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Kol Nidre (KN 5778)

Here we are together again on this most sacred of nights.  Of all the days of the week, the most sacred is Shabbat; and of all the Shabbatot of the year, the most sacred is Yom Kippur - Shabbat Shabbaton/the Sabbath of Sabbaths. The two moments that stand out for most people and also the most famous are Kol Nidre and Yizkor.  As Jews we are notoriously late arriving at services, but on Kol Nidre night people try to arrive as close to on-time as possible, so as not to miss the plaintive notes of Kol Nidre which opened tonight’s service.  In the morning when we come to Yizkor people who never come to services, not even on the High Holy Days will show up to hear Yizkor. In some communities they get so many showing up that they have to do a separate Yizkor service for non-members outside of the regular service. For us the number going out seems to balance the numbers flowing in, not that anyone needs leave for Yizkor, but family custom, what the rabbis call minhag mishpacha, can be very powerful.  Visiting the cemetery before Yom Kippur is another custom observed by many families. For anyone who was not able to do so, but would like to be able to place a stone in memory of your deceased loved once, we once again have a table of stones at the back of the room and you are welcome to place one tonight or tomorrow.


The Yom Kippur services I find most meaningful are the ones least attended by most people, they are the Mincha and Neila services we will do today starting at 4:30 in the afternoon.  I say today and not tomorrow since we have already begun Yom Kippur, so sleep and midnight are not my dividing lines.  I find them meaningful both on a personal and on a communal level. My personal connection began more than 25 years ago when I was a new rabbi in Verona.  My small shul, Congregation Beth Ahm, of blessed memory, would hire a cantor for the High Holy Days, however, in addition to leading Kol Nidre, Musaf and Neila like Stuart does for us, they expected this poor person to also do Shacharit, Mincha and the Torah reading!  After my first year there, I said to the leadership that was an unfair expectation to have of anyone. I got one member to learn the High Holy Day Shacharit service, another to learn the High Holy Day Torah readings and I took on Mincha. 


When I came here to Shomrei Torah more than 20 years ago, we too hired a cantor for the High Holy Days, we had a member, Marty Schnier, who would lead the Shacharit service, he did it until he moved to Florida and then rather than have just one person, we asked Stuart Skolnick, Gene Fisher and Dan Fishbane to each prepare one and so began a rotation of skilled and talented members.  Another member, Joe Herrmann, coordinated the teen Torah readers until he left and then Stuart took over that task too until he became our High Holy Day Cantor and then Roberta Ort took it on and so it goes.  However, Mincha was an issue back then, so I said, no problem I had been doing it in Verona and could take it on here as well. I’ll be leading that service for 23rd time here this year. I invite you to come join me!


On a communal level, we read Torah at the Yom Kippur Mincha service.  Traditionally, a section on prohibited sexual partners that follows immediately after the morning reading telling us that we should not follow the practices of the Egyptians; however, there is an alternative reading that has become so widespread and accepted that it is in our new Mahzor Lev Shalem.  Stuart suggested to the Ritual committee that we switch to it and we decided to do so, this will be the first year we read it.  It comes from the very heart of the Torah, the middle parsha, Kedoshim, of the middle book Vayikra/Leviticus; it is a section known as the Holiness Code because it is instructions to us on how to be holy as well as why we should strive to be holy.  We read, Kidoshim tiheyu, ki kadosh, ani Adonai Eloheychem – You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy. (19:2) The passage goes on to tell us how to be holy and the list bears a striking resemblance to the Ten Commandments – You shall revere your mother and your father, keep My Sabbaths; do not turn to idols, you shall not steal, do not swear falsely… (19:3-12)


We also read, “You shall not insult the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind… Judge your neighbor fairly. Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not hate… Love your neighbor as yourself. (19:14-18)  I believe that being holy is the core imperative of what it means to be Jewish.  All the mitzvot, the rules and regulations, the holidays and observances – all of it has as its goal to make us good, honest, moral people; in other words to be mentschen.  There is no good English word for a mentsch; I once read it defined as someone who will do the right thing even when no one is looking.  That is who I want to be, that is who I want you to be, that is who God wants us to be and I hope it is who you want to be as well.


