Yom Kippur-Yizkor Sermon

The theme of the High Holiday season is "teshuva" - repentance. Every page of the "machzor" - the High Holiday prayer book - emphasizes how important it is to reflect upon our actions and make the necessary changes in order to lead a good, moral life.

Two prominent figures in the news this past year raise the question as to whether repentance is always effective. We are told that if we follow the necessary steps then we can reestablish our position and reputation in the community. But would that be true with these two?

Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme stole $65 billion. Among the big losers were Hadassah, Yeshiva University, and Elie Wiesel. He just began serving his sentence of 150 years in jail. Michael Vick, as a multimillionaire quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, ran a dog fighting ring on his property in Virginia. His Bad Newz Kennels killed and maimed thousand of dogs. He plead guilty, served 23 months in jail, did 2 months of community service and has now been reinstated in the National Football League. Can they achieve repentance?

Judaism teaches that there are 5 steps in the process of teshuva. The first is "hakarat ha-cheit" recognizing the sin. One has to understand that the act or the behavior is wrong. The second step is "charatah" - remorse. One has to feel truly sorry for perpetrating the act or engaging in the behavior. The third step is "azivat ha-cheit" - desisting from the act again or stopping the behavior. Fourth is "peira'on" or restitution. If money was stolen it has to be paid back, or if injury was done it has to be rectified. Finally one has to do "vidui" or a formal confession to God. If these 5 steps are taken seriously and sincerely than the person needs to be restored to the community.

However, the question is what about forgiveness? Does the victim, or the community have the same obligation to forgive the sinner? The rabbis talk about two words for forgiveness - "mechila" and "selicha". Mechila is more forgiving a debt - agreeing that if a TV were stolen, let's say, and that the TV would be given back that the thief would be forgiven. Selicha is the more difficult. It involves the inner feeling that one has been able to forgive the other person for doing them wrong.

The more serious the injury or crime the more difficult it is to forgive. But on Yom Kippur we ask for forgiveness all day. If we expect God to forgive our sins, shouldn't we expect ourselves to forgive others? Some sins may never be fully forgivable, but the process needs to begin nonetheless.

May this coming year be one of facing our failures and beginning to forgive.


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  2. I was wondering this during the sermon -- how does one rectify irreversible injury or death (such as the death of the dogs caused by Vick)? Paying for medical bills and all future medical treatment? It would seem harsh if a person was merely negligent, though still responsible for a bad injury -- if the victim will never be the same, what level of restitution is necessary?

  3. I also thought about whether Michael Vick could ever really make restitution. I found this post on WTOP radio's website today - I am having trouble seeing if he can ever really achieve repentence and whether or not he is truly contrite.



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