Monthly Archives: October 2014

Elevator Speech

Not THE elevator speech. Not the ‘pitch’ you are supposed to have ready at a moment’s notice, when one day fate places you in an elevator with the one person who can make your dreams come true, if only you can convey your idea. Not that elevator speech. Instead, I am talking about ‘elevator speech’ – the small talk we all seem compelled to make when we share an elevator with someone we don’t know.

It happened to me this morning. I was visiting a patient at the hospital, and had to ride up on the elevator to the 6th floor. Just as the doors were closing a nurse jumped on. For a moment or two we rode in silence, but then we felt compelled to speak to each other. That is what people do when stuck in the elevator. The silence is uncomfortable, we feel uneasy until someone breaks the ice. It could be a comment about the weather, or wherever you are. Just a word or two to acknowledge, if you will, that we are all in this together – the elevator, and even life.

I’ve always suspected that is why Jews murmur when they pray. There are supposed to be moments of ‘quiet prayer,’ but if you look in a traditional siddur those moments are described as ‘tefilah b’lachash’ – prayer in a whisper. The murmuring of prayer in a synagogue rises and falls, has its own rhythm, almost as if a musical motif is being passed from person to person, when one lets it go another takes it up. Whatever the case, the noise never stops. We are noisy worshippers, and doesn’t it always seem that it is precisely when silence truly threatens that the murmuring begins?

Perhaps it is because we don’t want to be silent in front of God, with God. Imagine riding in that elevator with God as your companion. Would you be so awed, so humbled, that you wouldn’t be able to get out a word? Unlikely, especially if you grew up in a synagogue, with its noise and tumult. The Jew feels compelled to say something! Although I don’t think a word about the weather would be in order. ‘Lousy weather today God, don’t you think?’ As my children are prone to saying, ‘awkward!’

In the murmuring, in the rising and falling of human voices, there are hopes and dreams, sadnesses and sorrows, a sense of gratitude and sometimes of relief. What an act of faith it is to break that silence! To believe that somehow, in someway, those words can change our lives, can change even the world.

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Great Expectations

Yes, the great Dickens novel.  I am re-reading it, and enjoying it immensely.  The title is a double entendre.  Great expectations is a technical term in the book referring to Pip’s expected inheritance – as in ‘he has come into great expectations.’  But the phrase also hints at Pip’s own hopes and dreams – how he wants to live and who he wants to be.  Both meanings play an important role in the narrative as Pip grows into adulthood.

We might say the same for people who decide to convert to Judaism.  When they become Jewish they come into an inheritance – a faith tradition that is thousands of years old and filled with wisdom and beauty.  But also their conversion is a piece of the puzzle of their lives, a way of nourishing their souls.  Great expectations indeed.

This is in part why it was painful for me to read a blog post that appeared on the Times of Israel website, written by a woman named Bethany Mandel.  The title of the post is ‘A Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts,’ and the author, herself a convert, outlines a series of 10 challenges that often confront Jews-by-choice.  Among them:  conversion ‘costs’ are often not revealed until the candidate is just about to become Jewish;  converts are put into the uncomfortable position of having to discuss deeply personal matters with total strangers;  the conversion process is drawn out, and almost impossible to meet demands are made on candidates.  To see Ms. Mandel’s complete article you can check the following link:  blogstimesofisrael.com

When I read her article it struck me that virtually all of the problems she points to are particular to the Orthodox conversion process.  Had she converted under the auspices of the Conservative or Reform Movements she would have, in all likelihood, come through the experience with a very different feeling about the meaning of conversion.  Her sense of personal dignity and affinity for the Jewish people would have remained strong.  Her conversion experience would have been positive and not painful.  And, as a Conservative rabbi, I hope her welcome into the community would have been generous and genuine.

My colleague Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue has recently argued that the Conservative Movement should make conversion easier, with fewer demands on candidates, shorter study times, and a much more open attitude towards people who want to make their home in the Jewish community.  I couldn’t agree more.  Any rabbi will quickly tell you that people who have chosen to become Jewish strengthen congregational life, often becoming some of the most devoted congregants we are privileged to serve.   Some might believe that the Jew-by-choice is blessed, privileged to be granted access to a sacred community and ancient covenant.  In fact the opposite is true – when someone decides to become Jewish, it is the community that is blessed by that person’s commitment, caring, faith, and presence.

