Kol Nidre Sermon 5774 — If We Want To Make It Last, Let’s Do It Together

September 13, 2013
By bethmordecai
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Kol Nidre Sermon 5774 — If We Want To Make It Last, Let’s Do It Together

Rabbi Ari Saks

Congregation Beth Mordecai

Kol Nidrei Sermon 5774 (September 13, 2013)*

When you turn on the TV at night, there are many options from which to choose. Personally, I have seen too many episodes of reality TV competition shows, like Top Chef or Project Runway than I’m proud to admit. Though they are hardly my first choice, the unfolding drama is hard to resist. One of the themes that often come up in each of these competition shows is just how much the competitors don’t like teams. They are individual artists with their own aesthetics, or to use language that we have developed here, they have their own unique Torah of how to be an artist and they don’t like having to either explain themselves or incorporate other visions into their finished products. It seems pretty clear that the reason these competition shows force the competitors to work in teams is because it adds to the drama; there is always one dysfunctional team that is an awful mixture of tyrants, doormats, gossips, and sticklers that just makes the show so much fun to watch. More often, this dysfunctional team creates the worst work product, which means that one of their team members will go home. And how do the judges determine who goes home in a team exercise? By figuring out who contributed the most, or the least, to the failed creation. Curious…what was in one moment a team exercise instantaneously turns into a judgment on an individual’s self-worth as a designer or a cook. It’s no wonder then that often, in these final dramatic moments, the team members are throwing each other under the bus to prove that they are not to blame for their team’s failure. What’s more, it’s not surprising that they hate working in teams. As Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time once said, “there is no I in team, T-E-A-M, but there is in win, W-I-N.”

When we judge ourselves by how much we win and how much we lose, our sense of self-worth becomes tied into our accomplishments on the field, in the boardroom, and at the kitchen table…and that can be disastrous. It can be disastrous because our sense of self-worth, how we view ourselves as good, responsible, and upstanding people worthy of affection and respect from others, is so critical to our self-confidence, and when we tie our sense of self-worth into how others judge our accomplishments, we open the door for shame to enter and tell us that we are unworthy of love and affection. As researcher and storyteller Brene Brown writes in regard to this phenomenon, “if other people love [what you do], it means you’re worth it; and if other people hate it, it means you’re worthless.” As I mentioned during Rosh Hashanah one of the factors that leads into the never ending spiral of shame is the feeling of not being good enough, and it is easy to feel that we’re not good enough when we’re told that our work is not good enough. What’s more, if we tie our sense of self-worth into what we accomplish we’ll never want to work with other people because of their potential negative impact on a job that we can do better ourselves. As they say, “if you want something done right, do it yourself.”

Yet not wanting to work with other people, being fearful of how they could negatively impact our work…that would also be disastrous. It would be disastrous because as hard as it may be to admit it, we need each other, as individuals and as a community. We need each other if we want our accomplishments to mean something more than just the completion of a certain task. Our individual worth is not tied to our work-products, but the worthiness of our work is tied to our willingness to share it with others. As it is said, “if you want to do it fast, do it yourself; if you want to make it last, do it together.” And what we’re doing here tonight on Yom Kippur and will be doing throughout the year, as individuals and as a community, is building something worthy that will last.

One of the most fascinating prayers of Yom Kippur is the Ashamnu paragraph in which we beat our hearts with our fists as we proclaim our sins, our faults, and our mistakes. Yet a quick perusal of those sins will show that (hopefully) many of them do not apply to us individually. What’s more the linguistic structure ofAshamnu does not speak in the singular; all of the sins that we’re suspected of committing is written in the plural. How strange! If Ashamnu is supposed to rouse our individual hearts to penitence, how come it’s not personalized like the advertisements I receive while listening to my online Pandora radio station? If this is our opportunity for confession, where is the Jewish version of “Forgive me Father for I have sinned!” If I’m going to be judged on my dish, my design, or my creation, let it be mine; don’t force me to be responsible for other people’s mistakes as well.

