Sunday, September 15, 2013

Kol Nidre, 5774 - Our Failures

Kol Nidre 5774/2013 – Our Failures

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Temple Emanuel – Denver Colorado

My Dear Friends,

Several years ago, the NY Times printed the following transcript of an ACTUAL radio conversation between a U.S. naval ship and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland.

Canadians: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Americans: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.


Canadians: This is a lighthouse.  Your call[1].

None of us would argue with the laws of physics.  You can’t move an immovable object.  Sometimes we need to acknowledge that there are things in our lives that are out of our control.  Yet all too often we enage in acts of self-delusion – we try to convince ourselves that we are immune from the realities of everyday life.  We don’t like to be wrong – we’re stubborn like that.  And yet, the truth is we are here tonight  - on this Kol Nidre eve – because we know that we are not perfect.  We do make mistakes – we have failed, we have missed the mark set before us.

At the beginning of this service, we heard Cantor Heit chant the hauntingly beautiful Kol Nidre.  This prayer speaks about our failures – our inability to carry out the commitments that we all take on ourselves.  And so – this is why we come here tonight - both out of habit and out of a compulsion to acknowledge our weaknesses, our imperfections and our failures.

Tonight, I want to talk about failure.  All of us fail – even though we don’t like to admit it.  We fail in our jobs, our relationships, our goals and visions for how we want to see ourselves.  We fail our spouses, our children, our parents and our friends.  Most of all, we fail ourselves.  To be human is to fail.  Not all of our failures are catastrophic, some aren’t even noticeable – but they are very real, nonetheless.

Failure is an integral part of our humanity – but I believe that it goes beyond our mortal selves – for even God fails.

Think about it: 

·        In the book of Genesis – there are two creation stories – one which details each day of creation and one that tells the story of the Garden of Eden.  But then, God sees the evil in the world and realizes that the first attempt was a failure.  Humanity is not following the path set before it.  And so God begins again – first with the flood, and then again with the Tower of Babel.  On two occasions, Moses is informed that God wants to destroy the Israelites after some spectacular failures – but Moses prevents this from happening.

·        In the Hindu faith – one of the primary manifestations of the god Shiva is that of destroyer of the world - clearing it of imperfections – so it can be recreated again.

·        In Christianity – Jesus never finishes his task of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth – his death  - his failure to deliver – becomes the basis of redemption

·        In Greek mythology – the gods are constantly battling one another for dominance….some win and some fail.

If you look at every major character in the Bible – most of them have spectacular failures:

·        Adam and Eve fail God’s test and are expelled from the Garden of Eden

·        Moses fails to heed God’s command and is prohibited from entering into the Promised Land.

·        Abraham lies about Sarah in Egypt and almost sacrifices his son on Mt Moriah

·        Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt

·        Isaac is deceived by Rebekah in order that Jacob might get the birthright over Esau

·        Jacob is deceived by his sons when they tell him that Joseph is dead

·        Joseph goes through a series of failures when he incurs the wrath of his brothers, is sold into slavery and then thrown into jail.

·        King David fails when he seduces Bath Sheba and has her husband killed

·        The list goes on and on……

If we look at our national heroes, we see a similar pattern:

·        Abraham Lincoln lost election after election before he finally became our sixteenth president

·        Susan B Anthony failed time and again as she pushed for the right for women to vote

·        Steve Jobs, Theodor Herzl, Albert Einstein, Golda Meir and so many other important figures of the past century failed spectacularly at some point in their lives,

And of course – over the past decades we have seen failures of epic proportion in our leaders:  From Nixon to Clinton, Weiner to Spitzer – the list goes on.

As a nation – we are obsessed with failure.    Stories of celebrities acting out are front page news – they sell magazines and boost the ratings of television programs.   One only need to see the amount of coverage Miley Cyrus and George Zimmerman have received in recent days – and how that coverage has overshadowed important world events - to see that this is true.

Why are we so obsessed with the missteps of our celebrities and leaders?  I believe it is because we like to be distracted - and in no small way - we like to remind ourselves that, no matter how famous, successful or wealthy someone is – they fail just like we do.

