Kol Nidre Sermon

Seven Commandments

Temple Israel

Kol Nidre

September 29, 2017

Rabbi Jon Adland

There is a certain feeling, a certain calm, maybe even an aura that pervades the sanctuary on Kol Nidre.  It is not present any other time of the year or at any other service whether it is Neilah or Yizkor.  Maybe it is the seriousness that people bring with them into the sanctuary knowing that this day of all the days of the Jewish year is a day of personal and soulful change.  On Kol Nidre we open up a piece of ourselves.  Maybe the opening is to God or to our innermost being or to our community.  It could be one or all three at the same time—who knows, but it is what this day, of all days, demands.

We are asked to take a look at who we were and ask ourselves who we want to be.  We are reminded of the deeds we did and urged to make atonement for the sins, errors, poor judgement, words spoken too soon, actions taken without thinking, turning away from those in need, and failing to embrace the good in humanity.  We do all this before we make promises for the year to come—before we promise to act or think or commit to making the world better or our lives better or our community better.  We must reconcile what was before we proceed to what may be.

Judaism recognizes that we are not perfect, that we are not complete, and urges us to live our lives to bring ourselves closer to completion—not perfection—but the best person we can possibly be. Kol Nidre opens up not only the questions that we need to ask, but reminds us that hard work, achieving some level of completion is up to each and every one of us.

You may ask, “Are we not created in the divine image of God?” as it says in Genesis.  If that is true, what more do we need to create in ourselves if our self-analysis says that we are finished.  My challenge to this comes from the depth of understanding taught to us by our rabbis in understanding the Genesis story of the creation of humankind.  On the sixth day God said the world that God created was very good, not complete nor perfect, just very good.  Rabbis over the generations have commented that the completion of God’s creation is up to us.  We are all in this together and must work toward this completion of the creation of the world.

Somewhere over the last few years, I came across this wonderful little list titled, “Seven Commandments to Change Yourself and the World.”  I put it in my High Holy Day file to use at some point in the future.  In light of our new Mahzor and the readings that urge us to dig a bit deeper into our lives on this holiest of days, I thought it was the right time to share it with you. 

Many of us feel our world is in turmoil these days. We have watched two hurricanes bring deep destruction to so many lives and affect so many areas.  While we felt this wrath in the U.S., there was flooding in Southeast Asia and a very strong earthquake in Mexico.  Politically our own country is fractured.  People are screaming at each other literally at places like Charlottesville or virtually on Facebook. 

What we can do to make the world a better place is focus on the words of our prophets who urge us to “Beat swords into ploughshares” and to take care of the stranger in our midst as well as the widow and orphan or, to sum it up, those who struggle in their daily lives.  We can achieve this by taking care of ourselves and using that energy to take care of the world.

With that, let me take you through these seven commandments in hopes of helping, aiding and assisting you to make this holiest of days transformative.

#1—Make peace with your past so that it does not spoil your present.

Whether it was our teenage years, young adulthood, a struggle with parents or siblings or friends, a failed marriage or relationship, or something else, we need to find paths to make peace and move forward.  Sometimes the peace is an internal reckoning to accept what was and sometimes the peace is with those with whom we struggled.  Life is full of struggles.  The book of Genesis is filled with stories of parents and children, siblings, husbands and wives who had to figure out the best path, the next step forward.  I like to point toward the story of Jacob as the paradigm for coming to grips with the past to forge a better tomorrow.  We read in Genesis 32:

25Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. 26When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. 27Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 28Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 29Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Jacob was a troubled soul stealing his brother’s birthright and blessing and demanding that God be with him on his journey before Jacob would accept God.  He got his comeuppance when Laban switched his daughters at the wedding.  Now Jacob is about to see his brother Esau whom he fled so long ago and Jacob wrestles with an angel? a man? himself? and comes to terms with his past, finally ready to walk forward.  It is not always easy to make peace with our past, but if we can our today and tomorrow can be so much better, happier, and filled with peace and contentment.

            #2—What others think of you is none of your business.

But it still causes us angst and pain if someone doesn’t like us and we don’t know why.  We are human beings with feelings and emotions and cares.  We probably shouldn’t express how we feel about others, but what others think of us is not our business.  Better to use our thoughts and feelings in more positive directions.

            To be honest though, I do care.  I want to be liked and when someone doesn’t like me it hurts.  I wonder what did I do or not do?  What could I have done better or not done to cause the friction.  I am sure that I am not alone in this, but my commitment and t’shuvah for the year to come is to accept that what others think of me is none of my business. 

            #3—Time heals almost everything—give the time some time.

How true this is about time, but it doesn’t always make it any easier.  The loss of a parent always hurts and maybe five years later it doesn’t hurt quite as much, but the pain is still there.  When we are hurting terribly in the moment, we never think we will get to the next minute, the next hour, or the next day.  Time gives us space to breathe, to think, to put into perspective, to accept, to take a step forward.  The more time we have, the sharper is the pain.  I’ve often said that as the pain diminishes, the memories become sharper and the little things stronger.  We must give time some time.

