Yom Kippur 5768

September 22, 2007 / 10 Tishrei 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, Senior Director, Community Development, JTS.

My fellow Americans:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In July of 1969, William Safire, then presidential speechwriter for Richard Nixon, prepared these words. As we now know, the speech was never needed by President Nixon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and returned safely home. The feat was epic, but it could have been rife with sadness. The potential for failure was great, and Safire was prepared. In preparation for this historic moment, Safire wrote this contingency speech—a Plan B if you will, but the world would never need to hear these words; instead, to this day we all know that moment as, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

I stumbled across this speech in a book titled Almost History which recounts many of the twists of fate that would have altered America's history. It comes to teach us that on the precipice of an historic moment, the potential for failure occupied the minds of our leaders. Reading Eisenhower's apology note scribbled on a piece of paper envisioning the possibility of failure on D-Day is a bone-chilling moment. How would the world look now?

Plan B is a terrifying but necessary prospect. With a Plan B we recognize that everything is not within our control, that things frequently don't go the way we expect them to. With a Plan B we can operate within a larger comfort zone because we think we're more prepared for the unexpected—more prepared for failure. Although we may be more prepared, whether we like it or not, a Plan B admits failure—our initial efforts were ineffective. We may have had something ready to go, a Plan B, but failure led us there. Our lives are riddled with this uncertainty, and we attempt to prepare for it. We devise plenty of Plan Bs—the solutions that will be ready to respond to the “what if” questions.

Although maybe not as difficult as a moon landing, the Avodah service that we encounter in the hazzan's repetition of the Musaf ‘Amidah has the same trepidation and fear associated with it. There is a sense of anxiety that recurs throughout the service.

Much of our prayer ritual hearkens back to the Temple rite—but nothing more so than recounting the service of the Kohen Gadol

After the high priest made the daily offering and washed, he began his sets of confessions. The high priest would place his hands on the animal to be sacrificed and confess the sins of his own household—forgiveness begins at home. When in his confessional he reached the point of uttering God's name—a way that only existed during the time of the Temple—the entire community would fall to their faces and prostrate saying, "Barukh shem kevod malchuto l'olam va-ed". (Blessed be God's glorious name throughout all time!) Three times the people fell to their faces—three times the high priest confessed—the first for his family, the second for the kohanim, and finally for the entire people. Only through these detailed steps could he finally be ready to represent the entirety of the people. Only once his personal affairs were in order could he stand as an emissary for the people. There were detailed specifications for sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice and detailed counting to go along with it. Each action carefully choreographed; each action specific. The trepidation was so palpable that when the high priest finally finished the rituals of the Avodah service, the entire people broke out into song, rejoicing at his success and the knowledge that they had been forgiven.

Each year we recount the details; each year we sense the fear of those gathered in the courts of the Temple waiting to see the high priest emerge from the Holy of Holies. Each year, we fall to our faces reenacting the moments of the Avodah

With all the anxiety, though, if you look through the service, review all the detail, recite all the confessions, count all the immersions and changes of clothing, you will notice something. There is no Plan B for Yom Kippur. Our mahzor, although it faithfully represents the dread, always brings us to the same conclusion. When the high priest completed the service, his face was radiant as the sun. They ushered him home, and rejoiced that their sins as crimson as they were, were expunged and made as white as the snow. Ashrei ha-am sh'Adonai elohav—happy is the people for whom Adonai is their God. Yom Kippur works—there is no Plan B—more appropriately, there is no need for a Plan B.

Now this is not a license to sin during the rest of the year. Yes, Yom Kippur works, but we still need to strive to be better people each year. The lack of a Plan B for Yom Kippur is an inspiration for our lives. There is little if anything that comes with that sort of guarantee. Come to Yom Kippur—forgiveness works. There's a catchy ad slogan if ever there were one. Forgiveness works.

There are many varieties of forgiveness. There's the forgiveness that we need from others—for something we've done wittingly or unwittingly. Maybe you know about it and they don't—and the prospect of approaching the person and failing is just too strong. But there's no Plan B. There is the forgiveness that others need from us—and maybe they are facing the same fear in approaching you. But there's no Plan B. There is the forgiveness that we need from ourselves, and this is sometimes the roughest part of the journey. 

Forgiveness works, but like the high priest, we need to go through the motions. We need to begin the first act of purifying our souls because there is no Plan B.

May we all be inscribed in the book of life,

Rabbi Marc Wolf

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.