Tens of thousands of words are uttered on Yom Kippur; words expressing Jewish teaching; mostly words of prayer. Words are powerful. The impact of the TaNaKH[1], the Hebrew Bible on the world testifies to this. The Torah reflects the understanding of ancient times that words were, literally, a force for life – or for death – reflected in the blessings and curses recorded in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.[2]

So, as we utter words today in the tens of thousands, we are engaging in a powerful act – a collective act, despite the fact that this Yom Kippur we are not gathered together.

The assumption of Jewish teaching is that words should translate into actions. That is the whole point of the codes of law in the Torah and in later rabbinic texts; the Mishnah, the Talmud and subsequent codes of halachah. That is the whole point of aseret y’mei t’shuvah, the ten days of return that conclude on Yom Kippur.

So, observance of Yom Kippur depends on us making that translation – or to put it in Jewish terms, it depends on us turning ourselves around, re-orientating ourselves, changing course and returning to the path of our lives, so that our words do translate into actions on the day after Yom Kippur and on the days that follow.

When I was a young person, right up until I embarked on my rabbinic studies in 1984 at the age of 29, I changed course many times. After my O-levels, my family moved briefly to Sheffield and I started my A-levels, but after two terms we returned to London, and I went out to work for a few months, before embarking on a one year’s A-level programme at a technical college, studying English and Sociology. I wanted to pursue English at university, but having gone to a comprehensive school I didn’t have the Latin O-level required at the time, so I decided on Sociology. Anyway, as a result of my exam nerves, I did badly in my English A-level. I got in to Essex University on clearing to study Sociology. But I didn’t like being marooned on a bleak campus in the middle of nowhere, so I left after two terms. I then got accepted at the London School of Economics the following September – again, to study Sociology.

Thankfully, I completed the course and got my degree. I thought I’d like to be an English teacher and was accepted at the Institute of Education, London University to do a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education. But then, exams facing me, I left three weeks before the end of the course. I had an inspirational tutor at the Institute and she got me involved in writing and editing, which included being assistant editor of the international women’s studies journal she created[3], editing a book[4] and co-editing two others[5]. But between leaving the Institute and getting involved in writing and editing, I went to Israel and lived on the kibbutz for a few months, thinking that maybe that’s where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Followed my return, I combined writing and editing with embarking on a PhD at LSE, researching the journals of the early feminist movement. But after three years, I changed the course of my life once again, and applied to the Leo Baeck College to become a rabbi – well, it wasn’t quite that direct because, first, I visited Israel again and reconsidered going to live on a kibbutz.

Why am I telling you all this? Partly because I’m going to be retiring in seven months, by which time it will be 37 years since I entered the Leo Baeck College. It’s easy to look at a rabbi and imagine that somehow, they were born to be one or were focused on that vocation all their lives. But the main reason for sharing my tale of the twists and turns of my journey – and I’ve not included my personal journey, which has been just as eventful, or the reasons for each twist and turn – is to demonstrate that changing course, even if it might involve quite a bit of anguish and uncertainty and a few dead ends, can be very fruitful. In fact, even the dead ends can be fruitful. After all, I did end up being a teacher; at its core that’s what being a rabbi is all about.

When I was doing my PhD research, I made a special study of Christabel Pankhurst, the radical leader of the suffragette movement.[6] One of Christabel Pankhurst’s famous slogans was ‘deeds not words.’ Jewish teaching emphasises words and deeds, and most important that words are inextricably linked to deeds. I began by mentioning the tens of thousands of words uttered on Yom Kippur. These words are texts on the page – or, this year, on the screen – but we say them and sing them and make them our own. As we do this, as we imbibe these words, our nourishment for the day in place of food, they feed our neglected souls, bringing us back to ourselves. We call these words prayer, t’fillah, in Hebrew. But prayers only come to life, when they are prayed, and in Hebrew, to pray, l’hitpalleil, is to interrogate oneself.[7]

