Kol Nidrei Koleinu - 5783/2022 Rabbi Beau Shapiro

  • 5783/2022
  • Rabbi Shapiro

Kol Nidrei 5783
Rabbi Beau Shapiro
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles

On the morning of December 2, 2020, Tim Brown got up early to light a fire. The night before, an unseasonable cold front had descended on Love’s Landing, Florida, where Brown lived with his wife. By 8 a.m., the mercury in the thermometer had yet to reach 40 degrees. At the end of the cul-de-sac where the couple lived, a thin layer of frost glistened on the long grass runways that extended through the quiet neighborhood: Love’s Landing is a private aviation community, home to pilots, plane engineers, and flying enthusiasts.

Brown had just raised the hangar door when an unmarked Dodge Durango roared into the driveway, along with a Marion County police cruiser. As Brown turned toward the commotion, a law enforcement agent in a tactical vest leapt out of his SUV. He was pointing an MK18 short-barreled automatic rifle at Brown’s face. “Step back! Raise your hands!” the agent shouted, as officers from a half-dozen federal agencies fanned out across the property.

For the previous 35 years, Tim Brown had been living a carefully constructed lie. He wasn’t just an aging retiree with a passion for aviation. In fact, he wasn’t Tim Brown at all. His real name was Howard Farley Jr., and law enforcement determined that he’d been the leader of one of the largest drug-trafficking rings in Nebraska history.

At some point in 1985, after indictments of his network were unsealed, Farley had vanished.

Now, thirty-five years later, he was facing a convoy of law enforcement officers. “He knew the jig was up,” said the agent in charge, confronting Brown in the hangar. “When you turn around and smile to somebody that’s pointing a fully automatic rifle at you, you know the run is over.”

Four decades on the run. Four decades of escape. Four decades of pretending. Four decades, living a lie. It’s astonishing! It’s incredible! How on earth did he manage to do it; we ask ourselves?!

Are we so different?

Now I know what you may be thinking… “Yes rabbi! I am so different! I’m not a fugitive.

I’m not a drug-trafficker. I’m not on the run, trying to escape, pretending to be someone I’m not.”

Fair enough. I’ll concede that none of us here tonight is a fugitive or wanted criminal— the Temple’s security is too good for that! But the truth is, if we’re honest with ourselves, many of us are running; we are trying to escape something; we are walking through life day after day, playing a part, pretending in ways large and small. We all wear masks, and I’m not talking about a K95.

We run…

We run from our childhoods and our messy relationships; from conflict and uncomfortable emotions.

We run from failure, and feelings, and family; from our insecurities and doubt. We run from our self-doubt, and from ourselves.

We escape…

We escape through work, and SoulCycle; the vape pen, the gummies, and the bottle.

With food and gambling, spending, sex, and sleep.

We escape with the lies—the lies we tell others—the lies we tell ourselves. We play a role. We pretend.

We pretend we have it together; that our relationships are perfect, our families are perfect, our marriages are perfect. Just look at our Facebook and Instagram posts!

We pretend we can afford it; that we’re happy, confident, and healthy. We pretend we can handle it; we’re not hurt; we’re ok.

We pretend we care. Exhausting, isn’t it?

Funny how many masks we all wear—the lengths we go, consciously or not, to pretend.

Who are we pretending to be? Who are we trying to fool with the personae we create?

Think about the titles so many of us wear—spouse, parent, boss, coach, teacher, therapist, nurse, president, CEO, manager, doctor, lawyer… rabbi.

In my second year of rabbinical school, I had a student pulpit in Yuma, Arizona. Student pulpits are small, out-of-the-way communities with a handful of Jews, that cannot sustain a fulltime, or even a part-time rabbi. So, they arrange to have a rabbinical student visit once a month to “play” rabbi. I remember my first visit to Yuma like it was yesterday. I arrived on, what I was told was, a mild Friday afternoon in August—it was only 118. I checked into the Quality Inn, dropped my bag, and caught a reflection of myself in the mirror. I didn’t look like a rabbi, I sure as hell didn’t feel like a rabbi. Yet there I was.

An hour later I arrived at Dr. Kravitz’s home for shabbat dinner. His wife Jackie opened the door and introduced herself, then she turned and called to her son Cooper: “Coop! Come on out and meet the new rabbi.” At which point I turned around as well, eager to meet the new rabbi. This went on for two years, one weekend a month, venturing deep into the desert and playing dress up rabbi. My constant worry: “What if they figure out that I don’t know much more about the Torah than they do?” After all, in a way, that’s really what the job was— pretending to be the wise, confident, all-knowing rabbi they didn’t have. That was a long time ago. Wilshire Boulevard Temple is a long way from Yuma, and I'd like to think I’ve learned a lot since then, about the Torah, about life. Still, I sometimes wonder if I have become the wise, confident, all-knowing rabbi I aspire to be? I ask myself: Am I authentic?

Don’t we all ask ourselves the same question? Are we our authentic selves? Are we hiding from our authentic selves? We would hardly be the first. Consider Adam and Eve in the garden. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge and discovering who they really are, they hear God and they run—they run and hide.

Or Jacob, who lies and cheats his brother Esau out of his inheritance, only to run for the hills when the truth comes out—unwilling to face the consequences of his actions. And years later, poor Jacob again tries to escape his reality—this time from his father-in-law after robbing him blind.

