Sign In Forgot Password

Kol Nidre 5777


Kol Nidre – 5777 “Now, I Know Better”

October 11, 2016

Out of the mouths of children…Chris Alsevich wrote this when he turned 10: “One sunny March day…I decided to play with my friend Michelle. We climbed onto the platform of my swing set and started to wrap the swing set-up with string. When Michelle was cutting the leftover pieces of string, I stuck my head right up close to the scissors she was using. Michelle came to a taut piece of the string and cut it. The scissors jerked back and poked me right in the eye. It didn’t hurt much, but the vision in my left eye was blurry.

I don’t remember much of what followed except that my Mom and Dad took me to St. Vincent Hospital where Dr. Mark Steckel did surgery on my eye. The scissors had punctured my eye badly. Dr. Steckel magically repaired it and gave me back my eyesight.

I learned not to put my eyes near any sharp objects and I would advise you to do the same.”  Now, I know better.

Another one – this one from Nick Olsen, who wrote this when he was 8: “When I was 5 years old I fell out of a peach tree and broke my head.  I was in a park and over cement! I had a bunch of rocks stuck in my head. My mom thought my back was broken. An ambulance and a police crew came. I went to the hospital. There, I had X-rays. The doctor took the rocks out of my head. I couldn’t remember my cat’s name. It took a week to heal. I think other kids shouldn’t shake trees if other kids are in them.”  They should know better.

If I wanted to, I could just sit down right now. Isn’t this the essential lesson of Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur? I did something wrong. Now, I know better. Others did something wrong to me.  They should know better.

But rather than vying for the briefest Kol Nidre sermon ever, we might take time to explore this childhood wisdom for ourselves. These stories are from a book published by Children’s Hospital at Yale-New Haven, titled Now I Know Better. It is 92 pages of children recounting dangerous situations in which they got hurt when they were younger. And now that they are older and so much wiser they want us to know what they have learned.

Hope Fleming, also 8 years old, writes:

“Once when I was about 3 I had an accident and here it is. It was late at night. My Mom told me to hop up the stairs so I tried to hop up the stairs and I fell and had to get stitches.  I could have asked her what she meant.”  Now, I know better.

Ricky B. Jones was 7 years old when he wrote:

“Once upon a time there was a kid in a car whose mom was coming home from work. The kid wasn’t even born yet. He was in his mom’s belly. Suddenly another car flew across the road from the other direction. Both cars crashed and were blasted into smithereens.  There were ambulances, police cars, fire engines…everybody!

Luckily the two drivers were hardly hurt. Why weren’t they dead? Because they were wearing their seatbelts! The kid was not hurt at all. So what does this teach you? Always wear your seatbelt. How do I know? Because that kid (inside Mommy) was me.”  Now, everyone in my family knows better!

Is there anyone here tonight who does not smile as these children bravely recount their brushes with danger? Is there anyone who does not nod in approval at the wisdom these children have gained?

Yet, on this sacred night, now I know better might be the lesson for us as well.

The words I said to my mother before I could throw in the clutch between my brain and tongue, the ones that hurt her, no matter how justified I felt. I see the furrow on her brow, the darkness cross her eyes. I know the power of my words to reduce her to sadness.  I know that I may not see her even 20 times more before I lose her forever.  I did it anyway.  Now, I know better.

The visit I put off to someone who was dear to me when he was sick and near death.  His name was Fred Platner and he was a Holocaust survivor who had escaped the Nazis and fought with the resistance fighters in Poland. He was my friend and study partner at my congregation in Wausau, Wisconsin.  After he got sick with cancer he moved from Wisconsin to California.

That year I was attending a conference 25 miles from where he was living in a nursing home.  I decided I needed to attend a conference session rather than take ½ day to see him. I never saw him alive again though he lives on through his spirit and life lessons he taught me. But that decision, taken more than 30 years ago, still pains my heart.  Now I know better.

Now, I know better” is not just a mantra concerning our personal regrets. It can reshape and refine how we look at the world around us.

For example, 18 months ago I visited Israel and the West Bank with my dear friend and colleague, Rev. Liddy Barlow, Executive Director of Christian Associates of SW Pennsylvania. There we heard a Palestinian woman who spoke to us at the Shimon Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, just 20 miles up the coast from Gaza. Yes, that same Gaza which has provoked 3 wars with Israel in the last 8 years by firing missile indiscriminately against civilians.

On a brilliant, sunny day, she shared how the Peres Center made possible the transfer of sick Palestinian children in Gaza to be treated in Israeli hospitals. She said that they were now able to get this done in less than four hours, even with all of the bureaucratic and military red tape.

Our group, almost 30 rabbis and ministers, smiled in delight. Then she said something even more amazing, something that brought tears to our eyes. She described how, despite the ongoing fear and suspicion between Israeli and Palestinians, when Jewish and Arab families sit in waiting rooms for long periods of time waiting for their children to be treated, they begin to talk because the silence is just too awkward.

