Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Kol Nidrei Sermon 5771

The Times They are a-Changin’ -- A Question of Wanting and Needing
Reflections for Kol Nidrei Night 5771
Rabbi Stephen J. Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

Tonight, we recited, we sang, we read, and we heard the words of perhaps the most powerful and significant prayer in all of Jewish liturgy – and also the most underappreciated and misunderstood. Kol Nidrei. A prayer so powerful that we often simply refer to Erev Yom Kippur, the start of our holiest day of the year, as Kol Nidrei. A prayer so important that, in most congregations, NO ONE is allowed to enter or exit the sanctuary from the start of services until its completion. A prayer so significant that even we Reform Jews, who have taken the editor’s knife to most portions of the liturgy that are seen to be in any way redundant or repetitive, repeat it more than once, usually, in some form, the traditional three times.

Kol Nidre is NOT our petition that God forgive us for the sins of omission and the transgressions of the last year! Rather, it is an insurance policy that we hope to take out for the coming year, so that if, after our best efforts to do what is right in the year we are still beginning, we find that we have come up short (and as humans, we always WILL come up short, at least until the arrival of the Messianic Time!), we might come before God NEXT year on Yom Kippur and hope for atonement.

However, at its philosophical core, Kol Nidrei is a prayer about change. It acknowledges our need to change, to improve ourselves. It acknowledges that change is difficult, sometimes darned near impossible, so that we enter the process of trying to change ourselves almost with an expectation that we will at least not succeed completely in our efforts. And it does all this even as we are just beginning our efforts towards that change. Remarkable.

Two years ago, the voters of this country turned out in numbers that had not been seen in years, to vote for a new President. Change was inevitable – the incumbent had fulfilled his maximum term, and a new President had to be chosen. With a new person in office, there would be no avoiding change. Change was the theme of that entire election season – in the primaries, candidates vied within their parties to establish themselves as the one best able to bring change. In the general election, the candidates carried their political parties’ views on how to bring about appropriate change on top of their own. In the end, the American people voted, not in selecting the winner, but by the numbers who showed up to vote, overwhelmingly in favor of change. It is also likely true that the successes in this election cycle of the “Tea Party” movement are owed to the same sense that change is STILL needed in our national political life.

There is a marvelous reading in the liturgical tradition for S’lichot, the preparatory service of this season that marks our movement from our own personal introspection and self-inventory back into the life of the community; from the process of moving ourselves from thoughts of how we have come up short into actions of forgiveness and change. Although the prayer speaks of turning, I encourage you to hear the word “change” where I say the word turning, because, for me at least, I find them virtually synonymous in this usage:

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange. The birds are beginning to turn, and are heading once more toward the south. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter.

“For leaves, birds, and animals, turning comes instinctively. But for us, turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will to make us turn. It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we were wrong, and that is never easy. It means losing face; it means starting all over again. It means saying ‘I am sorry!’ It means recognizing that we have the ability to change…!”

We DO have the ABILITY to change. That is reassuring, as we work through this season during which we are forced to face the truth that change is necessary. Yet, that reassuring realization forces us to confront an additional burdensome question: If it is possible, if it is necessary, why doesn’t it happen more often and more easily?

At this season of self-reflection, we have often semi-joked as a congregational family that our congregation does not do change all that well. Even as we acknowledge that change is an essential element of our Yom Kippur tradition, I stand here tonight and say those words about our congregation again, but I do so within a very different context. Tonight, I stand here to say that, most of the time, I am GLAD that Temple Solel is a congregational family that does NOT change easily!

I say that because, even as I acknowledge that change is important and needed, HOW we change is almost always far more important than WHAT we change. There are two kinds of changes that occur. There are changes that are EVOLUTIONARY – those that come about as the natural result of doing what we do and being who we are, and adjusting to the new realities we face every day. Such changes tend to occur in small steps, at times almost imperceptibly at the actual time of change. We often catch up with these changes only after they have already occurred, noticing them often only when significant small steps have established a clear change in our path. At those moments of recognition, we vote, usually informally by our continuing words and actions, either to ratify what has already occurred by continuing along this new path, or to stop and question whether we have drifted too far from where we thought we were going and should be going. In the latter case, we evaluate how we have reached this point, determine whether we may have stumbled onto a better path, or else we begin to plot a course back to where we thought we already were, and now have agreed, we still wish to be. Such changes, such a process of feedback and evaluation, seem to be a very natural and healthy approach to dealing with the challenges we confront every day.

