Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
This Kol Nidrei night and Sabbath evening is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. Though every Sabbath is a Yom Kippur Katan, a small Yom Kippur, this night is one that every Jew, religious or spiritual, cultural or gastronomic, feels compelled to observe. We begin with unique needs for forgiveness. The prayer book describes the people we aim to be; but, the words aren’t unfamiliar to us. We’ve been those people — humble, forgiving, and fair-minded. Before we finish tomorrow evening, we’ll consider personally and deeply how we can be those people, again, more often. The privilege to begin anew is irresistible.
That’s why I want to tell you about a day that I experienced this past summer. In early August, Lisa and I spent a few days in the Colorado Mountains with dear friends of ours. On one brilliantly beautiful day, my friend and I jumped into his Jeep — the kind with big wheels and an open roof and sides. He insisted that I drive. I love cars so I welcomed the driving challenge. We followed our route to a turnoff in the road. Making a sharp right, we headed straight up a very narrow road for nearly half an hour. Eventually, we stopped in a very small town called Lenado, Colorado. Calling Lenado “very small” makes it sound bigger than it actually is.
After a brief photo-opp, we drove on. I was still behind the wheel. My friend described my driving as white-knuckled all the way up. In my defense, it was a single-lane road with a cliff on the side that left little room for error, and I’m afraid of heights. But, it’s what happened next that left an impression on me, and it wasn’t from the small rocks that ricocheted off the Jeep as they tumbled down the mountain. It was a large SUV. It came around the mountain heading down as we headed up; and, it needed to share the single-lane road with us. Without a sign on the side of the road to lead us, without flashing lights to warn us, and without any policeman to show us who had the right-of-way, the gap between us began to close. My precision white-knuckled maneuver and the other driver’s courtesy enabled us to find a few spare inches to make room for a safe passing for both of us.
As we passed, the other driver and I nodded at each other and the passengers waved a friendly hello. I don’t know what other driver said as he continued on his way, but I looked at my friend and said, “Whoa; that was close!”
It wasn’t the only vehicle that passed us on our ascent. Each time, it happened, I recognized that between the two vehicles, we exchanged a unique non-verbal message. Without police, or signs, or warning lights, we acted instinctively and cautiously each time to save each other from any challenge beyond driving on such a dangerous route, itself; and then we smiled at each other as we passed safely. I thought to myself, such humanity; such awareness of the other.
In cities across America, where traffic signals, warning signs and police patrol nearby, road rage and fits of blaring horns threaten us every day. When was the last time you let anyone merge in front of you and then you received that little wave of “thanks”? When was the last time a driver smiled at your kindness, if you could even see behind the dark tinting on the window? How many of you ever use your turn signal, anymore? In Israel, the story is told about a car accident where one car slammed into the backside of the car in front of him. When the driver confronted the driver he hit in front of him, he demanded, “Why didn’t you use your turn signal?” The other driver, unfazed, replied, “What’s it your business where I’m going?”
I don’t mean to make more of my own white-knuckled drive up the mountain than I should; but, I also don’t want to miss the power of the experience I felt in the contrast of the imminent danger set against extraordinary natural beauty. In that setting, people just like us — over-scheduled, competitive, and impatient in city traffic — became more like the people we prefer to be all the time. It was more than mutual survival that evoked this response on that mountain road; it was the humanity that emerged in a moment when we both depended on it, and when survival, a win-win, was the only outcome that authentic humanity could have accepted.
Talmud teaches that when we do a mitzvah, a sacred deed, heaven and earth touch. But, it doesn’t happen only in bucolic settings or only in joyful moments. I wrote about it in my book about the time when God appeared to Moses in a thorn-bush. In a Midrash, a rabbinic commentary, we’re taught that had God appeared to Moses in beautiful places, in a place like Lenado, we might falsely conclude that God appears only in beautiful mountain settings. So, a thorn bush enables us to conclude that if God can appear there, then God can appear anywhere.
In recent weeks, we all observed that heaven and earth touched where physical beauty was destroyed; where people nodded to each other because they understood their shared pain;, where the wave of the hand said thank you to a first-responder; and, where volunteers showed up to begin the overwhelming task of removing carpet, walls and furniture. The emotional response that brought tears of relief and some joy was the power of a mitzvah. It was the deed we’re commanded to do, not for the sake of a reward, but for the sake of the deed. Some would say that they did it without God’s command. I don’t disagree; but, I would suggest that the inherent knowledge of what must be done and for the reason it must be done is inherent in our Judaism; and, that Judaism finds its source in Adonai, our God.
Further, God’s mitzvahs find their meaning, not simply in having been commanded, but in our choosing to do them. Likewise, the power of this night isn’t simply in having come here to be cleansed by God’s forgiveness, but in our choosing to seek God’s forgiveness.
In our liturgy, we feel some of that tension when we read the U’netaneh Tokef, “Who shall live and who shall die; who shall perish by water and who by fire.” Its words make us shutter. But, is all foreseen, and do we have little to do about it? Though the future is beyond our view, the liturgy doesn’t leave us out of sharing the power of our destiny. The liturgy continues, “U’tefilah, u’teshuva, u’tzedakah,” but prayer, repentance, and charity temper Judgment’s severe decree.
