Every week, as I lead services here at Kol HaNeshama I stand with my back to an enormous, beautiful tree. Sometimes it’s night and we cannot see it, but we know that it is there.
We watched an osprey nest there one year, squirrels chase each other up and down its trunk, butterflies flutter around; last year we saw an enormous branch fall, missing the building by just two feet.
It is an integral part of the Kol HaNeshama experience. It’s not just any tree. It is, in a very real sense, a part of our community. If it were to come down, which may indeed happen, we will mourn its loss.
Thinking about a different tree, Martin Buber came to the same understanding. He wrote,
Everything belonging to the tree is in this: its form and structure, its colours and chemical composition, its intercourse with the elements and with the stars, are all present in a single whole.
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood; but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it — only in a different way.
Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.
Relation is indeed mutual. We are interconnected in ways that are deep and abiding and real.
We are here together tonight, entering into the holiest of days, thirsting for transformation, for healing, for a future, for something that is greater than ourselves.
Our spirits yearn for fulfillment. During this day, when we neither eat nor drink, we drink deeply at the well of community, we are nourished by the presence of others, by the presence of this tree, by the presence of the Divine Spark that resides in every living being.
The writer Ursula LeGuin understood that our relationship with the natural world is part of our essence, she said:
Relationship among all things [is] complex and reciprocal – always at least two-way, back-and-forth; it seems that nothing is single in this universe, and nothing goes one way…
[We humans are] particularly lively, intense, aware nodes of relation in an infinite network of connections.
And she added, “One way to stop seeing trees, or rivers, or hills, only as ‘natural resources’ is to class them as fellow beings – kinfolk.”
Yom Kippur beckons us to step out of our narrow focus on our own selves and understand that we are part of a greater whole. The prayers that we recite are not written in the singular. We do not say “I have sinned,” we say “we have sinned.” Not I have gone astray, but we have gone astray.
And these prayers remind us that we often go astray when we speak to each other, and about each other.
This evening and tomorrow afternoon we will say, “Shema koleinu” – listen to our voices! We cry out to the Divine that we want, need to be heard. And we will recite the Ashamnu, a litany of sins, nearly all of which have to do with how we have treated one another.
This new year is a time of looking back, and a time of looking forward. To think about who we want to be in the coming year, how we want to participate in the world, in our communities, in our families. To think about how we want to treat each other.
It is an opportunity to say “Hinayni! Here I am!” To say – I care, I want to be counted, I want to participate.
Just as Abraham did, just as Moses did, just as Miriam did, just as our prophets and teachers did. Just as Ruth Bader Ginsburg did. Just as countless women and men have done.
Tonight by reciting the Kol Nidre we have cast off the vows that we made, whether under duress, or foolishly, or the ones made with good intentions but never fulfilled.
And tonight, as we wear our prayer shawls with the fringes at the corners, the fringes that are meant to remind us of the Torah’s commandments, we are reminded of the promises that we want to keep, of the promises we want to renew, of the commandments to be God’s partners in healing the world. May we be so blessed.