Unless and until we spend time with ourselves- confronting the agonies of our failures- we cannot comprehend or fully experience what it means to be truly alive.  Our failures and flaws – and the way we deal with them – are not fatal – rather they are  tests of our own humanity.  And we are being tested all the time:

·        The everyday tests of life are not graded in order to determine whether we pass or fail. 

·        The everyday tests of life are not about reward or punishment, they are about character.

·        The everyday tests of life are cumulative. They determine our personality, our morality, our humanity.  Each test that we face paves the way for the next one and the next and the next…. And it is only through the passage of time that we can measure their impact upon us.

As we go through our daily lives we constantly make choices about the way that we interact with others and conduct our daily affairs.   Sometimes the tests are very simple:

·        Do we say hello to our neighbors as we leave for work?

·        Do we return the extra change that the cashier has given us by mistake?

·        Do we pay full attention to the person sitting in front of us -  when what we really are thinking about is what we are going to have for lunch in 10 minutes?

·        Do we rush through the yellow light even though we could have stopped?

Sometimes, the tests are more difficult:

·        Do we declare to the IRS that extra income we received by selling our car for cash?

·        Do we avoid making that phone call to our sick friend?

·        Do we cut corners in our work or scrimp or reduce the quality of our output to make a few extra dollars?

Too many of us have lost track of this essential fact.   Ours is a society that values results over reason, profit over potential and winning over everything else.  Often, because of this, when people come face to face with the prospect of failure – they don’t know what to do.

Some people think that it is worse to fail than to cheat.

A story is told of a young Irishman named Murphy who applied for an engineering position at a firm based in Dublin. An American applied for the same job and both applicants, having the same qualifications, were asked to take a test by the Department manager.

Upon completion of the test both men only missed one of the questions. The manager went to Murphy and said, "Thank you for your interest, but we’ve decided to give the American the job."

Said Murphy: "And why would you be doing that? We both got 9 questions correct. This being Ireland and me being Irish I should get the job!"

The manager replied: "We have made our decision not on the correct answers, but on the question you missed."

Murphy: "And just how would one incorrect answer be better than the other?"

Manager: "Simple. The American put down on question # 5, ‘I don’t know.’ You put down ‘Neither do I.’

Think of all of the sports heroes who have been recently disgraced because of their use of banned substances.   Lance Armstrong is a prime example.   In many sports, doping was so endemic that it was a pre-requisite for success.

Cheating has become commonplace on High School and College campuses around the country.  If you want to know prevalent it is, all you have to do is try this simple test:  Go to any internet search engine and type in the words “term papers for sale.”   You will find hundreds of sites designed to sell term papers and dissertations to students.  Interestingly enough, there are just as many sites set up for teachers to detect and catch cheaters.  My guess is that the same companies that sell the term papers also sell a product that tells the teachers how to catch the cheaters.  Think about that for a moment…..  Cheating and fighting cheating has become big business.

Students who learn to cheat in school go on to cheat in life.

Why is there so much cheating?  Because we are afraid to make mistakes! We equate making a mistake with failure, and failure is perceived as a weakness.  As a result “Win – at any expense!”  has become the mantra of a generation.

This is no small problem.  One of the most terrifying statistics I have recently seen is the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 in our nation[2].  The Third leading cause of  death…..

Why are so many young people taking their own lives?  What are the messages we are broadcasting  that might be contributing to this terrible statistic?  Why are we not shouting from the rooftops that this preventable tragedy must be addressed?

What must we do?  I don’t have all the answers – it’s a much bigger question than can be addressed in a Kol Nidre sermon – but I will say this: 

We need to learn for ourselves, and then teach our children, that mistakes are not tragic - they are inevitable, they are a necessary part of life.

When our daughter, Elana was in middle school, we went to sixth grade parents’ night at the beginning of her school year. There, we met with each of her teachers and learned about the expectations that were set out for all of the students.  One class, in particular, drew my interest.  Her art teacher explained how each student was required to create a sketchbook of their own drawings.  There were only two rules for use of these sketchbooks.

1.     You have to draw at least a half an hour a week.

2.     You can’t erase your mistakes -- you have to leave them on the page.

What a wonderful concept!  It goes far beyond art lessons. 

