Yom Kippur/Forgiveness and the Major Scale

L’Shana Tovah everyone!!

Thought I would share the “mini-sermon” I gave at our Kol Nidre service.  Enjoy!


I was taking a walk with my music in shuffle mode. I usually listen on shuffle because often, something I would have never chosen, pops up and inspires me.

Last week, I took a walk and a choral piece called “Solfeggio”, by Arvo Part, filled my headphones. This piece is nothing more than a major scale sung on “do re mi” in a long crescendo. That’s it. But each voice part sustains its note while the next emerges. Sometimes it’s the note right next to it, sometimes it’s the same pitch an octave away. The result isn’t simple the way a piece using the major scale usually is. It’s incredibly dissonant.

As the piece continues, the notes are held longer, the crescendo grows and grows, the dissonances make the space, the ears, the whole body vibrate as magnificent crunches and clusters wash over the listener. It is an unbelievable work of art.

I conducted this piece once with an adult community choir. After the concert, a woman in the audience told me I had “no business doing that atonal music.” I smiled at her and said, “But it’s a major scale.”

Of course I knew what she meant. The major scale is so obvious. So lovely. So easy. Yet, it can be complicated, dissonant, a little uncomfortable, even (as I think it was for that lady) threatening.

Just like saying “I’m sorry.”

Here we are on the eve of the day dedicated to “I’m sorry’s”. So simple, so beautiful, and yet a little uncomfortable… Maybe even downright scary.

When we started our process of self examination at Selichot, we read in the prayer book the variety of sins we needed to consider, and it was painful. Hearing and speaking them made me want to escape. For the sins I know I have committed, it felt way easier to run away than to face the “I’m sorry’s” that I owe. At the same time, I also felt a different pain because I believe some of those sins were perpetrated against me, and I fear no “I’m sorry” is ever coming my way. And even if it did, can we forgive all things?

But guess what? Yom Kippur is not only about saying I’m sorry. It is also about forgiveness… Not God’s forgiveness. Our forgiveness.

In the book “To Be a Jew” by Hayim Halevy Donin, he wrote in his chapter about the Holy Days:

“Where attempts to pacify take place, the grieved party must feel it incumbent upon himself to extend forgiveness with a full heart. If he stubbornly persists in refusing to be pacified, he is regarded as cruel.”

Repentance is a two way street. There is an action and a necessary reaction.

It is said that we need to treat all people as if they are the Messiah. We consider this notion easily when we see someone in need. But I often think, that if such a test was to be sent, the Messiah would come in the form of a person I can’t stand. A person who hurts me. A person who creates stress in me. How would I handle the conflict If that person was the Messiah?

Let’s all think about the people in our lives with whom we have unfinished emotional business. Let’s Include those we have wronged and those who have wronged us… very often they are one in the same, aren’t they? Let’s even close our eyes, empty our thoughts, and really see them in our mind’s eyes. It can be stressful to invite them into our space, but let’s be brave and try. And let’s not forget to include ourselves, because I bet all of us had moments when we were harsh and unforgiving to ourselves.

Now, let’s send them an apology, right here and now… if for nothing else, simply for the fact that tension exists. Let’s experiment with sending them forgiveness too, no matter what the sin, and open our minds to accepting those people, faults and all. Let’s shake their hands. Let’s agree to disagree. Let’s understand them for who they are and be honest with ourselves about who we are. Let’s say to them, right here, right now, out loud: “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” Maybe one of them is the Messiah.

Now, in reality, there is probably no Messiah in our midst, and the apologies we are waiting for may never come. But in some ways, it doesn’t matter. If we release ourselves from the anguish of holding on to old hurts, then we are free of them no matter what is said or not said. And now that we are a little less burdened, maybe we are also a little less afraid to say our face to face “I’m sorry’s,” the ones we owe to the world, to ourselves and to each other.

Yom Kippur is a difficult day without comforts or nourishment. But let’s not get so stuck in the discomfort that we miss that it is, in fact, a beautiful day. What a gift to be together, supporting one another as we face our errors but also look forward to a life renewed. That choral piece wouldn’t have been a work of art if it was only simple. The discomfort is what makes it hauntingly, stunningly beautiful.

May our discomforts in the day ahead lead to our lives being works of art.


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7 thoughts on “Yom Kippur/Forgiveness and the Major Scale

  1. Your sermon really made me reflect when I heard it on Friday. Thank you for posting it. And thank you for sharing your beautiful singing voice with us throughout the high holy days. BSS is so lucky to have you.

    Liked by 1 person

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