Yom Sheini, 15 Iyyar 5779
Monday, 20 May 2019
Parashat Vayelekh & Yom Kippur 5776

Rabbi Alexandra Wright
16th September 2015

“Can you help me to pray?”· There were few preliminaries as I stepped into a hospital room knowing nothing about the woman I was visiting.· I introduced myself as she indicated for me to sit down in the chair next to her bed.· She was not old, in her mid to late fifties, with short, grey hair, a clear and pale complexion and eyes full of restless anxiety and pain.

An Artscroll Machzor for Yom Kippur lay open on her side table and she pointed towards it.· “I read these prayers,” she said, “but they don’t mean anything to me. Can you help me understand them?· With Yom Kippur coming, I want to pray.”

I asked her what she wanted to say to God.· And then there poured out a lifetime of guilt and self-reproach as I sat and listened and felt as though I was stepping into the inner chambers of this woman’s heart and needed to tread sensitively among the shoots of her confession. The details of such a confession are not important, but they might have been voiced by any of us: the sense of estrangement and alienation in the different communities in which she had lived, failed relationships, ‘neglectful’ parenting, workaholic hours that took her away from home and, in the face of serious and threatening illness, escape from those she was closest to.

“You’re a Rabbi,” she said.· “You know how to pray. Can’t you help me to pray?· Tell me what all those words mean.”· I picked up the Machzor, a page of one confession after another: “We have offended and betrayed, robbed and slandered; we have been perverse and corrupt, arrogant and violent…”· I read the confessions of the Viddui Rabba (the ‘great’ or ‘long’ confession) that covers those sins committed against God under duress or by choice, consciously or unconsciously, openly or secretly, by our thoughts, words or deeds.

By the bedside of this woman who could hardly move from her bed, who didn’t know how long she might have to live, the Machzor – dare I say it – seemed like a sledge-hammer to her vulnerability, guilt and mortification.· I wanted to offer something more gentle, more personal to her own circumstances – the anguish of the psalmist who cries to God from the depths, asking God to hear her voice, to be attentive to her cry for mercy; the yearning of the poet who lifts his eyes to the hills asking for help from God, Maker of heaven and earth; the quiet acceptance of the singer whose God is her Shepherd, leading her beside still waters, restoring her soul: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet will I fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and staff, they comfort me…”

Yom Kippur summons from us all the regrets, burdens and anxieties with which we live. We know that we could have done better. We could have been kinder, less cynical, more patient, more understanding, less grasping for a material over spiritually satisfying life.· We could have been more honest with ourselves and with others; we could have gossiped and complained less.· We could have lived with a little more love and forgiveness of ourselves and others.

What could I say to her?· How could I help her to pray?· How could I encourage her to put behind her the guilt and transgressions of the past and live from the present and into the future?· For we cannot change the past, we cannot undo the damage inflicted on those we love; we cannot change them.· But we can change ourselves.· If we are kinder to ourselves, perhaps we can be kinder to others. If we are more loving and tender with ourselves, perhaps we can be more loving and tender with others.· We know we are not perfect individuals; first, says Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, we must remember that we are created in our own image – perhaps we should add, our own imperfect image - and only afterwards are we created in God’s image, which means that we need to value our uniqueness, what it is that makes us different from others and to be careful not to compare our lives to others.

As we prepare ourselves for the sombre and lonely hours of Yom Kippur, how can we find the strength and space to pray?· Unlike the woman lying on her hospital bed, we will have each other – the companionship of a community.· But it will not come easily.· As Abraham Joshua Heschel says of prayer: “[It] will not come about by default…It is not enough to join others; it is necessary to build a sanctuary within, brick by brick, instants of meditation, moments of devotion.”

May we all find the strength to build the sanctuary within and from the quietness of our solitude call upon God who, we pray, will graciously pardon and wipe away our transgressions.

G’mar chatimah tovah,

May you and your dear ones be sealed in the Book of Life for a healthy and peaceful year.