·        You can’t erase your mistakes – you have to look at them so that you don’t make them again.

·        You can’t erase your mistakes – instead you need to understand them and use them as guideposts for future progress.

·        You can’t erase your mistakes – but you can show them to other people in your life so that they might be able to learn from them as well as you.

The truth is, we all should carry around some kind of metaphorical sketchbook.  We could see both our progress and our mistakes. Instead of running from our failures – we can learn from them – we can grow from them.  Life is not supposed to be smooth.  Everything will not always be perfect.

I recently came across the following poem: 

The Guest-House

This being human is a guest-house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they're a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond[3].

One of the main reasons that we are here tonight on the Kol Nidre Eve is to acknowledge the fact that we are all tested – and that we are all flawed. 

Our tradition provides us with a mechanism to deal with and learn from failures:

Tomorrow morning we shall recite the Unetaneh Tokef Prayer where we pray the ancient and chilling words:  “Who shall live and who shall die….” At the end of the prayer we say the following:

U’teshuvah, U’tefillah, U’tzeddakah ma-a-vi-rim et roa ha g’zerah.”

And Repentance, Prayer and Charity, temper God’s severe decree.

These three concepts – central to what this day of Atonement is all about – teach us how to understand and accept the daily tests, the successes and the failures we experience.


Yom Kippur teaches us that failure is important - because it leads us to repentance. Teshuvah - repentance - is the way to get beyond the sticking point.  In the Torah, Jacob cheats Esau and 20 years later he goes to meet him with gifts and apologies.  Teshuvah means turning - re-turning to a place where we can begin again.  That is what these holidays are all about.  God does not demand perfection.  If God did, then there would be no need for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur because in a world where perfection is mandated - there could be no repentance - all would be in black and white.  We, however, live in a world with varying shades of grey. 


Confronting our failures is not easy.  It can be lonely and frightening.  Because of this we have Tefillah – prayer.  Prayer certainly is not a cure - but it is a method of transforming ourselves and our lives.  It provides us with a way of reaching out and connecting to something greater than ourselves.  Prayer tells us to slow down - to look around us, to appreciate the world that God has given us. Since prayer is a communal experience, when we come together in prayer we realize that we are not alone. Prayer/Tefillah moves us outside the realm of our failures by forcing us to come together and admit that there are things that we lack in our lives.

The real questions of prayer are not: "Can I pray?" or Should I pray?", but rather, "What should I pray for?" and How will I know if my prayers have been answered?"

The answers to these questions are strangely simple.  "What should we pray for?"  I'll tell you.  Pray for a sense of gratitude.  Pray that you might be grateful for all of the good that happens to you.    And while you're at it, pray that others might do the same too.

You'll know that your prayers have been answered when you feel a sense of satisfaction - of gratitude for who you are - not what you have;  What you can do , not what you own.  You'll know that your prayers have been answered when, instead of hiding from your failures, you cheer on others’ successes.


And finally, we come to Tzeddakah.  Tzeddakah is not merely “charity”.  It is best understood as acts of righteousness – of working to perfect this all too imperfect world in which we live.

Tzeddakah is essential for coming to understand the meaning and purpose of the tests that we undergo every day. 

·        To have a life filled with Tzeddakah is to act and live with a sense of responsibility.

·        To have a life filled with Tzeddakah is share what you have learned with others.

·        To have a life filled with Tzeddakah is to take the gratitude that we have discovered from prayer and to apply it to the world in which we live. 

·        To have a life filled with Tzeddakah is to acknowledge that if we have learned anything from our failures then we must share that knowledge with others. 

My friends, when we come to terms with our failures – and with the necessity to understand and assimilate them within ourselves, the next step is to to look around us and see the fact that all of us have failed – at some point in our lives.

How many of us are holding grudges against family members and friends who have failed us?  How many relationships have been poisoned by our stubborn unwillingness to see the same flaws in ourselves that we condemn in others?

Every year – on Yom Kippur – I say the same thing:  Now is a time to both ask for forgiveness and grant forgiveness to those who are estranged from our lives. 

I know how difficult this can be.  I know that there are some actions that truly are unforgiveable….but not all.  All of us are tested.  We all fail some of the time.

