Rabbi David Gelfand: Kol Nidre 5779
A story is told of a train wreck in the rail yards in Boston regarding liability some decades ago. It was late at night when a train had finished its run and was slowly backing into the yard when it rammed into a parked train, causing it to careen off the tracks and doing an incredible amount of damage. The conductor was sweating bullets, both when being prepped for the trial and on the day of it. His lawyer kept reminding him to just answer the questions truthfully and there wouldn’t be a problem.
“As a certified veteran employee, were you in a position in the rear car before the train was in motion to go backwards?”
“Why yes, I was. I was in position.”
“Did you have your red lantern with you?”
“Why yes, I did.”
“Did you properly wave it, beginning when the train backed up?”
“Why yes, I did.”
As the trial ended, declaring that the railroad and its employees were not liable of negligence, no one had made a mistake, the conductor cried uncontrollably. The lawyer tried to console him and asked, “What were you so worried about?”
All but hyperventilating, the conductor leaned over and whispered to him, “I was terrified. I was, like, so scared that you’d ask me – if the lantern was lit.”
We Jews, and those who live amongst us, have a history of being lamplighters. To be a Jew is to light the lights against the darkness of ignorance, falsehood and despair. It is to be a soldier in the army of civilization that promotes the dignity of every human being. And we have been doing that for four thousand years. Light is a symbol in our tradition of knowledge, of truth, and of hope. And it is of hope, and fear, that I want to speak about this evening.
Our tradition calls on us to use this time of year to reflect, to evaluate, and even confront that whatever mistakes we have made in the past year as we celebrate a rebirth of possibilities in the New Year. That is why in that spirit, that we share in that message of “If not now, when?” On eve of Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the imperative of Hayom, of making the best use of time. And in the morning I spoke of the courage to be, especially in the challenging moment in which we live.
I quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks, Lord Sacks reminds us that we may live most of the year as if what matters is success or fame or power or wealth. But on these Holy Days, we come together in synagogue to be before God, and to acknowledge all together deeper truths that we are the good we do in the world. And we are accountable for the bad we did or the good that we failed to do. And that words that once guided us like right and wrong, ought and should, duty and obligation, loyalty and virtue and honor, each of them now has an antiquated air about them, as if they come from an age long dead.
At this season, our hopes and our fears are intertwined. That is why these are called the Days of Awe, Yamim Noraim. And in one particular prayer that is repeated from the morning of Rosh Hashanah and again tomorrow, the Unetanneh Tokef Prayer has us existentially question whether we are worthy to be inscribed in The Book of Life, and to force us to face our mistakes, errors, and the darkness of life and its vulnerability.
You know it, many of you. On Rosh Hashanah this is written and on the fast of Yom Kippur this is sealed: Who will live and who will die? Who will reach the ripeness of age? Who will be taken before their time. Who by fire and who by water? Who by earthquake and who by plague? And who will rest and who will wander? Who will be tranquil? Who will be troubled? [5:00]
That prayer, it was written over 13 centuries ago, when life was filled with daily fears, real fears. Rape, murder, death by fire, flood, plague, or starvation, violence and wars all were daily occurrences. Today a person in Western Europe has one-35th of a chance of being murdered compared to his medieval ancestors. Thirteen hundred years ago, one-third of us in this room would not have lived beyond the age of five because of diseases. Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than bad memories.
A contemporary response to the Unetanneh Tokef, I sat in school for years reading these words before I realized the answer. The answer to each of these questions is, me. Who will live and who will die? I will, who at their end and who not at their end, Me, like every human being. When I die it will be the right time and it will be much too soon. In my lifetime, our prayer book writes, it is written in our prayer book, I have been scorched and drowned, shaken and burdened, wandering and at rest, tranquil and troubled. That has been my life’s journey. That is the journey of each and every one of us. And what it tells us is that each of us is vulnerable. And living today, in these days, in this year, living today includes vulnerable and torn from the very roots as American Jews.
