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Kol Nidre Sermon 2017 | 5778
In the week since we joined together on Rosh HaShanah, I’ve enjoyed hearing some of your personal stories. I appreciate your openness to entering into a new rabbinic relationship. I admire the backgrounds and perspectives, attainments and struggles, values and visions your stories describe to me. Based in the reality of your lives, and sustained by all of our dreams, I pray we find meaning together on this day of repentance and renewal.
Among the stories I heard, this one is the cutest. A kind and thoughtful man tells me on Rosh HaShanah he slipped a note into the Mahzor on the seat next to him. It was a love note to his wife for the New Year. Isn’t that sweet? The problem is before she got here, and while folks were crowding into their row of seats, he saw another woman pick up the book and read the note. He felt a bit embarrassed. This evening I need to announce: if you are the woman who picked up that Mahzor and read his note, he apologizes for any confusion. He is not in love with you. Sorry!
Speaking of love, listen to what happened to two families celebrating their children’s marriage. As happens before many Jewish weddings, these families planned to spend the entire weekend together. They arranged a Kabbalat Shabbat Service and Shabbat Dinner Friday evening. They hoped to enjoy an Auf-Ruf at the synagogue Shabbat morning, followed by Shabbat lunch. Saturday night they planned a fun rehearsal dinner, and scheduled a brunch for Sunday morning. And of course, the wedding ceremony itself and the reception were all set for Sunday evening.
Very excited about all of this, the bride and groom looked forward to their special weekend with family and friends. They only had one concern. Other than their parents, no members of their families had ever met. So, while they hoped for a fun filled weekend of family bonding, they couldn’t really guess how everyone was going to get along.
The big weekend arrived, and after everyone settled into their hotel rooms, it was time to make introductions. The bride’s family and the groom’s family each huddled with their own relatives. There’s a lot to catch up on when your extended family gets together.
As everyone was enjoying their reunions, the excited but nervous bride and groom invited their loved ones to introduce themselves to each other. It was great. Siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles from both families started to meet their counterparts. Everyone was happy. Everyone felt a joyous chemistry. The weekend was off to a great beginning.
But two special people hadn’t yet met - her grandmother and his grandfather, their respective families’ matriarch and patriarch. They were joining up with everyone at the synagogue for services and dinner. The plan was to seat them next to each other.
That evening, it happened just as planned. Her grandmother sat beside his grandfather. They immediately hit it off and began sharing the stories of their lives. They discovered that they were both Holocaust survivors, both over 90 years of age. They were so proud of their children and grandchildren. Delighted to be present at this beautiful occasion. Happy to meet each other. They established a genuine rapport.
After a while, their conversation turned back to the war years. They spoke about their hometowns. What they did as young adults. How they were sent to Auschwitz where they suffered. Somehow surviving until the camp’s liberation. As they spoke, so much was the same. They were both from the same Polish town. They both found love while trying to survive during the war. They both got married. Arriving at Auschwitz, the Nazis separated them from their spouses. Both of them were left to await their own fate grieving the assumed deaths of their lovers.
Suddenly in a moment of stunned, frozen silence, oblivious to all of the joy and celebration happening around them, they both rolled up their sleeves. The numbers tattooed on their arms were but one apart. They clutched each other very tightly.
“Anna, is this you, my Polish bride taken from me at Auschwitz? My wife whom I imagined had been murdered all those years ago?” he asked. With tears streaming down her face, Anna replied softly, “Yes, Sam, it’s me. I lost you at Auschwitz. Through the years unable to find out anything about you, assuming you were dead, I made my way toward a different life.”
“Anna,” Sam said, “this is beyond incredible. After such suffering, we both made new lives. Thankfully, we met new mates. We brought beautiful children into the world. Anna, my grandson is marrying your granddaughter. Somehow, decades later, we are reunited through our grandchildren. Our family is now whole.”
Anna and Sam. Widow and widower. Survivors of Auschwitz. Proud and loving grandparents. Reunited they remarried. Anna and Sam, with the blessings of their children, are together for the remaining years of their lives. Their bond redeemed and their love renewed.
An unimaginable resurrection. A chance reunion as miraculous as any meeting could be. Barukh Atah Adonai, Mehayei haMetim. When we haven’t seen someone for over a year, let alone a lifetime, we say: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who restores the dead to life.
This Kol Nidre night, like Anna and Sam, there is some part of our past we can each redeem. There is some sentiment of our hearts we can each renew. Our renewal may not be quite as dramatic. It can be just as important.
Perhaps we’re less attuned to the most precious people in our lives. Maybe our habits are too fixed. Possibly our minds are closed. Let’s remember how we once felt. Let’s recall what we used to do. Let’s recollect our previous thoughts. Though we may not reconnect with someone lost from our pasts, we are able to renew for ourselves something lost in our past we yearn to reclaim.
