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Kol Nidre
October 7, 2011


I need some help.  Tonight, I would like to invite your assistance in creating a message for Yom Kippur 5772.  

 But first a story:  It’s the story of a candidate who appeared before the Admissions Committee of the Jewish Theological Seminary.  He wanted to be accepted into their rabbinic program, and he arrived fully prepared for a rigorous screening process.  Tough questions came from the professors doing the interview and the candidate acquitted himself with great skill.

Then came a question from one of the most respected professors, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  A great writer and theologian, Heschel quietly asked, “Suppose you had to spend a week on a secluded desert island.  What would you take with you?”

The student looked piously at Rabbi Heschel and answered, “Of course, a Bible.”  After a pause, Heschel continued, “And nothing else?”  The candidate caught himself, “Oh, yes…I would take some Talmud to study.”  Heschel continued, “And nothing else?”  The candidate thought and then offered what he was sure Heschel expected.  “I would take my prayer book for daily worship.”  

At this point, Heschel look at him kindly and said,  “My boy, all the things you mentioned are necessary, but above all, I think you must not forget to take along a few sandwiches and a sweater.”

That is a quintessential Jewish story.

You’ve got the aspiration for learning and worship juxtaposed with the a down-to-earth reminder:  a person should always have a little something to eat plus a way to be comfortable.  

The story harks back to a passage in the Talmud where a rabbi finds himself walking along a deserted road.  The time for evening prayers arrives.  The rabbi steps off the road into an abandoned building to pray as he must.  When he resumes his journey, he is met by another rabbi who can’t believe what he has done.  Praying is good, says the second rabbi.  But risking your life to pray?  Pushing your luck that way?  You’ve got to be nuts.

Or think about Moses at the Red Sea.  The Egyptian chariots are bearing down upon our people.  The Egyptians are ready to murder our people.  Moses calls the people to pray and what does God say?  God says, “Stop with the praying, Moses.  Do something.  Act!”

There is something deliciously practical about Jews and pious behavior.  Pray but don’t forget your sandwiches.  Believe but dress for the weather.

Centuries ago, the great Moses Maimonides was emphatic.  He developed Thirteen Principles of Faith, each of which began with the assertion…Ani maamin be-emunah shleima…I believe with perfect faith…I believe.

However running alongside such perfect faith and maybe even in spite of Maimonides’ piety, we Jews have always had a bit of an attitude about belief.

Heschel, the rabbi who believed in sandwiches, taught as follows,  “There is no faith at first sight.  A faith that comes into being like a butterfly is ephemeral. He who is swift to believe is swift to forget….Just remember, even the generation [of Jews] that went out of Egypt and witnessed the marvels at the Red Sea and Mount Sinai did not attain faith completely.”  (God in Search of Man, page 152)

But don’t you have to believe?  Shouldn’t you believe in God in order to be a good Jew?

Here is the first place where, as I said before, I want to enlist your help in creating tonight’s message.  In fact, I think you already know the answer to my opening question…Do you have to believe in God in order to be a good Jew?

The answer is….NO.

As long as you’ve got some sandwiches and a sweater, you’ll probably do just fine.

Except here’s the problem:  Tonight and tomorrow are so full of God talk that Yom Kippur does tend to be a tough experience if you don’t believe in God.  Beyond that, when it comes to me personally, I would find my life and my Judaism impoverished if I did write off God.  

 So join me, then, and let’s take a step back. You see, the question I just asked you was actually unfair.  Or put it this way:  I think we could have had a more productive interchange a minute ago if we had drawn on another vintage Jewish practice.  You could have responded to my question with a question of your own.  

When I asked:  Do you have to believe in God in order to be a good Jew, you could have replied:  Well, it all depends on what the word “God” means to you.  Rabbi, what does the word “God” mean?

To which I would have said:  That’s a terrific question.  

It’s a wise question because I am sure we don’t all mean the same thing when we use the word “God.”  In fact, if some of you were to tell me you don’t believe in God and then went on to tell me what you don’t believe about God, I might very well agree and say back to you, “I don’t believe in the God you’ve described either.”  

But that’s OK because there is more than one way to understand God.  For example, let me remind you about a vintage biblical story that undergirds my not-so-conventional image of God.  

It’s the story of Elijah – the same Eliyahu Hanavi who visits our Passover Seders.  This is a story that describes Elijah’s great passion for Judaism.  It begins outside modern-day Haifa where the First Book of Kings describes how Elijah engages in a debate over monotheism with no fewer than 400 priests of Baal.  He triumphs after a long day, and the Jewish people who have witnessed the event all affirm that Elijah is right.  They all accept the covenant.

