At our 5784 Kol Nidre service, Tim Graves delivered a sermon about his sobriety journey and reflected on the difficult work of teshuvah. You can listen to this sermon on the Contact Chai podcast or watch it on the Mishkan YouTube channel.
Hi, I’m Tim. If this was two or three years ago (pretend we weren’t still in pandemic mode) I wouldn’t be standing here. I’d be sitting out there, almost assuredly buzzed, perhaps even drunk, and I would have had a bottle stashed somewhere in the building, because at that time, I was never to far away from a bottle of cheap vodka, and I didn’t care where I was when I was drinking it.
See, when I came to Mishkan nine years ago, I wasn’t even Jewish but I was a broken man. I had given up on organized religion in my youth. I didn’t believe in Gd per say, and I definitely didn’t believe in a GD that would love someone like me, I didn’t believe there was a spark of redemption available for myself. The universe, the power I choose to call Gd, put Rabbi Lizzi and Mishkan into my life at a time I was struggling to be fully in recovery, find myself and trying to figure out how to be a good father among many other challenges.
Over the ensuing nine years, with many bumps in the road, 5 trips to rehab (the last one made possible by our Mishkan community and the blessing that is Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish recovery community in LA) and with the continued love and support of this congregation, I am standing here before you a man on the mend. I am standing before you as someone who has forgiven themselves and who has been forgiven by many of those I hurt.
I stand here today as a representative of those of us in the community who are struggling with or who have beaten a substance use disorder. Those of us who are neurodivergent and who live with mental health issues. Those of us who are queer or questioning, those of us who are parents. Those of us who may be none of those things, but who have missed the mark this past year in some ways and those of us who are wondering whether we will ever find love again because of our past transgressions. Those of us who in some ways persist and refuse to quit moving forward and are willing to do the work and return to the path.
The road that led me here began with something so simple, and yet so powerful. I had to admit out loud that I was not on the path that the universe, GD, had intended for me. I had to confess, out loud to the people around me, all of the things I had been doing, all of the lies, all of the things that I was ashamed of and worked so hard to keep hidden, but I couldn’t hide them from Gd and I could no longer hide them from others.
The secrets I had kept only served to reinforce the disconnection I felt from the world, from the people I loved and Gd, and reinforce the worthlessness and self loathing that made me believe that I was not worthy of anyone’s love, especially Gd’s. But the secrets began to be too great, too heavy for me to carry, I had to let them out or I felt like I would explode. And once I started talking, I did explode, it all came pouring out, as it came out, something amazing happened: the world began to open up for me. I had made my world so small, I had been so alone, filled with fear and cutting off everyone, including Gd, and now as I confessed my deepest darkest secrets, I was all of a sudden connected again. Connected to the people around me and to Gd.
Once I confessed, I could begin to make true teshuvah. In recovery we say that we are only as sick as our secrets. For me, I know today that is true.
My confessions two years ago were things you can usually only hear in church basements, surrounded by other alcoholics and addicts: secret drinking, weekly binges, not caring about my future, not caring about the damage I was doing to my body (and I had the heart attack to prove it), lying to loved ones, lying to Rabbi Lizzi and the other clergy, lying to myself.
Today, my confessions aren’t as juicy:
I have lied — to my mother about why I can’t take her call.
I have stolen — from the self-checkout at Jewel “accidentally” and justified it
I have sinned the sin of lashon hara — misusing words — against others
I have sinned the sin of lashon hara — misusing words — against myself.
So, now that you know that about me, let’s talk about us. Why are we confessing out loud to sins we didn’t do ourselves?
Our machzor uses collective language to describe every sin we name when we confess out loud: “We have transgressed, We stolen, We have slandered.” Why aren’t I responsible for only my own stuff?
I believe that when we wake up every morning and decide to be Jewish, we take upon us not only the mitzvot, but also the responsibility and obligations of being part of the community at large. Our transgressions become a part of the community’s collective transgressions, which in turn become part of the larger Global Jewish community’s transgressions.
Rav Issac Luria, the 16th Century Kabbalist, wrote that confession is written in the plural, “’We have sinned,’ because all Israel is considered like one body and every person is a limb of that body. So, we confess to all the sins of all the parts of our body.”
That makes sense to me, but I think there is something even deeper at work. I think that a lot of us walk around all year in our bubbles. We go about our lives as individuals, loosely connected to our community. A Shabbat service here, a Small Group there, maybe a Shabbat dinner every once in a while, maybe none of those things throughout the whole year. The “we” can be lost in the whirlwind that is our lives.
Maybe, if you are like I used to be, you don’t think you deserve to be part of a community, a society, and that you will have to go it alone forever. Maybe you think you don’t need to ask for help or lean on other people. I believe today, that is not the case, for me or anyone. We are Israel, the people of the book and none of us is alone.
By standing together for confession, we are reminded we are a part of that body Rav Luria wrote about. By standing together and not making individuals stand before us and confess to the community individually how they missed the mark (like I did up top), we are saying, I am with you. I don’t want you to feel shame or embarrassment, so I’ll say your sins, and you’ll say mine, and we are in this together. Because we’re part of one body.
This collectivism is the power that I rely on to keep it going some days. It is the power I use to gird myself when I must apologize and make teshuvah, the knowledge that no matter what happens, that I am a part of something bigger, that I deserve to be here and that there are people in the community who have also missed the mark. We all miss the mark, and today, we all come together and say WE have sinned.
So when you stand here tonight and beat (or gently tap) your chest, do it proudly as a member of this community, as a part of the global Jewish community and remember: Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of us are responsible for each other