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Rabbi Chaim Miller Headshot

Yom Kippur Sermon 5774

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England, like many European countries, is filled with very narrow roads that look like alleyways, but which serve as two-way streets with only enough room for one car to pass at a time. Once, two Englishmen were driving down one such road in opposite directions and came face to face, leaving no room for either one to pass. One of the Englishman defiantly turned off his engine and waited for the other car to back up. Not to be outdone, the second Englishman turned off his engine too. To make it clear that he did not plan to back down from the standoff, one of the men pulled out a newspaper and began to read. Twenty minutes passed, and still no one budged. Finally, the other man got out of his car and approached the car of the man reading the newspaper and tapped lightly on his window. The driver calmly rolled down his window and asked, "Is there something I can help you with?"

The second Englishman replied, "Yes, as a matter of fact there is. May I borrow your newspaper when you are done with it?"


What do we do when faced with a narrow road or a seemingly unmovable obstacle in life's path?

The Torah provides us with an answer in a passage in the Torah portion of "Ha'azinu" that we read last Shabbat in Synagogue. Ha'azinu is unique among all other Torah portions, in that it is called a "song" and is written in the Torah, not in prose, but in verse format. But when you read the song's "lyrics", you begin to wonder why it is considered a melody. Who would want to sing a song with lines that include "You disgraceful, unwise people," "You grew fat, rotund and obese; (Israel) forsook the G-d Who made them, And disgraced the Rock of their salvation" (Deut. 6, 15). It sounds more like something to shout, let alone sing. Why, then, does the Torah--which is always so precise--refer to this this diatribe against the Jewish people as a melodious "song"?

The lesson here is that a person must broaden his lens. And look at the broader context.

In the 1980s there was an ad on national television, for a bank, to the best of my recollection. The ad consisted of three consecutive videos, each of the same event, but viewed from three different angles. First you watched an older lady crossing the street holding her handbag. In the second video, you saw an aggressive-looking thug dressed in tight leather clothes with metal-studded gloves. With a sinister look on his face he ran towards the innocent old lady, and one could only conclude that she was then mugged. But when the third video played, and the camera angle was widened, you saw a crane above the old lady's head, which she was totally oblivious to, and a large load above was losing its balance, and was about to fall right on top of her. The person we thought was a "mugger" was, in fact, trying to save her life.

That's such a powerful lesson. When you broaden the lens, and contextualize life's events, things appear very different.

And that is why Ha'azinu is called a song. It begins on a positive note (belief in G-d), and ends on a positive note (universal peace), so even if we regress in the middle, the overall story is an uplifting one. By singing this tefilah from the beginning to the end we tie all the conflicting ideas and experiences together into one single story.

Ladies and gentlemen: Keep singing through your entire life. Even life's painful moments are part of your story; they are growing pains that will bring you to new vistas of insight and wisdom. Even when they hurt, you must keep singing--with the faith that you will tie the whole thing together into one symphony. It's not good enough just to say, or even to believe that things will work out. You need to keep singing so that the beginning and end of your story stay connected in the present moment, so that you can begin to feel the hope of the future right now.

This year, Chabad lost one of its finest scholars, the late Rabbi Immanuel Schochet. He was a man of great knowledge, both of Torah texts and western philosophy. He was not afraid to defend Judaism in the public arena, and he touched countless individuals with his lectures, books and public debates. Tragically, in his last days of a prolonged illness, he lost the ability to speak. His son, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, a prominent rabbi in London, would fly almost every week to Toronto in order to spend Shabbos with his father in his last days. What did they do? They sang Chassidic Melodies (niggunim). I was very moved when I heard this. They didn't just sit and cry, or try to "make the best of the situation." They sang. Even though they knew that the great rabbi would never recover, the song put that moment in context. It was a very dark moment, but it was the culmination of a very successful and holy life. The song frames the context.

Another great loss in the last year for Chabad was the late Leibel Zisman. Reb Leibel, a successful businessman, was a Holocaust survivor who had an amazing story to tell. A year or two before his passing he published his memoir, "I believe," documenting his horrific experiences in Auschwitz and his eventual escape to freedom. Reb Leibel was the only person in Auschwitz that successfully smuggled in a pair of tefillin, in his shoe, which brought much hope to that very dark place. Even though he lost both of his parents and all but one of his siblings in the Holocaust, he remained a man of strong faith his entire life, and was strictly observant of Jewish law.

