Just over two thousand years ago, a Roman official visiting Jerusalem recorded in great detail the scene he took in on the Eve of Passover, on Erev Pesach. He describes Yerushalayim teeming with hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children from all over the country and beyond. How they all thronged to the gates of the Temple with their Pascal Lambs. There were too many people to all enter the Temple’s gates at once and so the Levites would open the gates, allow the courtyard to fill to capacity, and then close the gates behind them. Then the group would leave, another group would come in, and they would again close the gates shut, doing this a total of three times to allow for everyone to enter those holy gates.
To keep up with the exceptionally high volume of offerings, every single kohein would be employed. All the priests would be called into service for Pesach. The Levites would be practicing for this day the entire year. Singing together as one, with the most heavenly harmonies, accompanied by a symphony, they would chant the Hallel in an angelic roar, growing louder and louder, until they reached the climax of their song. Then the gates would open, a new mass of people would come in, and they would do it all over again.
What a sight! Described the Roman officer. What a powerful mass of joy and Jewishness coming together. The shouts of delight, of old friends and family reuniting, mingling together with the uplifting sounds of the Leviim’s music.
If Pesach was the loudest day in the ancient Temple, then Yom Kippur was the quietest. The courtyard would again be filled to capacity, but on Yom Kippur it was deathly silent. The Levites did not sing; they did not play their instruments, as they would on every other day. The Kohanim, normally so busy, so quick, would stand at attention, unflinching. Only one man moved on Yom Kippur. Only one individual did anything at all on the Temple grounds. The High Priest, the Kohein Gadol. He, and he alone, was the center of the drama of the day.
It was he who brought each offering, he alone brought the incense. It was he who lit the Menorah, and he alone entered the Holy of Holies, the kodesh kodoshim.
While everyone in the courtyard would strain to catch a glimpse of the High Priest, he would perform an ancient and intricate dance; the dance of atonement. Gracefully making his way from the outer courtyard to the inner sanctum and back again, changing outfits to reflect the spirit of each segment of the service. Perfectly choreographed down to the “finest of finest” of details. One man; one man alone.
Pesach is the festival of community, of coming together, of connecting to the past and building towards the Jewish future. Yom Kippur is a day of singular oneness, of the present, of the individual, of you and you alone. It’s warm and comforting connecting to a family holiday like Pesach, and it’s somewhat awkward to connect to this lonely day of Yom Kippur. But that is exactly the point.
Maimonides in his famous work on Repentance describes a scale of merits and transgressions. It is the scale of all of humankind, and during these days, from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, it dips to the positive, to the side of life, and then precariously tips to the side of sin and of death, and then back again. With that imagery in mind, the Rambam writes, “Tzarich kol adam sheyirah atzmo, each individual must see themselves,” standing before this scale. “Chata cheit echad, harei hichria es atzmo v’es kol ha’olam kulo l’chaf chova. If you perform one sin, you tip the scales, yours and the whole entire world to the side of guilt! Asah mitzvah achas harei hichria es atzmo v’es kol haolam kulo l’chaf zechus, if you do one Mitzvah, you tip the scale to the side of merit. V’gorem lahem, and you, and you alone cause t’shua v’hatzalah, deliverance and salvation to the entire world.”
Maimonides is not known for his hyperbolic prose, and yet he conveys in no uncertain terms the importance and the value of you and you alone. How the world may indeed be hanging in the balance and your deed, your gesture, your word, can save the entire world. Absent a Temple, Maimonides is teaching us, that we are all the Kohein Gadol on this day; that the drama of Yom Kippur revolves around us, not us, but you and you and you, each and every one of us.
Our minds gravitate to greatness, to grandeur, to all that is big in the world. We see the towering tree and overlook the beautiful grass. We are overawed by a storm and do not notice the pleasant winds, we are so impressed by wealth and by power that we fail to appreciate the delicate beauty and subtle impact of every individual – of ourselves.
A few weeks ago, a man named Eugene Gluck died at the age of 92. He was the founder of Armitron watches, one of the top ten fashion watch companies. He was a towering, larger than life individual. His philanthropy and leadership were legendary. I’ll share with you just one story. One day a new employee was called into his office. You can imagine the intimidation of being a new employee called into the CEO’s office. They were sitting and talking; Mr. Gluck doing most of the talking as this new employee sat there nervously and listened. And while the conversation was going on, his secretary walks in and says, “Sir, Mr. Netanyahu is on the phone for you.”
Without blinking an eye, with no hesitation, he turned to his secretary and said, “Thank you. I’m in the middle of an important meeting. Kindly tell him that I will call him back as soon as I can.”
Eugene Gluck never lost sight of what we sometimes forget, and that is that we are important. That each person, regardless of their title, their age, their resume, each person is a High Priest, a Kohein Gadol.
