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During this week, TV personality Steven Colbert has created a Repentance Hotline. In order to help out all of those who may have offended him the line, 1-888-OOPS-JEW, is open to all callers. When you reach the number you hear “Shalom, and welcome to Stephen Colbert’s atonement hotline. At the tone, please be a mench, and unburden your soul by stating how you’ve wronged me–Stephen Colbert. Your call will not be returned but selected apologies will be played on the air. You should be so lucky.” Amusing, and it makes for a great gag, but I think he may have missed the point.

Many Jews who have and will not attend another service all year will attend Yom Kippur, the most holy day on the Jewish calendar. Some people ask for blanket absolution, send out forgiveness requests through Facebook applications or email, or simply mouth the words while not knowing the meaning. As I stand in services, I can’t help but wonder if we may all be missing the point as badly as Colbert.

Did you know that in the Eighteen-Hundreds, Reform Judaism removed the opening prayer from the Yom Kippur service? As did Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch of the German Jewish Orthodox movement. The Yom Kippur service begins with the “Kol nidre,” a prayer which means “all vows,” and is the first in a sequence of prayers where we ask G-d to annul any oaths we made with Him over the past year. Anti-Semites have pointed to this prayer as proof that the Jewish people were untrustworthy; however, it means anything but that.  When the Jews of Spain were forced to convert, it was the Kol nidre that allowed them to stay true to Judaism. The Kol nidre shows that we as a people take our vows so seriously that we must pray to have even vows made under duress annulled. Eventually the Kol nidre prayer was reinstated because it was realized that the service is not about trustworthiness, but our steadfast determination to make things right. We are so resolute as a people that, on Yom Kippur, the day we try to set things right with both the people we know and G-d, we do not eat in order to prevent ourselves from being distracted.

But Yom Kippur is not just about forgiveness. The Mishna tells us that “sins between one man and his friend, Yom Kippur does not atone for until one appeases his friend.” The Rabbis say that even the general request for forgiveness from one’s friends is only the beginning, one must also explain how they may have wronged the person and why they are asking for forgiveness. The Sefer HaChinuch further explains that the act of confession is not nearly enough, you must specifically say that you will not do the sin again. As it is a tradition for the new year of the Christian calendar, so it is here, in asking for forgiveness we have to make a commitment as to how we will live our lives throughout the next year.

As we make firm our convictions and promise not to do evil, we must remember that we are also promising to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedek and act righteously next year. And this promise cannot be mere lip service; it must be sealed with action. Rabbi Yehudah Prero tells a parable about Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik of Brisk:

One Yom Kippur, after evening services had been completed, Rav Soloveichik noticed that one of the prominent members of the community remained in the synagogue. He was sitting alone, reciting Tehillim, Psalms. Rav Soloveichik went to this wealthy individual and spoke to him.

“Did you realize,” said the Rav, “That in the army a soldier who flees from service is called a deserter and when caught dealt with harshly? What if he flees his unit and joins a different unit? Is he still a deserter or does service in the army suffice regardless of where it takes place? It is logical to say that he is a deserter, he was assigned a specific task and he has abandoned it.”

Rav Soloveichik continued. “We have been taught that there are three ways of removing the evil decree from upon ourselves before Yom Kippur: repentance, prayer, and charity. You have been blessed with wealth by G-d in order to serve him by giving it to charity. The poor, who do not have this ability, remain awake all night reciting Tehillim, because that is the only way in which they can serve G-d. The wealthy can go home, because they should have been giving charity, giving to G-d according to their blessing. You,” Rav Soloveichik concluded, “are a deserter, having abandoned the task G-d placed before you in favor of another.”

In order to properly repent, we have to use the resources that we have been blessed with. If you are wealthy, give to charity; if you are a leader, organize others to perform mitzvoth together; if you are pious, help others to understand the prayers. G-d deals with us as we deal with the world; for our prayers of forgiveness today to be accepted we must act in the manner we wish to be acted upon. If we wish to be forgiven, we cannot squander the capabilities Hashem has bestowed upon us. Yom Kippur is a reminder of our responsibility, as a Jewish people, to do everything in our power to make the world a better place.

The High Holy days are not just about calling up a phone number and leaving a message. We must find the strength to forgive, and also to act. Not just now, but throughout the rest of the year and throughout our entire lives. We must use our resolve, as a people, to serve others and enact change as best we can; in return, G-d will close the books on our past misdeeds and give us a new chance; blessing us with a year of happiness, success, and peace. Follow through and next year there will be one oath that you won’t have to ask forgiveness for.

Good Shabbos and G’mar Chatimah Tovah: “May you be sealed for a good year in the Book of Life.”
So, as the guy in charge of my university's Jewish Student Association (aka Hillel) I got myself an invite to give the Saturday Yom Kippur sermon to the Jewish community of George Mason University and those from the surrounding area who came. This is the text of that speech.
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