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Yom Kippur Drasha 5782/2021 "Permission to Pause and Potential to Proceed: The Power to (still) lead a Purposeful life"

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Sep 15, 2021

Yom Kippur Drasha 5782/2021                        Rabbi Yechiel Morris

“Permission to pause and potential to proceed: The power to (still) lead a purposeful life”  

It is a phrase that I have recited thousands of times during my life.

For well over thirty years it has emanated, three times a day, from my lips.

I know it by heart and can utter it quickly and with ease. 

I thought I understood its meaning and purpose.

It seemed so simple and obvious.  

It all made so much sense.

Until a few days ago.

As I was about to commence the Rosh Hashanah Maariv Shemoneh Esrei, I was suddenly struck with silence and hesitation.

The phrase that I had given little thought to over the years now forced me to confront a most painful and difficult reality. 

Was this familiar opening to the Shemoneh Esrei a mere formality, or was it poignantly expressing an unspoken tension and struggle that had been lingering inside of me for the past several months?

I had always assumed that this verse, borrowed from the fifty-first Psalm, “Hashem Sefasi Tiftach U’fi Yagid Tehilasecha” was a petition to G-d to help us articulate and focus our thoughts as we commenced our private supplication with the Almighty.  

As our minds are often so cluttered with wasteful, foolish, and trivial musings, surely this utterance gently reminds us to reflect on what is most important and what is of greatest consequence.

“Hashem Sefasi Tiftach” Hashem help me formulate language” “U’fi Yagid Tehilasecha” that expresses praise and acclaim that most befits You, Hashem” 

That understanding always seemed reasonable and rational to me. 

It made perfect sense.

It was a most helpful and beneficial perspective to commence my conversation and dialogue with the One Above.

This opening line seemingly precedes Shemoneh Esrei to help us gather our thoughts and become more aware of the hallowed opportunity that lies before us as we are about to rendezvous with the Almighty.  

As I stood upright in front of my Machzor, on Rosh Hashanah eve, however, all of a sudden I discovered a most divergent and disparate understanding of this opening to the Shemoneh Esrei.

It came upon me suddenly and without warning. 

Upon reflection, it emerged from the culmination of a most tumultuous and distressing year.

The ongoing Covid pandemic.

Personal health problems.

Some difficult challenges affecting members of the community that I have been privy to. 

And most of all for me personally, the tragic, painful and untimely death, this past Lag Baomer, of our beloved nephew, Donny Morris A”H. 

As I peered into my Machzor, and glanced at those opening words to the Shemoneh Esrei, all these struggles and difficulties emerged before me. 

They appeared front and center.

I was religiously challenged like I had never been before.  

Doubts and questions, and most of all, anger and resentment swelled within me.  

How could the One, who we describe in the opening paragraph of the Shemoneh Esrei as the Gomel Chasadim Tovim, “who bestows beneficent kindness” how could the Ribbono Shel Olam have watched and allowed such pain, hurt, and anguish to befall me and my family?

How could the “Melech Chafetz B’Chaim” “the One who desires life” as we intone in the special opening addition to the Davening during the Ten Days of Repentance, allow a life, so young and precious, to be snuffed out just as he was beginning to blossom and flourish? 

How could a young man, who was so devoted to Him, to the Ribbono Shel Olam, who studied His Torah with such sincerity, who prayed with such devotion, and who was such a sweet and beloved son, brother, grandson, nephew, cousin, student and friend, be taken in such a cruel and sudden manner, Davka, specifically, at a moment when he was rejoicing and basking in His glow at the venerated and sacred burial place of the saintly Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai?

How could that have happened? 

As we invoke during the Yom Kippur Musaf, in the emotionally charged Piyut, Eleh Ezkaroh which commemorates the ten holy Rabbinic martyrs during Roman rule, “Zu Torah, V’zu Schora?”  

“Is this the Torah and is this its reward?” 

How could G-d have allowed this to occur?

Where was the kindness?

For that matter, where was the justice?

