Thursday, September 20, 2018

“In Your Mouth and In Your Heart” - Kol Nidre - 5779

My Dear Friends,
I recently heard a story about a woman was flying from Chicago to Denver. Unexpectedly, the plane was diverted to Omaha along the way.
The flight attendant explained that there would be a delay, and if the passengers wanted to get off the aircraft the plane would re-board in 55 minutes…
Everybody got off the plane except the woman who stoically sat in her seat…
A man noticed her as he walked by and then he saw the seeing-eye dog that lay quietly underneath the seats in front of her. He could also tell that she was a regular on this flight because the pilot approached her, and calling her by name, said, “Kathy, we are in Omaha for almost an hour, would you like to get off and stretch your legs?”
Kathy replied and said, “No thanks, but maybe Buddy would like a little walk.”
The pilot was happy to help her – and took Buddy off the plane and into the terminal.
All the people in the gate area came to a complete stand still when they looked up and saw the sunglasses-wearing pilot walk off the plane with a seeing eye dog! This was followed by a mad rush to the ticket counter to change their flights.
It’s so easy to make snap judgements about the world in which we live, isn’t it? On this holiest night of the year, I want to talk about how we allow our perceptions of the world around us to color - not only the way we see things, but also how we speak to one another.  Let’s start with the prayer that began our service tonight – Kol Nidre.
Kol Nidre is essentially a legalistic formula asking God to not hold us accountable for vows that we will make during the coming year that we cannot fulfill.  That’s it.
But I want to expand our consciousness a bit tonight.  Rather than seeing Kol Nidre as an insurance policy against perjury, perhaps we should also understand it as a petition for forgiveness. Maybe we need to ask God to overlook not just the vows we utter, but also the way we judge others and ourselves:
·         for the words that we say - words that wound;
·         and the words that we do NOT say – words that can heal.

It is a plea for understanding: “God,” we are asking, “…please forgive us for our instinctual, gut-level reactions to the world around us.”  Please forgive us for:
·         Speaking without thinking,
·         Lashing out in anger
·         Judging others based on pre-conceived notions of who they are because of their
o   Ethnic background
o   Skin color
o   Gender
o   Sexuality
o   Political affiliation
·         Forgive us for holding back words that need to be said.
·         Forgive us for remaining silent in the face of bigotry, inequality and abuse
In this light we can see the Kol Nidre prayer as asking God to protect us from ourselves – when we make snap judgements and pronouncements based on our first impressions – when we lash out in anger and when we say stupid things; when we allow our basest impulses to guide our actions.
This past summer, there was an incident which took place at that most hallowed of sacred sanctuaries – Wrigley Field – home of the 2016 world Champion Chicago Cubs – that brought this idea sharply into focus.
The NPR commentator and host of the “Weekend Edition” radio program, Scott Simon, wrote the following:
In the 4th inning of …[a]… game between the Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs first base coach tossed a foul ball to a smiling youngster in the stands who wore a Cubs hat endearingly too large for him. The kid bobbled the baseball. What people saw next in video clips that zapped around the world was a man with close-cropped hair, who sat behind the boy, scoop up the baseball and give it to the woman next to him.
Tweets and other social media posts began a barrage about the man who filched a foul ball from a little boy. There could be no doubt. We saw it.
The Cubs front office quickly dispatched a staffer down to the seats. He gave the youngster a new ball signed by Javy Baez, the Cubs shortstop. The little boy smiled under the brim of his boat-sized hat, and held up two baseballs.
The Cubs tweeted the photo to say, "A @javy23baez signed ball should take care of it."
What the Cubs discovered from people nearby, however, was that the man in question wound up with four balls during the game, and gave three to children, including the young man who had appeared to be swindled. He also gave one to his wife; it was their anniversary.
Julian Green of the Cubs said in a statement, "Unfortunately, a video that was quickly posted and unverified has made a national villain out of an innocent man."
The man doesn't want to be identified, but said through the team, "Many foul balls came our way that day and were happily shared among the children in our area. No one left disappointed. I am not 'that guy' that the media and social media made me out to be[i]
Simon concludes his essay with the question: “How many of us today would rather be outraged than informed[ii]?”
In today’s world of instantaneous electronic social-media driven communication, it is devilishly simple to spread rumors, innuendo and false information with the click of a mouse.  Our basest instincts can be easily satisfied at any time, place or situation.
Indeed, there are many who thrive on and profit from fomenting anger, fear, frustration and creating a sense of outrage – especially during the non-stop political campaigning that has become part and parcel of our daily lives. Just spend 20 minutes watching television during an election year. The personal attacks, alternative facts and abusive syntax that fill our eyes and ears can take their toll. This hateful rhetoric plays on our emotions.  It becomes ingrained into our daily discourse.
The ability to score points by name calling and abusive behavior is, for some, a badge of honor that we see reflected in the highest offices of our land.
Regardless of political perspective, no one in this sanctuary can deny that our nation is bitterly divided.  Partisan pundits and prognosticators have done an excellent job of driving wedges between us.
While this may make for excellent reality Television drama and compelling Twitter feeds, I fear that the overall degradation of civility and discourse is causing a rupture in normative behavior that is essential for a healthy society to flourish.
We have lost the ability to disagree in a respectful manner – and this does not bode well for the future.
As I have said on numerous occasions, dialogue has been replaced by diatribe – and we are all the worse as a result.
In the passage of Torah that we will read tomorrow morning - in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 we find the following:
For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote.  It is not in Heaven that you should say: “Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it down to us, that we may do it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say: “Who will cross the sea for us and bring it over to us, that we may do it?” No, it is very near to you, B’ficha Ul’va-ve-cha in your mouth and in your heart, that you might do it.

