Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre — 5771

21/09/2010 at 20:42 Leave a comment

“The Everlasting, Dying Candle”

Kol Nidre

17 September 2010

Neil F. Blumofe

Ner Adonai Nishmat Adam – the lamp of God is the soul of a person

-Proverbs 20:27

This quote from the Book of Proverbs links our life to light.  According to our Talmud, while a baby is in the womb, preparing to be born, a candle, or a light shines over its head and by this light this new soul is able to see from one end of the universe to the other (BT Niddah 30b).

Tonight, as we gather in our sacred space in this most holy time of year – to stand most vulnerably and to make a fresh stand before ourselves and before our God, opening ourselves up to honesty, as we get sober, knowing the profound differences between who we think we are and who others think we are – we are guided to clear the way, to make clean our relationships between us – to take on the most difficult task of working to make things right in this world, before we stand to convince ourselves, with God as our witness that things going forward, will somehow be different or improved.  We are encouraged to see by this Divine Light, things that would normally be obscure or opaque to us – tonight this extraordinary candle burns for us to see in unusual and astonishing discernment things that we habitually cloak and vague silhouettes  that thrive in our thick darknesses.

How do we possibly begin?  Our most egregious mistakes are perhaps the easiest to address.  It is the slow burn that pains – the hurts that are casually distributed in the course of the day, without thought – the informal insults that pierce our hearts and cause us to shift internally, to live with our injuries, broken and diminished.  How do we recognize these small yet sharp hurts that we deliver to others?  How can we possibly know whom we have wounded and how then, could we make amends?

I am not suggesting that we send out a mass email asking for forgiveness – it does us limited good to make forgiveness our current status – perhaps it helps us feel better, yet just saying sorry, without a commitment to follow up with someone, does not address deeper issues of conviction and commitment to those who we say matter to us.  Teshuvah, the act of transformation, is meant to be challenging.

Our time passes so quickly – those of us who helped to envision our community and build our buildings, those of us who are established here and those of us who are recently attached to this community, we all share common dreams for happiness — we all want our lives to matter, we want attention, we want to impart something significant to those who trust us and those whom we love.  What happens when we hammer home distance and regret instead of consistently pursuing tenderness and consideration?  Can we stop ourselves from acting in these ways?  What kind of a community is for us?  What kind of a life is for us?

Tonight, we are present in between two seasons – a year that was, a year that many of us are happy to escort to the door, and something new that rekindles hope and possibility in us, as we express our gratitude for being here, now.  The 20th century American writer, Thorton Wilder wrote, “hope, like faith is nothing if it is not courageous; it is nothing if it is not ridiculous.”  In this spirit, I wish for all of us a ridiculous year.   With our hope, despite everything that we may witness to the contrary, let us nevertheless proceed and prevail resolutely against our fears, against our own flawed character, against our insensitivities, and our carelessness, bounding joyfully into what may yet come, knowing that we have the power to determine our own expectations and our own reactions to things.

May I suggest that we do not currently possess the words to effect a meaningful reconciliation with those who do not even know that they have hurt us, or whom we have hurt, unintentionally.  Yom Kippur is not about nitpicking errors – rather, it is a day of amnesty and clarity that allows us to assess our own motivations and to give each other, even without expressly being asked for it, the benefit of the doubt.  Words sometimes conceal more than they expose and they often trip us up in ways that we don’t expect.  It is so much easier to remain silent, to be closed – to not speak about slights and injustices – to let things slide, as we build up simmering resentments and have our body absorb the shocks and the stresses of our dissatisfactions, despite ourselves.

In private, we may allow ourselves a deep breath that bears the weight of the world, as we inhale and exhale – yet in the flow of our hectic, public life, we don’t risk confronting our friends who have slighted us or speaking our grievances with those related to us – we may prefer to generalize our frustrations, seeking something more neutral about which to grumble, or more likely, to keep silent, replacing our tears with a smile.

Yet, rather than holding up our full ledgers filled with the wrongs of others, as we demand satisfaction – a kind of Quick Books program that justifies our hurt condition – rather than this, let us just do good.  Ridiculously good.  Let us do good, not for some tangible benefit, rather, let us do good to calm ourselves, to right ourselves in the unyielding buffeting that hits against our bodies and souls and threatens to erode the lives that we attempt to make.  Let us commit to doing good while tonight, the light is again shining brightly and we can see into such a vastness.

Let us live with menuchat hanefesh – a settling of the soul – let us live with equanimity, past anger and frustration.  Let us pause before we react and let us guide any response that we may want to make into a resonance with something bigger and better than ourselves – let us live in a way that shines our light into a creeping shadow.

