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Kol Nidre 5773

Kol Nidre – 5773

“Promises, Promises” September 25, 2012

I remember going to my first college Kol Nidre service at the University of Michigan back in ‘71.  Although I had spent 95% of my life in the Reform movement, I was convinced by some friends to go the Michigan Union for the Conservative service. As I opened the book, I was surprised to find that there were actually words to Kol Nidre, the most famous of all high holiday prayers.

You see, growing up, my entire knowledge of the high holidays came out of one thin book. It was called The Union Prayer Book II. It had a black cover, as to distinguish it from the blue covered Union Prayer Book I for Shabbat and Festivals. Here it is!

Growing up with this prayerbook, it was clear that God preferred English to Hebrew, which is why we used so much of it. Surely God preferred “All the world will come to serve Thee and bless Thy glorious name,” to “Adon Olam.”

I knew God preferred English because in the UPB II Yom Kippur evening service there was no printed Kol Nidre at all! At the bottom of page 130 in the Union Prayer Book was a simple notice: “The Kol Nidre Chant.” No Aramaic, no Hebrew.  Just a very free interpretation in English.  That was it.

Why was the text of Kol Nidre missing?? It certainly wasn’t to save space – it’s only one paragraph. No, Kol Nidre was missing from the prayerbook of my youth for one simple reason:  It was embarrassing.

Kol Nidre is an Aramaic formula which allows for our legal vows to be set aside in certain situations. It comes from the 8th century. As it gained popularity, though, the rabbis harshly criticized it. One went so far as to call it a “minhag sh’tut,” or a “foolish custom.”

You see, vows, or legal binding promises, are actually quite important in Judaism. You make one by swearing to fulfill an action using God’s name to back your promise.  Tradition warns us against making these kinds of vows. Why?

Because they are like student loans these days. They follow you until you fulfill them or you die.  No one can discharge your vows for you.

Throughout the Middle Ages, anti-­‐Semitic officials in Europe used Kol Nidre as proof that the promises of Jews could not be trusted, as they could always disavow them. That is why the rabbis tried to stamp it out. But Kol Nidre would not die. It is one of the rare cases of the people defeating their Rabbis in a matter of religious practice.  How did this happen?

It was a strange combination of factors: 700 years later, during the Inquisition, Kol Nidre comforted Jews forced to convert to Catholicism against their will. In modern times, our mothers and fathers found comfort in the prayer as they faced their shortcomings. They didn’t look at it legalistically. Kol Nidre made a hard life just a little easier on the soul.

But what really saved Kol Nidre was the melody. More than the words, people were touched so deeply by the melody that the words almost didn’t matter.

The ancient passage is fixed in Aramaic. The only change ever accepted was instituted more than 700 years ago by a rabbi universally known as the “Meiri.” He changed the formula from annulling vows we made last year to this coming year— which annuls vows we might make. This brilliant move stopped the business of canceling real past promises and applied the formula to non-­‐existent promises – ones we might make which, since they have not been made, have no legal standing.

This notwithstanding, the authors of my Union Prayer Book II weren’t taking any chances. No Reform Jew in America for generations was permitted to read the words of Kol Nidre. No; either there was a blank space or the stark words, “The Kol Nidre Chant.”

It seems bizarre that our movement, dedicated to knowledge and enlightenment, would foster ignorance by excluding the words of Kol Nidre. We were so concerned about the fallout from the non-­‐Jewish world over this prayer that we asked congregations year after year to rise and pay solemn attention to a prayer whose meaning they were never supposed to know!

Finally, in 1978, with the introduction of this prayerbook, The Gates of Repentance, the words were included.

And guess what? The sky did not fall. The world did not collapse. No mass breakout of hatred for Jews. No recorded case of a Reform Jew looking up in the middle of Kol Nidre services and saying, “Oh boy!  I get to make promises that I won’t keep next year!” There is no court that has ruled that contracts made by Jews are not enforceable because of the Kol Nidre.

