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Rabbi Janet B. Liss delivers Yom Kippur message

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Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement begins at sundown on Sunday evening. Yom Kippur, is a day when Jews fast and ask for God’s forgiveness through a day of intense prayer having had a 10-day period to make amends with those they have wronged during the previous year.

While this year our traditional services will be held on Zoom with modifications, the messages of the holiday will resonate with us no matter where we are observing the holiday.

On Sunday evening, we will hear the haunting melody of the traditional Kol Nidrei prayer played on cello by Josh Epstein who grew up in our congregation and piano by our music director Dr. Hosun Moon before it is sung by our student Cantor Ella Gladstone Martin. She will be joining us from her home in Toronto, Canada.

On Yom Kippur, we read the Book of Jonah. Jonah is asked to go to Nineveh to ask the people to repent, change their evil ways and return to God. Jonah shirks his calling, boards a ship going in the opposite direction of where God sent him. He winds up in the belly of the whale for 3 days, giving him time to rethink his actions, pray and return to God and God’s mission for him. This unexpected quarantine gave him the opportunity to reevaluate his life.

How has being in quarantine changed us? What have we learned about ourselves that can help us go forward in the New Year?

At this time in our country, we are witnessing unprecedented divisiveness and leaders who, like Jonah, shirk their responsibilities and flee into metaphoric bellies of whales. Judaism teaches us to take responsibility for our actions and to stand up to immorality wherever it lies.

This year we have lost modern day prophets who, through the work of their lifetimes, inspired others not to stand on the sidelines and watch as life passes by. We are grateful for Elijah Cummings, John Lewis, Reverend C.T. and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, all of blessed memory.

These people withstood discrimination, bigotry and prejudice and lived their lives as role models for standing up for truth, morality and justice. Despite what life threw their way, they did not hide in the whale’s belly but persevered to leave behind a legacy by making a difference in this country.

On Yom Kippur, we take ownership of our actions and know that we must right the wrongs we have committed. Jonah, in the end, returns to God and does what he was sent to do. This past summer, people all over the country have stood up following the horrendous deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, Rayshard Brooks and so many other people of color by the hands of the police through #BlackLivesMatter protests; saying over and over again, this is not acceptable in the United States of America. We cannot sit idly by while our sisters and brothers bleed. We are standing at the crossroads. I believe that Jewish tradition and Jewish history compels us to step forward and make a difference in this world.

Our country is broken. Each one of us can be the earlier Jonah who fled when confronted by a challenge, or the reformed Jonah who saw the error of his ways and went on to make a difference by saving the lives of those in Nineveh.

May we be inspired through our prayers, the modern prophets who came before us, to take action to make our little corner of the world better in this New Year. We may not be able to change the outcome, but our liturgy teaches us that repentance, prayer and righteousness or charity can help temper the evil decree. Through our own actions we have the ability to make our lives worthy of living even in this precarious time.

Covid-19 has taught us that life is fragile. May all of us use the time we have to strengthen our ties with our families, our friends and our neighbors. May we all strive to widen our circles, open our heart and be better in this coming year.

To join us for services, go to www.ncrt.org for the link to Facebook Live.

May we all be sealed in the Book of Life for health, happiness and peace in this New Year.

Rabbi Janet B. Liss

North Country Reform Temple

Glen Cove, N.Y.