As we allow ourselves to become aware of the heat of our flame, let us live now in the season of firsts.  Often, people ask me how I prepare for these Days of Awe – in addition to my own journey of teshuvah, I receive much inspiration from the people around me who are inspired to stretch and learn more – those who are not satisfied and who maintain a desire to deepen understanding – who continue to work while the candle burns.  My Yom Kippur this year is unspeakably enriched by sharing our entry into this powerful time – the Kol Nidre – with Tank.  He has just turned 85 and he has chanted this prayer for the first time in his life.  I am heartened by Jack and Sookie Seriff, who after we studied a section of Talmud together on Selichot, took me aside and asked penetrating and engaging questions about the meaning of forgiveness and the purpose of saying, “I’m sorry” – they weren’t satisfied by what they read and they wanted to go farther.  And a new member – Devorah Winegarten, inspired by her weekly study of Mishnah on Friday mornings, has organized a Mitzvah Initiative over Facebook with over 240 members, formed less than three weeks ago – a group that is dedicated to learning about a new mitzvah each day and finding a way to complete it in the community, in whatever way that shows itself.  Each of these examples demonstrate grass roots ownership and are the essence of a Judaism that flourishes.

Why did you come here this evening?  What are you looking for? For all of the complex of reasons that we find ourselves in this place, I hope that you are inspired by your experiences and too, I hope that you are part of a revolution – open to an outpouring of your well-lit soul and a recommitment to find purpose even in the blemishes of our efforts and in the roadblocks and detours of our world.  This year, may you find that you are asked for something – that you realize that you are responsible for something important – may you hold a valuable piece that defines the arc of your life – in our listening and in our answering, may we draw strength from each other as we realize the  true weightlessness of our flimsy humanity.

At this moment, who is gone from our lives – either passed away or shuttered behind an obvious and immediate reconciliation?  Do we feel cared for in our life?  Supported or understood?  Where are we going and where have we come from?  Do we admit something bigger as we live, or are we aimless satellites moving past each other in a limitless, vast space?  What work is our work that remains for us to do?

As the 20th century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his youth:

Each single moment greets my life,

A message clear from timelessness.

All names and words recall to me

The word most precious: God!

Would that for Eternity

I could celebrate a Holy Day dedicated to You.

Not just a day – a lifetime.  Please!

How insignificant my thrift and gift

Of offerings and adoration.

What can my efforts do for You

But this: to wander everywhere and bear

A living witness that shows I care.

AJ Heschel, from “Human, God’s Ineffable Name”

Rather than relying on our uncomfortable attempts to apologize to those whom we meet, let us be ridiculous servants of God, always striving to do holiness in their midst, and everywhere.  Let our teshuvah be in our actions, in our activism that clearly demonstrates our priorities.  Let this be a season of firsts for us.

Can we live without a clear sense of justice or midah k’neged midah in this world?

We must always strive to be heroic and meet God, not in the loopholes of our theology or in our hollow excuses but in the robust implications of our developed and intentional worldviews.

As Wynton Marsalis, a prominent jazz musician writes, “when you don’t have a world view, you don’t have the type of spiritual energy to develop the technique you need to express yourself. It’s interesting how that works, that when you don’t really feel strongly about a thing why you gonna’ practice all them hours and stay up and study all that stuff and learn from all those people, and I mean man, that’s a lot of work — it’s that worldview.“

Our worldview should be filled with a constant ahavah avudah, a hopeless, but necessary love – an intimate pursuit of God, past the dangers and the pitfalls, past the silences and the fears.  Past the apathy embedded in our world towards each other, we can live with the examples of our past emblazoned in our own actions, for our own lives to matter.

We can continue to engage directly with our God, as we seek to apply the profound lesson of the mystic, the Kotzker Rebbe, who teaches about King David’s example, y’zamercha chavod, v’lo yidom, that “God should be praised in glory and not in silence” (Psalm 30:13).    Acutely aware of the risks and disappointing ordeals of living, David danced before the Lord with all of his might.  This is the bigger picture — amid pain and suffering, our obligation is to continue to write and sing both our discordant and our sublime praises of God — in our words, in our actions and in our all of our public and private places — as a reckoning force against relativism, disenchantment and the deafening boom of cynicism.

One night very late, a man walked past the home of a poor member of his community and saw the person working by the light of a dying candle.  “Why are you still working?” the man inquired – “it is very late and soon that candle will go out and you will be in complete darkness.”  The worker replied, “so long as that candle is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and mend.”  As the man left that place, he kept repeating those words – as long as that candle is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and to mend.”  And for a moment, as the entire universe was illuminated in his soul, this became his life’s work.  And too, starting tonight for the first time, as our own efforts sometimes only glimmer and flicker, let them blaze on, and too, let us inhabit this time as this work to accomplish and mend becomes ours.

Ner Adonai Nishmat Adam – the lamp of God is the soul of a person

-Proverbs 20:27

Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’techateimu — G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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