Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

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A Place in the Sun: Yom Kippur Kol Nidre 5769 – 2008

Yom Kippur Kol Nidre 5769 – 2008

A Place in the Sun:

Yom Kippur Kol Nidre 5769 – 2008

Commentator Paul Begala on CNN said recently, referring to President George Bush:

He’s a high-functioning moron and that’s what congress treats him as—both parties.

The other panelists did not show surprise or even bat an eye at that.
If you listen to the McCain campaign and the GOP-funded blogosphere, Senator Obama is a black radical with an Islamist upbringing in a fundamentalist madrasa, a Columbia- and Harvard-educated elitist out of touch with the people, an inexperienced community organizer married to a woman who hates America.

And if you listen to the Democratic bloggers, Senator McCain is an emotionally unstable, impulsive, math-challenged diseased geezer beholden to lobbyists who hopes that American men will vote for the ticket with the VP candidate they would most like to have sex with, who surrounds himself with corrupt and discredited advisors and who repeats lies even after being called on them.

The campaign is going negative — and you can decide for yourself who is responsible for that happening, and you can see for yourself where it is coming from. By the time we have elected our next president, some proportion of the population is sure to have great distain and grave doubts about his character, qualifications, intelligence, integrity, patriotism, and motivation. The dynamic of the process insures that much of the public will intensely dislike the next president.

And an administration that comes to power through fearmongering, deceit, hatred and the exploitation of ignorance, will inevitably need those same tools to rule.

One of the Vice-Presidential candidates said during the debate — I don’t want to say which one, because I don’t want to be partisan, God forbid — he said,

Mike Mansfield, a former leader of the Senate, said to me one day —… I made a criticism of Jesse Helms. He said, “What would you do if I told you Jesse Helms and Dot Helms had adopted a child who had braces and was in real need?” I said, “I’d feel like a jerk.”
He said, “Joe, understand one thing. Everyone’s sent here for a reason, because there’s something in them that their folks like. Don’t question their motive.

From the Mishna:

Ben Azzai taught: Do not distain any person;
Do not underrate the importance of anything —
For there is no person who does not have his hour
And there is no thing without its place in the sun. (Avot 4:3)

Et hata’ai ani mazkir hayom: I must confess I struggle with that. How can I not question people’s motives when they subvert the conventions of commerce or circumvent the constitution, blatantly and crassly, for their own financial and political gain? How can I not question the motives of public officials who go straight to high-paying industry jobs after voting billions in pork or boondoggle to those very same industries?

Is it just coincidence that the oil industry has reaped phenomenal profits during a period in which oilmen are in the Oval office, or that military contractors are walking away with billions, unaccounted for, while their former executives are in the White House? I don’t mean to ridicule our public officials at this point — there is no use beating a dead horse, much less a lame duck, but I can’t keep from wondering. It is just hard sometimes to see people running for office or holding office who pale in comparison to their worthy alternatives.

Ben Azzai taught: Do not distain any person.

No, I must not distain public officials, no matter how fast the revolving door swings, no matter how frantic the pork-fest. I should accept the dictum of Ben Azzai. Am I a fool for expecting people to behave otherwise? And yet, I know that there are many good people, honest, self-sacrificing people, in public service, even in Washington, and certainly in local governments. There are even honest people working in banking and finance.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” In the Talmud (Sanhedrin) this is applied to the case of the heinous criminal being executed by the court. Now, even at the time of the Sanhedrin 2000 years ago, capital punishment was very rare. This is the most extreme case — a person convicted of a terrible crime — and when he is executed, it must be done in the way that protects his dignity and that of his family to the greatest extent possible. Even for that person we must fulfill the mitzva of “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

If there is one mitzva that is central to a healthy community, and if there is one mitzva that can sometimes be ever so difficult, it is this one: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

A few months ago I was in a hotel lobby, waiting for a family member. A stranger came up to me — I don’t know why strangers come up to me so often; I try to look unfriendly — he came up to me, and the first thing I thought was, not a hotel employee, not a businessman, who is this? — something about him said, “psychopath.” I didn’t know who he was, and he came up to me and said, “There are some people who really irritate me, who are not helping me when they should, who I’m having a hard time loving. What should I do?”

The first thought I had was, “Don’t murder them!” And then, a better answer: To “love your neighbor as yourself” you first have to love yourself. You first have to love yourself.

Can we learn to love Iranians? Can we make them laugh? How do you make Persians laugh? I don’t know. Maybe show them some anti-semitic cartoons. At least Jew-baiting has not become an official Olympic competition.

I used to make Arab merchants in East Jerusalem laugh. Although my Arabic was very rudimentary, my malapropisms were eloquent. Up until the intifada — in fact up until the second intifada hundreds of thousands of Gazans and West Bank Arab residents commuted daily to work in Israel, and many Israeli non-Arabs shopped and used professional services of non-Israeli Arabs (as well as Israeli Arabs). The point being that the masses of people, in so many places and times, were able to get along adequately. Even today, in our sister-city Afula-Gilboa Region, there are many efforts of public officials and private citizens to foster better relations and cooperation between these often conflicting peoples — someday, Afula will be a sister city with Jenin. Ve-ahavta le-re’ekha kamokha — even the criminal convicted of a heinous capital crime must be treated with dignity; and no less the neighbor with a racist grudge, a just complaint, a bad attitude, an itchy trigger finger, a hard life.

Why are you here tonight? I often wonder why people come to services, volunteer for this or that committee or the synagogue board. Some people can explain why, and some really can’t.