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The Wheel

‘the Wheel is turning and you can’t slow it down, can’t let go and you can’t hold on, can’t go back and you can’t stand still, if the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will’

I’ve always loved this line from the Jerry Garcia – Robert Hunter song the Wheel, found on the eponymous Garcia solo album ‘Garcia’ released in 1972.  The song quickly found its way into the Grateful Dead’s repertoire, and the band performed it hundreds of times over the years, ultimately settling it into that post drums/space slot where it fit so well.  I’ve often wondered about the imagery of that ‘wheel.’  There is obviously something inexorable about it, turning and turning, independent of human influence or the quirky rhythms of human life.

A dream, from just the other night.  End of the fall holiday cycle, so that may have something to do with it.  I am walking along Riverside Dr., a road in the town I grew up in.  I need to get further down the road, but there is a bit of traffic, so I decide to walk – after all, it isn’t far.  A short ways into my journey the weather suddenly shifts.  The wind kicks up, a few flakes of snow begin to fall, and suddenly I am walking through a driving snow storm.  It gets harder and harder to make progress, and the dress shoes I am wearing begin to slip on the snow covered sidewalk.   I look up into a steel grey sky.

If you’ve ever owned a hamster, or even if you haven’t, you know the image of the small furry animal running in place on that wheel.  Whenever we are confronted with that image we probably wonder if we are just a larger, slightly more sophisticated, more complicated reproduction of that image.  Do we ever get any where?  And where are we going, anyway?  How easily the sidewalk can begin to slip beneath our feet!

The Mishnah understands this natural human feeling.  In Pirke Avot we find the following teaching:  You don’t have to complete the work, but at the same time you are not permitted to give up on the task.  In a sense that simple line captures so much of what it means to live a human life.  We fight our battles and face our challenges.  Sometimes we succeed, other times we fail.  But we try.  And try again.  In a small yet profound way, that trying is heroic.

Garcia and Hunter seem to have arrived at about the same place.  When the band was hot the climax to the song reverberated through the great halls, into our minds, into our very bones:  ‘Small wheel turn by the firing rod, big wheel turn by the grace of God, every time that wheel turns round, bound to cover just a little more ground.’

Just a little more ground.  I’ll take it.  Better than walking on a slippery side walk in a snowstorm with dress shoes on.

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The Post Holiday Blues

here a text of my Shabbat sermon from 10/18/14

You may wonder this morning how rabbis feel at this time of year, when the fall holiday cycle has finally ended, when the HHDs are behind us, when we’ve celebrated in our sukkot, when we’ve shaken our lulavs and etrogs, and danced with the Torahs.  There is no question this is a busy time of year for rabbis – all of the sermons to write and deliver, all of the services to lead, and then in the few days each week that aren’t yom tov or Shabbat days, trying to do the rest of your work, because after all the world around you is going ahead pretty much full steam.  So you might think that at the end of the holiday cycle rabbis rejoice, that we feel liberated, maybe along the lines of how an accountant might feel on April 16th.

But the truth is, most rabbis probably would tell you they feel some what ambivalent about the end of the fall holidays.  Yes, there is relief, no question about it.  The season does have its unique pressures and stresses, and we are glad to bid those goodbye.  And I will tell you something else, a secret and please don’t share it with anyone outside of this room.  Rabbis – even rabbis! – get ‘shuled out.’  You know the old story  – a young man’s mother wakes him up on Shabbat morning – “Joey!  You’ve got to get up and get ready – shul starts in 1 hour.”  “I don’t want to go to shul” the young man replies with his head under a pillow.  “I’m tired!  I want to sleep in.”  “But you have to go,” his mother insists, “they might need you to make a minyan!”  “I’m not going,” says the young man.  “But there is a bar mitzvah,” says his mother.  “I don’t care,” says the young man.  “I am not going to shul today!”  “But Joey,” his mother says, “You have to go!  You are the rabbi!”  So there is truly a sense of relief when the holidays finally come to an end.

But there is also a sense of regret.  After all, what rabbi doesn’t like seeing a full sanctuary?  What rabbi doesn’t feel proud when the holiday services are complimented, when people say kind words about sermons the rabbi has worked on?  What rabbi doesn’t feel good when people take time out of their busy schedules to make Jewish life a priority?  So there is, for many rabbis, a bit of what is sometimes called today ‘the post wedding blues’ when the holidays end.  All of the planning, all of the effort and energy, culminates in a wonderful and intense experience, and suddenly the holidays are over, and it is very quiet.  No special services to plan.  No programs to run, no pearls of wisdom to bestow upon packed sanctuaries.