Harvey and Irma caused deep pain in this country to millions.  Some said they didn’t know how they’d recover or get through the next day, but they are—one day at a time.  The pain of loss today will ease for most over the next weeks or months or years, but they need to give time some time.

When we say give time some time, it means distance from the moment.  Some people heal more quickly than others.  Some people find pain is hard to shake and giving time some time is greater.  We shouldn’t judge.  We just need to give others the time to have some time, but, when possible, be there for them, hug them, love them, support them and maybe nudge time to move just a bit faster.

#4—No one is the reason for your happiness except yourself.

We shouldn’t and can’t rely on others to make us happy.  We shouldn’t put that responsibility on others when we must do it for ourselves.  We are the ones responsible for who we are, what we do, how we act, and our place in this great experiment we call humanity. When you rely on others for your happiness, then you can blame them for your sadness as well.  We must find in this world that which makes us happy.  Whether it is our family, friendships, work, hobbies, or just the world around us, there is so much that we can embrace that brings joy and happiness into our lives.

Even though we shouldn’t rely on others, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t participate in this world and help others.  We saw this over and over again in Houston and southeast Texas.  We saw this reaching out to others in Florida.  It wasn’t about making others happy, but doing the right thing that can leave us with a genuine sense of self-satisfaction.

There is a well-known story about two friends out on a lake in a rowboat.  One took a small hand drill from his pocket and began to drill a hole in the floor of the boat.  His friend was flabbergasted. “Are you crazy?  What are you doing?” You will make a hole in the bottom of the boat, the water will flood in, the boat will sink, and we will drown.”  The man with the drill replied, “Don’t worry.  I’m just drilling the hole under my seat.”

What the driller forgot, you can teach to others: that all human beings are interconnected at the deepest level.  What happens to one, happens to all.  When one person hurts, every person hurts.  When one person prevails, every person prevails.  When you are happy, the happiness can be contagious.

#5—Do not compare your life with others because you have no idea what their journey is all about.

It is something we all do or, at least, have done.  How many of us have said, “If only….”  Or we might have thought, “I could have….”  We don’t always know the fortunes or circumstances some people have nor do we understand the pain and struggles.  To put our lives up against theirs makes no sense.  Very few of us have known somebody their whole life and even if we did, we aren’t with them every minute.  What we can do is make our lives the best they can be and be proud of whatever accomplishments we’ve had or others have had.

Life is not easy for anyone.  Whether you are rich or poor, black or white, tall or short, male or female, every life is challenged and what we do with those challenges tells our journey.  Yet, two people born with the same circumstances will most likely travel different roads.  If you don’t believe me, then think about siblings in a family.  Think about your own sisters or brothers and the journey.  I have two sisters and a brother and we are all different, walked different roads, have different careers, live in different places, but we came from the same parents, lived in the same house, went to the same schools through high school.  In the end, I must own my journey.  It is who I am and comparing myself to them or others draws no conclusions or answers.  We are all unique and comparisons are fruitless.

#6—Stop thinking too much.  It is all right not to know the answers.

For years, I’ve told my bar/t mitzvah students, “Don’t think, read!”  I know it is sort of counter intuitive, but when the students over think a word they end up heading in the wrong direction.  It is okay not to know something.  That certainly fits my life as a rabbi.  There is so much to know about Judaism that even with my 35 years in the rabbinate, plus another 6 in rabbinical school I’ve only just scratched the surface of Jewish knowledge.

I will be honest, I don’t know much about Kabbalah.  It is hard to read the Aramaic of the Talmud.  Jewish philosophy has never been my strong set and with this year’s high holy days I realized that either I wasn’t taught or didn’t listen well to the class on the holy day mahzor.

At the same time, I don’t shy away from continuing to learn, read, discuss, talk, and delve into the mysteries of our 3,000 year-old Jewish journey.  I want to know more about what our teachers taught and thought and when I don’t know I go search for the answer.  My hope my whole career as a rabbi is to engage people in Jewish conversation so that their curiosity will be enriched with the insights and teachings that have been handed down to us.  Yes, it can be overwhelming, but while it is okay not to know, but it is better to find out.

#7—Smile, you do not own all the problems in the world.

Ain’t that the truth.  Life is a blessing.  Own it, love it, embrace it.  We can’t cure or fix every problem though I know some who do try.  We can make a difference here or there.  Do little things that make a difference around you.  We can’t all build an ark like Noah or rescue a people like Moses or have the wisdom of Solomon or be a warrior like Deborah or be wise like Hillel or brave like Esther or be like so many other Jews that enriched our culture, our celebrations, our insight, our love, our beliefs or our covenant.  Sometimes, it is just the smile that we can offer to a stranger, a friend, a lover, or a child.

These are Seven Commandments to change yourself and the world: make peace, don’t worry about what others think of you, time is a healer, your happiness is on you, don’t compare your life with others, don’t think too much and smile.  Maybe there are more, but on this day of introspection my hope is that some if not all of these commandments will help you tomorrow and every tomorrow that comes.

Kein Yehi Ratzon—May this be God’s will.