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Kol Nidre 2006:A Gracious, Grateful Soul of Joy

Kol Nidre 2006

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro
Sinai Temple, Springfield, MA

The story is told of the great composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, who had a devoted servant by the name of Mathilda. Apparently, Beethoven was an extremely difficult employer – so much so that one day Mathilda announced to him that she was leaving.

Beethoven was shocked and insisted that she could not quit. Mathilda replied, “It’s no longer possible for me to be here.” Beethoven pleaded, “But I need you.” Mathilda answered, “My time to leave has come.” “You can’t go, “said Beethoven. “I must go,” said Mathilda.

“But you are my inspiration,” Beethoven declared. To which Mathilda responded, “Ha, ha, ha, ha.”

And speaking of inspiration, the idea for tonight’s remarks came to me last year on Yom Kippur. We were reading a particular presentation of the viddui/confession in our prayer book.

As you may recall, the viddui/confession for Yom Kippur often comes in alphabetic order. So, for example, tomorrow morning we are going to read one alphabetic version of the viddui, and it’s this version which caught my eye last year. As you’ll hear in a moment, the text lists ten sins of ours in alphabetic order. But if you listen carefully, you’ll also note that one of these shortcomings doesn’t quite fit. It’s different. It’s the one that gave me the inspiration for tonight’s sermon.

Here’s the text from our prayer book. (Gates of Repentance, page 327) Which do you think doesn’t quite follow suit?

Who among is righteous enough to say: ‘I have not sinned?’ We are arrogant, brutal, careless, destructive, egocentric, false, greedy, heartless, insolent, and joyless. Our sins are an alphabet of woe.

So which doesn’t quite fit?

“We are arrogant, brutal, careless...” Each one of those adjectives describes a behavior that some of us know. In fact, if we wanted to do teshuvah and turn those behaviors around, we could probably do so. Instead of being arrogant, we could cultivate humility. Brutal behavior could be improved by some kindness. Careless behavior could be improved by being careful or thoughtful.

You can see arrogant, brutal, careless behavior along with greedy and heartless behavior. You can also tell someone to change that behavior and a person can substitute better behavior.

So which doesn’t quite fit from among arrogant, brutal, careless to greedy, insolent, and joyless?

For me, it’s “joyless” which stands out.

I mean someone can fault me for being careless or greedy. Someone can expect me to become careful or generous. But can someone fault me or you for being joyless? Can someone expect me or you to be joyful?

If I’m joyless, how is that a sin? Joylessness isn’t a behavior; it’s a mood or attitude so how can the prayer book expect me to stop being joyless and start being joyful?

What’s so bad about being joyless?

Well, here’s one thing that came to mind as I though about joy and joylessness. I was reminded of a book I read many years ago. It’s the autobiography of a man by the name of Harry Rasky. Harry was a congregant of mine when I was a rabbi in Toronto and he was a well-known documentary film maker. Around the time of his son’s Bar Mitzvah, Harry published his memoir and began it with a description of growing up as a Jew in what used to be stodgy, uptight, Anglican Toronto. He described how it felt to be a Jew in what he dubbed “proper Toronto.” There was in those days something called the Lord’s Day Alliance that made Sunday in Toronto as forlorn a day as any little Jewish boy could ever dread.

Harry described a Toronto Sunday in these words, “Fear of the Lord was everywhere. In the park there were tennis courts, but the nets were taken down. There were sandboxes and swings, but the swings were padlocked. Once, when I found one free and began swinging, a policeman grabbed my shoulder and his words have never left me, "Little boy, stop that. Nobody swings on Sunday!”

You can’t find a better definition of joylessness. “Little boy, stop that. Nobody swings on Sunday.”

There is a bent in the world of religion that is puritanical. I would call it joyless. The tradition comes down to us through the “blue laws” that in different places at different times in America have banned all kinds of behavior as being inappropriate for the upright and true believer.

