YK Kol Nidre 5778 2017 Yom Kippur
Sep 29, 2017
Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation Agudas Israel
On the day of the eclipse, we were in Montreal. The kids were playing in a playground, because when you plan a trip with museums, great restaurants and interesting activities, the most fun children will have is always where you least expect it! Other than a slight temperature change, one would not notice that anything different was happening. We did not have eclipse glasses, so the main goal was making sure the children didn’t look up! Rebecca managed to take a couple selfies and magically make the sun appear, but that seemed like it for us. Then as we were walking towards our car, some lovely Montrealers asked if we wanted to see the eclipse. They handed us the glasses and suddenly a whole new world appeared. The glasses revealed the form of the moon blocking more than half of the sun. It was incredible.
It was truly a miraculous moment and Hannah and I discussed what blessing we should say. Out of deference to Rabbi Hannah, we said, Shehecheyanu, grateful that we were alive to that day to witness the moment of blessing. What really struck me was how a slightly different perspective, how putting on those glasses changed everything. Without the glasses, it was a normal day. With the glasses, we had access to a whole new experience.
It made me think about another recent experience. This summer, we spent time with my parents in Atlanta. After several false starts, we finally made it to the Atlanta Children’s Museum. What really impressed me was an experiment on the second floor. There they had a small device that was a microscope attached to an ipad. The ipad was the screen and showed significant magnification, whatever the small device was touching. I felt like Robert Hooke looking at the cells in cork, a whole new world was opened. Looking at strands of hair, the palm of one’s hand, and various other things, it was truly an invitation to the microscopic world. While the girls were interested for a moment, to them, the pretend supermarket and hospital were far more interesting. This goes to show that what seems miraculous to one does not always seem the same to another.
Where else do we have these discoveries? Where do we find a new window into the lives around us? For me, I see this all the time. We may know each other for years, but suddenly an experience is shared that deepens our relationship. A story is shared that opens a door into our souls. A friend of mine recently shared about the loss of one of his teachers, his rabbi, who gave him advice on his wedding day. Rav Pesach told him that he should never be complacent, that he must remember that there is ALWAYS new things to discover about your spouse. He said that even after 40+ years of marriage, he was always learning new things about his wife.
That may not exactly sound like advice, but it is an important reminder. No matter how much we think we know one another, there is always more to learn. The same is true for ourselves, as well. We can always discover new reserves, new strengths. Some of you may watch American Ninja Warrior. On it, ordinary people perform extraordinary acts. They seem to fly from trapezes, run up walls, jump across “rivers”, and show incredible grip strength. While some of them were marathon runners, gymnasts, skiiers before, many others were ordinary people who were inspired to get in shape by the show. They transformed themselves and their muscles and coordination through extensive practice. They saw within themselves the capability and turned it into a reality. What would we find if we looked into ourselves? Are we living up to our capabilities?
In our own tradition, I think of numerous second career rabbis. They started out doing something else, but then discovered their true calling. Not only do they have the wisdom of our tradition, but they also have the life experience of their prior careers. You may think this is a new idea, but the Baal Shem Tov, the very first Hasidic rebbe, started out as a teaching assistant, eventually became a shochet, and managed a tavern before his reputation of wisdom and mystical powers became widely known.
Rabbi Akiva is one of the most famous sages of the Talmud, of rabbinic literature. He taught incredible teachings and was known for his wisdom. Yet until the age of 40, he was illiterate. He and his wife made incredible sacrifices as he learned Torah. By the time he was murdered by the Romans, he had established yeshivas and taught thousands of students. At just the right moment, he learned to look at the world a little bit differently.
In our own lives, we can all think of new things we have learned, new ways of looking at things, that inspired us, opened us up to our depths, to our core. I stand here as a failure. I have not succeeded in getting every one of you to open your souls to Torah. Yet I also stand here as a success, because for many of you I have. I have shown that one can strive to be a mentsch. We can fail some days and succeed on others, but we can keep plugging along. We can keep discovering the world around us, using the lens of Torah.
