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Kol Nidre (KN 5776)

We refer to tonight’s service as Kol Nidre, when in fact that is only the name of the opening piece. Some of you may not realize that Kol Nidre is not even a prayer. It is a text set in legal language, but it has no legal bearing in Judaism. The Torah scrolls together with the prayer leader are supposed to constitute a Bet Din, a Jewish court of law, for this recital. Jewish courts are never held at night which is why Kol Nidre is always recited before dark. In its original form it was in Hebrew and referred to vows of the past year. We don’t know when or where it was composed nor by whom, but find it as early as the 6th century in Babylonia. The popular version recited today is in Aramaic and set in the future tense we ask that any vows we make from this Yom Kippur to the next. It has no impact upon business dealings or interpersonal relations, but like seeking forgiveness on Yom Kippur, it is only about you and God. There was a time in Jewish history where vows were serious business, in a way that we don’t quite relate to in the same way today. Although, my father taught me that a “man’s word is his bond” if you say it, then you better be prepared to do it.

The power of the Kol Nidre is not in the words of the text, but in the emotional content of the music. It is known as a Mi Sinai tune, ie from Mount Sinai, but most Mi Sinai tunes come from Medieval Germany. However, that does not take away from the power of the music. Anyone who has attended Kol Nidre services recognizes the plaintive melody of the Kol Nidre. It sets the tone not only for the service, but for the entire day. Annulment of vows is serious business, but Yom Kippur is a serious day. As you sit here tonight, you have to decide what do you want from your Yom Kippur experience. If your goal is to have been at services on the High Holy Days, then you have succeeded simply by coming. If your goal is spend your Yom Kippur fasting and praying because that’s what we Jews on Yom Kippur, then we have plenty of that for you both tonight and most of the day tomorrow as well. But the rabbis challenge us to allow Yom Kippur to be a transformative experience, a moment of transition, in our year, in our life.

At its most basic Yom Kippur is a confrontation with death. We don’t eat or drink or bathe, or attend to our bodily needs in any way, shape or form; just as will be the case when we are dead. Not eating or bathing are only two of the five restrictions of Yom Kippur – no anointing i.e. no perfume or makeup, no wearing leather shoes, hence my cotton slippers and others in canvas sneakers, and no marital relations. The purpose of these restrictions is to make us uncomfortable, because in the Torah we are told that on Yom Kippur we should practice self-denial, we should afflict our souls. (Leviticus 16:31) The prophets tell us, as seen in tomorrow’s haftarah from the prophet Isaiah, that in making ourselves uncomfortable, we should become sensitized to the suffering of others and motivated to do something about it. So it is on this day that you should commit yourself to helping out with Family Promise when we next host the homeless over New Years.

Further the custom of wearing of white isn’t just about the purity of forgiveness, but it is meant to remind us of the tachrichin, the white cotton burial shrouds traditionally worn by Jews for burial. So you are invited on this day to confront your mortality; to ask the ultimate questions about the meaning of life and the life you are living. At its most intense, all the fasting and praying puts us in a place much like meditation where we move beyond ourselves and the normal distractions of day to day living. But this can only happen if you are willing to give yourself over to the experience. For the sake of those who wish to try I’ll implore everyone to be more mindful of their talking during services than we were during Rosh Hashanah. There is nothing wrong with exchanging a few words with your neighbor, but if you want to have a full conversation, then you should take it out of this room, hang out in the lobby, enjoy a bit of fresh air outside, whatever it is that you prefer; but let’s all remember that this room is sacred space for the next 25 hours, dedicated to those wishing to focus on prayer, meditation and soul searching. We have a place for everyone here.

I want you to take a few minutes to think about what being Jewish means to you. How much does your Judaism impact your life? Obviously, Judaism dominates my life, but that wasn’t always the case. There were times in my life where my Judaism played rather minor, and I have to tell you that my life felt complete and fulfilled without much Judaism. No one could have convinced me that something was missing or better that my life could be richer with it infused with Torah. It wasn’t until I was ready to hear the message and do something to incorporate it into my life that it had any meaning for me. So all I can do is share with you that Judaism has enriched my life beyond measure in ways I never could have anticipated and I encourage you to contemplate what your life might be like if you open yourself to the possibility.

This Yom Kippur is the 50th anniversary of Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch in the first game of the 1965 World Series. Koufax was the star pitcher of the Los Angeles Dodgers and he was scheduled to start the first game of the World Series against the MN Twins. When he discovered it fell on Yom Kippur, he informed the team that he would not play. This was no small matter, this was huge! In taking this stand Koufax became an instant hero to Jews across the country. We had a role model someone who said that Judaism is more important than sports, even the World Series! Don Drysdale started instead and pitched very poorly, when he was taken out of the game, he reportedly said to the coach, “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish too.” His team lost that game – Go Twins! But Koufax went on to start in games 2, 5 & 7 and he led his team to victory and was named series MVP.

In fact, Koufax was not the first Jewish player to sit out on Yom Kippur, Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers sat a World Series game in 1934 and when we walked into services he received a standing ovation from the congregation. We have always been a people who are proud when our fellow Jews stand up for their Judaism. While it fills us with pride, it does not always inspire us to follow their example. There a many times that our Judaism and American culture come into conflict and yet more and more people seem to make the American choice rather than the Jewish choice.

