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Kol Nidrei Sermon

10/02/2019 11:04:39 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Kol Nidrei 2019

A few weeks ago Marisa shared with me an article about the Cheddar Man. Cheddar man is not, as you might imagine, a man made out of cheese, as sharp as that might be. Rather, he’s a 10,000 year old, perfectly preserved mummified man found in a boggy cave near Cheddar Gorge in England. This was mildly interesting to me, but not exactly a big deal; a number of prehistoric folks get found in the various bogs in the British Isles. The article went on to share that the mummy was so well preserved, some researchers decided to sequence his DNA. Fine. But, what I found truly interesting, and surprising, was that, having sequenced Cheddar Man’s DNA, they found his direct descendants living within a few miles of the this person’s final resting place. Think about that. 10,000 years after Cheddar Man died, they found his grandson 300 times removed living no farther than a short walk away.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine being able to say, “we’ve always been here” and for that to be literally true? Talk about being rooted to the land! This utterly fascinates me, to the point of giving me vertigo. Because this idea of being able to trace your ancestors back thousands of years to one geographic spot, that there are people who can say they’ve been in one place since before history, is completely foreign to us as Jews, and especially to us as American Jews. Of course, there are some of our people who have lived in our ancestral lands since Biblical times in an unbroken lineage of rootedness, but most of us do not have that experience. We cannot talk about our ancestors being in one place going back to the dawn of time. Rather, we talk about our grandparents or great-grandparents fleeing from persecution or hardship to come here, and before that their grandparents or great-grandparents fled from somewhere else. Our people have known exile after exile, dispersion after dispersion. Even our Biblical ancestors speak of a sense of exile. Abraham describes himself as a stranger in the land his descendants are supposed to inherit. The Psalmist speaks of himself as being a foreigner even in her own land, because of her distance from God. At Passover, Deuteronomy commands that we must recite our history, a history that we still recite at the seder to this day, that emphasizes our unsettled background, beginning: My Father was a wandering Aramean. Even the name we sometimes choose for ourselves as a people, Hebrew, means “to cross over”, to wander, unsettled. While we yearn for an Israel reborn and someday whole and at peace, that isn’t the comfort of being rooted in a place for millennia, but the ache of a people separated from their home, like a child torn from her mother. Truly, there is nothing like the Cheddar Man in Jewish history.

Or is there? I would argue that we are rooted, deeply rooted, as a people—but not in land. We are rooted in Torah. We are profoundly attached to our sacred text, our brit, our covenant, with God, with the words of our sacred Scripture. And at the risk of being Extreme, it’s more than the words. It’s more than the words and the stories that we to this day recite at Shabbat, that we teach to our children, that we break our teeth on, that we struggle with and that every generation has struggled with; words that we sometimes reject, often reimagine or reinterpret, words that beget more words: words of the rabbis in Midrash and Talmud, words of poetry and liturgy, words of stories and humor, words of challenge and question to this very day. Those words, all swirling around, in Hebrew and Aramaic and Yiddish and Ladino and English and so many other languages, lead us to our values. It’s not just the text; it can’t be. If it’s just an artifact to parade around the sanctuary and for terrified 13-year olds to chant from, it’s nothing but a museum piece. But the Torah that we are fundamentally rooted in, is the expression of our values as a people. That we were chosen to bring a light to the nations. That we have a special obligation to the world, to repair it, and bring word of God’s oneness. That all of us, created in God’s image, are holy, that we should love our neighbor and the stranger, protect the vulnerable, and that we deserve rest each week. I’m sure those ideas sound trite, but once upon a time, they were radical. Sometimes I think today that they’re still radical. And we Jews, forced to flee Judea but entering instead the country of Yiddishkeit, continue to preach these radical ideas. We are the world’s iconoclasts and always have been. As my teacher Rabbi Shai Held shared this summer: we as Jews have been disloyal to idols since the days of Abraham. Disloyal to tyrants since Pharaoh. Disloyal to little men who wish they were God since Haman. And that disloyalty to evil is a form of loyalty to God. We could spend hours discussing what that disloyalty to idolatry and tyranny has done for our history as well as our moral fiber. What are we loyal to, fundamentally? Not blood—anyone can be Jewish. Not land, as much as we may love our home country, and yearn for a Zion truly restored in all her grandeur. We are loyal to Torah; as a body of texts, as a process of learning and questioning, as a commitment we made at Sinai and continue to make with every choice, every mitzvah, and as an idea of who we are meant to be, who we are as our best selves, who God imagines us to be. We are loyal to the idea that in our commitment to Torah, to that Sinai moment, we are truly eternal. There is something truly powerful about taking a bar or bat mitzvah, that scared 13-year old I mentioned earlier, and bring them before the Torah knowing that each of them has an ancestor that did the same thing generations ago, thousands of years ago, in another land wearing other clothes with another accent, and that if they were to come forward in time in the conveyance of their choice: DeLorean, Police Box, or New York Phone Booth, and if they were to slip into the back row of the sanctuary to listen to their great-great-great grandchild however many generations removed, even though they would be truly a stranger in a strange land, that they would know what their descendant was reciting, and be rooted in it. Rooted in Torah just as we are.

