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Sermon Kol Nidre 2007

Next Friday Night - Observing Shabbat
Kol Nidre September 2007
Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro

        Remember when e-mail was brand new? We used to smile at the voice which said, “You’ve got mail!” In 1998, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan even starred in a movie with that e-mail tag line – You’ve Got Mail.

        How life has changed! E-mail is no longer a surprise. E-mail is now as standard a part of our day as answering the telephone, although e-mail still allows us certain kinds of communication we might not otherwise have. So it was that at the beginning of August I received a wonderful e-mail from a Sinai congregant. Who knows if he would have asked me this question in person. But e-mail was available and he did ask me this question and, when he did, I knew it was a question I would want to share with all of you tonight.

        Here’s the message he sent me –

        How busy we all get. My question for you. On Friday nights in the summer, we are all going in different directions from playing golf to dinner plans for ourselves or with friends. It seems we don't have time (or should I say don't make time) to light Shabbat candles. What should we do? We usually light our candles before dinner, but in the summer time we are not home on Friday nights.

        Here’s my response -

        I hear you and I think it’s great that you're trying to figure out how to fit candles and Shabbat into your busy life. Here are some thoughts:

        It's more important for you and the kids to light candles whenever you light them than to worry about getting the lighting at a precise time. I know the Orthodox way says the time is critical, but, if you let yourself be defined that way, you may never be able to light them!

        So...I say...Do you get home to put the kids to sleep? Then light the candles (if you haven’t done so earlier) on Friday nights as part of a bedtime ritual with them.

        Or, if you parents are going out to dinner and the kids will be at home with a babysitter, light candles before you go out.

        Or...If you're on vacation, bring mini-candles to the hotel room and light them there or at the table wherever you eat dinner.

        All possibilities...

        The Orthodox may say it’s got to be one certain way. They may accuse us of making Judaism easy. Maybe that’s a complement. We’re not only making it easy; we’re also in many ways making it possible. What do you think?

        That’s where my e-mail concluded, and now it’s another Friday night and I’m wondering what do you all think?

        As a classic e-mail - typed quickly late one summer evening - I think the message is pretty much on target. It goes along with an approach I first proposed many years ago during a conversation with parents of Second Graders in our school. One parent said she wished she could provide her children with a proper Shabbat meal plus the candles, Kiddush, and motsi. She was, however, a single mom working as a waitress who had to leave the house on Fridays around 4 p.m. A father, who was divorced, had a small apartment, wasn’t much of a cook, and only got visits with his children starting late on Friday nights. How was he supposed to do Shabbat at 8 p.m., he asked.

        In both cases, my response was to think outside the box. For the mother, better to do Shabbat at the unconventional hour of 4 p.m. if the alternative meant not doing it at all. For the dad, get paper plates and pizza and, regardless of when sunset happens, make the evening special with the blessings.

        Reform Judaism is not looking for ways to make Jewish life easy. We’re rather looking for ways to make it possible.

        All of which makes for the beginning of a great sermon addressed to anyone with small children. If you want to raise Jewish kids, make Shabbat – even a creative Shabbat – part of your family’s routine.

        There is only one problem with this fine sermon: many of you sitting here tonight do not have seven year olds at home. You have already raised your children and, unless you’re back in business as a Jewish grandparent, you’re not focused on what to do for the kids. Even those of you raising small children now, have lives beyond the kids. Sometimes the kids are at camp. Sometimes they’re with your parents. At least some of the time, you’ve got a free weekend just like everybody else.

        So the long term question really isn’t what do we do with the kids. The harder question is what do we do with us? Actually, the kids make it somewhat easy. Shabbat is fun when they’re around. The candles, grape juice, and challah delight them as little ones, but when the years go by, the novelty wears off, and I know for sure that in many cases if the kids aren’t home, your candle sticks grow dusty. You stop the blessings.

        Just for interest sake, you know what I did last week? I asked the Big Y in Longmeadow how many challahs they sell on a Friday. “25 to 45,” was the answer. Some people may bake their own; some may shop elsewhere; but if Big Y sells less than 45 challahs a week, you know lots of people aren’t making Shabbat on Friday nights.