We also are all mortal – why wait until it is too late to make amends?  The time is now – there may never be a better moment to mend a broken relationship.  We never know what tomorrow may bring.

My friends, tonight we stand before God.  All pretense is gone.  All of our defenses are down.  We stand together as a community who acknowledges that we are all flawed.  Let the awareness that we are not alone give us comfort and the ability to work even harder to learn from our failures and our flaws.  And in the process of doing so, let us make ourselves, our congregation and our world just a little more holy.

AMEN – Chatimah Tovah – May we all be inscribed for blessing in the book of Life.


[1] NYTimes 7/5/98, p. 7 Week in Review
[3] Say I Am You: Poetry Interspersed with Stories of Rumi and Shams, Translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks, Maypop, 1994.

Yom Kippur Morning, 5774 - the Gift of Shabbat

The Gift of Shabbat
Yom Kippur Morning- 5774/2013
Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO
Dear Friends,

Two and a half weeks ago, our youngest son, Ethan left for college.  Sue and I are now officially empty nesters. We knew it was coming – we had prepared ourselves and are proud of both of our children’s achievements and accomplishments.  Nonetheless, when the car was finally packed and Ethan and Sue were ready to begin their drive to Austin, TX where he was to begin his Freshman year, I looked at my handsome, 6’ tall son and I felt like Tevye in “Fiddler On the Roof” about to sing Sunrise Sunset. Although I was determined not to get emotional, the minute I hugged him goodbye, the tears began to flow…. What a cliché! I suddenly had flashbacks of all of the times when I was there for him – and the times when I wasn’t. I remembered all of the little league games I attended – and the many more that I missed.  I remembered the tears and the laughter. I remember the times we spent playing music together – and especially the time he came up to me – guitar in hand and asked if I would teach him to play Harry Chapin’s song, “Cat’s in the Cradle…”  I was really busy - in the middle of something, I recall, but what was I going to say, “No – I’m too busy to teach you to play ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’?”  I remembered the times that I was filled with pride and the moments of disappointment as well; the times I was there and when I was absent. All of the memories of fatherhood came flowing out at that moment.

Now, I know I’m not the only parent who has experienced a flood of emotion when sending a child off to college – but the experience is very real nonetheless – many of you have experienced it…. Some of you will in the near future. There are moments in our lives when we are acutely aware of the limits of time, of our inability to slow down the clock - to hold on and be present – to take in the beauty and the pain of seeing our lives pass by us and through us – as though in an instant.  Try as we might to gain control of time –to somehow bypass the laws of nature – we cannot.  That is the price of our mortality.  All we can do is to savor each precious moment we are given.

Just a few moments ago, we read these powerful words from the Torah:  Atem Nitzavim – kulchem hayom – Lifnei Adonai Eloheychem.  You are all Nitzavim –before Adonai Your God.

I deliberately didn’t translate the word Nitzavim because it is filled with nuance.  Nitzavim is often translated as “Standing” – but it means much more.  It implies standing at attention - like a soldier, or an athlete – waiting for an command to be issued, or a ball to be snapped, or the starter’s gun to go off – fully present –awake - aware, prepared for whatever comes next. 

Nitzavim means that there are can be no distractions – we are fully focused on what is in front of us.

·         It is increasingly becoming more and more difficult to stand as we did at Sinai - Nitzavim

·         We live in a society that places distractions and obstacles in front of us nall the time.

·         I have a colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Miller who is the Sr. Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham AL.  Rabbi Miller announced the following to his congregation on Rosh HaShanah: 

"Saturday, September 14 is a big football day," the announcement said. "Some of Temple Emanu-El, and all of the clergy, are college football fans. It is because of our support (that) the past seven National Championships have been won by the Southeastern Conference and, the last four, in Alabama. On Yom Kippur, and the hours afterward, we will not discuss or even insinuate the scores of football games. It is a violation of our Holy Day, and it will ruin the post Break-The-Fast experience some of us hope to have when the day ends. No scores, or high fives, or Roll Tides or War Eagles. If even a peep gets out, our pages in the Book of Life will be compromised and all of us will suffer."

