The sermon I gave on Kol Nidre evening, about this wonderful world…that isn’t always wonderful, and we have a task ahead of us.
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Just a few moments ago we heard the words “you are forgiven, you are forgiven, you are forgiven,”
This is God’s message to us after we recite the Kol Nidre prayer, disavowing the promises that we made over the past year, allowing us to go forward refreshed and renewed, ready to begin again, ready to enjoy the wonderful world in which we live.
Theoretically, we could all go home right now. Not stay for the rest of tonight’s service, not come back in the morning, certainly not fast until we hear the shofar blast tomorrow evening.
But there’s a catch. We’ve told ourselves that God has forgiven us. But have we forgiven ourselves?
Yom Kippur is about so much more than being forgiven by God. It’s about us doing the essential work of cleaning out the schmutz, the stuff that has been building up all year.
One way to visualize this is to think of your soul as a light bulb, with a strong, clear light shining from the center. The light is kindled at birth, extinguished at death. This Divine light is protected within our souls, which we can imagine as the glass globe of a lightbulb, shielding the light source from harm.
Yom Kippur is our annual opportunity to cleanse our souls, to dust off the grime of the past year and allow the pure light to shine through.
Because it is not always such a wonderful world, and it needs as much light as we can provide.
Just like a lightbulb that accumulates dust which dims its light, so too our souls. Even when it’s been a relatively quiet year, there are still stresses, times when life doesn’t seem quite so great, when the world doesn’t feel like a beautiful place.
On the personal level, the past year hasn’t felt all that wonderful for many people in this room. Some of us are dealing with illness, painful losses, financial insecurity, fears for our own future, and that of our families.
For many outside this room, it is also a hard world, a sad world, a frightening and frustrating world. And we have a hand in that. Maybe not each of us personally, although I believe that none of us are completely innocent.
Did you and I cause Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria? No, but climate change is real, and it is affecting our weather patterns, and accelerating because of humans’ careless consumption of fossil fuels.
We live in the suburbs: we don’t carpool, take public transportation, or walk to the store. We drive everywhere without a second thought.
As Pope Francis has said, we have a moral responsibility to do something about climate change, on the national, local, and personal levels.
Are you and I responsible for the suffering of the migrant workers in Immokalee? No, but we can take responsibility for helping them rebuild after the hurricane, and we can reach out to them as they struggle to make a living on meager wages, living in bad conditions at the best of times, and terrible conditions at the worst.
Are we, a group of privileged white people, responsible for racism and xenophobia? We often think of ourselves in the role of victim, because we have been the target of hatred and anti-Semitism. But we can each walk out of here today and pass for non-Jews. A black woman cannot leave her blackness at the door.
Every Friday morning I listen to Story Corps on NPR. This morning a man told about being one of the first black players on his high school football team. One game, while playing a team from an all-white school, a black player broke an opponent’s collar bone while tackling him.
The scene, which had been none too hospitable to begin with, became ugly. He described his fear that night, and remembered that his white team-mates said and did nothing. He imagines that if they had the chance today to go back, that perhaps they would have spoken up.
He ended by quietly saying, “That’s what evil depends on, people keeping quiet.” So no, you and I are not responsible for what’s happening in our country, but we are responsible for speaking up.
The Yom Kippur prayers, the litany of sins that we will recite in the ashamnu and vidui this evening, don’t presume that we each have done all of the terrible things to which we will confess.
We confess communally, in the plural, because we all bear responsibility, one to another, to our families, to fellow Jews, to our communities, to our planet, and to people who we will never know, and who will never know that we spoke out on their behalf.
The Talmud teaches, “At a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.” Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 11A
We could do that, of course. It would be easy to close our eyes, especially living here in paradise. But I am convinced that is not who we are, not who you are. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here in synagogue tonight. You are here as part of a community, in the truest sense of the word.
A story: There once was a rich man who looked out the window of his house, and saw a beggar rubbing his back against his picket fence. The rich man went outside and called to him, “Why are you rubbing your back against my fence? You’ll break it!”
The beggar said mournfully to him, “Oy – I’m so itchy! My clothing is filthy. I haven’t eaten in a week. I’ve been sleeping in the streets, and I haven’t had a decent bath in a month!”
“Oy – such a pity – nebich!” said the rich man, “Come inside, and I will give you a bath, and a hot meal.”
The rich man was as good as his word. He showed the beggar to the bath, gave him a soft towel to use and clean clothes from his own closet. Not his best clothing, but still decent. He had his cook make a simple, but filling, hot meal. Finally, he gave the beggar two gold coins, and sent him on his way.
As he left the rich man’s house, two other beggars were standing outside on the pavement. Seeing their comrade wearing better clothing and looking clean and cheerful, they asked him what had happened.
On hearing his good news, the two decided to imitate him. They immediately started to scratch their backs on the picket fence, as he had done.
No sooner had they begun, than the door of the house opened, and the rich man came running out. But this time he was angry.
“Go away!” he cried. “Go, and stop rubbing your backs against my picket fence!”
The two beggars were surprised.
“Why is it that, when you saw our friend, you were so kind to him, but now that you see the two of us, you are driving us away?” they asked.
“Why? Why?” asked the rich man. “It is because I saw that he was only one, and therefore had no one to scratch his back. But you – there are two of you. Go ahead – scratch each other’s backs! Care for one another!”
The story reminds us that we are responsible for one another, and we cannot wait for a rich man, or God, to solve our problems.
Congregation Kol HaNeshama feels warm and welcoming to visitors, not just because people are nice to them, although that helps. It is a place where people have formed deep and meaningful social connections.
The people who make up a caring community know that the amount of money a congregation spends on material objects is irrelevant; what matters is the time that the people spend together.
In his book “Floating Takes Faith,” Rabbi David Wolpe writes that the very first question in the Bible is asked after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, and hid from God. God asks, “Where are you?”
God knew where they were. And Adam understood that God wasn’t asking a question of physical location, but rather, psychological. This is why Adam’s answer wasn’t “over here,” but rather that he was hiding because he was afraid.
Rabbi Wolpe says,“That question is not only the first question; it is also the eternal question. At each moment in our lives, this question is addressed to us: Where are you? Where are you spiritually? Where are you morally? What have you done with your life, and what are you doing with it now?”
This is the task of Yom Kippur, these are the questions we each must ask of ourselves. By simply reciting the Kol Nidre prayer, by disavowing our promises, we have not completed the work that Yom Kippur requires.
This is why we will stay here a little longer tonight, return in the morning and then again tomorrow evening. This is why we will each spend time in deep contemplation, as well as communal prayer.
The next 25 hours are yours to use as you please. My advice to all of us is to use them wisely, use them as a starting point for the year to come, for becoming the person you long to be, for being your highest self in this wonderful, wonderful world.
Shabbat shalom and good yuntif.