A young boy ran away from home, and was quite far away. In fact, it would take a journey of 100 days to return. He friends beseeched him, Return to your home! He said, I cannot, for I do not have the strength. Upon hearing this, his father then sent a message, Come back as far as you can according to your strength, and I will go the rest of the way to meet you.
Throughout this evening and tomorrow, we acknowledge that you and I are away from each of our homes. There's distance between us and our best selves.
Judaism inspires us with the same message as the loving father in the story above, Come back as far as you can according to your strength. None of us can do all of the work necessary to get back, but we can do some. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to make the entire journey. And, it doesn't matter what anybody else does. Do what you can do.
All of our prayers, our songs, our regrets, our hopes, our hunger, our supplications ... all of them are filtered into two powerful teachings about our actions. The first is that each of us can perform t'shuvah. And the second is is that we must.
Our Torah portion tomorrow morning, Nitzavim, carries this exact message. It is not in heaven, that you should say, who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? This is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.
T'shuvah is something that is close to us, to our mouths and hearts. We can do it. Like the wayward son, we too can come back as far as each of us can, according to our strength.
Yes, each of us can perform t'shuvah. But let us not confuse the ability to do t'shuvah with a guarantee of forgiveness and some kind of redemption. It's possible that after committing a wrong, we may try our best to fix it with t'shuvah, only to discover that our best may not be good enough.
Taken from Avot D'Rabbi Natan: Five shall obtain no forgiveness: One who is forever repenting, one that sins excessively, one that sins in a righteous generation, one that sins with the intention to repent, and one who profanes God's name.
Other midrashim contains similar statements, naming things for which there might be the possibility of no forgiveness, no return home. In our lives with our strained relationships, our mistakes, our regrets, our laziness, our lack of courage, our selfishness ... is it possible that our t'shuvah isn't quite good enough?
You may not recognize the name Wilhem Belocian. He was born in France, and is 21 years old.
Belocian is an athlete that competes in one event, and one event only; the 110 meter hurdles. In 2014, he won a gold medal at the World Junior Championships and set a world record, with a time just shy of 13 seconds. In 2015, he was forced to withdraw from the World Championship because of a thigh injury. But in 2016, he came to Rio with the hopes of finally winning a medal in his first Olympic games. He had been training consistently for 4 years. Unlike athletes like Michael Phelps or Simone Biles, Belocian would have just one chance to compete. One single event would determine his success.
He was hopeful for at least a bronze medal, because in the year leading up to the Olympics, Belocian had the third-best season in his field of olympic competitors.
On August 15, he woke up ready to finally compete in the race of his lifetime. When it was about to begin, the hurdlers lined up on the track. And just a moment before the starting gun went off, Belocian was out of the blocks. It couldn't have been more than 1/10th of a second. Only when I watched the replay in slow motion could I tell that he reacted too soon. This 1/10th of a second mistake cost him his Olympic dreams, because in 2010, the International Association of Athletics Federations enacted a 'one and done' policy. One false start, and an athelete is disqualified from the event. Sure, Belocian can compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, and I certainly hope that he does, but I can't imagine that anything can ever negate the pain he felt on August 15.
Belocian's mistake only hurt himself. He didn't do anything immoral, like lie to others or withhold wages from employees. He didn't cheat on a spouse, or make an unscrupulous business deal. His mistake is not among those that would require forgiveness on Yom Kippur, and it's certainly not the kind of mistake for which Rabbi Natan and others would claim there is no forgiveness.
Even so, there are powerful parallels. Belocian reminds us that our actions have consequences. Sometimes, actions that we do or words that we say have hurtful reverberations that have rippling effects throughout someone else's life. And that damage can be irrevocable, regardless of our attempts to fix it. This Olympic mishap reminds us that what we do, even in the shortest of time spans, can have dire consequences.
Sometimes, there are no second chances.
Yom Kippur isn't only about performing t'shuvah. Yom Kippur is about performing t'shuvah now, on the first chance. Even the name of our closing service tomorrow evening reflect this idea; the service is named, N'eilah, meaning locked. The gates lock behind us, and we can not go back. This urges us to get things right the first time.
In high school I would sometimes go up to friends and say, Hey! I'm starting a procrastination club. But not today ... I'll do it tomorrow.
Yom Kippur's message is our religious prescription against laziness and apathy. It's also a prescription that turns someone from meaning well into someone that does well. Yom Kippur is all about the power of now. Not the regrets of yesterday or the hopes for tomorrow, but the actions of this moment.
Last November, Emily somehow let me talk her into going to Disney World, a decision she perhaps regrets as one that is too late! On our last day, we went to Magic Kingdom and. In addition to the typical favorites of the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain, I had to take her to the Carousel of Progress.
Walt Disney created the Carousel of Progress for the 1964 New York World's Fair. It was moved to Florida in 1975, and today the attraction remains a part of Future World in Magic Kingdom. Guests enter and watch as animatronics go through a dialogue that centers on the joys of the technical advances and niceties of their day. After a few minutes, the carousel rotates, and a new scene begins, this one taking place a few years later, with the robots again talking about the latest innovations and niceties.
And as the carousel rotates between scenes, there is a song that all the characters sing:
There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow Shining at the end of every day. There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow And tomorrow is just a dream away.
This chorus gleefully presents a future full of hope and promise: There's a great big beautiful tomorrow, and tomorrow is just a dream away. Anything can be achieved. Tomorrow will be a better day than today.
It's a great message for Judaism and certainly for Yom Kippur, but it can not be the only message.
Yom Kippur teaches us not only to dream for tomorrow, it implores us to act for tomorrow. We need to create it. And we don't create it tomorrow, or when we have the energy, or when we have free time, or when we get the promotion, or when we have the child, or when we move into the new house ... We create it now.
If you go to Disney World today, you'll hear the one I just sang. But in its 41-year history, the Carousel of Progress has gone through two different theme songs. I much prefer the original song:
*Now is the time, now is the best time, Now is the best time of your life. Be glad you're here, For it's the best time of your life.
Now is the best time of your life for performing t'shuvah. Now is the best time of your life to move forward on a better path, to heal relationships, to heal yourself, to act better, to be better.
The choice is yours to do it. It is possible. It is here - in this sanctuary and in this Torah and in our liturgy and in our atonement and in our lives. But most importantly - it is now.