The message is clear.  Even though almost anyone has access to the scores on their smart phone - Yom Kippur trumps football.  But there is another message as well.  We have the power to access information at any time and any place – but that doesn’t mean we should.  There are moments when we need to be fully focused on what is in front of us. 

And this isn’t always easy.

o   We possess technologies that claim that they can allow us to bypass the limits of time – promising the ability to be in multiple places at the same time.

o   We hold in the palms of our hands the incredible power of social media – of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and whatever new app is currently being developed.  Social media has helped to overthrow governments, find lost children, prevent tragedies from occurring –

o   but I fear that it has also threatened our ability to be in touch with the sacred experience of being present – in the moment;  and replaced it with an obsession over what we are missing….

Information has become the most powerful currency in our modern world.  We want to be “plugged in” – in contact with everyone and everything.  I am as guilty as anyone – I love my phone.  I’m constantly checking email, facebook, twitter and instagram.  Siri and I are on first name basis. I have an extra battery in my cell phone case so I’m never out of power.  If I discover that I left my cell phone at home and am without it for a couple of hours, I get nervous.    I either leave wherever I am and go home to retrieve it or, more often than not, I call Sue to see if she can drop it off at Temple if she hasn’t left for work yet.  Without my cell phone, I tend to go through a sense of withdrawal.

And I’m not alone.  How many times have you been in a restaurant and seen a table full of young people who all have their noses buried in their phones?  Instead of engaging the people around them, they are carrying on multiple conversations at once.  We announce to the world where we are, who we are with, what we are doing, but in the process of doing so – we lose the ability to be fully present.  I recently learned of a custom where, when a group of people are at a restaurant together, everyone is required to set their phones to “vibrate” and then the phones are placed, face down, in the center of the table.  If a phone rings, nobody knows whose it is.  The first person to reach for the pile of ringing phones to see if the call is for him or her has to pick up the check for the entire table.  Try that the next time you’re out for dinner…..

Research has shown that there is a physical component to our addiction to technology.  Several recent studies show that access to information stimulates the dopamine receptors in our brains – giving us instant gratification – but leaving us wanting more and more stimulation.  These result in what can only be described as “Information Loops” that cause us to go from one click to the next on the internet as we totally lose track of time.[1]
Judaism teaches us to be present – to be Nitzavim – whenever and wherever we can.
At the beginning of our service last night we recited the Bracha:
/v®Z©v i©n±z‹k UbŠgh°D¦v±u Ub¨n±h¦e±u Ub²h¡j¤v¤J 'oŠk«ug¨v Q†kœ¤n 'Ubœ¥vO¡t ²h±h 'v¨T©t QUrŠC
We praise You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who gives us life, sustains us, and brings us to this sacred time.
The Shehechianu is a prayer that we say almost routinely.  And yet, if we truly examine its message, it teaches that we need to be aware of the fact that we are in the middle of something holy – something wondrous.  God has brought us – it says – to this moment.  Time is sacred. Let us acknowledge it. Let us savor it.  It truly is a gift.

Of all of the gifts that Judaism has given the world, none is more precious than an awareness of the precious nature of time.  And of all the rituals and observances that teach us this important truth – none is more important than Shabbat.  Shabbat is more than simply a weekly observance with prohibitions and rituals.  It is a way to see the world.  The concept of Divine Rest, I believe is one of the most radical and powerful ideas that has ever been formulated. In the book of Genesis, God gives us Shabbat as a parting gift.  Shabbat is the reward for creation and a motivation for celebrating the fact that we are created.  When we understand the true meaning of Shabbat, we are, in essence transforming ourselves from creatures who live for the purpose of sustaining ourselves, competing for limited resources and avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, to partners with the unfolding of meaning and purpose in the Universe.

The great 20th Century theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a book called The Sabbath that transformed my understanding of the power and beauty of Shabbat.  Indeed for several generations of modern Rabbis, this short book was and continues to be – a pivotal centerpiece of personal theology.   Heschel writes:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space.  Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space: on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.  It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.[2]

In other words, Shabbat is the day in which we turn away from the trappings of the physical world – the pleasures and the pain; the labor and the logistics, the planning and the profit-making – and focus on the simple fact that we are so incredibly fortunate to be able to be alive.  For six days, Heschel writes, we create things, we labor in the fields of our daily toil – but one day a week – instead of creating – we focus on the fact that we are CREATED. Instead of making, spending or wasting time – we mark time – with our prayers, our joy, our loved ones and our community.