Yom Kippur, more than any other day, the day that one man served alone – Yom Kippur reminds us of the power of a single individual. The whole world hangs in balance, and you, yes, just you can tip the scale in either direction. You do make a difference.
There are so many wonderful tales of people who changed the world, or who changed their community, who made a difference. But I don’t need to tell you any stories this morning. At this moment, before Yizkor, this room is packed with stories. With memories of individuals; most were not famous, most lived simple lives, lives of anonymity. But pray tell me, did they not make the biggest impact on you? Did the people being remembered this morning not change your world?
Forget for a moment, the fact that they brought you into this world and gave you life. Did their loving smile, their embrace, their approval not give you the strength and self-confidence to achieve all that you have accomplished in life?
And tragically, for too many, did their frown, their coldness, their biting criticism, did it not haunt you, not break you, not crush you every time you tried to forge forward?
We make a difference. Each and every one of us. Not only every person, but so too every act has the potential to give or take life.
The story is told of a young boy on a beach, picking up starfish that have been swept ashore by the tide, and throwing them back into the water. An old man comes by and asks the boy what he’s doing. And the boy explains that he is saving the starfish by putting them back into the water, where they belong, where they will live. Of course, the man scoffs at the young boy, pointing to the endless beach, “There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of starfish on the beach, you will never make a difference!”
The young boy picks up a starfish. “For this one,” he says, as he throws it into the water, “I will make a difference.”
All it takes is a flick of the wrist and a starfish is saved. All it takes is a nod of approval and a child is given confidence for life. All it takes is a kind word and a volatile situation melts into love. All it takes is a smile and an otherwise lonely man or woman remembers that they exist and that people notice them.
It is not ‘the world’ which is in our hands, there are many worlds in our hands, there are lives hanging in the balance, and one person; each and every one of us can tip that scale to life.
Rav Nachman of Breslov was one of the most influential Chassidic rabbis to have lived. He died over two hundred years ago but his impact looms large. Just this last week, over 50,000 men travelled to his grave in Ukraine to spend Rosh Hashana. His teachings, especially in the past few years, are studied by Jews and non-Jews alike. I’d like to share with you a teaching, one that he describes as his most important lesson. It is the 282nd piece in his seminal work, Likutei Moharan.
He writes there about the importance of finding goodness even in those who are evil. There is no evil person, he writes, who does not have some good to them.
I have thought about this a lot, especially in our ever-growing hostile society. Our society has been dubbed the cancel culture, in which if you say the wrong thing you will live with the consequences for the rest of your life, as if we are defined by our mistakes. People’s lives, good people, have had their lives destroyed because of one comment and often times a comment that was misunderstood. We live in a society in which there is only wrong and right, good and evil, and nothing in between, especially in our public dialogue, especially in the political arena. Imagine if our politicians and political pundits would judge each other favorably? Imagine if in our conversations with one another or about one another we would look for the good, as small as it is, in those we disagree with, in those we dislike?
“V’afilu mi she’hu rasha gamur, even someone completely evil,” writes Rav Nachman, “tzarich l’chapeis, one must seek and seek, v’limzto bo eizeh me’at tov, and find just a little bit of good.”
Rav Nachman then continues, and here is where the piece really takes a turn. He writes, “V’chein tzarich ha’adam limtzo gam b’atzmo, so too a person has to find the same in themselves, eizeh me’at tov, a little bit of goodness. A person has to look beyond their own mistakes, beyond their own sins, beyond their own failings, and see the good. Because the two go hand in hand.
That parent who couldn’t see the good in you, the parent who was never satisfied despite all of your accomplishments, the parent who never gave you the time of day – it was not you they did not love. They were too hard on themselves. Who knows? Maybe someone was too hard on them. And they took it out on you.
So you want to change the world? You want to change the people in your life? You want to change yourself? It starts by recognizing the value, the goodness and the potential that we possess, that you possess!
Yom Kippur is the day we remind ourselves that the people who did not love us were wrong, they were so terribly wrong! You are important. You are essential. You are good. Yom Kippur is the day that G-d says to us, “I have forgiven you, I have wiped away your sins. But now you need to forgive yourself.”
Today is the day we are reminded that the scale of the whole world is hanging in the balance, and you, small you, through your judgments, through your gestures, through your kind words to a child, through your smile to a stranger, you can make a difference, you really, really can. You can tip the scale of that person to life.
Today is the day we are reminded that anonymous people, people who don’t make the news, they still make a difference. Because the people we remember today made – or broke our lives.
Yom Kippur is the day on which we are all High Priests. We are the center of this drama called life. Let’s make a difference to the world by appreciating the people around us, by giving them our undivided attention which they deserve – through a smile, a kind word, or a compliment, by seeking out the goodness of the people in our lives, even when we disagree. And ultimately by finding and celebrating the good within, by silencing our most vicious critic – ourselves, and by realizing the message that G-d, our Father, is conveying to each and every one of us on this day, “I forgive you. I love you. You make a difference.”