How Jay Leno and Kanye West Wrote my Yom Kippur Yizkor Sermon

I don’t watch awards shows on TV. So my first alert to Kanye West’s latest outburst was when Tehilla came downstairs to give me a heads up. Her friends had messaged her about it, as she also was not watching the Video Music Awards. For those who missed it, video and an article about Kanye’s latest tantrum can be found at http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1621389/20090913/west_kanye.jhtml .

The next day, Kanye apparently asked for an opportunity to address the public before a performance in which he was to participate on the opening night of Jay Leno’s new show. He began with an apology, acknowledging how he had stepped all over Taylor Swift. To my surprise, Jay Leno didn’t let him off the hook. He stepped in by referencing Kayne West’s mother, who passed away just months ago:

Let me ask you something. I was fortunate enough to meet your mom and talk
with your mom a number of years ago. What do you think she would have said
about this? Would she be disappointed in this? Would she give you a lecture?

What? Do you, Jay Leno, understand that you are raising the emotional stakes by
bringing someone’s mother into the discussion? I was astounded. I wasn’t
sure whether Kanye was going to cry or punch Jay in the face. He did neither, as it
turned out. As it turned out, it was a brilliant move, and let Kanye know that
apologies sometimes aren’t enough when you’ve also embarrassed your family and its good name.

And the interaction helped me to understand a theme of Yom Kippur that has eluded me: why we recall departed ancestors on Yom Kippur, a holiday that has to do with repentance not family remembrances. Jay Leno got it right: When we go astray, especially publicly, it is not enough to understand that we have done wrong and need to make things right. It’s not enough to apologize to God. We need to also understand that, when we do wrong, we wrong all of the parents and teachers who have tried to raise us right, and indeed all levels of our ancestors who have tried to show us the paths of righteous behavior.
An interesting reference from Midrash, rabbinic understandings of Torah: When the wife of Potiphar attempts to seduce our ancestor Joseph, Joseph sees a vision of his father and flees. Joseph recognizes that when we do wrong, we do so at the cost of our ties to our past, our ancestors and our tradition.

Jay Leno did exactly what our High Holiday services try to do during Yizkor: To put our wrongdoings into context and to remind us that, while we have free will as individuals, we also reflect generations that came before us as well as modeling for those generations that will come after us.
May we commit ourselves in the year ahead, to those actions that honor ourselves, our ancestors and our descendants.
Shana tova u’metukah…a happy and sweet new year.
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