Rabbi Cassi’s Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5781

Change is Possible, After All

Derek Black was born into a family of white nationalists. His father was not only the grandmaster of the Ku Klux Klan, but the creator of the popular white supremacist website Stormfront. At a young age, he was primed to be a future leader in the Ku Klux Klan. By the time he was 19, he was hosting a white supremacist radio show, had launched a white nationalist website for children, and he was a keynote speaker at a Ku Klux Klan conference. He was called “the leading light” of the movement.

When Derek was 21, he decided to enroll at a college in Florida to continue his education. There, he kept his beliefs to himself, until he was outed as a white nationalist on a message board at the school. Classmates began to avoid him. Students who had once befriended him emailed to say how betrayed and hurt they felt. Strangers jeered and insulted him. Derek was ostracized and rejected. He began avoiding public places, and even petitioned the school to live off campus, away from the disdain of his classmates. His classmates believed he was incapable of change, and they wanted nothing to do with him.[1]

* * *

This afternoon we will read the story of Jonah. Even though a prophet’s job is to be God’s mouthpiece, Jonah flees from his responsibility to rebuke the people of Nineveh for their immoral behavior. He actively avoids his mission by getting on the first boat out of town.

It appears he is too lazy, cowardly, or self-concerned to act. As it turns out, his concern is something else entirely – he does not want the people of Nineveh to repent.

After God catches up with Jonah and a big fish carries him to Nineveh, Jonah begrudgingly rebukes the Ninevites. He walks to the edge of town and says just five short words, Od Arbaim yom vNineveh nehpachet! “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be destroyed.”[2]

Most prophets would have delighted at what happens next. By all measures, Jonah is a stunning success. The Ninevites jump into action the second they hear Jonah’s words. They proclaim a fast, put on sackcloth and ash, and immediately repent. They shed their immoral behavior and start taking steps to recreate a moral and just society.

Despite this success, Jonah is beside himself with grief. He is distraught that God has chosen to forgive the Ninevites.

He cries out, “O God! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that you are a compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment!”[3]

Jonah was under no illusions. He knew that his mission as a prophet was to inspire the people to make a real change in their lives. The problem was that he didn’t believe change is truly possible.

As 15th century Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel explains, he doesn’t trust the Ninevites. Understanding that Nineveh had been an enemy to the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel in the past, he saw them as a threat to his people’s future.[4] He wished that God would just punish them now, and be done with it.

In his social justice commentary on the book of Jonah, Rabbi Dr. Shmuley Yanklowitz points out the import of the last part of Jonah’s name, ben Amitai, which means “person of truth.” Jonah “is just too committed to truth… [He] is so committed to truth that he even rebukes God for not being truthful enough. If God were primarily concerned with truth, then God would destroy Nineveh for its past wickedness and expect future evil (when their repentance fades away).”

Jonah, caught up in cynicism and disappointment, saw the Ninevites’ repentance as temporary and superficial. Soon they would resort to their evil ways.

Jonah believed the Ninevites were incapable of change, and he wanted nothing to do with them.

How very human Jonah is! Seeking self-preservation, he is nervous about trusting people who have hurt him in the past. How often do we do that? How often do we see people for their past mistakes rather than the people they are destined to become? How often do we write people off without giving them another chance?

In contrast to Jonah, God dares to trust and forgive. God believes that people are capable of meaningful change.

That is why we are here today. We know we are flawed. We know we have sinned against others, against God, and against ourselves. We are here to ask for forgiveness. We are here to forgive, as hard as that may be.

On Yom Kippur, it is said that God sits on a throne of mercy, listening to our most heartfelt confessions. Just as God forgave the Ninevites at the first signs of contrition, so too does God wish to forgive each of us.

You might recall the story of the golden calf. After Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments in his hand, he found the people worshiping an idol. Moses shattered the tablets in recognition that the Israelites had not been ready for them. God was beside Godself with anger. He contemplated destroying the Israelite community and starting over again. As Psalm 130 teaches, “If God were to judge, no one could withstand.”[5] But after expressing God’s anger and taking some time to process what had occurred, God agreed to try again.

Before Moses received the Ten Commandments, God taught Moses a prayer, “Whenever Israel sins, let them carry out this service before me, and I will forgive them.”[6]

The prayer God taught Moses is central to our High Holy Day liturgy.

יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת

“Adonai, Adonai, God, compassionate, gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to the thousandth generation; forgiving evil, defiance and wrongdoing; granting pardon.”[7]

This prayer serves as a reminder that no matter how angry God becomes, ultimately the value that matters most to God is one of compassion and mercy. Ultimately, God wants to forgive. God believes in second chances. God believes we can change for the better.

