Sermon for Yom Kippur 5782: Be more Kind

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 16 September 2021

But are they lessons, all these things I learn
Through being so far gone in my decline?
The wages of experience I earn
Would service well a younger life than mine.
I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.
Clive James

In January 2010, the poet, essayist, and TV presenter, Clive James, was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia.
Over the following years, his experience of living with illness, of living on the edge of death would inspire him to produce some extraordinarily moving and profound poetry.

In an interview in 2013 he reflected on what his situation had given him. “I find it brings,” he said, “A clarity of mind and the ability to concentrate on the essential that I never had when I was well. When I was well I was so energetic I never noticed anything”

Among the writing he produced at this time was the line with which we began. The first stanza of a poem entitled – with apologies for my French pronunciation – ‘Lecons de tenebres’, Lessons of darkness.

One of the extraordinary gifts of this day is that we encounter it as a mini-death.
Those of us who are fortunate enough not to live, as James had to do, as so many have to do, astride life and death; those of us fortunate enough not to live in that position are given one day each year when we can visit that precipice; one day on which we are given the opportunity to come face to face with our own mortality; one day on which we beckon the presence of death to come close, on which we remind ourselves of our own frailty.
To say, as we just acknowledged in Yizkor: ‘My days are short, like grass… the breeze will pass over me and I too will be gone.’

We have the gift of this one day – given a moment in which to pause; to have, as James put it, the “clarity of mind to concentrate on the essential”. Or, to quote my teacher Rabbi Sheila Shulman zichronah livracha, to allow the “daily ordinariness of our lives” to be “intensified by the clear light of eternity”.

We benefit from the fact that for us these are not lessons learned in darkness, but in the ‘clear light of eternity’ – we have the opportunity look at our lives with new clarity, to see what is essential.

I can think of nothing that this day might give us, that could be more important, could be more transformative to our community or our world than that which James himself describes:
I should have been more kind.

I should have been more kind.
It is in some ways extraordinary that this should be a discovery we need to make. For our tradition shouts this to us every day, ‘be more kind’.

It is there in our formative stories:
In the simple kindness of Abraham who opens his tent to strangers; of Rebecca who gives water to the camels of Abraham’s servant as he searches for a wife for Isaac; of Moses, stepping in to help the daughters of the priest of Midian. It is no coincidence that the turning points of the lives of biblical characters are often marked by acts of kindness.

To the rabbis, the greatest exemplar of kindness in our narratives is God; our fundamental purpose as human beings to act in imitation of that kindness.
A famous text asks what it can possibly mean for a human being to cleave to God when God is so other – the answer is that we should try to act in as God-like a way as we can – which means acts of kindness.
We should clothe the naked because (in our biblical narratives) God clothes the naked; visit the sick because God visits the sick; comfort mourners because God comforts mourners, and so on.

Indeed, for the rabbis, this more than anything else becomes the defining feature of Torah – “Deeds of loving-kindness are the beginning of the Torah, its middle, and its end”, a midrash states.

When we ask ‘what about our lives really matters to God?’ the answer that our tradition gives us is not our ritual lives, but our kindness – the basic decency of how we treat each other. ‘Ki chesed chafatzti v’lo zevach’, we read in the book of Hosea – For I desire kindness not sacrifices.

On this day in particular, it is divine kindness that we proclaim.
Our texts are complicated things – the God of our texts is a complicated God. But today it is simple. We focus on the God of kindness, whose example we seek to follow. In the thirteen attributes, that we read this morning, that we have sung throughout this day, we proclaimed God as ‘rav chesed v’emet, notzer chesed l’alafim’ – “abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation”. It is a motif to which we have returned through the day – in Torah, in psalms, in piyyutim, in liturgy.

And we have called upon God to extend that kindness to us – avinu malkeinu aseh imanu tzedakah v’chesed – Avinu malkeinu, our parent, our Sovereign, deal with us with justice and kindness. God, be kind to us, we have asked, that we too should be more kind.

Over the last eighteen months, we have, many of us, followed this divine example. In the early days of the pandemic, in the face of crisis, this community stepped up with acts of kindness and decency. Hundreds of deliveries, thousands of phone calls.
This effort continues – as it has been a quiet feature of this community for nearly ninety years.
Our task, as our life returns to normal, is to continue to bring that effort, and indeed for more of us to be more involved and engaged in it – to continue to build a web of kindness throughout our community.

But there is an even greater personal challenge too.

Not only to do kind but to be kind.
Not only to engage in gemilut chasadim – in acts of lovingkindness, but to be exemplars of chesed – of loving kindness to one another.

If this is the aspect of God that we declare on this day, that we want to experience in our lives – rav chesed v’emet – abounding in kindness and faithfulness – our task is not to wish or wait for it, but to be it. To be that divine attribute for one another.

To reach out to each other, to welcome one another.
To express our gratitude, as we have done this evening.
When we are annoyed or angry, to find positive ways of expressing this emotion.

To live our Jewish lives, our ritual lives, our study lives in such a way that we can say of our Torah that it is, in the words of Proverbs a ‘Torah shel chesed’ – a Torah of kindness.

As Rabbi Hannah stated as we began this season, to find a way to honour each other’s paths in a complicated time. To be gentle and forgiving of each other and indeed of ourselves, recognising that we are all doing the best we can; that each of us – even God (ki v’yachol, if it is possible to say such a thing) is walking a difficult path.

To recognise that fundamentally it is how we are with one another that matters above all else. “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow – this is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary” in the words of the sage Hillel.

If we could do this, if we could be more kind, imagine what it would be like, what it would do for us.

At the very least, it would make us all a little bit happier. Research suggests that those who try to be kind are happier and make those around them happier. Reflecting back on one’s own acts of kindness has been shown to be a way of increasing feelings of resilience and wellbeing. ‘Gomel nafsho ish chased’ – as Proverbs states well before its time – ‘The kind person benefits their own soul’.

How extraordinary it would be if we all simply tried to be kinder to each other, if we privileged kindness over the other attributes in our lives.
Increasingly I find that the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel resonate for me: “When I was young,” he stated, “I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.

This amazing poem of Clive James. ‘Lessons of darkness’.

The gift of this day, of Yom Kippur, is that we do not need to find it out too late. We do not need to come across the lessons in the darkness.
We are given the chance to think about what our tradition, and we, truly value.
Given the opportunity to recognise our own mortality in the light, while we are still able to give it effect it in our lives.

This year of all years, after the 18 months that we have had, maybe this year, maybe this year, we might really use this gift that we are given.
To concentrate on the essential.
To find it in ourselves to be more kind.