Were you once more optimistic and hopeful than you are today? Did you once dream of achievement and contentment more fully than you do today? Back when, weren’t you kind and considerate? Back then, didn’t you promise that you would? Was there once a time you paid more attention to your loved ones, or to your health, or to your values, or to your soul then you do now?
Once in my rabbinic career a congregant accosted me. He was a big, burly man filled with anger. His name was Frank, and as his family grew, they grew more and more distant from him. Bright and successful, Frank was a bitter man. His wife lamented the loss of his charm and sensitivity. His two sons and daughter were afraid to confide in him. He was argumentative and stubborn. I knew deep down that wasn’t Frank. I just didn’t know what had happened to change him.
Well, there we sat in my study reviewing plans for his youngest son’s Bar Mitzvah celebration. Frank didn’t like something I said about the ritual practices of the congregation. He rose from his chair, leaned over my desk, grabbed my collar and pulled me closer to him. His eyes were enraged.
“Frank,” I said calmly. “Take your hands off of me.” Dazed, he let go, sat back in his chair, and started to cry. “Rabbi, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what possessed me to do that. Please forgive me.”
I did forgive him. Then I asked him what was wrong. Why was he acting so out of character? “I don’t know,” he answered quietly. “I’m unhappy. I feel alone, misunderstood, and not always appreciated.” I told Frank I suspected the slights he felt were more circumstantial than intentional. “Frank,” I reminded him, “you’re a proud man, and you used to be a happy one.”
Tomorrow, Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the story of Jonah. God commands Jonah to travel to Nineveh and demand that the people turn from their wickedness, Jonah flees from his assignment. He journeys to the sea and boards a ship. The waters are extremely rough. Jonah asks the nervous sailors to toss him overboard. They all realize that God demands better behavior from Jonah. Jonah survives his ordeal in the belly of a fish, praying to God, “They who cling to empty folly forsake their own welfare.”
Finally, Jonah arrives in Nineveh, proclaims God’s call for repentance, and witnesses God cancel the intended punishment because the people change their ways. God’s compassionate forgiveness upsets Jonah. “Please Lord, take my life,” demands Jonah, “for I would rather die than live.”
In the Biblical story, God despairs over Jonah’s statement. God knows that Jonah is capable of greater compassion, more love, and a better attitude toward others. God proves it with a plant. It appears suddenly and provides Jonah with shade. The next day the plant withers away. Just as suddenly it is gone. Upset about the plant, Jonah repeats himself, “I would rather die than live.”
Jonah is free to do as he wishes, yet he remains stuck, unable to move. He blames it on God, who in Midrash rejects Jonah’s despair. The rabbis imagine God’s words. “You were mindful of My honor, not wanting to appear a liar if Nineveh were spared. That’s why you fled to the sea. I forgive you. Now forgive yourself.”
One of our hard tasks on Yom Kippur is to forgive ourselves. There is some part of our past we can each redeem. There is some sentiment of our hearts we can each renew. Where we have fallen short, we can stand tall again. Who we imagine ourselves to be can still be true.
Judaism teaches that to move into the future we must honor the past, and remember our hopes from years gone by. The Hebrew word for new, asj - hadash, also means renewed, hadesh. No new moment is truly pure. Everything results from what came before.
This promise of renewal is something we Jews attribute to God, who we describe as - Mehadesh, the source of renewal. As the Mahzor declares, “Day after day in God’s goodness, God renews creation.”
In each of us there is a spark of this Divine image. We, too, have the power to renew ourselves. God endows each of us with the capacity to renew for ourselves the life we need to live. The life we hope to live. The life others deserve us to live. Our renewal may not be as miraculous as Anna’s and Sam’s reunion. Our need for renewal may not be as desperate as Frank’s. I hope our despair is not as deep as Jonah’s. Still, there is something about each of us we can renew.
There is some habit you want to break. Some craving you want to relieve. Some character trait you want to improve. Some emotion you want to control. Some relationship you want to heal. Some learning you want to do. Some ritual you want to practice. Some caring you want to express. Some help you want to receive. Some assistance you want to give. Some love you want to share. Some good you want to do.
This Kol Nidre night, there is some part of our past we can each redeem. There is some sentiment of our hearts we can each renew. What lost in our pasts do we yearn to reclaim? On Yom Kippur, gathered as a sacred community in God’s presence, what is it about ourselves we need to renew?
T.S. Elliot wrote of the journey of self-renewal: “We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”
Based in the reality of your lives, and sustained by all of our dreams, I pray hadseh aleinu shanah tovah, may this be a year of goodness and renewal.
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784