While the Unetaneh Tokef arouses our awareness of life’s fragility, it doesn’t preclude our role in finding our way through it. And, if prayer, repentance and charity can truly affect the course of our future, then it would behoove us to fall into line. But, admonishments aside, the role of our liturgy and our texts is to refresh and renew a relationship we observe in God’s covenant with us.
Prayer engages us with a Power greater than ourselves; and, rather than make us feel insignificant, prayers makes us partners with the Source of life.
A Temple member told me that on the yahrzeit of his son’s death, he finds his way into the sanctuary to pray. He doesn’t open the prayer book. He opens his heart and mind to thoughts and memories. He expresses himself through sorrow and gratitude; sorrow for his obvious loss, but gratitude for what remains. His son found solace in the sanctuary and made some peace with God. They both found more meaning, rather than less, when they acknowledged that despite advances in science, which explained the disease, it was Judaism that guided them how to live with the disease, and later, how both his parents chose to remember their son.
Next, repentance enables us to repair our ways without being condemned or losing face. The gift of life endures with opportunities to find wholeness along the way or even at the end of our days. In Torah, tomorrow afternoon, we’ll read, “Kedoshim tiheyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem…” You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy. It means that human holiness is in the future; it’s a work in progress. But, it can also mean that we’re already holy. As God is holy, so shall we be holy. No one is outwardly perfect, but there is already a spark of God’s holy creative acts in everybody. We have to reveal it by heeding the prophet Micah who said, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”
Tzedakah is more difficult to explain. It’s not just charitable giving. To give charity means to give out of love. Frankly, we can’t wait for love to happen before we give. What if it doesn’t come? So, Tzedakah is our word, and it means justice. Our obligation is to restore justice by making people whole again after facing losses or damages.
There’s no greater example than what has happened in Houston in recent weeks. The injustice of the storm affected everybody, even if you weren’t personally flooded. Our immediate and on-going efforts are to make people whole again. Economic, emotional, and spiritual wholeness are just the beginning. It’s heartening to know that just after the storm, hundreds of donations and contributions arrived in the Jewish community. Responding to the obligation of tzedakah, donors all over the world sent help quickly. There was no time to waste restoring people to their lives and livelihoods. The future we wish to see is well in hand.
Ancient and modern, Jewish and American, all these teachings spell out what our obligation is to do with what we’ve been given. As children in America, we were reared on these basic lessons in school, and we learned them again in the synagogue, too. As adults, we’ve come to understand the profound choices we have been given in a world we share with God as Partner. Created in God’s image, the gift of our life is not to be misspent. The gift of our life finds its deepest value in the ways that we cherish that gift. Though much is beyond our view and understanding, there is even more that we can choose to see and know.
The power to be a choosing people is a blessing. It’s a blessing, because we are also Reform Jews who are reared on autonomy. First found in Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy, we learn, “See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil, in that I command you this day to love the LORD your God, to walk in God’s ways, and to keep God’s commandments, statutes and ordinances…I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore CHOOSE LIFE, that you and your offspring may live.”
Later, in Mishneh Pirkei Avot, Chapters of the Fathers, we’re taught, “All is foreseen, but freewill is given.” About that, a story is told that a rabbi was teaching his students this text, “All is foreseen, but freewill is given,” when a curious student asked the rabbi, “Do you believe that?” The wise rabbi replied, “Do I have a choice?”
Now, I took you up the mountain; it’s time to bring you down. Before my friend and I headed down, we drove up as far as we cared to go. We stopped to appreciate the scenery one more time. We stood up on the Jeep’s seats and looked as far as our eyes could see. It was magnificent. It’s still a sight that I can see whenever I want to go back to that place in my mind. It renews my spirit and helps me see well beyond these challenging weeks.
Then it was time to descend. To do so, I had to make a 3-point turn on the dirt road with the perilous cliff on one side. I prepared. I turned sharply to the left, facing the cliff ahead of us. In what I could only describe as a “Thelma-and-Louise” moment (if you remember the movie), I shifted into reverse, grabbed my friend’s left arm, and hit the gas. We lurched backwards just as I had hoped the Jeep would do. Then, collecting myself with a full breath of thin mountain air, I shifted into drive and finished the maneuver.
When we finally returned to the beginning of the turn-off where we began, my friend told me that as we descended the one-lane road to lower elevations, he noticed that I loosened my tight grip on the steering wheel and even drove the last mile with only one hand. Now, I’ve always had faith in God, but there’s nothing like terra-firma to validate that faith.
Some might say that God was steering the Jeep that day. I prefer to acknowledge that God placed into my white-knuckled hands many free-will choices as I steered us up and down that mountain. However, I am grateful that God foresaw our successful return home, just as I had hoped it would be. Now, as for my friend, I think I made a greater believer out of him; not that he had a choice. Or, did he?
On this sacred night, may we all find in God’s presence the gift of our own life, and feel compelled to choose from all that God has given us to make it a life well-lived. Amen.