Published Works:
Public Speaking:
Rabbi Charles David Isbell, Ph. D.
Copyright 2011 Rabbi Charles David Isbell, Ph. D.. All rights reserved.
The following sermons were preached at Temple Sinai in Lake Charles,
Louisiana, during the High Holy Days of 2009:

 Evening Rosh ha-Shanah     Morning Rosh ha-Shanah
        Shabbat Shuvah      Kol Nidrei      Yom Kippur Morning

Kol Nidrei
September 27, 2009
“Confession is good for the soul”

    We are supposed to be living in the era of “bi-partisanship.” Of course,
we can easily see that bi-partisanship does not mean our elected officials
are actually working together across party lines for the greater common
good. But there is one sense in which bi-partisanship is a fact of life.
Elected officials from both major parties and prominent religious leaders in
more than one system of faith have created a long line of sinners headed to
a public forum to confess their wrong doings. A sitting president started the
parade, and he has now been followed by a seemingly unending procession:
a presidential candidate, US senators (including one from our own state)
and representatives, governors, and a host of other lesser elected officials.
A few resign in disgrace, but most bluster on, clinging tightly to the
positions of prestige with which we have entrusted them.

    I have mixed feelings about these public mea culpa exercises. On the
one hand, I agree with a majority of Americans who believe that private life
should be separated from public performance. But on the other hand, I am
disgusted by the maudlin nature of virtually all of these confessions. You
know the setting. First we hear an outright denial of any wrongdoing. Then
when the nosy press pries out the true facts or a few incriminating e-mails
come to light, we are treated to the spectacle of a sober ex-champion of
morality trotting out to do public penance. Almost always, of course, the
faithful wife is expected to “stand by her man” as he makes his sorry
confession, forced to endure public humiliation in addition to the private
betrayal of which she has been the victim. Boo! Hiss!

    In my opinion, these public press conferences are not true confession at
all, but merely the only course of action that remains for a naughty boy who
has been caught and has run out of options. For me, they mean nothing.
Just once, I would like to hear a wife announce something like the following:
“I have kicked the scoundrel out and plan to run for his office next term.
The people of our state and I both deserve something better.” Now I admit
that my feelings are unlikely to happen. But the idea that a person can sin
egregiously, break the trust of his spouse, his children, and his supporters,
and then expect to be forgiven with a shallow “I’m sorry” just because he
has been caught, doesn’t sit well with me.

You see, true confession is a private matter. Scholars of the Christian
church tell us that public confessions were originally required of
congregants who expected to receive communion. But the Church quickly
learned the full cost of such spectacles. Maybe the miscreant did feel
better. But the presence of his wife and children dragged innocent parties
into the process. In addition, the probable presence of his illicit partner,
perhaps also married, involved a long list of others who were also innocent
of any wrong doing (her husband, her children, her extended family, etc.).
Sometime around the fifth or sixth century CE, Catholicism wisely began the
custom of private confession, for the greater good of the entire
worshipping community. Whether one is comfortable with making
confession to a human representative or not, Christianity was wise to agree
with Judaism that confession is appropriately a private matter.

    The High Holy Days are Judaism’s structured method of dealing with
confession. Tonight and tomorrow, we recite powerful words of admission
about our shortcomings that will help us change our lives if we recite them
from the heart and truly mean them. As we learned from Hosea on Shabbat
Shuvah, all of us need these words, for all of us have areas of our lives that
need correcting. But as Jews, we must be clear about the process. We
cannot wait until we are caught red handed before muttering a few hollow
words of contrition in a whisper. Confession is not done by people who
have been “outed,” but by people who are truly sorry for their actions and
determined to change them for the better.

    In other words, our tradition teaches us that we need to admit and
correct wrongful words and actions even if no one else knows we are guilty.
I need to recall the hurtful, cutting words that I have spoken in anger or in
haste, and I need to confess directly to the persons at whom those words
were directed, even if I think they may have forgotten what I said. I need to
take necessary action to restore relationships that I have broken, trust that I
have violated. I need to face honestly the sins of omission of which I have
been guilty. Even if no one else calls me to task, I know, and God knows,
what I have done and/or failed to do. This is a tough standard, but it is the
standard of true Judaism.

    Many of you have remarked about the renewed sense of “family” that has
marked our worship and our social fellowship together in recent weeks. Our
Lake Charles Jewish family is one of the most precious aspects of my own
life, as I know it is for all of you. As in all families, we have differences of
opinion and disagreements. But in our Jewish family, we must set aside
small-mindedness and personal differences and rediscover the shared
values that bind us together as Jews. As Sam Schoolsky put it, “we have
enough enemies on the outside, and we must not destroy ourselves with
disagreements and petty grudges. We are family.” Sam was right.

    Yom Kippur is the period for introspection, for self-examination, for
finding the courage to face ourselves as we really are. If reputation is what
others think about me and character is what I know about me, then these
next twenty-five hours are about character. I ask all of you to join me in this
character-building process. We must all face ourselves honestly, and where
necessary, we must also face honestly both those whom we have wronged,
and the great Master of the universe whose laws we have broken.

    In closing, I want to repeat the awesome words of the vidui that we
recited together just a few moments ago. “We are not so arrogant and stiff-
necked as to say before You, Lord our God … we are perfect and have not
sinned; rather do we confess: we have gone astray, we have sinned, we
have transgressed.” On this most sacred day, I urge all of you to join me in
eschewing words and actions that are hurtful so that we may learn to
cherish each other and continue to grow together as a spiritual

        Evening Rosh ha-Shanah     Morning Rosh ha-Shanah
        Shabbat Shuvah      Kol Nidrei      Yom Kippur Morning
Louisiana State University
Department of Religious Studies, 107 Coates Hall
Baton Rouge, LA 70803-3901