Introduction to Yom Kippur 5781
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
Gmar Chatimah Tovah. May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year; God-willing a better year for all of us.
We are here tonight, whether in shul or online, for prayer and inspiration as a community. There is an important word in Hebrew, Tzibur which means “congregation” or “community.” When we speak of gathering for prayer in Judaism, the phrase we use is Tefilah b’Tzibur, prayer in community. The person leading prayer, whether cantor, rabbi or lay person, is called a shliach tzibur. Any time we are together with more than 10 adult Jews for a service we are praying b’Tzibur, in community.
There is a beautiful drash, an interpretation, of that Hebrew word Tzibur. Like so many Hebrew words, tzibur is made up of three letters, tzadee, bet, resh. This Drash says that in the word Tzibur, community, those letters are actually an abbreviation. They stand for the Hebrew words Tzadik, beinoni, and rashah—which mean righteous, ordinary, and wicked. In other, English words, that means that every congregation, every community joined together in prayer includes righteous people—and also ordinary people—and also wicked people. In fact, you cannot make up a community, a Tzibur, without tzadikim, beinonim and resha’im, righteous, ordinary and wicked people.
This calls to mind the prayer we will chant just before Kol Nidrei tonight, a legal formula from the liturgy that says, “Bishiva shel ma’alah uvishiva shel mata, al da’at hamakom v’al da’at hakahal, anu matirin l’hitpaleil im ha’avaryanim. Before the court on high, and the court on earth, with the knowledge of God and the knowledge of this community, we decree that it is permissible to pray – with sinners.”
In other words, good, bad and indifferent, all of us are in the same boat tonight. We are all part of this congregation and community. In fact, people just like us are present in every single Jewish congregation and community in the world, live and virtual. It’s a challenging but also a reassuring thought: we are here tonight praying with righteous people, not-totally, or even mostly, righteous people, and even wicked people—and all of us are necessary in order to assemble a full community.
So who are the people that make- up our community? First, there is that initial letter of Tzibur, tzadee, for the tzadikim, the righteous. We definitely need the tzadikim, the righteous among us. According to the famous Jewish legend of the lamed vavniks, the 36 totally righteous people who live at any one time in history, the very existence of this world is dependent upon their acts of righteousness and goodness. Without them we would all be in danger. We don’t know who they are—I suspect the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was among their number, may she rest in peace—but whenever one dies, we are told another is appointed in her or his place. They are always anonymous to the tzibur, and probably the righteous themselves don’t even know that they are tzadikim. But their prayers surely help us to reach our teshuvah and help our prayers be accepted by God. We certainly want them here with us tonight and tomorrow.
And then, in our tzibur, our community, there are beinonim, the people who are neither good nor bad, most of the time; the people who are, you know, most of us. They—we—have done some good things, perhaps many good things. They—we—have done some bad things, perhaps even many bad things. And they—we—have done some mediocre things. Probably, lots and lots of mediocre things. We are the intermediate group, the normal Jews. The people who have come seeking teshuvah on Yom Kippur.
As to the third part of our tzibur, the reish, the r’sha’im, well, it is likely that no one here is totally wicked, that no one, no matter how bad, is a complete rashah. Evil is something we encounter, and there are truly evil people in our world. But to be honest, while wicked people have many faults, I suspect that even the most terrible person you can imagine has done some good things in his or her life. I remember a great book about some of the worst Jews who ever lived, mobsters like Lepke Buchalter, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lanksy. You would certainly think these were the very worst of the worst. But the title of the book was, But They Were Good to Their Mothers. Even the wicked have some redeeming acts.
There you have it: every tzibur is made up of tzadikim, beinonim, and r’shaim. But it’s more complicated than that, actually. Because we know that, no matter how righteous we believe we are, that we have all made mistakes in the past year. Even if we think that we are perfect tzadikim, totally good, we know that we cannot help but have erred in the last 12 months. No one is perfect; not even you—not even me…
In the Passover Haggadah that we use, A Different Night by Noam Zion, the one we would have used for our 2nd Annual Beit Simcha public Pesach Seder had we not been shut down by COVID-19, there is a wonderful set of illustrations of the four types of child: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask. The most revealing of these entertaining pictures shows the four children as mosaics, each composed of some of each of those qualities. That is, we are all made up of all of these elements: Tzadik, Beinoni, Rashah. We are all righteous, we are all ordinary, we are all wicked.
So who here did anything wrong in the past year? Who here did anything right in the past year? Who here did something morally mediocre in the past year?
The truth is that we, each of us, all of us, good, bad, mediocre, make up a community. It takes all of us to join together for teshuvah. And the larger truth is that we, each of us, all of us have good, mediocre and bad within us. We are all combinations of these. And we all make up a true tzibur, a real community.
My friends, we are all needed tonight to make up the community that allows us to seek teshuvah. We are all necessary, because without any one of you here, in person or online, we wouldn’t have a complete Tzibur.
May your teshuvah over these 24 hours or so bring you closer to the tzibur of which we are all an important part. And may you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good new year.