And of course, there’s Jonah—Jonah, who, in the haftarah that we will read tomorrow afternoon, is asked by God to go to Nineveh and convince the Assyrians to repent, but runs to Jaffa instead and boards a ship to Tunisia to escape being a prophet.

What do Adam and Eve, Jacob, and Jonah all have in common? They were afraid. After all, that’s why we run and try to escape, isn’t it? Fear? Because we’re afraid? What are we so afraid of?

The most repeated commandment in the Hebrew Bible is a very simple phrase, “al tirah,” don’t be afraid. One hundred and twenty-two times the Tanakh commands us, not about tzedakah or Shabbat, sacrifices or kashrut, but “al tirah,” don’t be afraid.

Honesty dispels fear. If we can be honest with ourselves about what we’re so afraid of— about what we’re running from—then we diminish its power and we can stop trying to escape it.

My friend Leon was a camp song leader in the heyday of Jewish folk music in the seventies, along with Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper, and Danny Freelander—to name a few. Inspired by Debbie, they reimagined what synagogue music could be and Jeff and Danny went on to become rabbis and cantors, and Debbie, might as well have. Leon on the other hand, landed in the cyber security department for a large financial services institution. Just like his friends, he loved the world of Jewish music but he was afraid and figured he needed to get “a real job,” so he escaped and left it behind him. He was successful in that “real job” for seventeen years; and for seventeen years he would spend nights in his basement playing guitar and writing music— “living a double life” as he put it to me many years ago when we first met. “One day I realized I just couldn’t do it anymore—I couldn’t keep running.” And that’s how Leon ended up in Cantorial school at the age of forty-five, and now twenty years later, a cantor and prolific composer.

Stacey and her doting husband are the parents of two adorable twins. At twenty-seven, she was the youngest woman ever to make partner at her law firm and the ninety-hour weeks she billed made her a rainmaker. Then the pandemic hit and those ninety-hour weeks collided with the reality of working from home, her twins, and her husband. It was barely a month into lockdown when Stacey realized that there were deep fractures in her emotional connection to her husband. “I didn’t know how to connect to him and support him,” Stacey shares, “probably because my own mother was emotionally unavailable. So, it was easier to pour myself into work—to run, to escape the deficits in our marriage rather than face them. COVID forced me to face them, to face my fears, and to face myself. I’m back in the office now, but I have more balance. I’m investing time in my marriage the same way I used to in my work. I’m no longer trying to escape.”

Tomorrow morning, Jews all over the world will hear the words of the special Torah portion the rabbis selected for Yom Kippur imploring us “to choose life.”

It’s a beautiful sentiment, “choose life,” but how? What does that mean? The medieval Italian commentator Sforno explains that to choose life means to choose one’s true life—to choose to live as our true, authentic, selves.

It’s no accident that we read this Torah portion on Yom Kippur because Yom Kippur is an invitation to choose life—to stop running, to stop trying to escape, to stop pretending and face ourselves—really face ourselves.

After nearly three years of my suits collecting dust in my closet, I reached for one a few weeks ago, only to find it didn’t fit quite the way I remember it fitting. So, it was off to the tailor. Standing there in front of that three-way mirror, I see sides of myself I’ve never seen before. “Is that really what I look like to the world?” I wonder. “Is my posture actually that bad—my shoulders that hunched—my hair that thin?”

The older we get, the harder it is to face ourselves; to look at ourselves in the mirror and really see ourselves. With each passing year we recognize the face looking back at us less and less. Whose wrinkles are those? Whose pores? Whose bags under the eyes? That grey hair that seems to multiply overnight is my father’s—not mine. So, we try not to look too closely. We spackle our outsides with potions, lotions, and hair dye; a little Botox here, a nip/tuck there.

But what about our insides?

What role do we play in our dysfunctional relationship with our in-laws, in our children not calling, in our marriages, in our workplace? What role do we play in our own unhappiness?

Are we brave enough to find out? Do we have the courage to stop running, to stop trying to escape, to stop pretending—to face ourselves for who we are, who we really are?

Heshbon HaNefesh, the work of honestly examining our lives, takes courage. It cannot happen unless we’re honest with ourselves. This is the one time of year when it really is all about us.

This is a time to be completely self-centered. We are supposed to turn inward, to focus on our lives, our marriages, our children, our behavior.

What are you running from? Force yourself to answer. Right now. What are you trying to escape? What are you so afraid of?

“Examine your life!” the Talmud implores us because the rabbis knew, just like we know, that being honest, truly honest with ourselves, has the power to change us in a way that nothing else can.

So, let’s stop running. Let’s stop being fugitives from our own potential. Let’s look deeply into that giant three-way mirror. Let’s choose to live as our true, authentic, selves. Let’s stop trying to escape because we know there is none. In the words of the psalmist… “Where shall we go from Your spirit? Where shall we flee from Your presence? If we ascend into heaven, You are there; if we make our bed in the netherworld, behold, You are there. If we take the wings of morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there do You lead us and hold us.”

Tonight, of all nights, there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. So, let’s stop pretending. Let’s see ourselves for who were really are. Let’s be present in our own lives. Let’s choose life — a true life.