        And….honestly speaking, we also know a good number of people here tonight are not going to fast through this Yom Kippur. Lots probably don’t have a mezuzah on their home. Lots of people start Passover with matzah, but don’t stay away from bread stuff beyond that first meal. Lots – probably most – don’t say a motsee before eating almost ever. A large number of people probably haven’t read or studied a Jewish text in many years.

        Despite that, 99% of the Jews sitting here are proud to be Jews. We wouldn’t have it any other way. All of you also happen to support a synagogue, which is a major expense and which also makes a critical contribution towards maintaining the Jewish community of Springfield. Many of you also work for Federation, the JCC, Jewish Geriatric Services, or Jewish Family Service, let alone others who volunteer for the Symphony, the Quadrangle, the Community Music School, the Red Cross, and so much more.

        You do great work. You create the platform, as it were, on which artistic, cultural, social, political, and Jewish life can take place in our community.

        In the midst of all this activity, I just wonder if you’re doing enough for yourself, especially for your Jewish self.

        Let me illustrate by recalling the fact that most adults in this sanctuary haven’t been avid students of Judaism this last year. That’s largely because most of us are insanely busy. We barely have time to read those e-mails I mentioned earlier, let alone a book on matters Jewish.

        At the same time, if I were to ask you what you thought about God or the meaning of our prayer book or the purpose of being alive or the fairness of the world, I know that every one of you would have a thousand comments, concerns, and questions. Most of the time such big ticket issues don’t matter. They surface at certain times and quickly slide away as our minds focus on the details of everyday living.

        But I’ll never forget the family years ago (Temple members in my last congregation but not Temple goers) who bumped into these issues in an unavoidable way. Within one year, the family experienced the death of a child and then the suicide of a beloved uncle.

        The tragedy was real and their pain was intense. But what struck me about the family was the reaction of several individual members.

        When I made my first phone contacts after the second loss, almost everyone in the family began talking by saying, “Where is God? How could God let this happen?”

        For one person to ask those questions was not unusual, but for so many family members to ask those questions and to ask them at a point where most people are still too numb to have any questions was most unusual. Especially since the family wasn’t terribly involved in the religious life of the congregation, I tried to understand what motivated their theological questions.

        And it occurred to me that, at least in part, the family was so bewildered and felt cut off from God because they hadn’t had much God in their lives before then.

        They were not at fault. It’s not as if you can go to the store and “get” God by the hour. What I mean is that if a person hasn’t thought about God very much in the quiet, good times and asked if God exists or if God is good or whatever, then it’s got to be very difficult to figure out God and life in the tough times.

        It’s like going to the symphony and expecting to be moved if you’ve never heard Mozart before. Or if you’ve never seen a football game, how much sense would the excitement around the Super Bowl make?

        You need background to make sense of music or sports. You need the same when life becomes overwhelming.

        And what does this have to do with most of us? I think most adult Jews have aching doubts about faith and religion and rarely give themselves an opportunity to talk about such matters. When they then encounter the High Holidays with all that God-talk or, more to the point, when they experience a tragedy, they don’t have the spiritual resources to respond. They’re frustrated. They’re disappointed in Judaism because they’re asking graduate school questions of Judaism with an elementary school knowledge base.

        It’s because of this dilemma that I purposely highlighted that “God Delusion” book last spring. I believe in God, but I wanted to get into the ring and wrestle, as it were, with a smart, articulate atheist because faith is hard to maintain and I wanted to grow through meeting the challenge of the book. I offered the book to Sinai so that you could do the same: throw ideas back and forth, argue, think, and try to articulate what you believe or don’t believe about the big ticket items of meaning.

        Reading the book was an invitation for you to stretch and strengthen the muscles of your imagination, hearts, and souls.

        Last Saturday at Torah Study we had a similar conversation. By looking at some material from the holiday prayer book and the weekly Torah portion, we ended up debating the strength of two totally different metaphors for God. It wasn’t important to decide which was right. It was only important and exciting to have a passionate, challenging conversation - stretching and strengthening our Jewish souls.

        My question to you is when was the last time you had a sustained give-and-take on such a subject of ultimate meaning?

        Not a conversation about the Patriots or house repairs or the kids, but a conversation about your hopes or your goals or your vision. If it’s been a long time, I think you’re shortchanging yourself. You’re missing the genius of Judaism. You should take a peak at some Torah. Not to pass a test on who gave birth to whom, but so that you can have a discussion about the themes of the Torah. You can sit in a room where we raise questions that are as real as your desire to have life make sense.

