advantage too often of the free talis-cleaning service; and here was the lady at the dry cleaner telling me I wasn't bringing in my talis often enough.

My first thought was: 'How did she know that I hadn't brought my talis in since last year? I guess it's a common crime amongst rabbis -- not getting your talis cleaned often enough. But she was right, because I hadn't.

Then another and more serious realization popped into my head. A freshly dry-cleaned talis or suit or dress will get dirty all over again the first few times you wear it. But if you don't get it cleaned regularly, the shmutz (dirt) will get so deep into the fiber of the material that it can't be cleaned. And the same thing is true for our souls.

Yom Kippur can be a frustrating experience, if you don't have the right perspective.

We have great expectations around this time of year. We tell ourselves, "I'm going to do tshuva. I'm going to change. I'm really going to get my act together this year, and do some of those things I've been putting off that I know I should do." But invariably, our high hopes turn to disappointment when within a few days after Yom Kippur -- or sometimes, even within a few hours -- we go back to 'business as usual.'

To say this idea differently , it seems that while we go through Yom Kippur, very little of Yom Kippur seems to go through us. Or at least, very little of Yom Kippur seems to stick around for a while. We go through Yom Kippur, we spend all day in shul, we fast, we lose a few pounds --but it seems that we never really change from one year to the next. So what then do we have to show for our effort?

It's true that for many or most of us, there's not a huge, noticeable change from year to year. But if we never went through a Yom Kippur, our neshamas (souls) might become so dirty and stained after a few years that they could never be cleaned -- just like this stain on my talis that can never come out. So -- Boruch Hashem (thank G-d) for the gift of Yom Kippur that Hashem has given us. Because, without a Yom Kippur, who knows where we'd be?

We can get used to anything, given enough time. We need look no further than Israel to see this happening within ourselves.

With the arrival of the new year of 5766, security officials in Israel reported that the past year was relatively quiet. Thanks in large part to the Security Fence and the death of Yassar Arafat, Islamic terror attacks in Israel were down. There were only 7 homicide attacks carried out this past year, and only 57 people killed through acts of terrorism in Israel in the past year.

'Only 7 homicide attacks?' 'Only 57 people murdered?' I hope that what I'm about to say is wrong, but I'll say it anyway; I'm afraid that even many of us have gotten used to the idea of Jews being killed in Israel through acts of terrorism. Where is our outrage over what continues to take place in Israel? I'm not suggesting that we don't feel anything, but I'm not sure that the report of an attack against Jews in Israel bothers us in quite the same way as it did three or four years ago.

This past summer we saw 8000 of our people forcibly evicted from their homes in Israel by the Sharon government. As this New Year begins, almost all of those 8000 remain without jobs and permanent homes. We were in pain when we saw the news footage in August; now it's October. Do we remember what happened in Gaza, or is it just 'old news?'

Closer to home here in America, we can easily see what happens to a country that doesn't have a national Yom Kippur.

I'd like you to imagine for a moment that there was a person who had lapsed into a coma in the year 1985 -- 20 years ago. Now imagine that a miracle happened, and that same person woke up this earlier this week and turned on the radio or TV. What do you think their reaction would be? You know what would happen, don't you? They'd suffer major culture shock with the things they'd hear and see. The words! The TV programs! Even the commercials!. Well, we hear the same words and see the same programs and commercials. So why aren't we shocked? Why don't we say, "What has happened here? I can't believe what has happened to society!"

We don't say that because most of us aren't shocked anymore. And why aren't we shocked? Because we've gotten used to it.

The Talmud makes the following provocative statement: Once a person commits a sin, it becomes permissible. The rabbis of the Talmud asked, 'How can a sin become permissible, once a person breaks a commandment? If something is prohibited, it remains prohibited.' The response offered is: "It's not that the sin literally becomes permissible; rather, it becomes as if it's permissible." Once you've gotten used to doing something wrong, it might even seem as if it's a mitzvah!

America needs a Yom Kippur. The United States is in many many ways a wonderful country; but still, this society hasn't had the opportunity to recalibrate its moral compass and to reset its values from time to time to those of a healthier era. Without a periodic 'chesbon ha'nefesh' -- a time to think about where we've been and where we're going -- spiritual decay just kind of sneaks up on us and things just get worse and worse. We need a day for society to wake up and say, 'My G-d, where have we gone?'

This idea is one that applies to each of us on a personal level, as well.

I bought a new Saturn about a year ago. It's working out fine; fine, that is, except the clock inside the car. It loses about 2 minutes a week, and I can't get it to work any better. I even took it to the dealer, and the dealer said that if it was losing more time than two minutes a week -- like three minutes a week -- he'd replace it. In the meantime, I'm stuck with this clock that runs slow. So every two weeks or so when I drive the kids to school, I ask my daughter to reset the clock (I can't figure out how to do it). If I didn't recalibrate it periodically, then the clock would become further and further off the correct time. Two minutes this week, two more minutes the following week -- the time can really add up after a while.

Spiritually, also, we need to recalibrate and resynchronize our internal clocks. And what better time to do so, then tonight and tomorrow, on Yom Kippur! Recalibrating our souls means to realize that in some areas over the course of the past year we've gotten away from where we want to be. This is how I should talk, this is how I shouldn't talk. This is how I should treat my wife or husband or kids or parents, and this is what I shouldn't be doing. Maybe I should be coming to shul a little bit more, or gossiping a little bit less.

So the good news is that since we get to experience a Yom Kippur, we don't have to worry about getting stains on the 'talis' that won't come out. When we start over tomorrow night when the fast concludes, even if we go back to our old ways it won't be the same thing anymore. It will be a fresh start, and there's an excellent chance that this coming year we'll make one or two changes that we commit to today might stick.

Therefore, no matter how many Yom Kippurs we've experienced, and no matter how successful or unsuccessful we may have been in the past, today we can say to ourselves, 'I'm starting over.'

We have the next 24 hours to get a brand new start. Minimally, we'll cleanse ourselves if we spend the day in a meaningful way. And who knows -- perhaps with Hashem's help, we'll be able to make a change or two that will last.

Good Yom Tov (adapted in part from a shiur of Rabbi Yissachar Frand)