It All Depends on Me
A Yom Kippur Sermon
The most descriptive phrase that summarizes the theme of the Yamim No'raim -- these awesome days -- is cheshbon ha'nefesh, accounting of the soul. Cheshbon ha'nefesh is one of these idiomatic expressions which defies translation. Its meaning must be transmitted through the emotions. On these sacred days we are asked to evaluate our lives and our deeds honestly. In what have we failed, and where did we fail to give in full measure?
Needless to say, we are not always successful in taking an honest count. Man is inclined to excuse himself; he is prone to seek an escape by rationalizing; he seeks to exonerate himself with an alibi or an excuse. On this day, however, we are required to face the truth, unpleasant though it may be, and to recognize that there can be no alibi or excuse or rationalization as to the responsibility that is his. He alone must be held accountable.
Surely you have heard the story of Adam and Eve: After they were created, they found themselves in a Garden of Eden where only the fruit of two trees in the middle of the garden was forbidden to them. One day, the serpent persuaded Eve to taste of the tree of knowledge and she in turn offered it to Adam. Realizing that they had sinned, they tried to hide in the garden. When God called to Adam "Ayekah -- Where are you? Have you eaten of the forbidden fruit?" What did Adam reply? "The woman you gave me offered it to me and I ate." It's all Eve's fault! Adam tried to duck the blame. Nevertheless, God prescribed the punishment for each of them. No one can dodge obligation.
The Talmud relates a moving story concerning a man, Eliezer ben Dardaya, that underscores this principle. Eliezer had a fine background and a great future was predicted for him. He strayed, however, and found the allurements of lust and passion too strong to resist. One day he suddenly realized that he was wasting his life and his talents because of wine, women, and song.
He became sincerely penitent and searched for the road to return. This is never easy. In his deep anguish he cried out, "Harim u'g'vaot, bikshu alai rachamim -- Oh ye hills and mountains, plead for mercy on my behalf." When they refused, he turned to heaven and earth, the sun and the moon to intercede. "Shamayim va'aretz, shemesh v'chamah, bikshu alai rachamim -- Heaven and earth, sun and moon, offer prayer for me." But they, too, refused him.
He then exclaimed, "Kochavim umazalot, bikshu alai rachamim -- Stars and planets, have mercy and intervene for me." But they, too, rebuffed him. In desperation and hopelessness, Eliezer sat down with his head between his hands to take a personal cheshbon ha'nefesh -- accounting of the soul. He concluded that it is useless to ask others to plead for him. "Na'eh b'bchi v'amar ein hadavar talui elah bi. -- Evidently it all depends only on me!"
The explanation of this parable is self evident. At first, Eliezer sought an easy way out of his personal dilemma. Life is so difficult, he rationalized. It has its ups and downs, its mountains of ecstasy and valleys of agony. There is so much distraction in our daily lives, the glittering lights and the romantic dimness are too enticing. And, finally, doesn't everything depend on the wheel of chance, on the astrological position of the stars and the planets?
In one great moment, however, Eliezer ben Dardaya faced the truth squarely. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but he beat his breast in contrition and acknowledged, "It all depends on me!"
Man refuses to meet the challenges and he seeks face-saving devices. Do you not know of someone -- I know a good many of these people -- who try to dodge responsibility, which is admittedly time consuming, because it would take them away from their social card game or their bowling or their golf? They find all kinds of excuses. "Affairs are in good hands and do not really need my attention," they say. But, is this an acceptable alibi? How can they appreciate the perplexity of the problems if they are not present to face them? Assuming that there are enough people to carry on -- which there never are -- should that exempt anyone from assuming his or her share of the responsibility?
The great teacher, Hillel, who served our people 2,000 years ago, taught, "Im ani caan, hakol caan, v'im ein ani caan, mi caan? -- If I am present, everyone is here. But if I am absent, who is here?" We have many stories about Hillel describing his meekness. We know him to have been humble, peace-loving, a man of unlimited patience. Yet, he seems to make this statement, which blusters with arrogance: "If I am not there, who is?" "Oh, probably other people," we could all reply. But Hillel is trying to teach us that we should ask this question of ourselves, not out of arrogance, but from a sense of responsibility: "If I don't do it, who will?" One should participate in meeting the communal requirements as if its success or failure depended only upon him.
I submit the proposition to you that: It all depends on you.
We each must ask ourselves, "Have I really assumed my full share of the responsibility for the maintenance of the synagogue? For the support of the school? For the promotion of the youth program? For the enrichment of life? This is the cheshbon ha'nefesh -- accounting of the soul -- that should take place at this hour as we face the eternal verity in life, stripped of all its allure and deceiving illusions. We cannot seek to escape because of our involvement in our personal daily problems, nor can we rely upon the fortunes of chance, but must accept the full impact of responsibility and say, "It all depends on me." Synagogue, school, home -- "It all depends on me."
My friends, since Rosh Hashanah we have been storming the gates of Heaven for another lease on life. "Katvenu b'sefer ha-chayim -- Inscribe us in the Book of Life." "Remember us unto life," is the constant refrain of the litany of these days. Yet, we must accept that which has been allotted to us and reconcile ourselves to the thought that "on Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur the decree is sealed: who shall live and who shall die" in these coming 12 months.
Daniel Webster once said, "One may live as a conqueror, a king or a magistrate, but must die as a man." The psalmist long before that pointed out that death was the common denominator, the great leveler of rank: "Even the wise and the fools do perish, the rich and poor alike." Death is our constant companion and the inescapable verity of life.
But by the power of memory, man surmounts death. The past lives in the present and unto generations yet unborn.
The poet expresses this sentiment when he writes:
"Oh there are voices of the past
Isn't this the very purpose of our Yizkor service, that God forbid that we should lose the echoes that remain? Gathered as we are to remember loved ones no longer with us, we hear the voice of a father as he reprimands us; the endearments of a loving mother; the rollicking, jovial, cheerful laughter of a brother or a sister or a friend at play or at work. Voices silenced by death, but their echoes remain.
That the voices of the past should continue to resound, we convey the tradition of our People, of which we are the bearers, to our children. Voices of the very distant past reach us on the waves of time. The unbroken chain, painfully forged link by link in every generation, is the transmitter for the words spoken by a Moses, Isaiah, Rabbi Akiba, the Baal Shem Tov, and the Gaon of Vilna; through the education process these contacts are soldered and are firmly established. This is the purpose to which our Hebrew Academy is committed. We try to deepen the roots through the youth program of our synagogue. The voice of tradition must be heard loudly and clearly. The call of Israel today must find a ready answer.
Too many Adams and Eves in our day try to hide in their gardens not out of shame, but out of embarrassment: They might be asked to do something. Nevertheless, on these High Holidays, especially as we prepare to remember the past, the still small voice of conscience must reach even then. "Ayekah -- Where art thou?" And the response must be "Hineni - I am here." The success of our activities depends on the budget made available to us through your generosity.