Holiness in Judaism is not something static, but rather a dynamic concept, we “do holy” we make time, places and activities holy by sanctifying them.  A Friday night can be a night out drinking with friends, but alternatively we have the opportunity to transform it into some special, something sacred, something holy by gathering around the Shabbat table with our family and friends, reciting blessing and making the moment something different from the rest of the week. Saturday morning can be a day to run errands, but then you miss the opportunity to do something special with it. When you come to shul on a Shabbat morning, you turn the ordinary into something extraordinary, we pray and we learn and we socialize together with each other and with God in our midst, it becomes something sacred. Next week, you can chose to be done with your Judaism for a while having done Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur or you can make next holy by celebrating Sukkot.  We will take what otherwise would be a regular day and we make it something special. We will bless and wave our lulav and etrog, we will eat in the Sukkah; we will celebrate life and God, we will make the profane, holy! On Simchat Torah we will sing and dance with the Torah our most holy and sacred book, it won’t just be a school night, it will be something sacred because we will infuse it with holiness and it in turn will infuse us with holiness.


We can also make places holy.  The synagogue is a sacred place for most people because it is the place we come to pray, to connect with God, to experience our Judaism.  The home can also be a sacred place; we just have to make sure to do sacred actions there.   When we host holiday meals – build a Sukkah, celebrate Chanukkah, host a Passover Seder – we make our home a holy place. When out in nature, I often stop to smell the proverbial roses, transforming a park or a woods from just being an outdoor location, to something sacred; again it is incumbent upon us to infuse places with holiness. You can live your life absent of any thoughts or feelings about God or you can live your life finding God all around you, it is an attitude, it is a belief system, it is a perspective on life.  You can choose to feel isolated and alone or you can choose to feel connected to God and to community.  We are here, every day as we are today, you just have to want to be a part of what we have to offer.


In addition to sanctifying time and space, we can also make our actions holy.  It is easy to feel this when doing a mitzvah, but we can infuse many activities with sacredness. It is up to us to see the sacred in the ordinary.  One of the things that Judaism does well is to try and help us see the sacred dimension in daily life.  The rabbis challenge us to try and say 100 blessing each day.  It can be a tall order, but if we bless the food that we eat throughout the day, the various wonders taking place around us, it is not as difficult as it sounds, but you have to be attuned to look for the opportunities.  Eating an apple can be a thoughtless mechanical action simply because I am hungry or it can be an opportunity to thank God for the wonder of an apple, and feel a sense of gratitude that the sun shone and the rain fell allowing this piece of fruit to grow and that someone cared for the tree and harvested its fruit in order for me to be able to enjoy it.  The moment that I stop and recite a bracha, a blessing, is a transformative moment for me, I’ve turned the mundane into the sacred, I’ve made an ordinary moment – holy!


The rabbis tell us we can be holy by imitating God and they look to the Torah to see what God does (BT Sotah 14a). Just as God clothed naked, so too should we provide clothing to the naked; just as God visits the sick, so too should we visit the sick; and just as God saw to the burial of the dead, so too should we bury the dead; just as God consoles mourners, so too should we console mourners. If you can think of where in the Torah each of these actions took place give yourself high marks for your knowledge of Bible.  God provides clothing to Adam and Eve in chapter 3 of the creation story.  Visiting the sick is more challenging – Genesis 17 ends with Abraham circumcising himself; Genesis 18 has God appearing to Abraham, consequently, the rabbis conclude that God was engaging in the mitzvah of bikur cholim, visiting the sick.  In Deuteronomy 34 God buried Moses showing us the participating in the burial of the dead is a mitzvah. In Genesis 25 we read of the death of Abraham and then the text reads, “God blessed his son Isaac.” (25:11) which the rabbis interpret as God making a shiva call to Isaac and so we learn to comfort the mourner.  In performing these mitzvot we become our best selves, holy, godly. 