That rootedness doesn’t happen on its own. We were not given the Torah at Sinai as an individual moment of epiphany. The Torah wasn’t given to a prophet in a private moment, distant from society. We were given it together, and the fulfillment of Torah—its values and obligations—requires the collective, the group, the community. Atem Nitzavim kulchem hayom we will chant tomorrow from the Torah: you stand here TOGETHER on this day. And later, Kedoshim t’hiyu, You—in its plural form, You—shall be holy. Rootedness in Torah isn’t just about the individual, though surely each of us is required and essential to fulfill it. Rather, Torah is about all of us coming together in sacred partnership—with one another and with God, if I can be so bold. And when we think of Torah and its principles, the rituals that grow from Torah, we see our interconnectedness, our dependence on one another. As one example, we cannot recite Kaddish without 10, so the mourner needs 10 or more to support and sustain them. So many of our mitzvot are like that, encouraging us to be there for one another: in justice and in lovingkindness. We are our best selves, as Jews, not standing alone, but shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters, encouraging and supporting each other, whether in the smallest act of kindness, like a tray brought for shiva, or the strongest act of civil disobedience, and everything in between. Which is not to romanticize who we are. There’s nothing so difficult as being in community with other Jews. We are, after all, am k’sheh oref, a stiff-necked people. There is nothing simple or easy about life in community, and it certainly does not lead to instant gratification. We are disappointed by one another, and we ourselves disappoint. We argue, we forget. We find ourselves having the same interactions over and over again. We lose our patience, or others lose their patience with us. Real life in community is not a product you can buy, the customer is not always right, and your happiness is not guaranteed. There’s a discipline to it, to forgiving others their weak moments and their minor foibles. To forgiving ourselves when we don’t have the right words to say, when we fell short in our obligations and know it.  The Torah may be eternal, but each moment passes by and we wonder, perhaps always, whether we did enough. To live in community is not to take the easy path. It is to take the more meaningful path. To live in community is to learn to laugh at one’s self, to show up to the shiva call or the hospital room or the rally even when one is tired, to be patient with other people’s children as they play in the back of the sanctuary because that was once our children, or even us, to embrace with the older congregant who comes and looks around the sanctuary and sees none of her friends, because they are gone.  That is the real path of Torah, the path that leads to chesed, that is, to grace.

This is my 11th High Holidays here. My 11th Kol Nidre. There’s a little more gray in my hair, and altogether less of it. The two-year old from my first High Holidays is now preparing for his bar mitzvah. 11 high holidays of being able to say that I am your rabbi, of being rooted in this community, of being at your bedsides and b’nai mitzvah, at your funerals and weddings, in your classrooms and living rooms and board rooms, sitting on the floor of the JCC preschool and standing arm in arm with the clergy of this community. Compared to the 114 years this congregation has served Wilmington, it barely registers, to say nothing of the 10,000 years we discussed earlier. But it means something to me. To me it means that we are rooted, together, in Torah. Rooted together as a community. I don’t know where this community will be in 10 more years, or 100. I know that it is strong in its commitment to its neighborhood, that the members are committed to one another, committed to celebrating Jewish life, to Jewish learning, to social justice. To being the voice of Reform Judaism in the First State. And tonight I want to make you a promise, just as we promised at Sinai to do and hear, na’aseh v’nishmah, whoever we will be, whatever we do, we will do it together. We will continue to be rooted in our Torah values, as our ancestors were, as the builders of this community were. We will continue to live those values, doing the hard, messy work of community, the loving work of community, together. We will continue to grow as Jews, as people, and as a sacred congregation, and we will do this together. Because we stood at Sinai together, we are still standing at Sinai together, pledging ourselves to the work. And I cannot wait to get started.

Sat, July 13 2024 7 Tammuz 5784