There is only one problem.  Jezebel, the pagan queen who is married to Ahab, the Jewish king, puts out a contract on Elijah’s life.  On a day of great triumph, Elijah has to run for his life.  He is angry.  He is frightened and totally dispirited.

So where does he go?  The Bible tells us he heads straight for Mount Sinai where God revealed the Ten Commandments.  Elijah wants that same kind of reassurance.  He heads to Sinai because he wants to know God is on his side.  He wants proof!

 When he gets to the mountain, we need to imagine Elijah is quite overwrought.  God asks (almost innocently), “Elijah, what brings you to Sinai?”  Elijah answers that he has been very zealous for God and that he needs some answers.

Elijah stands on the mountain and here is how the Bible describes what happens.  “[Suddenly] there was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.  After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.  And after the fire – KOL D’MA-MA DAKA…A STILL SMALL VOICE.”

That’s it.  That is the revelation.

After the wind, earthquake, and fire…an echo.  

A soft murmuring sound.  A still small voice.

This is where I, your rabbi, find God.  Not so much on a mountain top.  Not so much thundering, proclaiming, or swooping into life to perform magical miracles.  

But quieter.  I like to imagine God as a bubbling spring, a soft, insistent force that wells up in us and around us.  Let’s say God is a presence.  God is like the echo of that creative spark that somehow exploded to create our universe.  That energy still vibrates within us, lifting us up, supporting us, prodding and pushing us beyond ourselves.

God sustains values and ideals that struggle to surface in human life.  God is the stream of goodness coursing through the universe.

Long ago, when they lived in a world of emperors and kings, our ancestors described God as MELECH HA-OLAM…KING OF THE UNIVERSE because that was how they imagined the ultimate.

As I told you a few years ago from this bimah, I love what Rabbi Arthur Waskow has suggested for a renewed understanding of God.  Waskow has exchanged the two-syllable word MELECH, meaning King, for another two-syllable word RUACH, meaning spirit.  He now prays with this imagery:  Baruch atta Adonai Elohainu RUACH ha-olam…Blessed are You, Adonai our God, RUACH/SPIRIT of the universe.

I very much like that formulation.  It’s part of an attempt by many caring Jews to give that big word GOD new and different meanings for our 21st century setting.

In fact, I hope some of you remember the way I imagined God reacting to the earthquake and tsunami which devastated Japan last spring.  Writing just before Passover, I said that the natural disasters in Japan were, in a way, bigger than God.  They were aspects of a physical world that had to follow its own set of rules.  

Then I wrote as follows:  “For me, the pain of the earthquake and tsunami that makes so many people around the globe weep also touches God.  I mean it.  In some sense, God is hurt by the loss of life.  God weeps.  God joins us in mourning the Japanese disaster.

Does that make any difference?  

For me it does.  I’m thinking of the times I’ve felt overwhelmed.  I’m thinking of occasions when I’ve seen many of you burdened beyond your capacity.  At those times, we mostly can’t fix life for each other.  But we can be there for each other.  We can sit with each other, talk, and listen.  You might say, we can weep with each other.  And somehow that does help.  It matters to know we are not alone.”

All this, my friends, is what I am thinking when I use the word “God.”

It’s a metaphor for something I feel – sometimes more clearly, sometimes less.  It’s what I mean when I tell you I believe that there is something holy in our world.

We are not alone.  Something makes our world more than the sum of its parts.  That something is God.

Did I become a rabbi because I knew all this for sure?  Not at all.  To tell you the truth, I think I became a rabbi because questions about God and meaning bothered me more than the average person.  My dad was a physician.  I considered medicine for my life’s work.  In High School, I took all the chemistry, biology, and physics for pre-med.  But I was simply less interested in how an atom worked than why there is an atom at all.  Questions about why we are here and the purpose of life are what tilted me from science and medicine toward religion and enquiries about faith.  

Voila – No Dr. Shapiro.  Instead – Rabbi Shapiro.

And now we stand face to face with Kol Nidre.  Lots of God stuff.  Grand themes.  Grand images.  

But do you remember what I’ve also suggested about Kol Nidre and other prayers?  On other occasions, I’ve suggested reading all these words as grand poetry that needs to be encountered with your most open and creative minds.  This prayerbook was written by Jews who used one set of royal images for God.  You and I know there are other ways to understand God.  


As Judge and Ruler – maybe.

