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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

September 27, 2020

I want to invite you to close your eyes, lower your gaze, or find another way to turn inward. Focusing your breath, in your mind’s eye, I want you to imagine that it is a different day, a different time. Imagine it is Kol Nidre 5782 - September 15, 2021.

Let’s set the scene. I hope - I pray - that we are back together in our beautiful sanctuary on Broad Street, safely gathering in person for this sacred night. We have opened the ark and our Torahs are being held on the bima, witnesses in the heavenly courtroom we have entered. We hear the first notes of our Kol Nidre prayer, chanted so beautifully by Cantor Slusky earlier this evening. And we are together again, so our choir joins in, too.

It’s bittersweet to think ahead to one year from now, because it is a reminder of what we are missing. I invite you to acknowledge these feelings of sadness and loss, and, in your mind’s eye, watch them float away. We are back in the sanctuary, and we are home.

It is one year from now. And now, listen to us, imagine us reading these words together:

All vows —
Resolves and commitments, vows of abstinence and terms of obligation,
Sworn promised and oaths of dedication —
That we promise and swear to God, and take upon ourselves
From this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement, may it find us well:
we regret them and for all of them we repent.
Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone;
They are not valid and they are not binding.
Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves;
And our oaths — they shall not be oaths.

These are the words of our Kol Nidre declaration. From this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement.

Standing together, back in our sanctuary, on Kol Nidre 5782, in September 2021, we will say these same words that we said tonight. That’s the power of ritual and of our Jewish calendar - we return, year after year, to familiar words and blessings.

So what WILL we be thinking about a year from now, not on this Day of Atonement, but at the next one? What are the vows that we will be asking to be discarded, forgiven, abolished and undone?

I invite you back into the present moment. Each year, we know Kol Nidre is coming. Each year, we know we have the opportunity to change, reflect, ask for forgiveness, to repair and rebuild. Each year, we know we will say these words that absolve us of the vows we could not fulfill. We look to the past - to the vows we made between last year, 2019, 5780, and this one. Tonight, I invite us to look to the future.

When we made vows and promises a year ago, we could never, in our wildest dreams, have imagined that the year 2020 would unfold as it did. All of our lives have been impacted and continue to be shaped by the coronavirus pandemic, some in minor ways, and some in very major ways. Even with some historical antecedents, we have no context for staying at home, social distancing, quarantining, and so many folks working or learning from home.

Knowing on Kol Nidre a year ago what we know now, impossible, of course, what different decisions might we have made this year? And looking forward, with our lives irreversibly shaped by the events of the past six months, how will we change our behaviors, our lives, our ways of being in the world - and the promises we make, and the vows we swear to keep?

Our families, homes, and communities have sustained us in this time, even as staying home and staying connected to community has been challenging, too. And our nation has been put to the test this year, in ways foreseen and ways unimaginable.

We have been ravaged by the corona virus. The death toll is staggering and our hearts are breaking. Our economy is suffering. And our nation is more fractured than ever. Politically, we are divided, polarized between right and left. To make matters worse, with the impacts of Covid, many of us are pretty much staying put, or traveling locally and regionally. Not only are we separated from each other socially and ideologically - but often physically as well. While I can picture Kol Nidre a year from now, I often struggle to picture what is going on in different corners of the country, simply because it feels so far away, and so radically different from what we are experiencing locally, here.

And our nation is breaking and our hearts are broken because of the consistent police brutality toward Black people. For those who experience the privilege of being White, we are working hard to learn, listen, and to practice tsimtsum - to take up less space in this conversation - while at the same time, working hard to speak up and be allies. As Jews, we know the unique and significant legacy of antisemitism. We know it is not the same as racism, and yet, we can open our hearts to the struggles of Black people in America who have suffered from hate and bigotry for decades. Whether we’re on the sidelines or active in this conversation, we all have a part to play and a responsibility, an obligation, to work hard to do what’s right.

So much brokenness. Broken plans, broken hearts, broken promises. That brokenness is certainly in our past - so what about this year? What can we say about the year that will unfold from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement? What are the vows we will make that we will not ask to be absolved of - the vows we will keep?

Cooper Lerner, a new member of our congregation, has taken the lead on a voter registration initiative organized by the Religious Action Center, the Reform Movement’s social justice office in Washington, D.C. Cooper comes to our temple with a passion for voter enfranchisement and making sure everyone’s voice in our nation is heard. Last month, at a social action committee meeting, Cooper offered to teach everyone about phone banking. “To be honest,” Cooper said, “people usually hang up or don’t pick up. But if you reach even one person, you may make a difference!”

And that is why our social action committee endorsed the RAC’s campaign for voter registration, to ensure that historically low-represented and excluded groups will get the right to participate in our democracy this year. It may make a difference to one person. One action, one vow, one promise we can keep.

One of my favorite stories goes like this. A person walking along a beach at dawn saw another person bend down, pick up a starfish, and toss it out to sea. "Why are you doing that?" the first inquired.

The second person explained that the starfish had been stranded on the beach by at low tide, and would soon die in the daytime sun. "But the beach goes on for miles," the first said. "And there are so many. How can you make any difference?" The second person looked at the starfish in hand, and without hesitating, threw it to safety in the sea. Looking up at the first person, they smiled, and said: "It will make a difference to that one."

It will make a difference to that one. This story, perhaps one that you’ve heard before, embodies a key Jewish value that we learn in Pirke Avot: It is not your duty to complete the work - neither are you free to ignore it.” It is not your duty to save every starfish on the beach - but that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook.

And small actions add up. Even if we start at our homes, move our to our communities, we still have an impact on our nation and our world. Making one voter registration phone call. Showing up at one protest for a cause you care about. Writing one letter to the editor. Donating one can of green beans to our Thanksgiving Angels or PFTY food drives. It sounds a little silly when I say it that way - donating one can of green beans. But it will make a difference for that one person.

Why, I’m often asked, does Kol Nidre let us off the hook? Why are the vows we inevitably did not keep from last Day of Atonement to this one discarded and forgiven?

In the biblical era, in our Torah, vows were taken quite seriously. Over the summer, in our wonderful weekly Torah study group, we read the story of Jepthah the Judge and his daughter. Jepthah vowed that if he were victorious in battle, he would sacrifice the first thing that walked out the door of his house upon his arrival home. It was his daughter, and he wept and wept. He had no way out of that vow.

Today, in modern times, we have a safety valve. We are absolved of the vows we cannot fulfill. This should only inspire us to try, to make mistakes, to fail, and to learn. Put ourselves in uncomfortable situations and conversations so we can grow. Take one positive action at a time to tip the balance of the scales of our nation from brokenness to wholeness.

It is not yet Kol Nidre 5782 - it is the cusp of the year 5781. It is still the year 2020 in our nation and our world. What vows will you keep this year to work toward the repair of our world?

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA
Tue, October 27 2020 9 Cheshvan 5781