Those leaders lived in very different times, while we Jews today are blessed with acceptance in America that is rarely called into question. We have the blessing tonight of hearing Kol Nidre with full hearts, not just the words and melody, but all of the echoes and overtones of our childhood memories.

For its power is unmistakable and undeniable. I have been transfixed by the Kol Nidre chant in Tenafly, New Jersey; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Cincinnati, Ohio; Jerusalem; Wausau, Wisconsin; and here with you in Pittsburgh, not once or twice, but now, 25 times.

This is the 25th time that I have stood before you on Kol Nidre, holding a Torah scroll, entranced by the haunting words and melody. This is the 25th time I have had the unique honor of sharing this pulpit with these extraordinary leaders and founders of this wonderful congregation. This is the 25th time you have invited me to share my thoughts with you on this, the holiest night of our year.

I remember that 1st Kol Nidre. It was glowing and awesome. The next morning, I looked out at your bright shining eyes and gave a sermon on betrayal, starting with the case of Jonathan Pollard, the American naval analyst convicted of spying for Israel.

I then spoke about the family betrayals all of us have suffered. Finally, I spoke about this congregation’s sense of hurt and betrayal before I arrived in 1988. During that part of the sermon, you could have heard a pin drop. No one whispered or coughed. I ended by making some promises to you in the hope that we could grow into happy, fulfilling relationship together.

I recently found the words that I offered that day. There is only one hard copy of it that I know of and I looked at it, on yellowing paper in all its dot-­‐matrix printer glory. And tonight, on Kol Nidre, the night when we consider our vows most seriously, it is appropriate to hold me to account to you, even as all of us are held to account to God.

I said to you that day (I’m quoting here):

“I promise that I will listen and that I will try to make our dreams as a Temple family come true.

I promise to teach as well as preach, roll up my sleeves when it is called for, not shy away from difficulty or criticism.

Most of all, I promise to care, to care when you and your family celebrate or when they mourn, to care when you and your family are ill, to care about the quality and content of your children’s Jewish education…

I remember delivering these words into a momentous silence, filled with trepidation, even fear. We were looking into an uncertain future together, dimly, with only hope as our only compass.

Now, 25 high holidays later, it is legit to ask, have those promises been fulfilled?

I believe that many of them have. I have tried my best to listen to you, your hopes, your dreams and your fears.

I have taught, not just preached, and not shied away from rolling up my sleeves to do the work around here, whether it was hauling garbage, moving chairs, puzzling out budgets, or envisioning our future with our leaders late into the night.

I have tried to be there with you in sickness and in health, in joy and sadness, challenge and crisis. I believe I have, to the best of my ability, cared about every one of you in the Temple family throughout these many years.

I have tried to keep my promise to your children. We have grown in our efforts from 12 b’nei mitzvah my first year to averaging between 30-­‐45 over the last 20 years, more than 700 in all. And I have been blessed to confirm 385 of our young adults along the way as well.

I am mindful of failure as well. And now I stand before you, as humbled as I have ever been, filled with recognition of mistakes and hurt and pain that I have caused some of you. As I have in the past on this sacred night, I beg your forgiveness for the times I have let you down, have not lived up to your expectations, acted contrary to your hopes.

You made certain promises to me that first year. The most important one was not that you would pay me a certain salary or give me office space.

No, you promised me that you would try to trust me. Given the previous 12 years of experience with rabbis, that was no small promise. And I tell you from the bottom of my heart, that you have fulfilled your promise, paid it in full; no outstanding debt on that score for you this Kol Nidre night.

And now at our 25th Kol Nidre together, when I see what we have accomplished in our sacred work, when I look out at your bright, shining eyes, I am blown away.  My eyes cannot help but brim with tears.

We have kept faith with each other. We have established firm trust in each other.  Together we have accomplished so much!

We have created a culture welcoming to youth and families without driving away older members. We are not like those congregations divided into factions – the Old Guard and the Young Turks, going at it, hammer and tong. We never forget we are a k’hilla k’dosha, a holy community.

