My Dear Friends,
This past summer, I taught a class called EmanuElders . All of the participants were over the age of 50. According to the Mishnah , when we have experienced 5 decades of life we can give advice to others. During our 6 sessions together, we studied the book of Ecclesiastes, (or Kohelet) and each participant was given an opportunity to write an Ethical Will – to a family member, a dear friend, or to the community at large. An Ethical Will is a document in which the writer shares the values they want to pass on to their loved ones, community or anyone who cares to read it. The process of sitting down and writing helps us to think about what is truly important in our lives and provides a beautiful way to share a legacy of love and caring with the next generation. If you have never written an ethical will, I would encourage you to do so. You don’t need to be over the age of 50 and I’m happy to talk to anyone who wishes to learn more about the process .
Some of the participants in the EmanuElders class will be presenting their Ethical Wills to the Congregation at our 1st day Sukkot morning services on Tuesday, September 21st at 11:00 AM– outdoors in our tent and congregational Sukkah, and I invite everyone to join us – either in person or online - for what promises to be an inspiring way to begin the festival.
The last time I wrote an ethical will was 27 years ago, when Ethan was born:
• on Rosh HaShanah;
• on Labor Day and
• on his Due date.
This was the first and only time during the 34 years of my Rabbinate that I was not at Rosh Hashanah services. But 10 days later, on Yom Kippur, I gave a sermon that was both a letter and an ethical will to my newborn son that spelled out my hopes, fears and dreams for his life. I have never written another one since…until now.
As many of you know, next month, our daughter, Elana – Ethan’s older sister - will be standing under the Chuppah with her beloved Greg, and I will have the supreme honor of officiating at their wedding. While I’m told that members of our clergy team have placed bets on how many minutes into the ceremony it will take until I am a blubbering mess – I am committed to making sure that this will not happen and that I will be able to make it through the ceremony without losing it….too much. Their wedding was supposed to have taken place last October, but, like so many others planning weddings, we made the difficult decision to wait another year – hoping that our isolation would be long gone by now and that we would be able to celebrate without any restrictions…. Obviously, the reality of this Pandemic means that we will be taking additional precautions involving proof of vaccines and testing, but we are determined to safely celebrate together no matter what happens. As you can imagine, this has been a central focus of our lives, and so, on this Kol Nidre Eve, I ask you to indulge me as I present my second ethical will – this time to my daughter on the eve of her wedding.
My Beloved Elana,
In less than a month we will be standing together under the Chuppah. Writing this seems almost surreal – how can your mom and I be old enough to have a daughter who will soon be married to the love of her life? We could not have asked for a better son-in-law than Greg – he loves and cares for you, he is brilliant, kind, gentle and funny - and we have grown to love him as another son. Last month, you celebrated your 30th birthday – just about the same age as your mom and I when we were married in Minneapolis 32 and a half years ago. This time of waiting for your wedding have been difficult, and yet, it has also given us an opportunity to step back and think about what is truly important in our lives– and in yours as well.
I know that I am addressing you in public on this holiest night of the year and that my words will be heard by hundreds, if not thousands of others – so, I will do my best to try not to embarrass you…too much. The truth is, I feel a special responsibility to speak to you before your wedding because you always say that Ethan is our favorite child – I wrote one for him – and so, to even things out you will have one as well.
And for the record, you ARE our favorite daughter…
I must confess, I am glad that you are not here in person– even though right now you are just a few blocks away - watching this service online with our family at our home while you, Greg and Greg’s wonderful mother, Lee are visiting from New York. I don’t think I would be able to get through these words if you were sitting here in this sanctuary. As my colleagues will tell you, I have found that the older I get, the harder it becomes to hold back tears – and not only at intense times like tonight, but at silly ones as well – like watching TV commercials or hearing songs from my childhood. I also find myself weeping during powerful moments – like Rabbi Hyatt’s amazing Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon – or at especially poignant life-cycle events. But increasingly, I also tend to get choked up at weddings….. Every time I’m blessed to stand under a Chuppah with a couple, I can’t help but picture you and Greg – surrounded by the most important people in your life – seeing the love, excitement, and joy that you both radiate when you are together. But I promise that I will do everything I can to hold it together at your wedding – at least through the ceremony.