Our tradition understands that we never do the right thing all the time, we don’t perform all the mitzvot that we could, that we fall short, we miss the mark; and that’s what these High Holy Days are all about.  It is our tradition saying to us, it’s ok, if your intention is to do better, you can have a clean slate and start over again. Give it your best shot and in a year we can stop again and evaluate how we’ve done.


The other text we read at Mincha is the Book of Jonah, it is the haftarah read after the Torah every Yom Kippur afternoon.  Most of us know the basic story, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell the people to repent their sinful ways. Jonah doesn’t want to, so hops on a ship sailing away, God brings a storm, Jonah is tossed from the ship and swallowed by a great fish, where he prays for forgiveness. He is deposited at Nineveh where exhorts people to repent and they do so. But this story is much more complex in its details. So the first question is why did Jonah run away? Most prophets when given a task by God – do it! You have to understand that Nineveh was a rival kingdom, they were our mortal enemies and Jonah feared that God would show them compassion, but he wanted them destroyed. So he tried to run away from God. That idea seems silly to us raised on the concept of a single God of the universe, but Jonah came from a different time and place. In his world gods had geographic locations; Edom and Moab had Kos as their chief god; Babylonia had Marduk and Nineveh had Ishtar. Adonai was the God of Israel, so what did our care about the people of Nineveh for? And by going to sea, Jonah was going to the one place he figured God could not follow him.


When the sailors ask him who he is, his reply is Ivri Anochi/I am a Hebrew, but he didn’t think about where that term originated.  The first to call himself Ivri/Hebrew is our Father Avraham, Abraham the first Jew is also the first to follow a god beyond national borders.  Ivri means one who has ‘passed over.’  The Midrash asks why Abraham is called Ivri; we find three answers:

  1. Rabbi Yehuda taught that the word ‘ever’ means opposite because Avraham believed in just One God while the rest of the world worshipped idols.
  2. Rabbi Nehemiah taught that it was a reference to Ever, a descendent of Noah and ancestor of Abraham.
  3. The rabbis taught that it was a reference to fact that Abraham came from across the river to the Promised Land.

What Abraham came to understand was that the one true God has no borders, boundaries, no limits. Jonah had to learn that for himself, he declared himself to be an ivri, but it took time and some help from God to remind him of what that means.  He spends three day in the belly of a great fish praying, he does teshuvah. The great rabbi Maimonides tells us that we know true repentance comes when we find ourselves in the same situation where we previously sinned, but get it right this time. So now when God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach repentance to the people, he does so. The people listen! Jonah is the most successful prophet in history!  Isaiah was ignored by his contemporaries; Jeremiah predicted the fall of Judea and was imprisoned.  Jonah was listened to and it made him miserable!  He wanted to see the people of Nineveh suffer; he wanted to see his enemies destroyed.  And God had compassion upon them.  Jonah was successful in bringing the word of God to a sinful city.  Ironic isn’t it.


But this strange little (fish) tale reminds us that there is no escaping God and that if we truly repent we can be forgiven. God could have destroyed Jonah for defying the Divine command, but instead God uses it as a teachable moment, so that Jonah can learn from his mistake and go forth to do God’s will. And finally, we see that our God is a compassionate and forgiving God or in the words of Jonah, “For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.” (4:2)  We will fall short of our goals, not live up to our aspirations, get sidetracked in the year to come, but we can repent and be forgiven our shortcomings and like Jonah there is often a second chance for us. So let’s set our sights high in this New Year 5778 and do our best to be our best.  In the words of Pirkei Avot, Bemakom she'ein anashim, hishtadel lihyot ish (2:6) which I will translate as, In a place where no one is a mentsch, strive to be a mentsch!


May your Yom Kippur fast not only be easy, but may it meaningful as well. It is my hope that none of us will be the same person as were when Yom Kippur began by the time we hear the blast of the shofar marking the end of this holy day and the end of the fast about 7:30 pm. 


May it be a good New Year for us all ALUASA!

Wed, September 22 2021 16 Tishrei 5782