Thursday, October 13, 2016

Digging Beneath The Surface - Kol Nidre, 5777

Dear Friends,
In 1982, I began my Rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.  During that seminal year my classmates and I not only engaged in Hebrew language and text study, but we also explored Israel from top to bottom.  We were immersed in the midst of modern Israeli society as studied the ancient history of our homeland.
One of the most memorable experiences during that wonderful year was the opportunity to participate in an archeological dig at Tel Dan.  I learned several important lessons during that week at the dig.  The first was that while Archeology can be a very exciting field, the ratio of time spent digging, scraping brushing and schlepping to the excitement of actual discovery is tilted strongly towards the former and against the latter. The second thing I learned is that being on a dig is hard and sometimes monotonous work.  The image of the archeologist as a swash-buckling “Indiana Jones” makes for good movies, but has little, if any bearing on the realities on the ground.  The truth is that archeology is as much (if not more) about shvitzing than scholarship.  The third thing I learned is that dirt from a dig is stubborn:  it tends to stick around – even after showering….. But I’m not going to say anything more about that.  This is Yom Kippur after all…..
I recently came across a story about an exciting archeological find that I want to share with you tonight.It seems that an enormous monument has been discovered at the World Heritage site of Petra in Jordan. According to a study recently published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, a team of  Archaeologists[i] stumbled across it during a routine scan of the site using high-resolution satellite imagery and aerial drone photography.  The structure is roughly as long as an Olympic-size swimming pool and twice as wide. It sits only about half a mile south of the center of the ancient city[ii].This new discovery was in an area that had been familiar to scholars for decades.  Many people had walked past it and on it without realizing that it was fertile ground for excavation.
The most exciting – and perhaps embarrassing - aspect of this discovery was that, unlike most other great finds of the past that were buried beneath the shifting sands of history, this monument was not hidden at all.  It was there in plain sight  -but no one had recognized that it was an area of importance.
Tonight is Kol Nidre.  Tonight we come to this sacred place to stand together as both a community and as individuals to acknowledge our frailties and embrace our hopes.  Tonight, we join together with other congregations and communities all over the world to acknowledge that, like those Archeologists in Petra, we, too have been blind to the basic truths of our lives that have been lying in plain sight – but we cannot see them.
Our goal, over the next 24 hours is to dig deep so that we might uncover the layers of denial, obstruction and obfuscation that prevent us from being true to our authentic selves and our souls.  But our task is more than simply self-flagellation. If we are to truly take advantage of the meaning of this holy day, in addition to digging deep to find our flaws, we also must look for a counter balance in the holiness around us that, all too often we ignore – even though it is right in front of us.
On this holiest night of the year, I want to address this concept that something so huge and important is right in front of our noses but we are blind to it unless and until we make a conscious effort to open up our eyes. This is the basis for what I believe to be one of, if not THE most important and beautiful elements of our tradition.
Tomorrow Morning we will read the following passage at services:
אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֑ם
Atem nitavim kulchem hayom lifnei Adonai Eloheychem
“You are all standing this day before Adonai your God”[iii]
On Yom Kippur we remember and relive the experience of standing directly before God.  At the foot of that mountain there was no doubt of God’s presence or the meaning and purpose that defines us as members of a Holy People.
And yet, Judaism teaches that holiness is found not only at sacred places and times…but every day and everywhere we allow ourselves to be open to the possibility that we
·        like Moses at the burning bush,
·        like Sarah upon being told that she would bear a child
·        like Jacob when he dreamed of a ladder extending into the heavens,
…..are standing in God’s presence.  Holiness is not something that is bestowed from above –it is everywhere we find ourselves.  Our task is to uncover it and bright it to light.  We see this most profoundly in the Jewish concept of a beracha – a Blessing.
There are Berachot - blessings - for almost every aspect of our lives.  We bless before and after we eat.  We make a Beracha when we light candles, when we wake up in the morning and when we go to bed at night.  There are blessings for seeing beauty in nature and escaping misfortune.  There are blessings for hope and blessings for fear; Blessings for wonder and blessings for discernment; Blessings for our country and blessings for peace.