But note this. If you go looking for “blue law” behavior in Judaism, you’ll be hard pressed to find it. Even if you look at the most Orthodox Jewish Shabbat, there isn’t much that is essentially “blue” about it. Our brothers and sisters may not drive on Shabbat, may not turn on lights or go to a movie, but, of all things, listen to the words of the song they sing just the way we sing it.

“Yismichu v’malchut’cha shomray Shabbat…
       Those who keep Shabbat rejoice in Shabbat.
       (They are sameach – they are happy.)
       Those who sanctify the seventh day find joy.”

The truth is that a Jew can’t have Shabbat without wine and challah. The joyful ingredients for Shabbat are food, song, family, and/or friends.

You’d almost have to assume that, with Shabbat coming every seven days, a Jew by definition would have to be joyful.

But that’s not really the way life works – because being joyful (and this is where it gets interesting) refers to more than being given permission to have a pleasant time.

Let’s face it. You can have a pleasant time at a delicious Shabbat meal surrounded by people you love and be hungry hours later.

You can go to the finest restaurant for the finest dinner and be hungry when midnight comes around.

You can buy the car of your dreams and also be miserable. You can go on the vacation of a lifetime and still be unhappy days later.

Your child can get into Harvard and you can still be depressed. You can get into Harvard and still have no joy.

All this is because joy is something larger and different than pleasure. Joy is an approach or a stance towards life that is there when you arrive in Hawaii, but if it’s authentic, the joy is already there inside you before you pack your bags and long after you unpack the bags.

Joy is a part of who you are as a person.

That is why I like to tell a story called Hannah the Joyful. It’s about a king who disguises himself in order to visit his subjects and see how they really live. One evening, in mid-December, the king decided to visit the Jewish quarter of the city where he knew that a holiday called Chanukah was being celebrated.

According to the story, the king dressed as a beggar and walked through the streets until he found a small, dilapidated house. Surely, he thought to himself, there can be no joyful celebration in this hut.

He knocked on the door and was greeted by Hannah who insisted on bringing him inside. She sat him down, offered to share her small meal with him, and proceeded to light the first candle on her menorah. The king could hardly believe how satisfied and joyful Hannah seemed.

“How do you earn your daily bread,” he asked. Hannah told him that she gathered salt from the water of the sea and sold it in the market.

“How can you sing with such joy,“ the king asked again, “when even tomorrow you may not be sure of your next meal.”

“God has sustained me thus far,” she answered. “Our prayer book teaches that God renews the work of creation every day. For me, every day is new. Every day is a miracle. I count on that. I believe in that. That is how I find joy.”

That night back in the palace the king could not stop thinking about Hannah’s trust and joy. It was so unusual that he decided to put it to the test.

The next morning he decreed that it was illegal to collect sea salt. That night when he went to Hannah’s house in disguise, she still greeted him happily and invited him for dinner. How had she survived the day? She had improvised and carried water to people’s homes. The next day the king forbade carrying water for others. But that night Hannah still welcomed him into her home. How had she made money? She had collected wood in the forest and sold it for people’s cooking fires.

So it went each night of Chanukah. No matter what obstacles the king placed in Hannah’s way, she worked around them. She bounced back. She made something good out of whatever came her way.

Finally, on the 8th night of Chanukah, the king relented. He dressed in his regal best, went to Hannah’s home, announced who he was and asked if Hannah would become one of his advisors. Hannah’s joyfulness had won over the king. The way she had improvised and reframed her experiences, the way she had held onto life, entranced the king.

Hannah the joyful became the center piece of the king’s enchanted court.

So who is Hannah and what is it about Hannah that made her joyful?

Clearly, it was her faith. Hannah believed that the world can be fresh and new every day. You might say that, just as she opened her door to the king, Hannah had open eyes, an open heart, and open arms for the world and whatever it brought her. Two other phrases also come to mind for Hannah. Her joyfulness had something to do with her gracious soul and grateful soul.

I think that is what being joyful means.

Not having fun – which might involve riding a rollercoaster, winning a game, or going on vacation. Joy would rather be something that involves a longer view or appreciating what you have.