This issue of not wanting to be responsible for other people’s mistakes is nothing new. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great mystical sage of the 16th century who was known as “the Ari,” had to deal with it in his day:

“Why was the Confession (i.e. Ashamnu) composed in the plural, So that we say, We have sinned, rather than, I have sinned? Because all Israel is one body and every one of Israel is a limb of that body; that is why we are all responsible for one another when we sin” (Days of Awe, 220).

כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה – All of Israel is responsible for one another. While we can debate the extent of that kind of communal responsibility in an age of individualism and free choice, the image of every Jew as a limb of the body of Israel is still quite powerful. To pick up on a theme we discussed during Rosh Hashanah, seeing every Jew as a limb of the body of Israel is like seeing an image of a hand open to hold another hand; it is an image displaying the centrality of connection to human existence. Connection is not only what life is all about; it is the very nature of existence. As Einstein showed in his theory of relativity, especially in how it relates to gravity, everything that is created, from the dust of the earth to the furthest of stars, pulls on one another. So when thinking about ourselves as individuals we have no choice but to realize that what others do affect us. Look around you, Yom Kippur would not be Yom Kippur if we did it at home or by ourselves. To experience this moment of personal reflection we need the presence of communal support.

Yet once we admit that we need each other, that each of us is a limb on the body of Israel, that’s when the fear of how others will negatively affect us starts to creep in again. The very reason we are here in the first place is because we are naturally faulty and knowing that we have to rely upon faulty people can be upsetting and disconcerting. As one member mentioned it to me when I was just beginning my job, my first real one out of school, he said “Ari, you’re going to learn that people will let you down.” Whether it’s not responding to an email, not listening to you when you talk, or worse, people will not respond to you or do things in the way you would want to do it yourself. That’s why the quote I mentioned earlier says if you want to do something fast you should do it yourself – it takes so much time and energy to get everyone on the same page and even if you do everything you can possibly think of to put people on the same page, it may seem like they’re reading from a different book.

The reality is we can’t change people, especially if they don’t want to change themselves. If I were to stand up here and say “everyone should start observing Shabbat or keeping kosher,” it might affect the few who are open to the idea, but it won’t open a door that’s already shut. So what do we do? How do we build something together, build something that will last, and not fall apart on the job? If all of us are limbs on the single body of Israel, how do we move forward knowing that as much as our head tries to tell our feet where to go, we will eventually expose our natural klutziness and trip over ourselves? I don’t have a good answer to these questions, but in exploring them more deeply during this season of reflection I think we are presented with a wonderful opportunity before us; an opportunity to become more self-aware.

As author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Steven Covey writes, “effective interdependence can only be built on a foundation of true independence.” In other words, if we want to be an effective team, we first have to be an effective, independent individual, and the first step towards that true independence is self-awareness. Self-awareness, according to Covey, is the ability to “stand apart and examine…the way we see ourselves — our self-paradigm…It affects not only our attitudes and behaviors, but also how we see other people. It becomes our map of the basic nature of mankind.” We can’t change others and we may have difficulty changing ourselves, but what we can certainly do is think about why we do what we do and how those behaviors affect us and affect the way we see others. For instance, the other day I was teaching one of our core classes, a small group of Beth Mordecai members who have been meeting regularly to learn some of the key principles of our congregation based off of the holiday cycle.  That day the topic was doing t’shuvah (or repentance) in honor of the High Holidays and, as I have been known to do, I showed up late. I was feeling awful at being late…again, but thought that this would be a good opportunity to discuss whether or not I needed to do t’shuvah for my lateness. The conversation was lively and lasted for a while, but more important than the results or the implications from that conversation was my need to have it. I didn’t promise to stop being late, but I showed a willingness to be more self-aware of my lateness and understand how it related to, what Covey calls, my “self-paradigm,” the way in which I view myself.

Once we are willing to examine our lives and go through the difficult journey of becoming self-aware, that’s when, according to Covey, we are able to make the most change in our lives in order to achieve the independence we need to eventually be ready for the reality of interdependence. That’s when we are not only ready to say that our lives need a little correction, but that in order to make those corrections stick we need to align them with values that also stick. These values, according to Covey, are correct principles; principles that are as natural to existence and just as basic and eternal as gravity. They are unchanging and reliable, like a lighthouse showing the way for oncoming ships; always guiding us to safety and never changing direction.