And do you know what they talk about? It turns out that they don’t argue about past wrongs and misdeeds. They don’t argue government policy, either in Israel or the ongoing dispute between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. No, it turns out that they start talking about…(come on, you know already!) their children!

Once they start talking about their children, they can’t avoid caring about each other. Friendships are made in the waiting rooms of Hadassah and other hospitals in Israel between supposedly mortal enemies. So that when the next time that family from Gaza needs treatment in Israel for their child, they contact their new Israeli friends who expedite the border crossing even more quickly than before!

Apparently, human beings, families, souls of those made in the image of God, care more about their children in times of crisis than what the future borders of Israel and Palestine will be! We, so caught up in the blaring headlines and social media noise, might miss this simple truth if we didn’t hear it directly from those involved.

Despite all hatred and conflict, when we are in distress, we identify with and care for each other and actually wish well for each other. There IS reason for hope, even though it is but a tendril in a field of choking weeds.  Oh!!  Now, I know better.

For years I have advocated a more thoughtful, honest conversation between Jews and the Black community in Pittsburgh. I feared the once close connection between us, a bond forged in shared struggle for civil rights, was fraying beyond repair. My friends, Richard Freeman, Darnell Leonard and De Neice Welch, all highly-regarded African-American ministers, have spoken from this pulpit.

Good intentions and pulpit talks, however, are not enough to break down barriers and stereotypes.  Many of us have no friends of color, while even those of us who do rarely see each other outside of structured settings (although there are certainly exceptions).

Rev. De Neice Welch, pastor at Bidwell Presbyterian on the North Side, is a friend of mine. She and her husband, Rev. John Welch, have been to my home for dinner. I see them at virtually every social justice event in our area, including last week at the interfaith service against violence, held at a Black Pentecostal church. Much of our work together is through PIIN, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network.

When the Black Lives Matter movement published its platform recently, I was deeply concerned about the anti-Israel rhetoric it contained. I called De Neice and asked her what she and PIIN might do about this.

She pulled me up short and said, “Jamie, do you think that because we are involved in PIIN that we are also involved in the BLM movement? Just how do you make that leap?” And the more we talked, the more I realized that I was wrong to assume anything about what she and John thought about Black Lives Matter.

My assumption strained our friendship. We finally met and talked it out. She expressed her anger and frustration at being lumped in with others whose beliefs she shared but tactics she rejected. “And you, Jamie, just assumed, didn’t you?” She went on to describe for me just how difficult it has been for her to be taken seriously as a pastor, being Black and female. She didn’t need my attitude on top of it all.

She went on to tell me that she went to bed every night with different concerns than I did, namely, were her grandchildren going to be okay in a city which still has dozens of homicides each year in the Black community. Her words, delivered with infinite kindness, were an indictment: “Do you even really know me at all?

I was abashed. I knew that De Neice cared for me, but to be exposed like that was painful. And we came to the understanding that we could not simply cauterize this wound, we needed to open it up to the air of conversation and spiritual exchange.

It was Rev. Welch who taught me the challenge of managing between “intention” and being “in-tension.” Our good intentions can mask the real tensions we face in dealing with people who are different from us, yet share the same hopes, fears and dreams.

Out of our tension came the intention to listen more closely and to listen better to each other.

Tomorrow, Rev. Rodney Lyde, the minister of Homewood Baptist Temple will be teaching at our Yom Kippur Beit Midrash. I and the Tikkun Olam Center for Jewish Social Justice here at Temple Sinai hope that some of us will engage him in an intentional conversation about race, not shying from the tension that this will inevitably produce in us. So that at the end of day we can start to say, Now, I know better.

Caring is only the beginning. Having the feeling in one’s heart is crucial, but what we do with our hands is what really counts.  You may not know this, but we have a special computer program at Temple Sinai called “Hineynu,” which means “Here we are.” Its purpose is for us to follow the ups and downs, the difficulties and triumphs that everyone in this sacred family might face. Given that we are a family of 780 households, that adds up to about 1,800 people. At any given time there are probably 1,000 people who need a call, a visit or something more. Our Hineynu program tracks maybe 200 or so, the situations we know about.

Every Monday at 2 PM I sit with our staff and we go over who needs to be visited, called or supported in some way. Each and every one of you matters to us, to me, more than you may ever know. Every one of you who has a father in the hospital, who has just received a terrible diagnosis, or who is going through an earth-shattering divorce, when we know about it, we try to reach out to you and offer support, empathy and caring.

But it is clear that we only scratch the surface of the deep, human needs of our sacred family. I could spend 10 hours a day visiting our members at home, in rehab facilities, nursing homes and hospitals and not get to even half of you. Even with the active participation of Rabbi Gorban and Cantor Berman, who care every bit as much about you as I do, we miss you at some pretty important times in your lives.  Even with our best intentions.  Even with a wonderful team of volunteers!

The single most disheartening moment for me in trying to serve this sacred family occurred about 4 years ago. I had heard about a death in a congregant’s family and it had been several days without news of the details. So I called the family and reached the adult daughter. I asked how they were doing and if I could participate in the funeral.