The other kind of change is REVOLUTIONARY. It is all the things that evolutionary change is not. It is usually vast in scope, earth shaking in impact. It is frequently pre-meditated, and is often a response to a failure to acknowledge the small evolutionary changes until they have taken us so far off our original course that there appears to be little or no alternative way to get back to where we feel we need to be. Even those revolutionary changes which are beneficial to humanity – and these almost always revolve around technological discoveries and breakthroughs – are still vastly different from the first kind of changes.

On a personal level, I greatly prefer the first kind, both for their natural process, and their usually limited impact at any given moment in time. Even the technological revolutions, I believe, need to be approached more slowly, more carefully, with an attempt to fully appreciate the changes these new technologies will have on society BEFORE we rush into mass production and over-hype. For example, for all the amazing advances in medicine over the last century, we are, as a civilization, lagging way behind in dealing with the ethical questions raised by these revolutionary advancements.

As a result, issues like abortion, and right-to-die laws become much more heatedly debated and publicly significant than they otherwise would or should be. Do we yet know what the physiological hazards of widespread usage of cellphones might be 10 or 20 years down the road? Or what the sociological implications of laptops and personal music players will be when our current crop of school children are grandparents? Or of the Internet and social networking's ability to spread falsehoods globally in seconds as easily as truths? Of course not – we can’t! Yet, we continue to embrace these revolutionary changes despite the very real questions of their impact on our present and our future!

Let me use a few very real examples of change both revolutionary AND evolutionary in Jewish history to make my point here. The textual origins of our ancestors’ COLLECTIVE unique covenantal relationship with God are found at Mt. Sinai, with the giving of and acceptance of the Law. However, this REVOLUTIONARY event doesn’t happen without the equally revolutionary salvation of our ancestors by God at the Sea. But it also does not successfully occur if not for the evolutionary foundations that were built upon and led to it – the pre-existing personal covenantal relationship between Abraham and God, passed down through the generations, and recognized by virtually all who heard God’s voice that morning; the first encounter of God and Moses on the mountain through the burning bush, that allowed Moses to be comfortable seeking out that same location to bring the people to God, the same event that allowed Moses to become the leader for these people who would be believed and accepted at such a critical moment.

When Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BCE, and the leaders of the Jewish community were carted off into exile, this was a catastrophic revolutionary turn of events for our ancestors. The masses who were left behind muddled through as best they could, and as a result, were still available and connected when the leaders came back from the exile about a century later, carrying with them a document called Torat Moshe to guide their efforts to re-establish Judea as a Jewish outpost. Most Biblical scholars see that document as having been compiled DURING the exile, as a way of overcoming the impact of the revolutionary overthrow of the old country. Not necessarily written, but collected and organized. Evolved, not created, in response to a cataclysm. And the embrace of this document – familiar in content if not in structure – by the masses, was a direct result of evolutionary changes in response to revolutionary events – the fact that the material was not completely new to them, but somewhat familiar from olden days, made it that much easier for them to accept it as God's word -- authentic and binding.

Finally, in the destruction of the Second Temple, and the defeat by the Romans in 135 CE following it, when our ancestors were forced by external events to re-form their Judaism, the Rabbis showed great creativity in developing the Mishnah and resetting the calendar, adding haftarah to our canonical readings, establishing prayer as our worship form and the synagogue as our central communal “home,” and made so many more revolutionary changes in response to revolutionary events. All of their success, however, is probably traceable to the fact that prior to 70 CE and the Temple’s destruction, there had already been a couple of hundred years of evolutionary changes happening within the Jewish community, that would, eventually, have led to the Rabbinic system winning out anyway. And therefore, their legitimacy was already established in the eyes of the people, and the revolutionary aspect of the Romans actions just sped up what would have happened more slowly through a series of evolutionary changes!

Given the significance and power of those examples, is there any wonder , looking at today’s headlines, that there are many people within the Jewish community calling for and preparing for a third revolutionary shift in Judaism for our time, to confront the unique challenges of a post-Holocaust, State of Israel, technological world? And they may even turn out to be proven right by history!

In which case, I am drawn even more to go back to the core question I asked a few pages ago: If change is possible for us, if it is necessary, why doesn’t it happen more often and more easily? That question raises a secondary question, which I believe is also found in the dichotomy between evolutionary and revolutionary change – it is the question of what we WANT vs. what we NEED.