* * *

As most of the college campus continued to reject Derek, one group of students came up with another solution. Instead of treating him as an outcast, they would befriend him. “We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America,” one student wrote. His name was Matthew Stevenson. Matthew invited Derek to a Shabbat dinner, and amazingly he accepted. Dinner was cordial. They didn’t talk about white nationalism, or Derek’s upbringing in the movement. He came back to another Shabbat dinner, and another. Over time he began to develop relationships with the people around the table. He developed a respect and even an admiration for Jewish beliefs and traditions. He began to appreciate the differences of people’s backgrounds around the table, and he listened intently to their perspectives. Derek noticed that his point of view was changing, and he began to process his conflicting viewpoints with his newfound friends. These conversations continued until one day he realized he had no choice but to publicly declare that he was a white nationalist no longer. “I am sorry for the damage done,” he said.[8]

Derek had been capable of change all along.

Rarely does lasting change come as swiftly as did for the Ninevites. For Derek, though his transformation was relatively quick, it required a great deal of hard work, reflection, honesty, and bravery.

Transformation is not easy. But if Derek could overcome his white supremacist upbringing, and if the Ninevites could bring morality and justice to their city once more, then surely, we can improve ourselves, at any age.

Yom Kippur affords us the opportunity to search within ourselves. Where are we falling short? What can we do – what can we change so that we, like God, can become more compassionate and forgiving, more open-minded and accepting, more loving and generous? What can we do to repair the brokenness within our world and within ourselves?

As our prayerbook reads, “Who among us is blameless? Who shall say, ‘I have not erred. I have not wronged. I have not sinned’ ?”[9] None of us are exempt.

A few months ago, you might recall that something interesting happened when we came together as a community in the aftermath of the gruesomely documented murder of George Floyd. No matter where we stood on the political spectrum, there was no way to watch the video of Floyd being killed without feeling a sense of outrage and shame. Occurring on the heels of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other people of color, the nation re-entered important discussions about racial injustice. Amid a pandemic, people found that they had more time to reflect on the implicit bias in and around us.

Our community engaged in conversations around racial justice. We watched videos in which Jews of color discussed the fear and heartache they were experiencing. During a moment of reflection, a community member spoke up. “I hadn’t really thought about the way in which racism affects my life,” he said. Another person explained, “I never really considered how scary it might be to be black.” The conversation continued, as people opened about their experiences and perspectives. “I always thought I was supposed to be colorblind,” one person said. “I trained myself to not see color. But now I understand that people want to be seen for the totality of who they are. That is a real change.”

Over the course of our conversations, something quite amazing was taking place. We were doing the work of cheshbon hanefesh, accounting of the soul. We were engaged in deep reflection, to improve ourselves.

Today, many of us may be concerned by the state of our world. There is so much hatred and pain. There is illness, harsh rebuke, incivility, and concern about the make-up of our government in coming months. We can throw up our hands and declare defeat, or like God, we believe that change is possible, on both a personal and communal level.

God has faith in us that we can do the work necessary to repair our world. God believes that we can improve ourselves.

Nachman of Bratzlav once asked, “If you are not going to be better tomorrow than you were today, then what need have you for tomorrow?”

We have a need for a brighter and more optimistic tomorrow.

At times, we might hear the cynical voice of Jonah. We might, for just a moment, feel overwhelmed by the gravity of today’s challenges. We might wish to run away, to not engage, to believe that we shouldn’t bother to cast our vote or raise our voice.

When we hear that voice, may we remember the voice of God, insisting that we fulfill our responsibilities to stand up against injustice, to seek self-improvement within ourselves and our world.

May we hear the voice of Matthew Stevenson, who dared to believe that change was possible even amid deep hatred. And may we be as openminded and embracing of transformation as Derek Black, who dared to not only change his outlook, but to stand up against everything he was raised to believe.

We are all on our journey for self-improvement. We all want the world to be better than it is. And we all understand that transformation begins with us.

May this year be a year of growth and enlightenment. May this year be a year of hope. And in the end, may we find our inner work to be deeply rewarding.

Kein Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derek-black/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html

[2] Jonah 3:4

[3] Jonah 4:2

[4] Abarbanel on Jonah 1:12

[5] Psalm 130:3

[6] Rosh Hashanah 17b:5

[7] Exodus 34:6-7; translation taken from Mishkan HaNefesh. This prayer begins with the very same words Jonah uttered to launch a complaint against God’s forgiveness in Jonah 4:2.

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derek-black/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html

[9] Mishkan HaNefesh Yom Kippur Machzor, pages 91 and 423.