The interesting thing about a beracha is that is does not bestow holiness; it reveals it. When we eat a piece of bread and say Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melech Ha-Olam, Ha motzi Lechem Min HaAretz – Praised are You, Eternal our God, who brings forth bread from the earth - we are not making the bread or even the act of eating holy, rather we are acknowledging the sacred nature inherent to our meal.  Similarly, when I, as a Rabbi, say a blessing over a newborn baby, a bar or bat mitzvah boy or girl or a wedding couple – I am not infusing them with holiness; rather, I am illuminating the sanctity that is part and parcel of who they are. Berachot, in many ways are like archeology.  Their purpose is to peel away the layers of ordinariness upon which we walk every day and uncover the treasure and the majesty that lies just beneath the surface of our daily lives.
Spirituality is about being awake – aware.  Judaism teaches that we need to see the world around us, not merely in terms of shapes and shadows, but rather in meaning and purpose.
In the Torah reading that we will read tomorrow afternoon, we will hear the words:
קְדשִׁ֣ים תִּֽהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:
Kedoshim Tihyu, Ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheychem
You shall be holy, for I, Adonai you God, am holy
This vital passage teaches us that holiness is inherent to our very nature. It is found in relationship to the world around us when we acknowledge that we were created as holy beings – with a Divine purpose, living in a world where God’s presence is everywhere – but we can only see it if we attuned to finding it beneath the surface of the superficiality of daily life.  Blessings, if we truly apply them, are the antidote to the cynicism, monotony and ordinariness that accumulate day after day, month after month, and year after year.
The Great 20th Century Theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”[iv]
The opportunity to view the world as sacred is a precious gift.  It forces us to appreciate and celebrate the fact that we are alive.
At the same time, when we engage in the act of peeling away the layers of ordinariness and uncovering what is underneath, we must not stop at the beauty and wonder that we unearth, we also must confront the unpleasantness as well. 
As Jews, we are called to be a holy people. Our prophetic tradition demands that we speak out and act whenever and wherever we see ugliness and evil in our society.  Whether it is in the vulgar words and actions of our leaders – or those who strive to become our leaders - or in our own backyards, we cannot be silent when we see our values and ideals being trampled in the arena of public discourse and policy.
On Rosh HaShanah morning, Rabbi Immerman spoke forcefully and powerfully about how we must address the racism that continues to poison our society.  It is real.  It is rampant and it is being used as a weapon – not only against the most vulnerable but as a political tool to inspire fear and conformity.
Tomorrow afternoon, at 2:00 PM – concurrent with our family service, I want to encourage everyone who is able (pause) to attend an important presentation by the Reverends Amanda Henderson and Tawana Davis of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.  Entitled:  “Peeling Away the Layers: Facing Racism in our Community,” we will begin what I hope will become an ongoing conversation about how we can listen to one another, share our stories and our fears and, in the process of doing so, confront and work towards recognizing and repairing the racism that is embedded in our society. 
Now I understand that for some, this not a simple issue: it can be controversial – and people feel very strongly about it.  But let us start from a place of acknowledging that, regardless of our own personal experience, there are many in our community who feel that they are victims.  We need to hear their stories and try to understand their experience. 
This will not be an easy task – but, if we are to be honest with ourselves and our souls, we have no other choice.  I hope to see you tomorrow afternoon.
When we peel away the layers, we see both the holiness  and the ugliness as well.  Sometimes it feels overwhelming. We cannot possibly address every ill that plagues us, but we also cannot stand idly by.  And so, we need to try to make a difference – one step at a time.  As we heard from our Temple president, Ellen Abrams on Rosh Hashanah, our Board of Trustees has decided to participate in a very important program called Family Promise that addresses the painful issue of homelessness in Denver.  I am very familiar with this program because I brought it to my former congregation in Albuquerque where it was not only implemented with great success, but it also made a huge impact on our community.
Family Promise is part of a national network that was created to deal with the issue of vulnerable families without housing in our nation.  A few facts: 
·        On any given night, there are 750,000 people on the streets of our nation, with somewhere between 1.3 and 2 million people experiencing homelessness over the course of a year. 
