Sermons

Raising Inquiries

I am currently in the process of buying a flat. Finding myself in the unusual position of being,
in my mid-fifties, a first-time home buyer, this is proving quite an experience.

First, I had to find the perfect property… within my price-range, close to shul, with a
reasonable amount of space. Signed up with a number of estate agents, I went on too many
viewings to count. The estate agents seem super friendly and helpful, but it didn’t take long
to realise that they are keen for you to buy, and don’t necessarily point out the drawbacks
of a particular property – such as looking out on the municipal dump, practically sitting on
the north circular, or having a very popular pub across the road as your neighbour. You
certainly have to have a sharp eye about you.

Three months after my search began, the very week after my appointment with a
recommended mortgage broker, I viewed four properties in one weekend and….. found my
flat! Surely the rest of the process would be plain sailing, right??

Wrong! The nail-biting anxiety had only just begun!

Now I had to choose a solicitor to do the conveyancing – quite a nerve-wracking decision in
itself. Decision made, I thought, after this, that I could just hand over to the solicitor and
leave it to her for a relatively smooth and speedy negotiation. After all, I’m not in a chain,
the vendor isn’t in a chain… How complicated could it be from here?? Also wrong!

My online case history notes informed me that there are 20 different key stages from start
to completion! And I’ve been stuck at Stage 6 for a month! We are currently at the stage of
Raising Enquiries, when all the questions that need answering about the flat are presented
to the vendor, like who is responsible for fixing the window frame that is loose in the
lounge, when was the flat roof last repaired, and are the electrics safe. And just a few days
ago I got an email from the estate agent saying that we were being unreasonably slow and
she wouldn’t want the vendor to put the flat back on the market again!

Phut phut phut that we will reach exchange and completion within the next 6 weeks!

It struck me that this process of purchasing a property has a lot in common with the process
we have all signed up for over these coming 25 hours of Yom Kippur, the process of
Repentance, teshuva.

Just as a process of preparation preceded placing the offer on my flat, so too have we been
engaged in a process of spiritual preparation between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur,
during the Aseret Yemei haTeshuva, the Ten Days of Penitence, and even earlier through the
month of Elul. It required years of patient saving for me to set aside the deposit for my flat.
But don’t worry if you arrive this evening without any spiritual savings in the bank! Judaism
has a very practical view of human nature; our tradition knows that showing up last minute
unprepared is a common trait. Consider yourself a cash buyer, placing us all on a level
playing field in the process of Teshuvah.

What about the role of all these intermediaries, without whom the purchase could never
take place: the mortgage broker, the estate agent, the solicitor, the surveyor? Perhaps these
are like the tools of transformation with which we are surrounded on this holiest day of the
Jewish Year: the machzor, the festival prayers, the choir and the uplifting melodies that
sometimes take us all the way back to our earliest childhood memories of Yom Kippur; even
the taste of favourite foods with which we break the fast (eventually – many hours from
now!) and the familiar faces around the table, if we are lucky enough to break the fast in
company. The 20 key stages in my purchasing journey mirror the key prayers of our Yom
Kippur liturgy; the vidui confession and ashamnu, we are guilty; the unetaneh tokef ; the 13
attributes of God’s mercy, the 13 midot rachamim; Avinu malkeinu. But beware! Just as it’s
necessary to keep an eye on the ball and resist the temptation to leave it to the
professionals busily engaged in the home purchase journey, so too, ultimately, the single
person ultimately responsible for our journey of repentance is each of us, ourselves, in the
quiet depths of our own souls.

Exchange, perhaps, is like the moment at Ne’ilah when the ark doors close and, in the
dramatic imagery of our tradition, the gates of heaven shut, signifying the drawing to a close
of this special opportunity for looking at our lives, taking responsibility for our failings, and
determining to do better in the coming year.

And completion? This is perhaps like Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, when the Book of Life is
finally closed, bringing to fruition the spiritual labour of the season. What will be written on
the scroll of our lives in the coming year? The fate of our days remains a mystery – hidden
from view. What is known and certain is how we choose to act, and the kind of person we
choose to be – kind and compassionate, or impatient and uncaring; attentive to the needs
of others, or preoccupied only with ourselves; giving of our time, contributing to our
community, or hard-hearted and close-minded. Jewish tradition asserts a radical belief in
freedom of choice: there are things beyond our control: learning to let go of these frees us
from the burden of so much pain, anxiety and suffering; yet those things within our power –
our daily actions, our relationships with each other and with God, what we choose to do
with the gift of life – these things are governed by our own freewill.

Let’s return to Raising Enquiries - the home buying stage where I am now. On this day, we
re-evaluate who we are and our behaviours. We may have sinned against others, and need
to make amends. We may have personal habits that detract from our ability to be good. We
may have failed to maintain good habits. Whatever may be, we need to change and the best
way for us to change ourselves is to acknowledge aloud the wrongfulness of what we have
done. We change when we cease hiding from ourselves, or from God, or from our need to
change. In order to re-evaluate on Yom Kippur, we need to Raise Enquiries, asking ourselves
the most important questions about who we are and why we are here. On Yom Kippur it is
traditional to dress in white, like the angels, wearing the kittel in which we will be buried.
On this day of fasting, when we rise above the normal activities of living human beings, we
rehearse our own deaths, face our own mortality, and consider: What is the meaning of my
life? Why am I here? Am I living my days in a way that expresses what is most important?

Please God, my flat purchase will go through, and I’ll be moving into my new home in the
next 6 weeks. This will be cause for great celebration. Although we tend to think of Yom
Kippur as a most solemn day, infact the Mishnah, in Taanit Chapter 4, describes Yom Kippur
as a day of festivities. ‘Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel said: There never were greater days of joy
in Israel than the fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement. On these days the daughters of
Jerusalem would go out in white dresses… and danced in the vineyards.’ (Taanit 4:8)

The most joyous day of the year?? How can this be when we spend the day in shul, fasting,
pounding our chests, confessing and supplicating before God?

Yom Kippur is the climactic end to a long process of reconciliation… The healing brought
about through our self-evaluation and our return to ourselves, to each other and to God,
brings all our relationships to new depths,that could never have been achieved otherwise. In
the words of Talmud Brachot: ‘The spiritual place occupied by penitents is unapproachable
by the one who has always been righteous.’ (Berachot 34b)

What better reason to celebrate?