These are very complicated times, so let us remember that there are never simple answers to complex problems, as H. L. Mencken taught. There has been in these recent seasons, an Orwellian hijacking of the very foundation that we thought we were living on. These days did not begin with one election, nor for that matter, will they end at the conclusion of another. The challenges are surrealistic. For all around us, there is toxic discourse, a media feeding frenzy, its impact part of what we will be teaching about with Dr. Koplewitz tomorrow. The peddling of fear and hate mongering, the populous strain of nationalism, the attacks on our institutions of democracy, the blurring of lines between truth and lies. There are fears and toxicities here and abroad, and they emanate from all sides of the political spectrum. We live in an era when vulgarity reins. And to assign blame to any one person, be it here in this country, in Europe, or in Israel, is to abdicate honest responsibility.
Leaders reflect symptoms and can exacerbate or take advantage of societal illnesses. But they are not alone the viruses, nor inversely, the messiah. Or as Harry Truman once said, we get the government we deserve and we deserve the government we get.
From where we sit on this Yom Kippur, it’s time for us to be called to account. Where are the leaders? Where are the real leaders? Not elected and appointed officials in this city and in this nation and so many corners of the world. But where are the leaders who represent the light of knowledge, truth and hope? Today tribalism extols polarization, ignores knowledge, questions truth and thrives – thrives like crazy on despair.
Do we not come from a tradition that expects, yea, mandates that leaders from judges to kings and everyone else is supposed to espouse moral leadership and is supposed to espouse hope. As the Prophet Micah taught, twenty-seven hundred years ago, what is it that God requires of you if not love of justice, lovingkindness and to walk humbly? Justice? Kindness? Humility? [10:00] Where have they gone? Or have we become mute and blind to our higher aspirations and willing to accept what a modern Prophet, Harvey Milk, called a conspiracy of silence.
Here on this night, let us remember why we really are here. We are called upon to face life and its challenges and to think of ways that we can make the New Year better. Our people has never accepted the status quo. We were so passionate – okay, maybe stupid – that we thought that we could control the Roman Empire from ancient Israel. But even then, even then as the temple was destroyed, as Masada fell to the Roman legions, the greatest Jewish community in the world at that time, over a million strong, was in Rome. And even there we were lamplighters. We have been lamplighters for knowledge, for truth and for hope across the millennia.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, the ultimate measure of a person is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversies. Or as we have been saying for two thousand years, “In a place where no one lives as a human being, you must strive to be humane.” But is that enough? Can we really make a difference? There are no guarantees about anything in life. And other values will be heard and may even be set into law. But that has not stopped us from trying to light the lights of knowledge, truth, and hope. At least that’s a place to start.
The late Rabbi Israel Salantra of the 19th Century taught, “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But now as an older man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself.” But I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, I could have made an impact on my family and close friends, and they and I could have and should have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed our country and we could all indeed have somehow maybe touched and changed a little bit of the world.
Life is always a struggle between hope and fear. As my colleague, Rabbi Eddie Feinstein recently wrote, “Hope opens us. Hope opens our minds and our hearts to an ever expanding interpretation of our founding principle. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. Generation after generation the power of hope and the American character prompted us to reach across our divisions, our boundaries, our differences, to set aside ingrained patterns of prejudice, to welcome the other. Hope, hope enabled us to turn segregation and exclusion into tolerance, and tolerance into solidarity and community. Not just to men, but to women. Not just to white people, but to people of color. Not just to the native born, but to the immigrant and the refugee. Not just to Europeans, but to Asians, Africans, to people of all origins. Not just to Christians, but to Jews and Muslims and people of nearly a hundred different faiths in this country today. Not just to straight people, but to gay people, to all who count themselves as LGBTQ. Not just to the typically abled, but to those with differences. Not just to the propertied, but to the poor, the needy and the dispossessed.”
