Kol Nidrei - 5783/2022 Rabbi Susan Nanus

  • 5783/2022
  • Rabbi Nanus

Kol Nidrei (outdoors) 5783
October 4, 2022
Rabbi Susan Nanus
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles

I had a totally different sermon prepared for tonight, and then on Sunday, I decided that I didn’t want to use it. The catalyst for this decision was a conversation I had my daughter over the weekend. I was telling her about my Kol Nidre sermon and how I wasn’t sure if it was good enough or deep enough or even if I had something new to say about Yom Kippur.

…And she said to me – “That’s one of the things I never liked about Yom Kippur. The rabbi is always telling you what you did wrong and how you should be better, and I always used to think, “I am doing the best I can.”

And I thought, “Wow, that’s’ interesting. That may not always be true – there are definitely times when all of us could do better – be kinder, more generous, more tolerant, --- we know the list, we say the Vidui at every service.

But this year? This Yom Kippur? After all we’ve been through? I do believe we are doing the best we can. This is our first Yom Kippur service in person in three years. We have been locked up and shut away and cut off from each other for so long. We’ve lost loved ones, jobs; one of our congregants became homeless. Several others are barely making ends meet. So many of our children have become depressed and anxious. So many of us have been struggling and stressed and scared and sick.

In my own life, almost everyone in my family got Covid and some of them were dangerously ill. My sister’s business completely shut down and she had to go on unemployment. My daughter became agoraphobic from staying inside for so many months. My brother and his entire family were at the Highland Park Fourth of July Parade when the mass shooting occurred. They are fine, thank God, but someone they knew was wounded. One of my closest friends lives in Fort Myers, Florida and Hurricane Ian destroyed her house. And me? I got ulcers.

I don’t think I’m unique. In one way or another, I believe that everyone sitting here has suffered or been hurt or traumatized.

In spite all this, here we are. The fact that we are sitting together, singing together, praying together, hugging and kissing each other, wishing each other Shana Tova. “Happy New Year. May you have a sweet year. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.” Is such an accomplishment. Takes such courage and hope and optimism. That things will be better. That things can be better. The fact that we are here tonight says that we are doing the best we can.

And yet -- and this may be the question my daughter would not be happy with – but I am your rabbi so I have to ask – What about next Yom Kippur? What will our best be then?

 Every week I hear from congregants about their despair over the state of our country and the world – War, racism, fascism, anti-Semitism, the continuous distortion of the truth.  “There is so much aggression and ugliness and hate, Rabbi, I can’t bear to read or listen to the news. I feel overwhelmed and helpless.”  

First let me say – although it’s not particularly comforting - this is nothing new. Throughout history, there have always been times when civilization seemed filled with promise and progress, creativity and hope, and other times when the world has been violent and oppressive and destructive. We Jews know this well – our own history is filled with both darkness and light.  The victory of the Maccabees and the Destruction of the Temple. The Golden Age of Spain and the Spanish Inquisition. The Pogroms and Immigration to America where we have thrived and flourished. The Holocaust and the Establishment of the first Jewish State in 2000 years.

We know what to do when things are going well. But what about when things are not going well? What about when we can see the darkness growing?  How should we respond? What can we actually do?

 

There is a verse in Ecclesiastes, written 3000 years ago, which says:

“Two are better than one.

If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.

But pity anyone who falls and has no one to raise him.”

 

When I officiate at a funeral and the family is really grieving and in pain, I often say to them – Now is the time to lean on each other. Now is the time to hold each other up.

That’s what I think we need to do first. We need to know we can lean on each other and hold each other up. That we can support each other and raise each other. If we can recognize that there are a lot of people who struggle like we do, who worry like we do, and that we are not alone, and we cannot solve the problems of our society by ourselves – perhaps by leaning on each other, we can do something together, and make a difference.

You remember I mentioned that one of our congregants became homeless? He was a young man around 30 who lost his job and had to leave where he lived and wound up sleeping in the airport. I was horrified when I found out and wanted to help, but what could I do?           

Okay, I thought. I can pay for a couple of nights at a Motel, and at the same time I reached out to our clergy and some of our congregants, explaining the situation.  Here’s what happened.

Cantor Shapiro and Rabbi Simonds donated money from their leftover University Synagogue discretionary funds which paid for a week at the motel. Two congregants each paid for another night. Someone invited him for Shabbat dinner and gave him a laptop so he could apply for jobs, which he did. Someone else paid for a week of food.  And then a husband and wife offered their studio apartment above their garage for 6 weeks! At which point, someone else bought him a blow-up bed. No one person could do everything. But we all did something. And together, we helped rescue this young man.

            –

            “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief,” says the Talmud in Pirke Avot. “Do justly, now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

 

            In other words, we cannot abandon our values, we cannot abandon our voice, we cannot abandon our Jewish obligation to do something to help repair the world. Not everything. Not all of it. Something. Because when we throw the even the smallest stone into a pond, it makes ripples.

To buy one pack of diapers is no big deal. It is a small thing. Unless you are a young mother who can’t afford those diapers. Because of people at this Temple, because many of you brought one little pack of diapers to the Karsh center, we were able to give out one hundred and four thousand packs to needy young families this year.

Because of many of you made sandwiches or filled bags with food or brought a can of tuna or a bag of rice to our Food Pantry, we were able to provide 131,000 meals to our hungry neighbors.

Big ripples from many little stones.

To quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory:

In a crisis, the wrong question to ask is, “What have I done to deserve this?” The right one is, “What am I now being summoned to do?” Each  of us has a task. Each of us has a purpose. And we can bear pain when we discover the future we are called to make.”

In all the time we’ve spent alone, we’ve gotten to know ourselves better. We’ve heard our inner voices more loudly than ever before. What are we being summoned to do?

We only have to look at Jose Andreas and his world kitchen, who feeds thousands in need all over the world with the help of thousands of people like us. Or Malala Yousefai or Greta Thunberg. Or a man named James Christopher Harrison, who discovered that he had a rare blood plasma that could be used to treat Rhesus disease, which causes terrible birth defects in newborn babies. Mr. Harrison has made 1000 blood donations over 60 years which are estimated to have saved 2.5 million babies from this condition.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple is adopting a Ukrainian family and it will take many of us to help them navigate their new lives. Our Brawerman children are raising money to buy computers for Ukrainian refugee schoolchildren now in Poland and will then face time and befriend them.

We each know what speaks to us and what we care about. In the coming year how will we face the challenges of our time?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “To be is to stand for.”

First, we need to hold each other up and support each other, and then we need to stand for the future we want to see. The future we are called to make.

 Let’s not give up, let’s not withdraw, let’s not say there’s nothing I can do. Instead, let us become the change we want to see.

And then next Year on Yom Kippur, we can say, “We have done the best we can.”   Shana Tova.