After hemming and hawing, she said that there was no funeral. They simply cremated their mother without ritual, ceremony or gathering. They had no need of my services although she appreciated my call. I mentioned that we would read her mother’s name the next four Shabbat services before Kaddish. She said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and gently hung up the phone. I thought I, that we, that our community could help by guiding the family down the well-trod path of Jewish mourning. But sadly, now, I know better.

It is clear that Rabbi Gorban, Cantor Berman and I are not able to help with every pastoral need you might have.  That is why our wonderful volunteer leader, Mara Kaplan, and her team of Caring and Inclusion volunteers, have created a program called “Lotsa Helping Hands.”  This has a dedicated section on our website and we encourage you to sign up, not today, but right after the holiday. Since Rosh Hashana, more than 70 of you already have.

We aspire to be a “Family of Families,” one that opens its doors to all: Singles and Marrieds and Intermarrieds; Young adults, Boomers and Seniors, the LGBTQ community, those in every conceivable relationship; those with special needs, either a physical or mental; Seekers and Finders and students and “those more laid-back” about their Judaism.

What is clear is that we all have to sustain and support each other, rather than depending on our professional staff to full these needs. Like Palestinian and Israeli families who bond over sick children, there is the miracle of acceptance, shared need and love when we enter others’ lives in meaningful ways.

When I served as Rabbi in Wausau, Wisconsin we had 83 families spread out over 75 miles.  I drove 32,000 miles a year to see everyone as often as possible.

Visiting, teaching and simply meeting with the 150 people in our small circle became my personal goal.  With some exceptions, I largely succeeded.

After 28 years in Pittsburgh, however, it is abundantly clear that I can’t serve you in this way.  Neither can Cantor Berman or Rabbi Gorban.  We need each other to support each other. It seems like a simple truth, doesn’t it? We can’t solve all the problems of medical care, financial need or full-time supervision of elderly parents, but we can do something. Even those of us who don’t drive anymore can pick up a phone and check in on someone, even if it is only once a year.

It has taken all of these years for me to fully comprehend that the rabbi is not necessarily the cure for what ails us.  What can I say?  Now, I know better.

If you want to know better, drop in and see Mara at the Yom Kippur Beit Midrash and she will introduce you to our new program, and more importantly, to others who think like you do. You will get to know people who know that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world, as Barbra Streisand sang all those years ago.

Finally, some here tonight might be so weighed down by guilt, anger, shame or regret that they wonder what this Day of Atonement could possibly do for them.

I know that not all wounds can be healed nor all relationships repaired. But I also know that just about everyone here tonight feels an ache in the soul over someone they have hurt over the last year.  We all wonder what we can do to make it up, especially if the person we have hurt does not even want to see us, much less hear our words of remorse.

Let me be as clear as humanly possible.  You are all worthy of forgiveness.

Every one of you.  You all have immeasurable value that you do not know or recognize. Yom Kippur is not for those who are perfect and have not fallen short. It is for all of us who have.

Forgiveness is possible, even if reconciliation is not. There are monstrous hurts that some have inflicted upon us and we may not be able to let those disappear into the ether. But the honesty and accountability demanded by Yom Kippur gives all of us a way back to being our better, if not our best, selves.

Let no one say she or he is unworthy this night. Let no one say she or he is beyond redemption. Let no one say this night that they do not matter, even when we have fallen so terribly missed our moral marks.

There is a beautiful movie, “Something The Lord Made” about the work of Dr.

Alfred Blalock, who pioneered heart surgery in young children. Towards the end, the doctor, played by the amazing and sorely missed Alan Rickman, recognizes his horrifying obliviousness to the racial discrimination against his assistant, Vivien Thomas.  Looking straight at him, he says,

If you live long enough, you are bound to have some terrible regrets.

We do have regrets this night, don’t we? We regret words and deeds that have caused pain and harm. There is a way forward toward forgiveness, to return to your better self.  For you who doubt, take but one step this night.  Recognize the hurt.  Tomorrow, take another.   Name the act.

And the day after tomorrow, after the holiday, write this person a note, an email, a text. Say you recognize what you have done and that you regret it and hope to make amends. Say it to yourself tonight, “Now, I know better.” Let that spur all of us to act better, starting tomorrow.

You may not realize this, but the season of forgiveness does not end with the final shofar blast tomorrow. It extends all the way through the end of Sukkot, to Simchat Torah, the rejoicing of the Law. Our Sages wisely taught that we might not reckon with our failings until this very night.  They knew we might need a little more time to try to address them and to ask forgiveness from those we’ve hurt.

So here is a present from our Sages: You have a little more time after tomorrow. You have until a week from Monday, when Simchat Torah will end to do something to makes things right, or at least a little better. Repentance season goes on for almost two more weeks!

So, now, you know better. Don’t you? All of us, worthy of forgiveness, with extra time to work towards it. Now, we know better. Tonight, we all know better. Don’t we?  Don’t we?

Go back to Rabbi Gibson's sermons.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784