·        According to the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative, the estimated number of homeless men women and children in our community is about 4,000 a night.  
·        Today, families make up about 49% percent of the people who become homeless.
·        The typical homeless family consists of a young unmarried mother with two or three small children. [v]
Family Promise was created to help address the national problem of families who have lost their housing.  Here’s how it works:
We will be joining forces with 13 other host congregations in our community who have been part of Family Promise for several years and have found it to be a powerful and rewarding experience.  In a nutshell, , what we will be asked to do is to open our up our doors for one week –four to five times a year – and house no more than 14 carefully screened and selected individuals – about 3-4 families at a time  - who are in transition.  These families – our guests - explode the myth of what homelessness looks like in our community.   These are not panhandlers standing on the street corner.  They are men, women and children who are living on the edge – one paycheck away from disaster.  They are multi-generational families and single parents. Most of them are “newly-homeless.”  Whether through illness, injury or job loss, they have found themselves without a place to stay.  Through a variety of social service agencies in the city, they are referred to Family Promise where they are carefully screened.    Family Promise does not only provide temporary housing - their social workers also work closely with each family – guiding them as they search for apartments, daycare and jobs.  They provide them with training, coaching and counseling.  Most families are part of the program for no more than three months .  Each host congregation provides their guests with a safe place to sleep, food, companionship, comfort and stability during a period of great stress and vulnerability.   Our task, as a host congregation, will be to coordinate the transformation of three rooms in our building into temporary housing for one week.  We will also cook meals, come up with activities for our guests, play with and tutor the children and provide transportation.  Families arrive at the Temple at 7:00 at night and leave before 7:00 in the morning.  They have a 24 hour social worker who is always on call.  Family Promise provides us with a  beds and a van for rides to and from a separate day center where the parents work hard to get themselves back on track.
Our Board of Trustees has already formed a motivated and dynamic coordinating committee chaired by Suzie Moss, Sherrie Stark and Deb Herman.  We also have a committed group of initial volunteers who are ready to get started.  But it isn’t enough.  In order for this program to work we will need many helpers.  Most volunteer positions require a minimum of effort.  Some tasks require more.  Family Promise provides training for all participants.  We will need drivers, cooks, and cleaning crews.  We will need volunteers to stay overnight at the Temple, set tables and play with the children and help them with their homework.  Most congregations require anywhere from 80 to 150 volunteers to make the program successful.   There is no doubt in my mind that this is not only doable, but essential for our congregation.  
Following services tonight in the Sisterhood lounge and all day tomorrow, we will have informational material available in the foyer.   You also will see members of our staff, our trustees and the Family promise coordinating committee who are wearing buttons that say:  “Ask me about Family Promise at Temple Emanuel.”  Go up to them.  Ask them questions.   We will be having several informational meetings in the coming weeks for those who are interested in learning more about the program.  The next meeting will be Wednesday, October 26th here at Temple.  We also have set up a page on our website that explains the process as well.  If you have any interest whatsoever in exploring the possibility of volunteering for this program please let us know.  No one is being asked to make a commitment at this time.  Everyone can participate in some way – regardless of age or ability. 
My friends, our nation is experiencing what can only be described as great trauma during this election cycle.  Too many of us are disturbed, disillusioned and dismayed as we witness the debasing of basic human dignity playing out in front of us.  While we cannot fix our political system overnight, we can commit to focusing our energies and our resources towards the good – towards Tikkun Olam  - repairing some of the brokenness that surrounds us every day. 
Over the next 24 hours we will be coming together as a community to peel away the layers of our personal flaws and foibles as well as our communal malaise and avoidance.  Let us pledge at this most sacred time to try to see the holiness around us.  Let us use our capacity to bless as a tool to uncover - not only the beauty that surrounds us, but also the ugliness.  We know that the task is great, but we also have the ability and the responsibility to actualize the God-given gifts that each of us possess to make ourselves and our world just a little bit better.
G’mar chatimah Tovah - May we all be inscribed and sealed for blessing in the book of life.  AMEN.

[i] Sarah Parcak and Christopher Tuttle
[iii] Deuteronomy 29:9
[iv] Heschel:  God In Search of Man

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