Lani – I don’t need to tell you that it’s hard to be a rabbi’s kid. Throughout your childhoods, you and Ethan have often been in the spotlight. I’ve written, spoken, and sung about you in public. You’ve been the subject of many a sermon. You are often prominently featured in my social media posts. Lots of people know things about you – and you have no idea who man of them are - especially in a congregation like Temple Emanuel that is so big and that truly loves and wants to be part of the lives of their clergy. Eleven years ago, when we moved to Denver, you were a sophomore in college – living away from home. Even though we set up a bedroom for you and filled it with your stuff, you only lived here full time for a few months one summer. As such, Denver and Temple Emanuel really don’t feel like home to you – and that makes us a little sad. But - you’re a New Yorker now – and I have never seen you more fulfilled. So, in the balance, mom and I are happy for you; and besides – we now have an awesome place to stay when we come to New York.
Lani - there have been too many times when the demands of my rabbinate have meant that I had to miss some of your important occasions. But, as often as I was called away, I also have powerful memories of when we were all together – moments that were as ordinary as driving to school, sharing meals, or going on vacation. But there were also times that were transitional and transformative – that shaped you – and that shaped your mother and me as well– while we watched in wonder as you took on challenges and set off for new adventures that forever changed your life. Sometimes they were joyous –and sometimes they taught you (and us) painful but important lessons:
• Your first day of Kindergarten
• Watching you chant Torah beautifully at your Bat Mitzvah
• Your frustrations and triumphs in gymnastics
• Middle school…(enough said…)
• Travelling to Israel for the first time to study for a semester abroad
• High School Graduation
• Dropping you off at College
• Graduating from College
• The ups and downs of relationships
• Moving to New York and finding your artistic and professional passions
• And soon, you will be standing under the chuppah with your bashert – your beloved - Greg.
You may not have even been aware– but during those moments, time felt like it was standing still for us – as though a doorway into some unseen corridor had opened and Mom and I stepped back and watched as something wondrous – something holy – was taking place that was beyond our comprehension.
Philosophers and Anthropologists have a name for moments of transition and wonder that take us away from the conscious world into moments of in-betweenness. It’s called the “Liminal.”
Liminality is a term used to describe the psychological process of transitioning across boundaries and borders . The root “limen” comes from the Latin for threshold; it is literally the place in the wall where people move from one room to another. In anthropology and religious studies, liminality is defined as the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.
• The moment just before a bar or bat mitzvah is called to the torah for the first time;
• The instant that a glass is placed on the ground just before it is shattered at a wedding;
• The seconds before the first cry of a newborn baby
• The painful sound of dirt hitting a coffin at a grave
…these are all moments of liminality .
In a very real sense, Lani, these past 18 months of dealing with the pandemic have brought us all to a liminal place and time where we are constantly not what or where we were, yet also not where we needed to be. We have all been caught in the “in betweenness” of waiting, worrying, and wondering if we will ever be able to get back to normalcy – whatever “normal” might mean.
I know you Lani – you don’t do well with ambiguity. At work, you have been given a lot of responsibility to oversee and create big projects - and you’re incredibly good at what you do. You love to meet deadlines and you are happiest when there are few surprises. Patience is not your strong suit. You have an elaborate vision for your wedding, and it will be beautiful and holy – but there are so many factors that are out of our control right now that every one of your buttons are being pushed on a daily basis.
As your father, I wish I could wave a magic wand and assure you that everything will be perfect – but I can’t. Sue, Lee, and I will do everything in our power to make your day perfect – and, truth be told, it will be perfect – not because of the flowers, or the band, or the food, or your dress, or even who can or cannot come – but because you both will be there – and your love is something stronger than any ceremony.
The Torah portion that we will be reading tomorrow begins with the words:
Atem Nitzavim Hayom – Kulchem…”- “You are all standing here today…before Adonai Your God .”
A lesson I’ve taught before is that the Hebrew word, Nitzavim does not only mean “standing” – it means standing at attention, alert – open, aware, and prepared for whatever comes next. To stand “Nitzavim” means that we have stepped outside of the now and entered liminal space and time. At the end of the parasha, when Moses tells the people: “I call Heaven and Earth to witness before you this day…choose Life!” the Torah uses a rhetorical device called a Merism that contrasts two extremes to emphasize the power of the moment. In this case, everything that exists between the Heavens and the Earth (which is everything…) is frozen in time as all of Creation is impacted by God’s presence and power.