I am inspired by liminal moments, by those moments of transition, when we suddenly realize that everything is different. For many, these moments are around birth, death, marriage, divorce, moments of family transition. When our lives change there, we find new opportunities to connect and grow. Once we open one door, another window opens, another shade is pulled. In those moments we can rediscover what has always been in front of us.
In many ways, the Jewish calendar works exactly the same way. I get stressed at this time of year. How can I be prepared for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah all in the same month!? Yet by overwhelming us with holidays, we create multiple access points, many places for us to connect. If the formality and splendor of Yom Kippur does not connect you to our traditions, then perhaps the joy of Simchat Torah will! (Hint, hint, come back next week! We will even feed you.)
On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die. In our machzor, around the Unetaneh Tokef, there is a beautiful poem:
When we really begin a new year it is decided, And when we actually repent it is determined:
Who shall be truly alive and who shall merely exist; Who shall be happy and who shall be miserable;
Who shall attain fulfillment in their days And who shall not attain fulfillment in their days;
Who shall be tormented by the fire of ambition And who shall be overcome by the waters of failure;
Who shall be pierced by the sharp sword of envy And who shall be torn by the wild beast of resentment;
Who shall hunger for companionship And who shall thirst for approval;
These days crack open our souls. They wake us up. The sound of the shofar blasts us from our daily life and says that we are not alone. We are a part of the world around us. We are a part of God’s creation. We ARE God’s creation. Then in the days to come we connect to the land. Sukkot forces us outside. We breathe the air. In Israel we harvest the crops–in NY it’s apple picking time. The leaves change. We are forced to confront that our existence is precarious–just like the sukkah in which we dwell. On Simchat Torah we unroll the Torah, completing our reading and beginning again. In a way it is like the concept of gilgul hanefeshot–like reincarnation–that we are made new again.
What happens to our soul in these moments? It all depends on our perspective. If we open our hearts and open our souls, to the words of our mahzor, our prayerbook. If we listen to the rabbi, to the cantor, to one another, we may find ourselves just a little bit different. If we choose to look up, we can raise ourselves up–with the support of those around us.
With all of these openings, with all of these opportunities, there is one big challenge: fear of change. We love our routines. Heck, our tradition encourages routine. We say the same brachot; we offer the same prayers regularly; we use the routine to elevate our souls. Yet if we get too stuck in the keva, the routine, we may lose our kavannah, our intention. If we love the way things are too much, we miss these spiritual openings. We miss the opportunities for positive change.
In the world around us, there is a great need for positive spiritual change. Far too many people in this magnificent country are disheartened. They are afraid. They fear the Other. I know I have those moments. I wrote some of these words in a new coffee shop names “blacc vanilla” on South street across from the former St. Mary’s Church. The coffee was great, the clientele representative of the artsy Newburgh scene–yet I still wondered if my car would remain where I parked it. Is that racist? Classist? Or just pragmatic? I know that I cannot be a successful rabbi or human being if my circles look only like me. I need to be a part of the community as a whole! I need to open my eyes to the wealth and poverty here–and work to improve it.
On Rosh Hashanah I mentioned that more than 36 times our Torah commands us to Welcome the Stranger, to not mistreat them, to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. We are reminded over and over again of the humanity and Divinity of others. One of my favorite teachings is the opening of Bereshit–where we discover that we were all created in the Image of God. This creation was not just Jews–it was all people. As such, we are obligated to look out not just for ourselves, but the entire world. We cannot stay silent, when we see hatred and bigotry–as you may have heard at our powerful Selichot program last week.
We must continually be looking inwards and outward. We must be looking at this beautiful country and fighting for it to be its best self,: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” AND we must continually work for our own communities. It is not enough to fix the City of Newburgh, we must strengthen our Jewish community. We must support our Jewish institutions and populate them! We need your support each and every day. We need your regular presence. I’ve told the joke about the guy coming to services on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi says we are all in the army of God and you should come more often. Guy responds–I’m in the secret service. We need more foot soldiers and fewer secret service members. We need you.
What we do here is truly transformational. If we take the words of our prayers seriously. If you listen to me once in awhile. We work together to build our souls and our community. You cannot walk away from them and not be touched.
Every day I strive to look through the eclipse glasses, to look through that microscope, to open our prayer book and our sacred texts. What will you do this year?