As these raging thoughts swirled around my mind in that elongated moment, it then occurred to me what the purpose of the opening phrase to Shemoneh Esrei is all about. 

“Hashem, Sefasi Tiftach”

“G-d, if I am to engage in conversation with You at this moment, then I need You to meet me where I am, and I require Your assistance.

I need You to help me open my mouth”

“U’fi Yagid Tehilasecha”

Because I am not feeling it right now.

If I am going to articulate Your praise that You bestow beneficent kindness and that You are an Ozer, Moshia U’Magen, “a Helper, Savior and Shield” then You will have to stand by my side and give me the strength to invoke those words of praise.”

Hashem Sifasai Tiftach!

G-d, You will have to open my mouth and give me the courage and the resolve to declare those truths, that I know in my mind are correct, but in my heart and deep within myself, I am having a most difficult time being able to relate to, embrace and express. 

“Hashem Sifasai Tiftach U’fi Yagid Tehilasecha”

“G-d, open up my lips so that I may be able to declare Your praise”

Because, if You don’t help open my lips, then I am not certain that I will be able to utter those words.

This sobering and most emotional thought raged like a tempest through my mind at the commencement of Rosh Hashanah, the Yom Hadin, the sacred and holy Day of Judgement.   

It was at that moment, as well, that I finally felt comforted by an insight I had once read from the late Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski ZT”L, who passed away several months ago from Covid. 

Rabbi Twerski notes, in his book, Prayerfully Yours, that we mechanically take three steps forward just prior to invoking the phrase “Hashem Sefasai Tiftach…” 

What is the purpose of those steps?

Where are we going?

To explain this movement, Rabbi Twerski cites the venerated late 12th century medieval sage, Rabbi Eliezer Rokeach of Worms, Germany who reminds us of the encounter that Moshe Rabbeinu had with G-d at Sinai.

Moshe had to ascend the mountain, which was billowing with smoke.

The Torah (Devarim 4:11) describes that in order for Moshe to encounter the Shechinah, he had to pass through three different layers; “Choshech, Anan V’Araphel” “darkness, cloud, and thick smoke.” 

Rabbi Rokeach suggested that we too, as we embark on our Amidah prayer with the Almighty, we must also travel through different levels of resistance in order to encounter Hashem. 

And what does each layer represent?

Rabbi Twersky suggested that darkness could refer to those who don’t even know that G-d exists.  

They can’t see that there is a Creator and a Being that runs the world. 

They are completely blind to that reality.

The second category, the cloud, describes those who know that there is a G-d but they are unable to find Him.  

They lack direction and clarity.  

They don’t understand how to serve and embrace the One Above.

It is as if they are walking in a cloud.

The third and final group, in Rabbi Twersky’s words, is the “most difficult to navigate.”

In many ways, it depicted my reality and my frame of mind at the onset of Rosh Hashanah. 

In a thick fog one can detect that something is in front of you, but you are not certain what it is. 

What you think is reality, may actually be quite inaccurate and off base.

You perceive things one way, but that may not be what is actually occurring.  

And so it is with our relationship with G-d.

We perceive the world through a limited human lens, and we are not made privy to a much larger and wider Divine perspective.  

What we perceive as cruel or kind may in fact, from a Heavenly position, be much more nuanced and complex.

From our perspective, however, everything appears hazy and incomprehensible. 

And so when we begin our Shemoneh Esrei, we take three steps forward in order to symbolically get past the confusion and the lack of clarity.

We hesitantly seek an audience with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, as a mixture of emotions and feelings overtake and overwhelm us.

Anger on the one hand, and a desire for comfort on the other. 

Confusion from one vantage point, and a yearning for clarity from a different angle.  

Indifference and helplessness, but also hope and a genuine desire for purpose and direction. 

We don’t know where to begin or even if we can begin.

And so we implore G-d to open our mouths and help us once again to be able to engage and re-emerge from our despair and despondency. 

We seek to be enveloped by G-d’s beneficent kindness, even though we have personally experienced His concealment and apparent distance.  

