A Yom Kippur Carol -- Charles Dickens' High Holy Day Sermon

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Whether you prefer as I do the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim or the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen—or whether you are a fan of any of the dozens of more modern incarnations and adaptations--or even perhaps if you like the book first published in 1843 best of all, there is no question that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic.

Now, A Christmas Carol is a Yom Kippur story if there ever was one. And it matters not one iota to me that when Dickens wrote it, he had in mind another season--this one--another holiday, and another religion. It is a Yom Kippur story.

As a small child, I couldn’t resist it. That is to say, I couldn’t resist the first act. I lived to hear Scrooge say, “Bah! Humbug!” It wasn’t until I was older that I began to appreciate the drama that unfolds after the first commercial.

Now, before we return to the story of the miserly old man who lived his entire adult life with no thought of anything but making money, let us turn to the man who dies in tonight’s Torah portion, our own patriarch Jacob. Like Scrooge, Jacob was a self-centered man who would do anything to get ahead. He extorted the birthright from his brother Esau when he was hungry. He put goatskins on his arms and stood before his blind father impersonating his brother Esau, in order to steal the blessing that Isaac intended for Esau.

But, twenty years later, he emerges--like Scrooge--a changed man because of an awesome all-night struggle. Jacob wrestles with an angel. He wrestles with all he has been, and he realizes what he can be. In the morning, he is no longer Jacob, which means “a heel,” but Yis-ra-el--Israel--“one who struggles with God.” No longer is he the self-centered trickster but the leader, indeed the one who gives his name to our people. He hardly becomes a perfect man, and his parenting skills will never earn him a citation from either the late Dr. Spock or Haim Ginott, but he does become the worthy recipient of God's blessing, the worthy purveyor of the Covenant of Abraham. He earns the funeral he receives in tonight’s Torah portion, and he is worthy to find his final resting place not in the wilderness of Egypt but in the Land God promised to our people, the land which would also receive his name.

Now, Scrooge has a similar night of wrestling, a night marked by four fateful encounters. The first is with the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley. In life, Marley was Scrooge’s tight-fisted clone. In death, he walks about chained to his account books, wailing in misery.

The frightened Scrooge cries out to his partner: “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob!”
“Business!” answers Marley. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, benevolence, forbearance. These were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Now the Hassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who died in 1810, two years before Charles Dickens was born, expressed Marley’s admonition to Scrooge in another way. Once, he saw a man hurrying down the street looking neither to the right or the left.

“Why are you hurrying so?” the Rabbi inquired.

“I am pursuing my livelihood,” the man answered.

“And how do you know,” the Rabbi continued, “that your livelihood is out in front of you? Perhaps it is behind you, and all you have to do is look around, stand still, and let it come to you. But you are running away from it.”

Such was Marley’s message to Scrooge: You are running, like I did, away from your livelihood, but “I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.” As Marley leaves, he promises Scrooge that three other spirits will visit him. They represent his past, his present, and his future.
The ghost of his past allows Scrooge to see the hurt inflicted on him which turned his life in its miserable direction. He sees himself as a boy in school, sitting alone during the winter recess, in his words, “a solitary child...neglected by his friends.”

But then Scrooge sees another side of humanity: He sees himself as a young apprentice to kindly Mr. Fezziwig. And Scrooge apprehends a truth which had escaped him for many years when he says of Fezziwig who treats his employees with respect and dignity: “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.”

Moving from his past to his present, Scrooge learns from his nephew, Fred, and his clerk, Bob Cratchitt. They teach him that vast riches do not provide happiness, nor does their absence preclude happiness. Oh, what a lesson for us today! In Bob Cratchitt’s ailing son, tiny Tim, Scrooge sees anew the opportunities to act righteously which he has spurned for so long.

Scrooge’s final lesson allows him to look into the future, to see the impact of his life upon people after he is gone. A terrified Scrooge beholds the specter of his chambermaid stealing the very sheets from his deathbed and the curtains from his bedroom.

Yom Kippur asks us to experience what Scrooge experienced! Yom Kippur bids us: Imagine that we are dead! Think of the impact of our actions on those around us. Yes, once a year we need to spend a night like Scrooge. We need to hear and heed the lesson: Mankind is my business...charity, forbearance, mercy, and benevolence. These are all my business. We need to remember those who treat us kindly. And we need to ask, as Scrooge had to ask: “Am I that man that lay upon that bed stripped bare?” We need to ponder: Will our death cause sadness or occasion relief?

“Spirit,” cried Scrooge, clutching the robe of Christmas Future, “Why show me this if I am past all hope?”
Scrooge, of course, was not past all hope. Jacob, our Patriarch, was not past all hope. And neither are we.
The famed Polish preacher Jacob Krantz, known as the Dubner Maggid, died eight years before Dickens was born. He wrote many wonderful stories and parables, but my favorite is about a king who had a precious diamond that he guarded carefully. Despite all his efforts, he awoke one morning to see a scratch on one of the facets of the gem.

The King was beside himself. He sent word around the world offering a great reward to any jeweler who could remove the scratch from the diamond and restore its beauty. The world’s most famous jewelers flocked to the palace, but none of them could remove the scratch from the diamond.

At last, a humble lapidary, whose shop was not far from the king’s palace, sent word that he would like to try. The king’s courtiers laughed: “You! What can you do when the world’s greatest jewelers have been unsuccessful?”

“Certainly,” he replied, “I cannot do any worse than they, can I?”

So they gave him a chance. But instead of trying to remove the scratch from the diamond, the jeweler used it as a stem around which he etched a most beautiful flower. And, when he had finished, the king and all of his courtiers had to agree that the jewel was more beautiful, more precious, and more valuable than it had been before.

Our Patriarch, Jacob, and Ebenezer Scrooge were diamonds with deep scratches. We, too, are flawed diamonds. We can bemoan our shortcomings or etch around them lives of beauty and meaning.

Every year, the Yom Kippur Carol reminds us: If we like Jacob and like Scrooge look into the depths of our being, we can carve around the scratches of our souls, lives of “charity, mercy, benevolence, and forbearance.”

It is not an easy thing to do. It requires a soulful expedition into our past, into our present, and into our future. No doubt, the trip might be painful, but if we are willing to make it, we shall find--like our patriarch Jacob and like Dickens’ Scrooge— that infinite rewards await us at the end of the journey.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs serves Congregation Beth Israel of West Hartford, Connecticut.