October 14, 2019

High Holy Days: The sermon

If my calculations are correct, I have listened to somewhere between 70 and 80 High Holy Days sermons. The total sounds high, but when you consider that typically four different High Holy Days sermons are delivered between Erev Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the numbers add up quickly. Admittedly, this is a rough estimate because it includes services attended during my teenage years, when I timed my “bathroom break” to coincide with the sermon. And, if I were being completely accurate, I should have deducted for about a half-dozen Erev Rosh Hashanah services I missed due to some rationalizing that attendance at that service is optional.

Why am I making a big deal about the number of sermons that I have heard over my Jewish lifetime? Because the sermon is to the High Holy Days what fireworks are to the Fourth of July. They are what make or break a service. When people from different synagogues join together after Yom Kippur to break the fast and they ask each other “How were your services?” what they are really asking is “How was your rabbi’s sermon?” (You have to love the irony that just a few hours after asking for forgiveness “For the sin that we have committed by word of mouth,” we can’t wait to start critiquing our rabbis.)

So this numbers crunching got me to thinking: Out of the dozens of sermons I have listened to, how many do I actually remember? Really remember? The answer is just one. But maybe, in this case, one is enough. 

With all due respect to my rabbi, who no doubt incorporated lots of Judaic material into this One Sermon during a Yom Kippur service a couple of years back, what I heard him say went something like this: “Yes, during the High Holy Days we are expected to apologize to people for sins that we have committed, but an apology without a sincere attempt not to repeat the offending behavior is meaningless.” 

What?! OK, that is definitely a new spin on the High Holy Days apology mantra. The “old” High Holy Days apology — where one easily absolves oneself of all sorts of egregious behavior by simply uttering “I’m sorry” to the appropriate person — is apparently no longer good enough. Actually, it never was.

I have thought a lot about that One Sermon since I first heard it, and I think what my rabbi was really getting at is that there are two types of things for which we tend to apologize. The first are things that tend to be out of character or a one-time occurrence, and for these things, a simple “I’m sorry” is sufficient. Take the situation where you typically are a very cautious driver, but don’t see a stop sign and cause an accident. In this case, an apology to the other driver might be adequate. Or, imagine you are a working parent who makes a real effort to attend all of your child’s sporting events, but you have a meeting with an important client and have to miss a single game. Again, a contrite “I’m sorry I have to miss your game today” would be enough. 

But most of the things that we tend to be sorry for are not one-time occurrences. Instead, they are behaviors we tend to engage in over and over again. And for these types of behaviors, repetitive apologies are meaningless unless they are coupled with a real attempt to change.

It is easy to discern between occasional mess-ups and chronic bad behavior: We find ourselves constantly apologizing for the latter and infrequently apologizing for the former. 

So what do you find yourself constantly apologizing for? In my case, I find myself frequently apologizing to people for not getting back to them in a timely manner. Yes, my intentions are noble — I say “yes” to nearly everything and am quick to initiate new projects — but that doesn’t change the fact that my behavior inconveniences and frustrates others who are depending on me to follow through. So I find myself apologizing daily — “Sorry I didn’t get my son’s school forms in on time and that you had to call three times to nag me.” “Sorry I didn’t get this column in on deadline and you had to remind me.” “Sorry I didn’t respond to your three e-mails.” And I actually am sorry. The real question is not whether I am sorry at all, but am I sorry enough? And there is only one way to know the answer to that question: Whether I take concrete steps to change my bad behavior. 

The message of the One Sermon is this: The High Holy Days are not about getting people to apologize more, but about getting people to stop their bad behaviors so they ultimately have to apologize less.

So to all of you who I have frustrated by making commitments that I didn’t keep, I would like to begin the year 5774 by telling you that I am truly sorry. How sorry? Sorry enough that I am going to try to change so that I won’t have to apologize to you for this same behavior in 5775.