This is the first sermon Rabbi Marc D. Angel delivered from the pulpit of Congregation Shearith Israel, Simhat Torah 1969. Fifty years have passed since that first sermon, and yet the ideas within it continue to ring true.
Angel for Shabbat
In Jewish tradition, the number seven is associated with perfection. We have 7 days of creation; Shabbat is on day 7; there are 7 weeks between Pessah and Shavuoth; 7 years in the sabbatical cycle; 7 cycles of 7 years in the jubilee cycle; 7 days of Pessah and Succoth by biblical rule.
But what is the significance of 8? What comes after the holiness and perfection symbolized by 7?
This question is especially relevant in relation to the festival of Shemini Hag Atsereth--the 8th day closing festival. No other festival day in the Torah is tied to the number 8.
We have the power to direct our inner thoughts in the direction of happiness. We have the capacity to overcome feelings of distress, by channeling our emotions in constructive ways.
Some years ago, I participated in a symposium on interfaith dialogue and cooperation. One of the participants, a highly respected Orthodox rabbi, cited a statement of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai: “It is a halakha that it is known that Esav hates Yaacov.” He applied this statement of Rabbi Shimon as an iron law of history: non-Jews hate Jews!
In our world today, we confront the Laban and Esau types of enemies. The Labans pose as supporters of human rights—but not for Jews, especially Israeli Jews. They are ruthless in their persistent denigration of Israel. The Esaus are terrorists blinded by hatred.They promote and justify hatred and murder; they rejoice at the shedding of Jewish blood.
We live in a stress-filled world, and face a constant stream of challenges. Optimisim, decisive action, and spiritual calmness can help us with our "transformational coping"--our ability to respond well and effectively to the crises and problems that confront us.
Judaism that is based primarily on the “conservative” tendency becomes dry and over-ritualized. Judaism that is based primarily on the “restorative” element becomes quixotic and irrelevant. Judaism that is based primarily on the “utopian” element becomes deracinated, flailing out in various directions while disconnecting itself from the wellsprings of Jewish tradition.
Life offers all of us hard challenges. These challenges are made even harder by those who try to impede our growth and our progress. But the hardest challenge is to maintain enthusiasm, to keep looking forward, to overcome obstacles…to grow old in years while remaining young in idealism.
Fasting and praying are important ingredients of Yom Kippur and are signs of repentance for our transgressions against God. But, as is well known, Yom Kippur does not provide atonement for sins committed against human beings. Rabbinic tradition has it that a person can expect to be judged by God with the same standard of judgment that a person applies to others.
Eleanor Roosevelt once noted: “Do not hesitate to do what you think you cannot do.” Dare to reach beyond your perceived limits. Do not let yourself be trapped within the narrow confines of narrow thinking. Do not let past defeats and failures drag you down."
Yom Kippur is the ultimate day of Jewish optimism in our ability to grow, change, and redefine ourselves.