As Support and Comforter – perhaps.

As Spirit and Source – this too if it works.

The very best part of our tradition is that we are not expected to be robots.  Our questions are welcomed.  Our doubts are taken seriously.  As my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, once suggested, there is plenty of room for heresy on Yom Kippur.  As long as you join the community in trying to make a better you, your heresy (that is to say, your questions and doubts) can actually be quite holy.

Which brings me to an invitation.  Remember how I said I wanted your help in creating this Yom Kippur sermon?

I really meant what I said because, you see, this sermon, which is about to conclude, won’t conclude fully until around noon this Sunday.  That’s because this conversation about God has up until now been one-sided.  I haven’t heard from you.  You haven’t heard from each other.

That will be remedied on Sunday morning when I hope you will talk back to me via a survey on God and belief.  The survey will be sent out of Sinai’s office around 9 a.m. on Sunday just the way our weekly e-vents are sent most Tuesday mornings.  The survey will be powered by a company called SurveyMonkey.  Your message from Sinai will contain a link.  Hit that link and you will be taken to the questionnaire that will explore your ideas on God and faith.  It will be anonymous.  

You can probably do the survey in five minutes.  If you’re particularly engaged in the process, you could take ten minutes.  The survey is set up so that more than one person can respond from the same computer in your house.  That is because I truly hope every adult and teenager in the congregation will do the survey.  That means that whoever regularly gets the e-vents can do the survey.  After that, a spouse or partner can use the link and do it.  After that, teenagers are welcome, encouraged, pleaded with to share their ideas too.

Maybe you read the Sunday New York Times.  Maybe you read the Globe. Since the weather will be fabulous on Sunday, you’ll probably want to get outside.  

But before you do that, I need you to help complete this sermon.  You know what I think. Let me know what you think.

Do the survey on Sunday.  If necessary, save it to Monday, but do respond and do encourage everyone in your household to do the survey too.  By the way, if you have children who grew up at Sinai, send the link to them.  I want to hear from every age group.  The only limitation is that those answering have to be Sinai members or have to have grown up at Sinai.  (And if you don’t use a computer, hard copies of the survey will be in the office.  Complete the hard copy and we’ll enter the results via our computer.)

SurveyMonkey will help collate the results.  My plan is to share them with you on Saturday, November 19.  That morning I am inviting you to come back to Sinai.  We’ll have a brief service at 10:30 a.m. as we always do and then we’ll talk.  We’ll see what several hundred Jews in the year 2011/5772 think about God and matters of the spirit.

It should be fascinating.  Don’t you wonder what others believe?  Wouldn’t you love to know if you’re alone in your beliefs or concerns or perhaps there are many others like you.

More than that, may I suggest one other reason why this survey really does matter to you?  It’s because you need to exercise your theology muscle.  Whether you believe a lot or a little…especially if you think you believe a little, it really helps to engage the questions we have raised tonight.  

That’s because sooner or later everyone has to confront questions of belief and meaning.  If you come to those questions at a time of illness or death or any kind of dislocation in your life with no prior engagement, take it from me it’s harder.  If you haven’t exercised your God muscle, you’re going to have less flexibility and less strength.  It’s like trying to run a marathon without having trained.  It hurts.  But if you’ve trained, if you know the terrain, if you’ve grappled with this God stuff, even though it’s not easy, it is doable.  

I can’t guarantee you will ever become a believer.  You may not want to be a believer or perhaps you would like to ground yourself more in God.

Either way – this is what I do know. Without exercising your soul at all, it’s hard to confront some of life’s hardest times.  You need to think this stuff through.  All of us need to wonder where is God and what does believing mean.

Stay tuned.

This conversation has only just begun.

For the time being, however, let’s close with this poem by Danny Siegel.  You’ve heard it from me before, but I guess the truth is that I really believe this poem.  It works for me.  It lets me believe.  It helps prepare me for the service we shall soon enter.



The Lord’s love is wide

as the greatest teacher’s heart


encompassing the feed for cattle

even unto chicken eggs and gophers for snakes.

High as Rocky mountain peaks

reflected in the mirror of the lake

so high is God’s graciousness     


giving Life

letting grand old men die

in the comfort of their homes

filling the time-flies interim

with scenes of many colored joy.

God’s light shines everywhere    


as through stained glass  windows

fracturing the rays in dancing shades.

God’s light is a guide

it is a warm

always changing happening of silence music  

        Almost always

and this sometimes

  almost always

is enough.

For in this light

 is hope and comfort

 and a hidden answer.




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