Shabbat is a window into something much bigger than ourselves- an opportunity to put away the trappings of our complicated world and share in the beauty of the fact that we are fortunate enough to be alive.  Shabbat is the day when we put aside all of the distractions of our modern world and focus on being present – with ourselves, our loved ones and our community.

Some of you know that this past Spring, during the 6 weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, we shook things up a bit on Friday nights here at Temple.  We changed the times of services, offered new alternative worship options and created opportunities to gather together as a community before and after services. We asked for your feedback and received some important information.  Our goal was – and still is - to use the experience of Shabbat worship to build a stronger sense of community among our members and worshippers.

All in all – our experiment was a success – although we made a few mistakes along the way.  We learned that, for many of our congregants, the familiar rhythms and melodies that have been a part of Temple Emanuel for decades are a vitally important touchstone to the past and to their personal spiritual journey.  We also learned that there are many who are hungering for new opportunities to explore ritual and liturgy.  We learned that every time we gather together:  whether in song, in prayer or merely to share food, we elevate the spiritual components of our lives.  Finally, we also have learned that in order for any change to be lasting and important, it cannot only come from the clergy and staff.  We need to involve all of you – the members of our congregation.

This year, we are continuing our quest to reshape Shabbat at Temple Emanuel,  We have a series of initiatives and programs designed to strengthen our sense of community and connection through Shabbat.  We have some changes in store – but before we finalize anything, we need to hear from you.  As part of our initiative, we will be creating multiple opportunities for individuals and small groups to talk about what Shabbat means to you.  This afternoon, during the study session that follows the morning services, Rabbi Immerman and a core group of facilitators will be teaching about and listening to your input on Shabbat and how it impacts your lives.  I encourage you all to come and be part of the conversation. During the coming weeks and months there will be other opportunities to share your thoughts and feelings as well.

As we learned in our experiment, not everybody wants change and so, any changes instituted will be small, gradual and there will many opportunities for traditional worship experiences.  One thing that will remain constant, however, will be our desire to use the Shabbat experience as a way to strengthen and build our sense of communal connectivity.

My friends, Shabbat is a gift.  It provides us with an opportunity to experience life fully – purposefully.  Shabbat also teaches us the importance of community.  When we come together in prayer, we are not only fulfilling our own spiritual needs – but we are helping those around us do so as well.  Jews don’t pray alone.  We need a community for true prayer and true connection to God to occur.

It was said that The Baal Shem Tov – the founder of the Chasidic movement – used to pray for hours at a time.  So intense were his prayers, that he would appear to be transformed and transported to another world.  His disciples, while pious, never were able to reach the same heights of spiritual bliss as their master and, invariably, after two or three hours of prayer – they would stand around and watch as the Baal Shem Tov continued – seemingly oblivious to their presence.  One day, one the students said to his fellows, “Why don’t we just sneak out for a while – he won’t notice.  We can come back in an hour and he won’t have moved an inch.”  That seemed to make sense to the others, and so they decided to leave the synagogue for a brief respite.  As soon as they started to leave, the Baal Shem Tov turned with a start and cried out:  “What happened?”  The chagrinned students admitted that they had finished their prayers and were getting restless.

“Don’t you understand?”  said the Baal Shem Tov.  “When I pray, I ascend a ladder to heaven.  Each of you becomes one of the rungs on that ladder.  When you left, I could no longer continue, for the foundation upon which all of my prayers was based was taken away from me.

My friends, as we enter into a new year – let us strive to find the meaning and purpose that so much of society strips from us.  Let us learn to support one another – in joy and in sorrow – so that we can experience the beauty of the world around us.  We have the tools at our disposal to help put our lives in perspective – chief among them is the gift of building our community through Shabbat observance.

May the coming year bring with it opportunities for all of us to savor every minute with which we are blessed.  And may we bring that blessing into the world.
AMEN Shabbat Shalom, Chatimah tovah.