We have fostered a deep commitment to the life of the spirit. When I came here, there was one service for all. If you didn’t like it, it was clear that Temple Sinai was not your place. Now, some Shabbatot offer as many as four different services at one time to help you spiritually connect.

We have created an atmosphere where engagement with our youth is holy work. From Kindergarten to B’nei Mitzvah to Confirmation and beyond! Just consider the amazing kids that you saw reading Torah on Rosh Hashana and will see tomorrow, kids fired up and honored to be asked to read Torah.  Isn’t it great!?

Just two weeks ago, at the opening session of the Sandy and Edgar Snyder Teen Engagement program, we barely had enough room in the auditorium for all of the kids and their parents.

We have a lay leadership that is not only concerned with paying our bills, rather fulfilling our mission, vision and values. They insist that Rabbi Symons, Sara Stock Mayo and I dream of the best way to connect you to your faith and then see if we can pay for it, instead of the other way around!

We have expanded the notion of our sacred community beyond the walls of this building. With the children’s service at the JCC and the young adults RH at the Carnegie, as well as the interfaith couples group in peoples’ homes, the men’s discussion group at the Oakland Panera, the monthly downtown lunch group and Fineview softball field, we have clearly said that Temple Sinai is not just a building. We are a family and we meet wherever and whenever you want to be together.

We have committed ourselves to primary Jewish acts of Spirituality, Study, Social Justice and Sacred Personal Connections. Our centers, along with our auxiliaries for women, men and youth, give us seven wide open channels for involvement, seven large doors to enter into liberal Jewish activity, each door an opening to other doors.

We have fostered a spirit of experimentation. We honor our traditions, but we don’t worship them. The best example of this was several years ago when we tried an experiment called “Mostly Musical Shabbat.” We tried it one time in the middle of a blizzard.  We anticipated 30-­‐40 people.  More than 300 of you came.  We made an on-­‐the-­‐spot decision to offer this service every month ever since!  At the last two of these services, at the end of August and beginning of September, more than 550 of you were here!

I believe we have kept our past promises. We work hard to make our present offerings vibrant. But what about our future?  What vows might we make tonight that might just get me into hot water this Kol Nidre? Here are seven I hope to fulfill with you in our coming years together:

  1. I vow to find ways for us to become more literate Jews. I grew up in a Reform Judaism that assumed that we were not interested in learning Jewish texts. Rather we were to sit and be spoon-­‐fed our faith.  But more and more of you demand authenticity, not Judaism-­‐lite!  This will require looking at source texts, not just book reviews. Authenticity will require more engagement with our Bible, our rabbinic texts, our history and our ethics. If we do not embrace this heritage and make it our own, we risk drifting away from it.
  1. I vow to work with you to build a secure financial future for Temple Sinai for the sake of the next generation.   As part of this effort, I vow to work to find a way to make this place affordable for you. At the same time I would like to help create a culture where you consider Temple Sinai as one of your highest priorities for giving beyond your annual commitment here.

We will continue to oppose the attitude of some who simply want to buy services from us – bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. It is not who we are and I vow that as long as I am here, it is not who we will be.

  1. I vow to take a hard look at what are our obligations to the Jewish community at large and the Reform community in particular. We have reached a size and stature that demands that we look at ideas, needs and opportunities in a larger context.

We will find ways to collaborate on some issues as we try to avoid costly duplication of services. I vow to work toward this goal without sacrificing our identity or our mission, vision and values.

  1. I vow to try to create a “Temple Sinai Shabbat table.” In the Chabad community, if you show up at the service Friday night, you will be invited to dinner. It is not even a question.  Couldn’t we do the same?

Especially when we welcome Shabbat at 7 PM, we could have a group of congregants, maybe 3 homes at a time, who would welcome others home for Shabbat dinner from services. We would help all host families learn or review the elements of a traditional Shabbat dinner. We could provide funds to offset the cost of bringing guests to home for those who needed it. We could do it twice a month and call it “The Shabbat Supper Club!” Shabbat dinner, warm, interactive and conversational, is worth more than most of my sermons on Shabbat.

