This is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur, October 5, 2022. You can listen using the player below or read the text.
January 27, 1973. The signing of the Paris Peace Accords officially ends U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The fighting that had lasted almost 20 years by that point didn’t end, it carried on for a few more years as United States troops withdrew.
Skip ahead to that fall. October, 1973. Forty-nine years ago right now, in fact. Egyptian and Syrian forces attack Israeli forces on Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur War.
On October 10, Spiro Agnew resigns as Vice President of the United States and pleads no contest to tax evasion.
November 17, 1973. That’s when President Nixon tells 400 Associated Press managing editors “I am not a crook.” Less than a year later, he will also resign.
The world was a mess in 1973, or so it seemed. It makes sense that by January of 1974, people yearned for a simpler time. Because in January, 1974, we got a little reminder of how great things used to be. They were the Cunninghams, and they lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1950s. Howard owned a hardware store, Marion was a stay-at-home mom – a phrase that hadn’t been invented yet – and their kids went to school and hung out with their friends. One of those friends became the most famous Jew to ever wear a leather jacket. And suddenly America could relive those happy days, and they were so happy that they lasted 11 seasons.
It’s funny to think that only 20 years separated the filming of Happy Days and the time it took place. It would be like having a TV show now that played on the nostalgia of the 2000s. Does anybody yearn for the 2000s?
But truly, the idea of going back to supposedly better times comes up all the time, in every era. Movies and TV shows romanticize it. Political parties politicize it. So why do we insist that things were better before?
This was heightened even more during peak Covid. How many times did you hear “when things are back to normal” or the phrase “pre-Covid”? You’ve probably heard it at least once just today. But I want to caution us that it can be dangerous to think in terms of going back. In real life, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is ignorance, and to go back in time implies going back and losing all of the knowledge we’ve gained since then.
Famously, there was a music teacher who suggested to her students that every time they ran through a particular piece, it should automatically sound slightly better than the time before, because the musicians were three minutes older and wiser than they were during the last run-through. We are now two and a half years older and wiser. When we play together, how will our music sound?
This is the season of teshuvah, of return, but instead of thinking about going back in search of what we’ve lost, I’d like us to imagine going forward with what we’ve gained. I invite you to take a breath, perhaps even close your eyes. Find yourself a center. It has been two long years since we’ve been able to be together, in this space for the High Holidays. Over the last two plus years, so much of our world has changed; some for the worse, but perhaps some for the better. Over these two years, we’ve longed for moments like “before.” Those pre-pandemic times when decisions to go to the grocery store or visit family members were not ones for which most of us had to weigh our health risks.
We missed seeing full, smiling faces, but we learned to better read each other’s eyes. If you closed your eyes, feel free to open them.
Our kehillah, like so many of you, has had to make some big decisions about how we were to return to the building and to in-person programs and services. We joke that we’ve pivoted so much we don’t remember which spot we started in. As a tap dancer in my younger days, they would teach us to pick a spot on the wall when we were doing a turn so that we could focus on it and not get dizzy. Ever since 2020, it has felt like there’s no spot to focus on, which means we’ve had a dizzying two years.
As we enter a new year, personally I find myself trying to balance the act of introspection that’s involved in looking back so that we can make teshuvah and improve ourselves in the coming year, along with trying not to get stuck in the past. I can’t change the past me, but I can change this me and make plans for the future.
This is what our Jewish calendar asks us to do too. Each year we read the Torah again from the beginning, the same story, a look back at our past, and our role as the carriers of this story, is to find meaning in it for our today and tomorrow. It’s misleading though, isn’t it? Because every time we put the Torah back in the ark, we sing “Etz chayim hi” (it is a tree of life) which ends with “chadesh yameinu kekedem.” Return us to the ways that were before, the days prior.
See? We can’t escape the “good old days.” It’s right there in our liturgy. Why? Where does it come from? This verse is a lamentation, literally, from Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. And the “good old days” are the time of the Temple. But when we sing this on Shabbat while we put the Torah away, are we really asking for animal sacrifice again? Just to be clear, I’m not. And I’m fairly certain the rabbis of old weren’t yearning to return to those days either. Well, some might have been, but there’s a reason it’s said and not acted on. It’s reflexive. Renew us. Return us to you, God. Return us to each other and to ourselves.
As much as Happy Days or The Wonder Years or Mad Men or any other period piece would have us believe, there’s no one time we all yearn for. What we yearn for is clarity of purpose, and sometimes in the foggy present, clarity of purpose is only possible when you look back and realize how you’ve been shaped by the time you’ve been given.
My teshuvah is not about returning to some other time or some other me. It’s about returning to that spot on the wall. My focus. The things that fulfill me, that make me . . . me. And I hope the same for you. Chadesh yameinu kekedem. Renew our days, not of old, but of now, for another year, so that we may continue to find the truest versions of ourselves. G’mar chatimah tovah.