Yom Kipppur Yizkor - 5774 - Floods

It just so happened that, in the middle of our Yizkor service, torrential rains and hailstorms hit several surrounding communities.  AS a result, alarms went off on people's cell phones - even though they were in silent mode.  This made our service and my words all the more powerful.

Yom Kippur Yizkor - 5774

The past few days we have watched as torrential rains took their toll on our state of Colorado.

We have seen

·         roads closed

·         Houses washed away

·         Rivers overflowing their banks

·         While, for most of us, the rains have provided minor inconveniences, we know that members of our congregation have been affected and that lives have been lost.

In thinking about what I might want to say this afternoon for Yizkor, I thought about the image of the rains and the rivers that have overflowed their banks.

In many ways, we are like rivers  - our lives also flow between the banks of our own, personal boundaries.  We move through the events, expectations, compromises and covenants by and through which we gauge the passage of time and the fulfillment of our expectations.  There are moments in our lives when our banks overflow - when we cannot contain the feelings, the emotions, the passions which course through our veins like a raging torrent. 

Along the banks of our own, personal rivers, there are high points which teach us of the meaning and purpose of our very existence.   When we stand under the chuppah;  when a child is born; when we hold the torah for the first time as a Jew by choice;  when we overcome illness or misfortune;  when we stand with our children or grandchildren as they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah -  these are defining moments of our lives [PAUSE] .... when our banks overflow with joy and happiness.

But there are low points as well - when, instead of flooding, we experience drought.  When a cherished loved one dies, a marriage fails, illness strikes cruelly and unexpectedly  - all too often we find ourselves in the midst of a barren, dry river bed - parched and utterly alone.  We gaze up at the heights along the banks - we cannot seem to find a way to climb up out of the abyss.

For many of us, these times when the banks of our lives are changing - whether overflowing or drying up - are unnatural. We often don't know how to deal with them.  I cannot tell you how many times when, as a rabbi, I deal with people at times of great joy or great crisis and they do not know what to do.  "Rabbi," they say, "I promised myself that I wouldn't cry at my son's Bar Mitzvah."  Or, "Rabbi, I can't allow myself to break down at my mother's funeral - I don't want to lose control - I'm afraid that I might never get it back....

I want to tell these people: “Good! Go ahead and cry!!!  Lose control - that’s what you’re

supposed to do.” 

All too often we build walls around ourselves to keep from overflowing or to serve as reservoirs during times of drought. We create artificial levies and dams to prevent the floods from disrupting our daily routines.  We build bridges in vain to avoid confronting the realities of daily life.  We try to keep an even keel - always on top of things, always in control.  We strive for control during these high and low points in our lives.  And yet walls and bridges cannot really help us.  They cannot give us strength during times of emotional drought - nor can they prevent the floods of feeling from overcoming us.    Like the floods of the past few days, like the droughts we know all too well, eventually, these defenses will be broached - and we can find ourselves at the mercy of events and feelings - and we don't know what to do because we have not allowed ourselves to experience the power of letting our emotions, our feelings, our joy, our fear, our pain....overflowing .

Today – our sanctuary is filled with the awareness of loss.  We remember our loved ones whose lives/ whose love flowed through like mayim chayim – living waters . Their absence is palpable.  Our defenses and our protective banks are overflowing with grief and love that grows stronger every day with memory.  Now is the time to allow ourselves to feel their loss – to let our banks overflow as we are flooded with memory.

Memory is both a gift and responsibility.  When our tears and our emotions flow freely we realize that we are not in control – we are subject to our mortality and the gift of love that we have been given.

To grieve is to acknowledge that we have loved.  To love is to understand the power of relationship – the ability to share life’s moments – the highs and the lows – the droughts and floods – with another beautiful soul who made everything just a little more perfect than it would have been without them.

So this afternoon, if the banks of our tears overflow with the reality of loss – this is how it should be.  Know that no one here grieves alone – that, my friends, is the gift of community.

Floods can be devastating – but they also can bring new life to parched soil.  May our grief give way to hope for a better tomorrow – and may God’s presence bring comfort to all who grieve.