One of the most moving stories in Reb Leibel's book took place on Yom Kippur in a DP camp in Germany, after the war had ended. That year, the prayers were led by the Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, who had survived the war, but had lost his wife, his eleven children and most of his Chasidim. Most of the congregants in this makeshift synagogue had lost relatives, or simply didn't know if their families had survived.

As he stood up to address the congregation, the Klausenberger Rebbe said, "Why do we wear white on Yom Kippur? What is the significance of white? In the Jewish tradition, the groom wears a white robe (kittel) on his wedding day and his bride wears a white dress to show they are starting anew, that they are pure. Also when people die, they are buried in white shrouds for the same reason. On Yom Kippur, we want to show that we are pure, that our souls are without the stain of sin, as white as the driven snow because we have atoned for all our wrongdoings. Also on Yom Kippur we remember the dead when we say Yizkor, the prayer of remembrance. We remind ourselves of the white shrouds that our deceased parents and grandparents wore when they are buried." And then he paused, and his voice cracked, "Except that our parents were not buried in white shrouds... Our parents, our grandparents, our brothers and sisters were buried in rags, their bodies mangled in mass graves. So why do we wear white? They did not go to their judgment in white! If this is meant to remind us of our deceased loved ones, let's look like them!" And with that, he tore off his white kittel.

And everybody started to sob. He could do nothing to restrain them. All those present - few of whom had kittels, after all where could you get one in a DP camp - were crying uncontrollably. He said that we should not cry; anyone who had survived the war was holy, was pure, and did not need to put on white. But the people kept on sobbing; he had opened the floodgates, and nobody could stop the outpouring of pain that day.

Sometimes one of the stanzas in the song of life can be a very sad one, but after this horrific tragedy, Rabbi Halberstam went on to rebuild his family, build a hospital in Israel and he inspired many new followers, living a life of tremendous piety and influence. In the end, the song of his life was a very joyous one.

Our own Rebbe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also had a life of much tragedy. After he left Russia, at the age of 25, he never saw his father again. The Russians sent the Rebbe's father to rot in East Asia, for the "crime" of distributing Kosher Matzah for Pesach. The Rebbe's mother did survive the war, but she still did not see her son for over 20 years. The Rebbe once wrote that leaving his parents behind was a decision that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Although the Rebbe managed to escape Nazi-torn Europe on one of the last boats, the rest of his family were not so lucky. His brother, Dovber, was killed by the Nazis, as was his maternal grandmother, Rochel. The Rebbe's sister-in-law, Sheina and her husband, were also killed by the Nazis in Treblinka. And to add to all that pain, the Rebbe and his wife, Chaya Mushka, now in their forties, remained childless. In 1952 a final blow came, the Rebbe's only surviving sibling, his younger brother Leibl, who had been studying for a PhD in Liverpool University, in England, passed away suddenly.

At the conclusion of Leibl's shiva, the seven days of mourning after a person passes away, the Rebbe gave a very short but very moving speech. It really represented his personal approach to dealing with life's struggles.

His message, in a nutshell, was: G-d's plan can't go wrong. He is infinite. Nothing can get in his way. And that means, more specifically, that G-d's plan for your life can't go wrong.

It's rather like--and this is, of course, my analogy--a GPS. Even if you make a wrong turn, even if you make twenty wrong turns, the GPS will recalculate and bring you to your destination. You have to get there, it's just a matter of what route you will take: a straight, clear highway, or something more challenging.

So when life throws us misfortune, G-d forbid, it's just a wrong turn. We have to believe we will get there in the end, and not to lose sight of the destination, a happy, fulfilled life.

The challenge of life, the Rebbe concluded, is not merely to believe or even to understand this idea. It's the ability to feel it even when you are down in the dumps.

That is life in a nutshell. Can you keep singing the song even when you want to grind to a halt? Do you have enough faith to feel that G-d is carrying you in times of need?

And that is why we fast for 25 hours and spend this sacred day in prayer together. To find that place within us that can see the bigger picture; that can tie together all the moments of our life into one big song.

Thank you.

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