I remember as an impressionable young kid, that the buses that went from the town, the city where I grew up, Scranton, Pennsylvania, left for the great March on Washington for civil rights from our synagogue. Dr. King there taught, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise to all men, yes, black and white, guaranteeing inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of the opportunity of this nation. Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”
Feinstein brilliantly reminded us of something, that I had learned as an undergraduate, but totally forgotten. That March on Washington was not the first march to espouse a view. Four decades earlier there was another march on Washington. On August 8, 1925, fifty-thousand – fifty-thousand hooded Ku Klux Klansman marched on the same mall. The Klan demanded the restoration of what they called “true Americanism.” They advanced a platform that demonized blacks, Catholics, Jews, Mexicans, Asians, all non-white immigrant groups, together with the unchristian practices of alcohol consumption, birth control and the teaching of evolution in schools. They marched unmasked with a sense of total impunity. Charlottesville is not the beginning. That was 1925, when the Klan boasted a membership of five million, amounting at the time to fifteen percent of the national population in forty-eight states. Eleven governors were members of the Klan. Sixteen U.S. senators were members of the Klan. Seventy-Five seats in the House of Representatives – that we know of – were Klansmen.
Opposite the power of hope in the American character is the power of fear. Fear closes minds, builds walls, slams doors. We fear someone or something coming to take away what is ours, what we fought for and worked for, we fear our way of life is being twisted and warped.
In his farewell address, January 1989 – lots of us were there for this one – President Ronald Regan, in his farewell address: “I’ve spoken of the shining city on a hill all my political life. In my mind, it was a tall, proud city, built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God blessed and teeming with people of all kinds, living in harmony and peace. If there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone. She’s still a beacon, a magnet for all most of freedom, for all the pilgrims, from all the lost places who are hurdling through the darkness toward home.”
Feinstein responded to that: “Fear sees a world of finite resources and shrinking possibility. Fear is posits and economics of scarcety in which life is a race to grab what you can. Fear turns everyone into rivals, into an object expropriated, used, and exploited. Hope comes from someplace else. It is derived from the Bible. It is our Jewish gift to America. Ben Franklin’s design for the great seal of the United States was an image of the splitting of the Red Sea.”
Feinstein reminds us, from the 17th Century puritans to the founders in the 18th Century, from the 19th Century African American slaves’ narratives, to the 20th Century literature of personal development and self-help, we tell the same story of redemption as it is described in the autobiographies of Ben Franklin, of Frederick Douglass, of Helen Keller and of Malcom X, of Maya Angelou and right down to Oprah Winfrey’s. And yet we revel, and listen, and are attracted like moths to a light, to the news that undermines the very foundation of our existence time and again.
A few weeks ago, as I was thinking about these sermons, I saw a fascinating exchange on a late night show, I think on HBO, Bill Maher. I literally only saw part of it. I must admit, I fell asleep in the middle. But I was glad that I was awake enough to write a few notes down. It was between a Harvard Professor, Steven Pinker, and the African-American comic, and political commentator, D. L. Hughley. Pinker uses facts to tell the truth about modernity. But not the truths that we see in the newspaper usually. You don’t have to listen long to realize that there is something odd about what he is telling you. What he claims is the news is the stuff that’s too good to print. And I don’t mean that too good. For example, two hundred years ago, ninety percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. While many children went to bed hungry last night, only about ten percent of the people live in poverty today.
The world has never had more democracies. Last year there were terrible wars in certain corners of the world. There were twelve ongoing wars. There were sixty autocracies and more than ten thousand nuclear weapons. But thirty years ago, there were twenty-three wars, twice as many. Eighty-five autocracies, and sixty thousand nuclear weapons, six times more than now. But that’s not the news we focus on. Over the last century, we’ve become 96 percent less likely to be killed in a car crash, 88 percent less likely to be mowed down on a sidewalk, 99 percent less likely to die in a plane crash, 95 percent less likely to be killed on the job, 89 percent less likely to be killed by drought, flood, wildfires, storm, volcano or landslide.