        But will life make sense if you explore some Torah, smack a mezuzah on your doorpost, fast tomorrow, and light candles next Friday night?

        Of course, it won’t.

        You don’t conduct like James Levine without years of study. You don’t throw a ball like Tom Brady without years of practice.

        And you don’t figure out life by taking Judaism 101 between now and Chanukah. (I’ll be honest and tell you I’m particularly nervous about suggesting you should come to Torah Study because I’m the facilitator and I’m afraid I can’t make every class you attend a fabulous learning experience.)

        But if you’ll give me three to five chances and if you maybe engage your Jewish life a bit more this year, then I do believe something worthwhile can happen. You won’t be like Madonna who claims to have found her Nirvana in an overnight Kabbalah group.

        However if you do get that mezuzah you’ve always said you wanted or if you can discipline yourself to say a blessing before you eat, and if you make this pause before eating an opportunity to become one ounce more mindful about the miracle of the food that arrives on your plate, then I believe you’ll be pleased with how you will have grown by this time next year.

        You’ll feel better about that Jewish part of yourself you already love anyway.

        You’ll feel more connected to a way of life that is older, wiser, more resilient, and stronger than you alone.

        You’ll have as your partner Jewish history, Jewish values, Jewish ideals, and perhaps – if you’re so inclined – a stronger sense for God’s presence however you will learn to define it.

        Or follow me back to the congregant whose e-mail framed his Jewish question in terms of Shabbat. Consider this proposition if you want to edge closer to your authentic Jewish self: What may count more than anything else as we assemble this Friday night is what you decide to do next Friday night.

        On this night of Kol Nidre – which means “all our vows” - how about making a vow? Make a vow tonight about next Friday night.

        Promise yourself: By next Friday night I will begin this process of doing Jewish. I will invite someone or some people for dinner. We will not sweat the menu. We may do potluck or Chinese or Italian takeout. But we will be together. We will do the blessings for Shabbat. We will linger and talk around the table. We will have Shabbat.

        You don’t have to turn your busy life upside down. (The relevant Friday evening blessings are on the home page of our Temple website waiting for you right now.)

        As tomorrow’s Torah portion will teach us, living your Jewish life doesn’t have to take you beyond the sea or beyond your strength. The treasure is actually within your grasp as close as your heart. Step by small step. Day by day.

        The story is told about a Jewish man, Shlomo, who lived in a small village several days outside Prague. He was poor and lived with his family in a one room cottage with a large stove in the middle of their crowded living quarters.

        One night Shlomo had a dream in which he was told that a treasure lay under a bridge at the center of Prague. Shlomo forgot about the dream until it returned the next night and the following night as well.

        After these three nights, Shlomo decided that he had to journey to Prague in order to find his fortune. So he packed himself food for the journey and set out for Prague.

        When he arrived in the big city, he began searching for the bridge of his dreams. After walking through most of the city, Shlomo finally identified the bridge only to realize that it was the bridge which led into the king’s palace. It was also patrolled by a guard all day long.

        What was he to do? Shlomo sat down on the river bank trying to figure out how he could get to the bridge without being arrested by the guard. He sat there for some time until the guard noticed him and asked why he was there.

        Shlomo explained about his dream back home and how he had made the long trip to Prague.

        The guard listened, laughed, and then said, “Your dream sounds as silly as mine. I’ve also dreamed that a treasure awaits me. It’s supposed to be several days journey from here in a cottage owned by someone named Shlomo. I can find it if I dig underneath his stove. But I’ve never gone to look. It seemed too farfetched.”

        That was all Shlomo needed to hear. He excused himself, headed straight back home, and, when he looked underneath his stove, he found a magnificent treasure.

        He had gone looking far away when his treasure had actually been as close as his own home.

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

        Friends, that’s the way it is with us.

        You don’t have to look far.

        You’ve got a treasure in your Judaism and you’ve had it for as long as you have been a Jew.

        Use it today; use it next Friday night for sure; use it this year.

        As our Sinai mission statement puts it, we are all on a Jewish journey. All of us can grow in many, many ways.

        Ashrenu…Mah tov chelkaynu…

        How happy we can be.

        We’ve got a precious heritage. It’s there for us to explore!

        Gut yuntif.

        Shana tova…

        And…oh yes…Shabbat shalom.

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