Joy would be what a parent feels at the Bar Mitzvah or wedding of a child. Joyful would be a significant wedding anniversary. Joyful would be your feeling when your adult child comes home to visit or when you have a reunion with your oldest friend.

But joyfulness isn’t only reserved for occasional events. Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver that places joy into our every day.

Every day
I see or I hear
Something
That more or less

Kills me
With delight,
That leaves me
Like a needle

In the haystack
Of light.
It is what I was born for –
To look, to listen

To lose myself
Inside this soft world –
To instruct myself
Over and over

In joy
And acclamation.
Now I am not talking
About the exceptional,

The fearful or the dreadful,
But of the ordinary,
The common,
The daily presentations.

Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
How can you help
But grow wise with such teachings
As these –

The untrimmable light
Of the world,
The ocean’s shine,
The prayers that are made
Out of grass?***

Remember Hannah with the open eyes and gracious soul? As a Jew, I bet she would have put Mary Oliver’s poem in this form.

Baruch atta Adonai.
Praised are You, God,
We offer thanks to You
For creation’s unfolding,
For sunrise, sunset, sun’s shining,
For moonshine, evening, and Your grasses that sway in the wind.

Actually, I found Mary Oliver’s poem in a volume of poetry with the beautiful title, Why I Wake Early. And I think I even know the answer to the question: why wake early? Not because it will be a fun day but, honestly, simply because it will be.

It will just be.

One of the great codes of Jewish law is called the Shulchan Aruch. It captures the sense for simply being when it describes how a Jew ought to rise in the morning.

First, a prayer should be said. It goes like this, “Modeh ani…I thank You, God, for restoring my soul to me this morning.” Then comes a wondrous bit of advice. The Shulchan Aruch quotes the Mishnah and says that a person ought to approach the new day as follows:

“Be bold as a leopard; light as an eagle; swift as a deer, and strong as a lion.”

Bold, light, swift, and a strong.

Or as Hannah the joyful might understand it, meet the new day with a sense for possibilities, meaning, and wonder……

But I can’t move out of a wheelchair.
But I’m worried I’ll never get into law school.
I’ve got a job and three kids to carpool.
I may not have a job beyond next month.
I have a job and I hate it.
I have a life and I don’t like it.

Where is the joy in these settings? How is there joy in these setting?

Honestly speaking, the joy isn’t there unless a person brings it along. And even if you somehow bring the joy along, your joy won’t heal a disease, make dinner for the family, or find you secure employment.

My best sense is that joy (your joyfulness…your ability to reframe and refresh) is what allows you the spirit to keep on pushing through, peering around, seeing through, working around the obstacles life constantly presents.

But where does that strength come from? Where does such joyfulness, energy, or vitality come from?

On this most Jewish of nights, I think the zest for life comes from practicing the Jewish value of hakarat tov, which means recognizing the good, or, better still, looking for the good….hakarat tov - recognizing the good - looking for the good.

Take it right down to basics:
Can you wiggle your toes?
Can you smell fresh bread?
Can you hear the wind brushing against the trees?
Can you feel the sun on your face?
Can you hum a melody?
Can you taste chocolate cake, blueberries, or wine?
Do you believe someone loves you?
Do you love someone yourself?
Are you alive?

It’s not flashy. It’s not dramatic. But strip away all the hassle, worry, and fear and what have you got on Kol Nidre: you, incredible you, with toes, tongue, eyes, ears, cheeks, and heart.

That’s a miracle.
That’s a blessing if you recognize it and believe it.
That’s cause for being quietly, reverently, profoundly joyful.

Every day
I see or I hear
Something
That more or less
Kills me
With delight,

Do you want to be a better person this year? A better friend, father, sister, spouse, or child?

Start simply. Get some joy. Cultivate a gracious, grateful soul.
You will feel better.
You will live better.
You will be better.
Modeh ani – Thank you, God, for restoring our souls every morning,
every night,
and especially this night.
Amen.

*******************************************

***Poem taken from Why I Wake Early, Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, Boston

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