Pinker proves the real answer to that Rosh Hashanah question, Unetanneh Tokef, who will live and who will die, by water, fire, or violence? Not most of us. Not most people we know. And yet we focus in a different direction. We tend to focus on the darkness and not the light. And the more we do that, at a certain point we lose our ability to hear the message of the songs we sing and the prayers that we utter. We forget that the whole point of that journey in the Torah was that after forty years, they got into the Promised Land. They made it.
That same 19th century Rabbi, Israel Salanter, was once walking in the rain and finding that his feet were getting wet because his shoes needed repairing. He stepped into a cobbler’s shop soaking wet. It could have been this afternoon. He didn’t just go in because it was the first door that was open, he went in because his shoes were falling apart. But he noticed that the cobbler’s candle was down to about a quarter of an inch, and knowing that the cobbler needed the light of the candle to get home, Salanter volunteered to come back another day. But the cobbler insisted on doing work, saying, “My father used to say to me, that as long as there is still a little candlelight, there is time to mend.”
What was true in the cobbler’s shop is true for us. And what is true for us, is true for our families. And what is true for our families, is true for our nation. And what is true for our nation, is true for our world. We cannot redo yesterday’s errors and yesterday’s obliqueness, and yesterday’s vulgarity. Nor should we. But as long as there is the ability to have a flame inside us as long as we have a reason to be here on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we can create light and we can diminish the ignorance and the falsehood and the despair. We can and we must kindle again and again the lights of hope. After all, Im lo achshav, matai – if not now, when?
I pray in this New Year, I pray with all my heart, as I look at the darkness, that I will find the courage to light new lights. And I pray that you will join me, and find your own ways to do it also. For the world is in desperate need of light, near and far. And I pray, let justice roll like a river and kindness like a mighty stream. Let the waters flow on forever and let them wash all over me. For every heart, for every soul, it’s time we go find it once more. So what are we waiting for now? If not now, when? Amen.
This holy night concludes with memory. Our last thoughts always are those we have lost. We miss them especially tonight, yearning for their presence at our side. This service we have shared once was theirs. They spoke and sang the ancient words, they prayed, repented, and yearned for better lives, as we have done. Flawed in their deeds, imperfect in their faith, they still drew strength from their tradition, as we seek fortitude in ours. What was good and beautiful in their lives once gave us joy and now inspires us to reach higher. The knowledge that they loved us deeply brings comfort to our hearts. So we light candles of remembrance and gratitude and we speak this timeless truth. Their memory is a blessing now and forever. We pray that their goodness will live on in our lives, planting seeds of kindness and hope for generations and generations to come.
And so as we turn to page 122, we think lovingly of those who once sat beside us and gave added meaning and purpose to our lives. As well the martyrs of our people, most especially those who perished in the night of the Shoah, who have no one left to say Kaddish for them. We acknowledge that many too many have died also in defense of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. And others have died in defense of freedom for this great nation, of which we have been privileged. And we acknowledge as well that many too many continue to die because of violence and hunger in our world. And as well, our hearts are with the families who have lost people to natural disasters, including this recent flood. Though to us most are nameless and faceless, nonetheless they are ours. For each and every one is a member of the family of humanity and thus they are ours. And so as is our custom, we say:
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba
b’alma di v’ra chirutei,
uv’chayei d’chol beit Yisrael,
baagala uviz’man kariv,
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach
l’alam ul’almei almaya.
Yitbarach v’yishtabach v’yitpaar
v’yit’hadar v’yitaleh v’yit’halal
sh’mei d’kud’sha b’rich hu,
l’eila min kol birchata v’shirata,
daamiran b’alma, v’imru: Amen.
Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya, v’chayim aleinu v’al kol Yisrael, v’imru: Amen.
Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’imru: Amen.