And perhaps it is the need to align ourselves with correct principles once we become self-aware that no matter what sins we have personally committed, or what accomplishments we have individually achieved, we come together to recite the Ashamnu together, because embedded in these hallowed words of our confession are some of the correct principles that guide the ship of Israel to safety.; חמסנו – we oppress, our history as the Jewish people impresses upon us that we should not be oppressors because we were oppressed in the land of Egypt; גזלנו – we steal, our Torah commands us to be ethical beings through instructions like the 10 Commandments which are echoed in this confession to not steal; טפלנו שקר – we falsify, our tradition, especially as it described in the 10 Commandments and expounded upon in the Talmud, teaches us how vital it is in a fair society that we do not falsify our testimony – being a reliable witness is one of the holiest things we can do as Jews. We come together to recite the Ashamnubecause embedded in these hallowed words of our confession are correct principles sensed by all of the limbs of the body of Israel. We don’t just say these principles in the words of the confession, we hear them echo of our wailing before each stanza; we see them in the first Hebrew letters of each word bolded according to the alphabet; we feel them the reverberations of our fists striking our chests; and perhaps, if we are connected enough to these ancients words, we might be able to taste or smell them as well. All of the limbs, all of the senses of the body of Israel, are engaged together to sense the depth of the principles enmeshed in these words, principles that connect us to something eternal, something greater than we cannot fully grasp in simple words.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “What smites us withunquenchable amazement is not that which we grasp and are able to convey but that which lies within our reach but beyond our grasp.” When we read the Ashamnu together in community, experiencing its power to arrest us individually and it’s depth to affect us communally, we can see that there is much more going on here than simply reciting words. We may not be able to fully define the words we are saying or the principles they are echoing, but we know that they speak to a reality much greater than ourselves, a sacred purpose, that seems to be within our reach but beyond our grasp.  If correct principles are like the guiding light of a lighthouse, a sacred purpose is like the ineffable beauty of a sunrise; both give us guiding light, one is just more mysterious than the other.

And perhaps the difficulty in defining what is sacred and the challenge in determining what is correct stand at the heart of why we can feel troubled when we have to do things together. One of the critiques that are often given to the dysfunctional teams on Top Chef or Project Runway is that they do not have a coherent or unified vision. There was nothing that tied their work together or if they did have a vision it wasn’t broad enough that each member of the group felt they could buy into it. They might have tried but it’s hard, and it takes time to get everyone on the same page, and even when you think you have everyone on the same page, even if you have a perfect vision which is aligned with correct principles and a sacred purpose that form the core of the vision, that purpose, those principles, are ineffable; they are within our reach but beyond our grasp, they can easily be lost in translation. Yet, while admitting the challenge of defining a sacred purpose, if we don’t want our congregation to be a dysfunctional team, if we truly want to build something that lasts, then my challenge to myself, the staff, the board, and to the congregation, is to develop a unified vision that all of us can buy intoa unified vision that is built upon an eternal, sacred purpose  that at times will be as clear as a lighthouse guiding our vision and at times will be as indescribable, and beautiful, as a sunrise showing us the horizon.

It’s not enough though to simply put words together and craft a document that outlines a unified vision. If we want that vision to be real and reflect the unique Torah that each one of us carries with us every day, if we want people to really buy into what we’re selling as Beth Mordecai, if we truly want to build something that will last then we have to give each person a space to have their unique Torah embedded within our collective vision, our Torah of Beth Mordecai. By giving each person a space to share their unique Torah, and to truly listen and hear their Torah, we embrace the mystery of the sunrise, which is seen and experienced uniquely by every individual. And to put my money where my mouth is, tomorrow I will start that process by sharing my vision, my unique Torah, for our congregation, hoping that you will join with me in sharing yours. And if we do, then there is no dish, no gown, no worthy accomplishment that will ever be beyond our grasp.

*Note: The High Holiday sermon for “Kol Nidre 5774” was delivered extemporaneously off of notes. This copy was the written draft used to create those notes. As such, the actual delivery of the sermon did not match word for word with this written draft.

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