Tonight is the holiest night of the year. On Kol Nidre everything is supposed to come sharply into focus. The next 24 hours are about stopping all that we do. We pause. We reflect. We fast. We refrain from daily pleasures and tasks. We remember. We stand, “Nitzavim” as our actions, shortcomings, hopes, and dreams are paraded in front of us. We pledge to do better in the year to come.
Many people chose to wear White on Yom Kippur. Some people choose to wear a Kittel – a special white, robe-like garment that that is traditionally worn on three occasions:
• At your wedding – standing under the Chuppah
• On Yom Kippur
• At your funeral – as a burial garment.
Why these three occasions? Because – our tradition tells us – this is when we are closest to God – when we have the clearest picture of the holiness that has been gifted to us – as well as the fragility of life itself.
This day teaches us to focus on what is truly important in our lives: It’s not about what we have, but who we are. It’s not about what we do – but who we do it with. In the liminal moments of our lives – right now- we are given both an obligation and an opportunity: to look deeply into ourselves and our souls and assess the status of our relationships, our values, and our contributions to society. If we find ourselves lacking in any of these areas (and all of us are…), we are called to perform acts of Teshuvah – of turning – of repentance.
Lani – I know I haven’t always been able to be there for you when you needed me. For that, I ask your forgiveness. I need it. But I would also ask you – and everyone listening to these words tonight - to focus on the holy work that we all need to do- and consider where we may have strayed and missed the mark.
Each year, on Kol Nidre – I urge everyone to find ways to make amends – to fix what is broken in our relationships and our lives. This day is a gift – a moment of liminality during which we are charged and challenged to change. If viewing the brokenness in our lives, our relationships, and our world does not drive us to alter our course and perform the sacred act of teshuva – then we are not living up to the necessity of Nitzavim.
And so, I say to you tonight, my dear daughter – whom I love so much - and to everyone listening or reading these words: Choose Life. Make Amends. Work to fix the brokenness that is all around us. If the past 18 months have taught us nothing else, we know just how fragile and precarious our lives can be – and how our expectations can easily disintegrate in front of our eyes. When all is said and done, what sustains us during the difficult times are not our possessions, but our passions; not where we live, but who we love; not what we acquire, but how we aspire to be better, not the goals we set before ourselves, but the sacred souls that give our lives meaning and purpose every day. And so, I implore us all, once again:
• Tell the people you love that you love them.
• Reach out to those who need you.
• Ask for help from those who want nothing more than to be there for you.
• Make amends with those who have hurt you – and to those whom you have hurt as well.
• Find ways to make a difference and try to bring healing to our world.
Our task – at this liminal moment of vulnerability and accountability is to seek the holiness in our lives and work to make our world better.
The Kol Nidre prayer that we heard so hauntingly beautifully chanted by Cantor Sacks and stunningly performed by our choir and musicians is always recited just before Sunset. The timing is important. It cannot be light, and it cannot be dark. A story is told of a rabbi who asked her students, “How do we know the moment when night ends and day begins?” One student suggested, “Is it when a person can distinguish a sheep from a dog in the distance?” “No, “said the rabbi, it is not.” A second student ventured, “Is it when one can distinguish a date tree and a fig tree from afar?” “It is not that either,” she replied. “Please tell us the answer,” her students begged, “How can we determine when night has ended, and day begun?” “It is when you look into the face of a stranger and see your sister or brother,” said the rabbi. “Until then, night is always with us.”
My Dearest Elana – and everyone with us tonight – the next 24 hours will give us all an opportunity to step away from our daily lives and shed light on what is most important in our lives. Let us use these liminal moments to resolve that we will make connections and forge new pathways of learning, growth, and self-exploration. May we all work to find the holiness in ourselves and those around us. May our prayers bring us closer to God and to one another.
Lastly, I promise that I won’t make you the centerpiece of another sermon…for a while at least. I’ll save the next ethical will for our Grandchildren.