  1. I vow to ask the question, just how much do we see our Reform identity bound up in refusing to observe hardly any standard of kashrut? We have very little formal policy here. Simply put, no bacon, ham or pork, but all the shrimp and cheeseburgers you want!

Don’t we have a responsibility to the larger Jewish community whom we often invite to our programs and events to make sure we, as good hosts, provide fare that is available for all to eat? To be honest, this is one of the reason I keep a kosher home, so all Jews will be able to eat there, and Jews from the Orthodox community have eaten in my home off my dishes.  Is this important to us?  If not, why not?

Please let me be clear. Crystal. I am not pushing for us to have a kosher kitchen here at Temple Sinai. OK? No angry e-­mails. We’re not starting a kosher kitchen…

I am asking how important eating shrimp and cheeseburgers is to us if the cost is keeping other Jews out of this synagogue. Even if we choose to do nothing, the conversation is certainly worth having.

  1. I vow not to take our present success for granted. All success in membership and engagement is temporary at best. Whether because of demographic trends, financial challenges or changes in leadership, it is no sure thing that we will enjoy the success we have built over 25 years.

Is it our responsibility to look 15 years down the road, beyond when I will no longer be your senior rabbi? Or should we focus on the issues and challenges right here and now?  Can we afford to deal with one at the expense of the other?

We must ask: How do we best serve our movement of Reform Judaism? Is it by building the best synagogue we can by dint of our labor and our gifts? Or should we work to strengthen the cause of liberal Judaism as a whole? I vow to struggle to answer these questions with you, not for you.

  1. I vow to help build a community of younger adults who feel they are charting their own Jewish destiny, not only helping to fulfill ours. This will require new ways of connecting with them, some of them challenging to a standing institution. We must invest in younger Jews who may never belong to our synagogue simply because it is necessary for the future of the Jewish people. Rabbi Symons’s Rosh Hashana experience was a good start, but there is so much more to do.

Oh, and one more vow just for good measure. I vow to laugh and sing more and fuss and fret less.  You may have to hold me to that one.

I remember one vow I could not make to you, all those years ago.  Twenty-­‐ five Yom Kippurs ago I said to you:

I cannot promise that I will be here for the rest of my career. Those who remember the story “Mary Poppins” will recognize that as what she called, “a pie-­crust promise, easily made, easily broken.” But…I plan to be your rabbi, the rabbi of Temple Sinai for many years to come…even as we go on to push our congregation to realize its…dreams.”

I’m still not sure I can promise to be here for the rest of my career, although it is looking more and more like a sure thing! One thing I know -­‐ we are not finished with our work together at Temple Sinai, you and I.

When I think of our journey, I don’t only think of all we’ve accomplished, but of all the incomparable, inspiring individuals who have passed on along our way. I read their names with reverence on the weekly Kaddish list. And I am filled with gratitude for the gifts they gave to all of us and to me and my family as well.

25 years! Look at us! Look at all of us! The number 25 in Hebrew corresponds to many Hebrew words, but one that touches my heart tonight is b’tu-­ vo from out morning prayer for the sun, the moon and the stars. B’tu-­vo means “through God’s goodness.” I believe that through God’s goodness we have been blessed to share these 25 seasons together. I believe that through God’s goodness we have embraced each other all these years.

One of my favorite pianists growing up was Artur Rubinstein. I got to meet him twice! And my favorite story about him is that in 1952, at age 65, he signed a 25 year recording contract. People laughed. They scoffed. How in the world would he ever fulfill that contract! He’d be 90! And hardly anyone reached the age of 90 in those years.

Well, he did. And in 1977, at age 90, he celebrated fulfilling that contract…and promptly signed another one for 25 years! Although he died five years into the contract, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is still recording Chopin in heaven.

25 years! Through God’s goodness. Oh, the promises we have kept! The promises we will yet keep. For we are not done, you and I. Not by a long shot. I promise.  I do so promise.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784