B’ficha Ul’va-ve-cha – in your mouth and in your heart.

I’ve read that passage hundreds of times over the years, and I never asked the question: “What does this really mean? Why does the Torah say “…in your mouth and in your heart?" Shouldn’t it say something like: “In your hands and in your heart?”  or " your ears and in your mouth?" This year, however, for several reasons, it is foremost in my thoughts.  And so, I ask the question: 

What is the significance of B’ficha– “in your mouth?”

The great 11th century French Torah commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, or “Rashi” writes “…the Torah has been given to you in writing and orally.”[iii].  this refers to both the written Torah and commentaries. It also means that if words of Torah are “in our mouths” then we can repeat them and pass them down to each generation.

What then, is the significance of B’lavecha – “in your hearts?”
The Psalmist wrote: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Your sight O God.[iv]” When our hearts are in synch with words of Torah, then our words and actions are reflective of our basic values.
But perhaps, there is another way for us to understand this text.  In 1964, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke the following words on the occasion of his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize:
"Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words.  Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart. [v]

In other words, there are moments when it is unnecessary – and perhaps even unseemly to speak. Silence is often the best response to situations in which we find ourselves – especially when we are tempted to give in to the cacophony of criticism and contempt that has polluted our national discourse.

On this day of judgement – Yom Ha Din – we must acknowledge that not only are we being judged – but that we judge others – all the time.  And so, today I want to ask us all to take a pledge – to bring civility into our lives.

·         to learn to listen with our hearts – before we open our lips
·         to see the humanity in every person we encounter – even in those with whom we disagree
·         to move away from talking points – and create building blocks of community and consensus that focus on the inherent worth of every person created in the image of God

But silence is not always the best response to every situation.  There are times when we must speak out. This past year, we have seen how silence can be both criminal and deadly – it can promote and sustain abusive patterns of behavior that destroy lives and perpetuate brutal and dysfunctional systems of oppression.  We have also seen how powerful and brave voices can challenge the status quo and uncover the ugliness that hides beneath the surface.

The Catholic church is now being forced to come to terms with the heavy price of its silence around predatory priests.

The #Metoo movement is freeing women to come forward with disturbing tales of sexual harassment and abuse that in some cases have brought down powerful men and forced all of us to undergo a serious process of Cheshbon HaNefesh – soul searching and repentance. There still is a long way to go – but dramatic progress has been made.

In response to tragic and very public deaths involving celebrities, we have seen a significant increase in and awareness of suicide that is opening doorways by challenging the stigmas around mental health. In turn, we are witnessing the beginning of a national dialogue that is helping us to see that mental illness is a disease that must be addressed openly – without stigma – with compassion and concern.  This November, as part of our ongoing partnership with Rose Medical Center, we will be hosting several programs focusing on a Jewish response to mental health.  Our Jewish community is also coming together to talk about and create doorways of acceptance and welcome that builds upon the pioneering work of Temple Emanuel’s Mental Health Task Force.

But there are still areas where we need to do much, much more.

The epidemic of gun violence that is gripping our nation must also be addressed – publicly and forcefully – in order to prevent more tragic events that are becoming commonplace in our public spaces. If the horrors of Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and hundreds of other locations that have turned into monuments to monstrosity - where the blood of innocents cries out to us from the ground ; if these do not cause us to stop and think about the insanity of gun worship that has taken the lives of thousands upon thousands of men, women and children then we, as a nation, are guilty of the sins of indifference, idolatry, and self-absorption. It’s one thing to protect the right of citizens to bear arms. It is quite another to remain silent in the face of mass murder; to do nothing about stopping the influx of assault weapons into our homes, schools, houses of worship and literally every other place where people gather. Are we content with defeatism? Can we accept that that we are powerless to change – or to bring about change? My friends, committing to change is what this holy day is all about.