Those same Rabbis of 2000 years ago posited two competing drives within us as humans – a yeitzer Tov, which they saw as the inclination to do what is good and right; and a yeitzer hara, its opposite, usually mistranslated as “the evil impulse” or inclination. The Rabbis own definition of the yeitzer hara makes clear that “evil” is way too strong a judgment. The Rabbis gave credit to the yeitzer hara for all of the animal drives that lead us to be successful – the desire for shelter, clothing, food, a job, a spouse, and children, among others. In other words, the yeitzer hara is VERY necessary to our being – without it we would not survive! The Rabbis then went on to credit the yeitzer tov for everything that distinguishes us from the rest of creation, and wrapped it all up implicitly by teaching that it is through the yeitzer tov that we truly are both created in God’s image and worthy of being the superintendents of the building of God’s Creation, in which God is the landlord.

I start there, both because it is in this Rabbinic construct that the origins of Yom Kippur are found, AND because it brings us back to that liturgical piece about change that we read earlier. What makes us unique, in part, is that what the rest of creation does instinctually, we humans have to choose to do. The animals NEED to head south, or gather food for the winter, the leaves NEED to change (or else the system doesn’t work properly) – but we humans have to WANT to change.

But I also start with yeitzer tov and yeitzer hara in part because, I believe, we have all been taught a half truth in our public education. Remember back to junior high school social studies, and Freddy the Farmer and Harry the Hunter. It was there that we were taught the list of basic human necessities that the Rabbis gave to the yeitzer hara.

I recently read an article recommended by a friend, on the difference between human wants and human needs. It posited a similar, but shorter list of absolute human needs, and categorized everything else as a want. It was in discussing this article with this friend that I came to realize that these are one category of human needs, which I came to label collectively as “survival.” Struggling together to clarify our thinking, we identified two other basic human needs besides survival – affection, and acceptance.

So let me now apply that thought to our discussion of change – when external circumstances clearly throw one of these three basic needs – survival, affection, and acceptance -- into doubt, we usually find ourselves highly motivated to change, often willing to make revolutionary changes to respond and return to equilibrium. Otherwise, in the daily challenges of life, we make small internal adjustments as we go, often without even recognizing that we are doing so. Again, it takes a larger challenge to our needs for us to recognize the changes we have already made in this evolutionary manner.

Yet, look back to Kol Nidrei, to the liturgy, to yeitzer tov and yeitzer hara. They seem to imply that the changes we are talking about at this season are WANTED, not NEEDED – at least until we come before God on Yom Kippur to plead for another year of life! That act, on this day, turns want into need – our lives are in the balance, our very survival hangs in doubt! It takes coming into services on these High Holy Days – all of them, not some of them – to give us the motivation and momentum to view these changes that we seek to make in our lives outside of the sanctuary as necessary and not volitional, obligatory and not voluntary.

And with that awareness, we can turn back to our discussion from Rosh Hashanah evening, in which I raised the call to re-evaluate all that we do as a congregation according to a clearly stated set of Jewish values that will become part of our congregational Mission and Vision Statement. In that discussion, I embraced the tug-of-war between uniquely Jewish and more secular influences in our lives as necessary in our efforts to return our Judaism to being our “way of life,” and not just yet another competing special interest identity in our lives.

It often takes external influences that shake up our comfort, make us question our survival, our acceptance, our affections, to make us focus on the need for change, rather than the desire for change. But, Jewish history teaches, even when that change becomes necessary rather than merely desired, a foundation of evolutionary changes must exist to support the bigger changes now identified. And therefore, my EMBRACE of our communal tendency to enshrine the status quo, to protect us against unneeded AND unwanted changes! Knowing that we don’t do change often or well, allows me, as the spiritual leader of our community, to better evaluate the motives behind a call for change when it comes. It allows us, together, to avoid cosmetic changes, those done simply for the sake of change, and embrace only those changes that truly ARE essential – that are the product of real NEED, and not merely WANTING.

Wanting to change is important, even necessary, in our personal lives. Ideally, we should be able to move ourselves internally from wanting to change to needing to change far more often than actually occurs, instead of waiting for the world to force change upon us. Being actors in our own lives is ALWAYS preferable to being reactors! However, as a community, seeking to help ALL members and potential members find here what we have identified as our human NEEDS – to be welcomed and accepted, embraced warmly with affection, and allowed to more than survive, but to thrive – we need to focus far more on needed changes than desired ones.

And so, I raised the call for us to re-examine our Mission and Vision Statement, with the specific goal of basing it in identifiable Jewish values that can translate from our communal lives into our personal ones more smoothly, and thereby inform all we do in life, not just what we do together as a congregational family. Tomorrow morning, I will give a more detailed example of what such a statement might look like as a foundation for the lives we hope to continue to live as we grow and change in the New Year 5771. KYR

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