October 13th: Sins Big and Small

The following is a transcript of a sermon given by Austin Zoot on Erev Yom Kippur at Temple B’nai Israel in Kokomo, IN.

We begin Yom Kippur, our final day in the Ten Days of Awe. This has been our time to look back, to reflect on our lives and to decide what are the pieces of ourselves that we love, that we cherish, that we hope to continue, and what are the parts of ourselves that we need to repair, to improve, to make better.

Yom Kippur seems to be a day full of transgressions. We admit our selfishness and our deceit. We admit our shortcomings and our failures. We are forced to look into the face of our humanity and know that, in the coming year, we are asked to do better, to be better.

As I reflected over the past ten days on the nature of repentance and sin, of transgression and return to holiness, I found myself thinking of two different levels of sin. There are Sins with a big S, those things that we know, at our core, are wrong. Some of them we learn from holy scripture, some from the law, others from basic understandings of morality. We know that stealing is wrong. We know that lying is wrong. We know that causing pain to others is wrong. And yet, sometimes, we find ourselves in situations where we make a mistake, where we do something that we know is wrong, and are forced, on Yom Kippur, to attempt to find forgiveness from those we love, from ourselves, and from God.

There are, too, sins with a lowercase s. These are far less clear, far less easy to identify. These are the times when we don’t do things that we should be doing. We should be listening to our loved ones better, and we miss the mark. We should be giving of ourselves to those who need more, and yet we find ourselves hording our resources and our gifts. We should be standing up for those who need our help, and yet we sit, waiting for someone else to do something to help.

These sins with a small s are maybe the hardest to see, the hardest to understand. We know the things we do that we shouldn’t, but there are countless opportunities to do better that we miss every day. It is easy for us to ask for forgiveness for something we did, something we know hurt another person, and yet it is nearly impossible to identify and to count all of the times that our inaction caused someone harm.

Last week, during Rosh Hashanah, I talked about many of the social challenges our country faces, and our inability to fix many of them. I talked about how we, as a nation, are faced with many issues that desperately beg for attention, and yet we find ourselves unwilling or unable to do anything to make a significant different. One of our greatest failures, as a country, is when we do not stand up against the things we see on a daily basis, those small actions of hostility, bigotry, hatred, or nastiness that we are afraid to confront head on, for fear of awkwardness of embarrassment.

We start this education on a large-scale at a very young age. We tell our children as soon as they begin school that bullying is wrong, that we should not pick on one another, that we should be nice to everyone. If this is a value that we teach from the very first day, why is it that bullying is, almost without fail, a major part of nearly every young person’s high school experience? Why is it that we are telling our children how to behave, and yet we so consistently see these problems recurring, year after year?

The answer is unfortunately simple, and it is that we also teach awkwardness and embarrassment to young people. We, as a society, do not like to call one another out, whether for fear of embarrassing ourselves by getting involved or embarrassing the other person by pointing out their shortcomings.

What exactly is bullying, after all? We certainly know that bullying is stealing someone’s lunch money, and that it is physical abuse. What about name calling? What about jokes that hurt someone’s feelings? What about those times when people are made to feel excluded, weird, separate from a community? We know that bullying is wrong, and that we should stand up against it, but we aren’t truly able to identify what is bullying worthy of standing up against, and what is considered ignorable acts of unkindness.

Everyone in this room is at least a few years removed from their high school years. And yet, our understanding of how to stand up for others is based on our notions of what we deem socially acceptable. Is it my obligation to tell off a customer at a store who is berating an employee? Is it my job to get involved when a man or woman is yelling at their partner in public? Am I expected to demand justice for homophobic and racial slurs muttered under one’s breath within my earshot?

It is impossible to answer each of these without a full understanding of context and situation. Yet, at our core, our society doesn’t do enough to identify each individual moment that we fall short. We allow too many moments to go by without demanding the best from one another, too many times that we fail to stand up and to demand that the world around us adhere to our own notions of morality and civility.

This Yom Kippur, we are aware of all of our Big S Sins, those actions we took for which we are not proud, that we hope to refrain from in the coming year. But, this year, may we also be aware of all of the Small s sins, those times when we didn’t do enough, when we weren’t looking around and finding the places to stand up and make a difference.

Maimonides, a 12th Century Jewish philosopher, said that repentance is only complete when we are willing to identify our misdeeds and refrain from making them again in our future. We know that, as we move forward, we are not going to be perfect, just as we were not perfect this year. Yet, we are expected to do all that we can to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes, that we do not fall prey to the same transgressions all over again.

We think of our Big Sins and little sins, those things we have done that hurt others and those things we didn’t do that we should have, and we hope to do better in the coming year. We hope to keep ourselves under control when we shouldn’t do something, and to be inspired to brave action when the time calls for it. And we hope that, as we approach the coming year, we are able to do all that we can to ensure that our world is a better place, in order that we may deserve another year in the Book of Life.

Gamar Hatimah Tova.

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