The inhumanity of an immigration policy that severely limits asylum seekers to a bare trickle and separates parents and children is immoral, un-American, and contrary to our most basic Jewish values. The phrase, “you shall not oppress the foreigner, for you know the heart of the foreigner -having yourselves been foreigners in the Land of Egypt” – occurs no less than 36 times in the Torah. How many of us are sitting here this evening because our ancestors fled from persecution to come to a new land of freedom and hope? How many more perished in the flames of the Shoah because of a State Department that was riddled with well documented anti-Semitism in the 1930’s and 40’s?[vi] If we remain silent in the face of brutality and abuse, then we have no moral standing. If our words and our deeds do not reflect our history, our values and the ache in our hearts, then we are complicit.

The tension around race has brought many to question and challenge the status quo.  African Americans and other minorities are standing up – and in some cases, kneeling down – and refusing to remain silent or complacent in the face of institutionalized and internalized racism. It is easy for those of us whose skin color is not dark to feign ignorance or cast aspersions in response. For those of us who are uncomfortable seeing our own privilege called out, this process is painful and profound. It is hard to acknowledge or affirm the trepidation and fear that people of color endure daily. And yet, a systematic and deeply ingrained pattern of prejudice exists that is part and parcel – not only of our nation’s history, but is also very real on the streets of our cities and the back alleyways of daily life.

These are not political statements – although I know that some of you will interpret them as such.  They come from a deep love of and concern for key Jewish values that guide us as a people. And they are only a few examples of the need to speak out – with our mouths and hearts when intolerance, hatred and violence pollute our society.

During the month of November, Temple Emanuel will be hosting a special exhibition entitled “Talking It Out:  Getting to Agreement.”  We also will be hosting several programs and speakers designed to help us engage in difficult conversations: to listen to one another and find common ground – even with our differences.  I hope that you will seriously consider participating.

But when we think about the phrase B’ficha U’livavecha – with our mouths and our hearts, we also must acknowledge that it is not only with those with whom we disagree that words need to carefully chosen and lovingly bestowed. On this holiest night of the year, we also must recognize that we need to carefully choose our words to those closest to us as well.

  • Sitting here tonight is a teenager who longs for nothing more than to hear a kind word from a parent.  
  • Here among us tonight is a widow – who lives in the crushing empty silence of her home – waiting to hear from a son or daughter who never calls……
  • Here tonight there are families and individuals who are new to our community – who long to hear the words: “Welcome!  Nice to meet you!”  They are looking to build new connections and friendships to fill the emptiness left behind by leaving their former communities.
  • Here tonight is someone who made a big mistake – and who was punished.  Now she is terrified that everyone who looks at her sees only the mistake she made – and not the person she has become.  She, too longs to hear words of comfort and welcome.
  • Sitting here tonight is someone looking for a spiritual path – who is disillusioned by the faith of their family and community and has come to this service to find, perhaps, one last opportunity to connect with God.  This person is looking to hear words of meaning and purpose.
All of these people – and so many others -  are living with words that they long to hear – that they long to say:  words of welcome, words of faith, words of apology – words of forgiveness - words of love – words of hope; words that could build bridges of connection --- words that are frozen in the silence of their absence.

And they are not alone.  All of us, at some time in our life, find ourselves trapped by our inability to find and to use the words that we so desperately need to say to the most important people in our lives – but for whatever reason, we do not.

And so, as I do every year on Kol Nidre, I ask you:  What are the heartfelt words you need to say to those around you? To your family members and your friends? What is holding you back? How can we make amends for the harm we have caused over the past year that has contributed to the climate of confrontation and chaos that has contaminated our national discourse? What are we waiting for?
B’ficha Ul’va-ve-cha – in your mouth and in your heart.

My dear friends – tonight can be a new beginning. Tonight, at this sacred place – in this sacred time – we can change – we can heal – we can make our world a little more holy. We can speak out and make a difference. We can vote in November. We can savor the love and make new connections that will allow us to listen to the possibility of Shalom – of wholeness and fulfillment for which we so desperately strive.

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight – O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.

AMEN – G’mar Chatimah tovah.

[i] Scott Simon on NPR weekend edition – July 28, 2018
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Rashi on Deuteronomy 30:14
[iv] Psalm 19:14
[v] Dr. Martin Luther King:  “The Quest For Peace and Justice.”  Nobel address – December 11, 1964 – Oslo, Norway.
[vi] C.f. Wyman, David S.The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945.New York; Pantheon Books, 1984.  Also – the following Bibliography is an excellent source:

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