If the Wayne schools were open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I wonder how many people in our community would send their children to school simply because it was in session. I talk to college students and they tell me that they can’t come home for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur because they have class. My reply is always the same, the class may be in session, but that does not mean that you should be there. You should be in services. Judaism makes demands upon us and sometimes runs counter to the culture in which we live. But standing up for our rights as a minority and standing up for our beliefs, may make others unhappy with us, but they will also respect us for our commitment.

I really believe that commitment is what makes us strong both as individuals and as a community. There was a time not so long ago when Hebrew school was five days a week Sunday to Thursday and the expectation was that you would be at Shabbat services on Friday night and Saturday too – we expected you to be here seven days a week. Then we went to the three day week schools, but still with an expectation that you would go to Shabbat services on either Friday night or Shabbat morning.

There was an understanding that Hebrew school and being on a sports team might be in conflict, but that on Sunday morning and Tuesday afternoons, your time belonged to the synagogue; and synagogue come first. You might leave early if you had a game, but it was understood that you went late to practice after school was over, eating in the car on the way.

Today, as the demands of life in general have increased, we have gone to a two-day a week Religious school, but we still expect our students to put their Judaism before their sports teams and we expect students to attend Shabbat services too. We expect our kids to learn to read from the Torah and to be able to lead services. Our kids on average do more at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah than at some other places, but it is understood that here we have an expectation to be met. We set the bar high and encourage everyone to achieve.

There are some who see our lack of a cantor as a deficit; but I have always seen it as an asset. The fact that we don’t have a cantor is financial, but it also has created a place where members can learn and grow in their service participation. While there are many who are happy to sit back and listen, there are others who push themselves to continue to learn something new each year, to add to their repertoire. While I’m the first to admit we have service leaders who can’t carry a tune or who mess up the Hebrew, we also have been blessed with some incredibly talented individuals who share their gifts and their passion with us to the benefit of everyone. After years of rental cantors or rotating students, I have cherished the ability work with Stuart Skolnick, one of our own, especially on the High Holy Days, but also throughout the year both as a regular davener and as Chair of our Ritual committee.

I have colleagues who have to lead each and every service, I consider it such a blessing to be able to stand in the back at a service, look around and realize that there are half-a-dozen different people who could get up and lead us. I also have colleagues who rarely if ever read from the Torah. I consider it a privilege, but I would not object to our having a larger cadre of readers to share the load. There are too few us reading, I want us to share that wealth too. Especially with teens after they have their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. There is no better way to stay connected to the synagogue than to continue to read from the Torah all through high school. I think it is wonderful that we have teen Torah readers on the High Holy Days and they do a great job, but I don’t want it to be a once a year commitment, I want to see them here throughout the year.

So do I recognize that setting the bar high is a deterrent to some, I do. But for those who want less, they have plenty of options. My goal here remains making Shomrei Torah a warm, welcoming place for serious people who want serious prayer and the opportunity to learn and grow as a person and as a Jew. I was once asked of all the things that we had taught our children which one I considered the most significant and my answer was – keeping kosher. By making kashrut a part of their lives, it made them confront and live their Judaism every time they opened their mouth to grab a snack. Eating is about as basic as life gets beyond breathing. It makes your Judaism not something that you do just in the synagogue; and not something that you restrict to the privacy of your home; but rather something that goes with you everywhere, everyday all day long.

I can assure you that I would like to see Shomrei Torah grow as much as the next person, I think that we provide a service and I don’t mean religious services, but obviously we have those too, but rather we provide a safe place for religious seeks, who want get more out of their Judaism than is possible in less serious, less committed places. I don’t want us to be like the other synagogues in town or even to consider the watered down version of Judaism that comes from private tutors, even if that makes us less popular. I want Shomrei Torah to be the best Conservative synagogue that we can be. I want us to be a home for people willing to struggle with the fact that Hebrew is the ancient language of prayer and used the world over. I want you to be challenged by me and by your Judaism. I want to shake you out of your complacency. They say that the job of a rabbi is to comfort those in need of comfort and to make uncomfortable the complacent. So I hope I’m doing my job.

As a closing thought I wanted to share with you that as a follow up to the sermon I gave on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I reached out to Rabbi Feinstein at Valley Beth Shalom to ask him what they did for their Covenantal Membership Ceremony. I want to make the offer to anyone who is interested in looking both at their Covenant and their ceremony and then working with me to modify it for our community and our needs, to let me know if you are up for the challenge. I welcome your participation.

I wish for you not only a challenging Yom Kippur, but a year of trial and error, change and growth, both here and out there for that is how we become better individuals, better people, better Jews. And I think that it is role of religion in general and Judaism in particular. I wish for you a Judaism that is invasive and permeates every aspect of your life; for if you let it, your life will be infused and enriched.

Wishing you a Gemar Chatima Tova – May you be Sealed in the Book of Life for a Good Year! ALUASA!

Thu, January 23 2020 26 Tevet 5780