What emerges is that our Tefillah is an opportunity that G-d affords us to grapple with our emotions, our internal spiritual wrestling, and the roller coaster of life. 

It is gifted to us as a vehicle to engage with Hashem in a most intimate manner.

It forces us to confront our struggles, our dreams, our hopes and our fears.

It ultimately reminds us that we are never alone. 

That as distant and as hurt as we may be, Hashem is always there by our side.

Although this world confounds and astounds us, nonetheless, by clinging to Hashem, we can both be comforted by Him as well as find a sense of purpose moving forward.  

And this quest and pursuit is in many ways what we all try to accomplish on this most solemn and sacred day of Yom Kippur.

As expressed so passionately on the night of Yom Kippur during Maariv, we cry out, “...Re’eh Amidaseinu, Dalim, V’Reikim.”

We plead with G-d to “behold our predicament which is destitute and empty handed.”

And a little later on in the Davening, in the prayer which contains the refrain Salachti, we plead, “Koli Shema, Or’eih Demah Eini, Riv Rivi, Sh’aih Nivi, Vahashiveini.”

“Hear my voice and see the tear of my eye, take up my grievance, attend to my words and answer me!” 

We are at a loss.

Overwhelmed, bewildered, and forlorn.  

Occasionally we are indifferent and disillusioned. 

At times, we are downright angry and resentful.  

We don’t know where to turn.

Problems, pain, and in our current reality, a pandemic, confront us from all directions. 

And yet, at the same time, we also acknowledge in the powerful Shema Koleinu Tefila that “Venashuva!”

We nevertheless indeed seek to return to You, Hashem! 

As difficult as it is, we have not, and we will not give up.

We will find a way, with Hashem’s support and comfort, to once again move forward and make our lives purposeful and holy.  

We will follow the lead of our people’s greatest teacher, Moshe Rabbeinu.

After all, in the Parsha that is always read at this time of the year, the opening words emphasize and remind us of this imperative.

“Vayelech Moshe!”

“And Moshe went…”

All the commentators wonder where did he go?

This was the last day of his life.  He was about to die.  He was in the midst of his final speech and offering his last directives.

Where was he going?

To which the Baalei Musar answer, that after all he experienced, all the travails, all the setbacks, as well as his triumphs and successes, he never stopped moving onward.

He continued to push forward.

As long as there was still life within him, he continued to act, teach, inspire, lead and preach.

Yes, he carried a lot of baggage with him.

Certainly there was resentment, hurt, doubts, and second guessing.

As he himself noted in the Parsha, there was even a sense that the Jewish people, at a certain stage, would even reject and ignore all that he had taught and conveyed.

But even with all of that doubt and despair, he continued to press on and to play a positive and proactive role. 

He did not give up, and he didn’t give in. 

“Vayelech Moshe...”

He continued to march forward.

And that is our challenge, as well as our opportunity.

As we stand before G-d on Yom Kippur we all carry our own baggage.

Our hopes, fears, setbacks, dreams and yes, our pain, anger, and hurt.

We have so many questions and few answers. 

But what we do have is a choice and an opportunity to push forward to still lead purposeful and impactful lives.

As our teacher and Shul Rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg has often reminded us when addressing the fragility of life, that what matters most is not how long we live but rather what we do with the time that we were gifted in this world.

He has told us how he has worked with children stricken with terminal cancer who in their few short years literally changed the world.

While tragically he has been by the deathbed of those who have lived long into their nineties, who sadly wonder what have they accomplished and why they have lived at all. 

Hence, his mantra, “power, peace, purpose.” 

We have the power and the capacity to lead purposeful lives.

We can create a sense of inner peace by taking back what is within our control.  

As Jews, we can choose to lead meaningful and impactful lives, reflecting G-d’s will, in spite and often specifically because of what we have experienced and what we have endured.

In this regard, I am always amazed when I think about our sacred Holocaust Survivors.

Their stories of survival are undoubtedly miraculous.