We come with guilt, and with forgiveness; we come with regret, and with hope; we come in sorrow, and in celebration; we come to search, and we come to share. We come in loneliness, and we come in friendship. We come for the good food (not tonight!), good music, good ideas, good discussion, good debate, good people, adequate heating. Some people have said they come to “give back to the community,” and I confess I have no idea what that even means.

Some synagogues are now struggling with membership and are offering “free” or discounted first-year membership dues. Now the word FREE!! does activate a certain area of the brain. I was offered this token for a FREE!! car wash in Iowa, and I had to take it. I’m never going to be able to use it, but it was FREE!!.

While possibly a good marketing tool — we don’t really know — the offer for free synagogue membership does not really make sense to me. When member and supporters writes that check for dues or annual campaign pledge, they are not thinking, “I’m getting X dollars worth of goods and services (in the common sense of ‘services’) out of this.” It is not about what you are getting; it is about what you are giving.

One of our members did tell me her family joined because of a free first-year or half-dues first year offer run many years ago. I have no idea what that family has gotten out of their synagogue membership. But I can see what they have given: Countless hours of service, as greeters and envelope-stuffers and dishwashers and vice-presidents and president; countable and substantial dollars orders of magnitude beyond what they saved through the promotional membership rate. I can only hope they have a sense of satisfaction in knowing they have helped many people and have made an important contribution toward the future of this community and the Jewish People. I hope they have a sense of satisfaction in knowing that they have made a big difference in people’s lives.

Sorry to talk about money so much on Yom Kippur — it’s been a big issue in the news lately. But money can’t buy you love, nor can it buy you happiness. As my father says, money doesn’t make you happy; but if you’re going to be unhappy, it is better to be rich and unhappy than poor and unhappy.

Why do people join synagogues, and why do people join other communal organizations? What are people’s motives for all of the good things they do? Why are we here?

What is most important in our lives? What is of lasting value? What can we do to strengthen our community?

Each person has a reason for being in this world. David was a simple shepherd when events made him a great king. Esther was teenager worried about her makeup when she saved her people from destruction. Ruth was a simple but passionate Moabite woman who inspired future generations and was the grandmother of a king. Joseph was a house servant who rose to be viceroy of the Egyptian Empire. But most greatness is unrecognized; ‘a single thread in a tapestry cannot see its place in the grand design’ (The Prince of Egypt). David was guided by the Prophet Samuel; Esther was saved through the honesty of Bigtana and Teresh, two royal guards; Ruth was inspired by Naomi; Joseph was spared by Potiphar, who recognized his integrity, and got a big break through the recommendation of the royal cupbearer. And the next president doesn’t elect himself; his campaign has millions of contributors and advisors, and most importantly, at the end of the day, millions of voters. Every single person has their place, and even the seemingly most humble person has infinite importance in the grand design.

In this community I find inspiration. How to grow old with wisdom and maturity and with grace; how to do a lot of work without complaint or the expectation of a “thank you;” how to be concerned with the feelings and needs of others; how to respect others despite their differences or annoying habits or undiplomatic speech or odd appearance; how to encourage and nurture children and welcome visitors; how to help those in need and build institutions to change society; how to face adversity with courage; how to place the values of family and community above commerce and profit. This is an extraordinary community, and it is so wonderfully inspiring. Each person has a reason for being here.

People wondered a hundred years ago, What is the value of isolated Jewish communities in far-flung places like Shanghai, China or Cannonball, North Dakota? What is the value of an impoverished and besieged Jewish community in the Land of Israel under Ottoman rule? It turned out that they were the backups, they were the survivors when the Jewish civilization in Europe was destroyed. It turned out that they were the core group ready to welcome the Jewish refugees from Europe and Arabia and build a new commonwealth.

Each person has a reason for being here. What is your reason?

The current financial crisis does have a certain basis in fundamental reality. But a very large part of it is based only on mental reality. A run on a bank — if the bank is essentially sound — is a self-generating dynamic. The run occurs only because people believe it will occur and act on that belief. A similar dynamic affects the stock market, and more importantly, the general economy.

It shows us that what we think, collectively, can quickly affect reality. As we say in the Shabbat hymn Lekha Dodi, “Sof ma`asei be-mahashava tehila – What ends up as action begins as a mere thought.”

This Kol Nidre we need to try especially hard to set aside rhetoric that harms our relationships, devalues the work of others and obscures real and very serious issues. If we do the right thing, some others will follow. This Kol Nidre we need to feel in our hearts the idea that every person is sent here for some reason; that every human being is created in the Divine image; that every person does both good and bad; that we can bring out the good in others; that we can encourage others to do the right thing; and that we can protect ourselves firmly and lovingly from the dangers about us.

We have to recognize what is truly important in our lives. That is the question for this season of repentance.

We are valued in part for how much we make the world better. Each of us has much to offer. Help make a daily minyan — you just need to be Jewish and alive and show up — unless you’ve been there, you can’t realize what a great kindness it is to others. Or to help make a meal for qiddush. Or show up at a shiva minyan. Or study and ask your questions which others were too shy to ask or didn’t think of; or teach and share your ideas so that others can consider them.

Ben Azzai taught: Do not distain any person;
Do not underrate the importance of anything —
For there is no person who does not have his hour
And there is no thing without its place in the sun.

You have a reason for being in this world, and for being in this community. May you feel the warmth of the sunshine and the love of your neighbors in this new year.

© Jon-Jay Tilsen 2008


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