It is in the process of interrogating ourselves that t’shuvah, re-orientating ourselves and returning to ourselves and others becomes possible. In the Musaf, the ‘additional’ service that follows the morning service, in the special k’dushah, the blessing proclaiming God’s Holiness, we recite the words: U’t’shuvah, u’t’fillah, u’tz’dakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha-g’zeirah – ‘But return, and prayer, and acts of justice cancel the calamitous decree[8].’ These ancient words reflect an understanding that on Yom Kippur the destiny of each individual is sealed by Divine decree. The prospect of our destiny being sealed is terrifying – which is why the ‘but’ is so important. Ultimately, our destiny is in our hands. If we allow the prayers that we utter to reawaken ourselves so that we are able to acknowledge that we need to return to the path of our lives, we can change the course of our lives. But the transformation of t’shuvah isn’t just for our own personal benefit. The threefold process of t’shuvah, t’fillah and tz’dakah makes it clear that we are called to act justly.

So, although the journey of Yom Kippur will end this evening, the purpose of the day won’t be realised unless we set out tomorrow ready to engage in acts of justice. The world is in need of repair. The coronavirus crisis has revealed the persistence of class inequality in our society[9]. Following the murder of African-American George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on May 25, the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement has forced a re-examination of the persistence of racism here in the UK[10]. And still, the global refugee crisis continues, as traumatised people continue to make their desperate bids to escape war, persecution and destitution[11]. And if all that wasn’t enough, after a brief respite during the height of the pandemic, the climate change emergency continues[12]. Meanwhile, one particular conflict close to our hearts, between Israel and the Palestinians grinds on. The Israeli government can make as many peace deals as it likes with its Arab neighbours[13], but until a just peace is secured with the Palestinians, there will be no peace.

Of course, we could say that we are not personally responsible for injustice and the brokenness of the world and that our personal actions can have very little impact. Jewish teaching suggests otherwise. What each one of us does or does not do can make a difference. One of the powerful images associated with aseret y’mei t’shuvah is that of the scales of judgement in which our deeds are weighed in the balance[14]. A passage in the Babylonian Talmud gets to the heart of the matter[15]: ‘A person who performs one mitzvah, ‘commandment’, is praiseworthy because they tilt the balance of themselves and the entire world to the scale of merit.’ Needless to say, as the passage goes on to teach, the same is true in the opposite direction for one who performs a single transgression. The important point is that each and every person has the power to tip the scales.

May this day set apart from the challenges of the world nourish us and replenish each one of us for the tasks of repair that lie ahead. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

Yom Kippur Shacharit 5781 –28th September 2020

  1. See 5th Tishri, note 30.

  2. B’chukkotai, Leviticus 26:3-46 and Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 27:11-28:69.

  3. Women’s Studies International Quarterly (later: Forum) edited by Dale Spender

  4. Reassessments of First Wave Feminism (Pergamon Press, 1982).

  5. Learning to Lose. Sexism in Education edited with Dale Spender (The Women’s Press, 1980), On the Problem of Men: Two Feminist Conferences edited with Scarlet Friedman (The Women’s Press, 1982).

  6. See ‘Christobel Pankhurst: Reclaiming Her Power’ in Feminist Theorists. Three centuries of women’s intellectual traditions edited by Dale Spender (The Women’s Press, 1983, pp. 256-284).

  7. See my reflection for the 7th day of Tishri.

  8. Literally, ‘the evil decree’.

  9. Coronavirus: Higher death rate in poorer areas, ONS figures suggest, The Guardian, 01.05.20. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52506979 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases

  10. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-52861726 On August 23, a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake, another unarmed black man, paralysing him. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/25/wisconsin-police-fire-teargas-during-second-night-of-protest-over-shooting-of-black-man For the UK: Black Lives Matter: We need action on racism not more reports, says David Lammy. The Guardian, 15.06.20. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53049586

  11. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/aug/10/qa-whats-the-real-story-behind-recent-uk-refugee-arrivals

  12. https://climateemergencyeu.org/

  13. Israel made peace with Egypt on 26 March 1979, returning the Sinai Peninsula captured in the Six Day War’ (5-11 June 1967). Israel made peace with Jordan on 26 October 1994. Most recently, Israel signed a deal with the United Arab Emirates, the ‘Abraham Accord’ on 13 August 2020.

  14. Maimonides, Hilchot T’shuvah, Laws of Repentance, 3:4, Mishneh Torah.

  15. Kiddushin 40b.