But it was their ability post-Holocasut to not only have picked up the pieces and moved on, but in many cases, to have then transformed, uplifted, and created families, communities and institutions that was and is simply astounding and inspiring.

After all they experienced, and after all they that painfully and tragically lost, the fact they still had the capacity to maintain faith and not only believe in a better tomorrow, but to help build and create it as well, is a powerful example of what we can all aspire to follow and to emulate.   

It is certainly not easy.

Sometimes it can seem downright impossible. 

Especially when the pain and the hurt and the void are so strong and palpable.

But it is nevertheless, always ours to grasp and to mimic if we so choose.

Each year, when we stand before Hashem on Yom Kippur, we have the opportunity to start anew and fresh.

The past and all that it contains is always with us, but so is the possibility of the future and all that it beckons.  

We can never forget what once was, but we also have the capacity to look forward and to work towards what can yet be.  

At times, due to the past pain, agony, anger and grief, we have the right and the permission to request and perhaps even respectfully demand from Hashem that He lift us up and give us the strength and the capacity to move forward and carry on.

That in order for my “pi,” for my mouth, to be “lehagid Tehilasecha” to “express Your praise” I need from You, Hashem, that you “Sefasi Tiftach” that You give me the strength, the frame of mind, and the courage to reconnect and to express that praise which is so difficult for me to utter.

That to say with full conviction that You are Gomel Chasadim Tovim, “who bestows beneficent kindness” and that You are the Melech Chafetz B’Chaim, “the one who desires life” is something which is very difficult and challenging for me to utter.

That the Amraphel, the smoke of resentment and hurt that is billowing in front of me, is causing me to retreat and collapse in a state of despair and loss.

But nonetheless, with Your assistance and support, I pledge to once again make the effort to mimic the Vayelech of Moshe Rabbeinu to reconnect, restore and resume the relationship we once had.  

Because at the end of the day, Mi Chamocha, there is none like You, U’Mi Domeh Lach, and there is no one that compares to You.

You are beyond our human understanding.

Nonetheless, you placed us here, in this world, at this time, L’mancha Elokim Chaim “for Your sake, O living G-d.” 

And therefore, I will move forward and press on, similar to myriads of other Jews who came before me including the sacred survivors of the Shoah as well as great and holy Jews such as the holy and pure Donny Morris TZ’L.

Jews who dedicated their lives to You, believed in You, served You, represented You, and lived for You. 

Jews who soared to the greatest heights and demonstrated to us all how a Jew should live and respond, both in times of travail as well as in times of celebration.

This Yom Kippur, in spite of, or perhaps because of all that occurred this past year, I recommit myself to You.

I pledge to lead a purposeful life, to grow from the past, and to make a difference moving forward.

I will strengthen my faith, my observance and my commitment to my fellow Jew and all human beings.

I will do it in memory of all those who I have loved and honored, and I will do it for You.  

Hashem, with Your assistance, I beseech that Sefasi Tiftach, that You will open my lips.

With courage and resolve, I commit and I am confident that Tihelasecha, Your praise will flow freely and uninterrupted.  

And in that merit, please Hashem, may You continue to comfort me, my family, my community and my people.

May we know of no more pain and sorrow.  

May You elevate the souls of our loved ones who have passed from this world.  

And may You please grant us, the living, joy, good health, sustenance, peace and salvation so that we may serve You and sanctify Your name in this world.  


V’Chain Yehi Ratzon, and so may it be Your will, Amen!


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Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Emily and Gavi Unger in honor of the birth of their daughter, Naomi Chaya and by Dr. Alexander & Meryl Weingarten in memory of Dr. Alvin M. Lashinsky, Avraham Moshe ben Meir Hakohen, on the occasion of his yahrzeit on the 19th of Kislev and in honor of their children, Mark, Michael, Julie, Marnie and Michelle and by the Cohen, Kraut and Silver families in memory of Elaine Bienenfeld Silver z”l and by Solomon Monderer for a refuah shleimah for Leora bat Rifka and for a refuah shleimah for Yehuda Baruch Noam ben Tova Batya betoch shar cholei Yisrael