There is a parable that was told by the Dubner Maggid, one of the great Hasidic story tellers.  It describes a shopkeeper who was worried because a man he knew kept walking by the shop, but never came in.  Instead, he did all his shopping at other stores.  The shop keeper had an idea – he would invite the man in, not to purchase anything, but just to catch up – after all, they knew each other, they were old friends.  And maybe when the man was in the shop he would see something he liked.

So the man started stopping by the store, chatting with the owner a few times a week, exchanging pleasantries, catching up on family.  But he still didn’t buy anything.  Finally the shopkeeper admitted to himself that the man just wasn’t going to buy.  He wasn’t interested.

That is like God and the Jews on the HHDs, said the Dubner Maggid.  God invites us to the house of worship for RH and YK, for Sukkot and Simhat Torah, hoping that while we are in shul we’ll pick up a little Teshuvah over here, a sense of Ma’asim Tovim over there, that while we are here we’ll buy, we’ll become invested and connected, regular attenders, more faithful and practicing Jews.   But it doesn’t always work out that way, and too many leave shul empty handed.

And I think that is the way a lot of rabbis feel at this time of year.  By and large we rabbis tend to be optimists – and we hope that the experience people have with the holidays will be positive enough to hook them for the year, and maybe even longer than that. I always think of the haftara that is chanted on Shemini Atzeret, which we celebrated Thursday morning.  It describes the end of the fall holiday cycle in ancient times, when the people would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.  Just as the holidays are ending and the people are preparing to head home, King Solomon gathers them all in the great Temple courtyard, and he rises before them to give them a last blessing before they depart – this is how that blessing concludes:  “May you be wholehearted with the Lord our God, to walk in God’s ways and keep God’s commandments, even as this day.”

It is the last phrase that catches my attention – כיום הזה – even as this day.  In other words, Solomon is telling them ‘as you’ve felt during these holidays  – close to God, connected to our faith and the history of our people, so may you feel the rest of the year, even when you leave this sacred place, even when you are back at home, engaged with the tasks of day to day life.’

And that, friends, is the true task of the rabbi.  In all honesty, the holiday season is the time of year when keeping people interested in and engaged in Jewish life is the easiest.  People are open to it, they are ready for it, they even block out their calendars to make sure they get to shul to participate in services.  You don’t have to do that much to make them feel good about being Jewish, to make them feel connected and concerned about Jewish life.  The holidays take care of that for you.

The true challenge begins when the holidays end.  How do you get people to take that feeling with them the rest of the year, the other 11 months in the calendar?  You hope they’ve left the holiday season with a renewed sense of Jewish commitment, with a stronger connection to the synagogue, with a greater determination to make Judaism a meaningful part of their lives.  How do you get people to follow through with that?  To keep coming to services?  To add Jewish practices to their home life?  To commit to studying Torah on a regular basis, as Rabbi Saroken suggested last night? That is the hard part, and yet that is precisely the rabbi’s job.

But if there is one thing I’ve learned in my 17 years in the rabbinate, it is that the rabbi can’t do that job alone.  He – or she – needs committed lay leaders, partners in shaping the course of the synagogue’s future.  Devoted congregants, who form a core group of committed Jews, breathing life into our tradition on a daily basis.  Bat and bar mitzvah families, determined to give their children a proper Jewish education.  Talented leaders and teachers in the Hebrew school.  Committed professional staff.  The synagogue, after all, is bigger than the rabbi.  It combines all of these people, their interests and needs, the areas of expertise, their particular love of Judaism and Jewish life.  Thursday night we danced with the Torahs, and the truth is now in my 50th year I can’t carry those Torahs the way I used to.  At one point I got tired, and another congregant was there.  “Do you need help, rabbi?” he asked.  I handed him that Torah, and he took it and danced away with it the center of a circle of dancing Jews.  That is it, I thought.  The holiday season is coming to a close, but together we will carry the Torah into this new year.

May we do so for many years to come –

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The Modern Gladiators

here a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 10/11/14 –

I know in many ways this is a baseball weekend in Baltimore, but I’d like to think with you about football this morning for a few minutes.  I’ve been a football fan for as long as I can remember, I remember watching the Colts on a small black and white TV with my dad in the late 60s in our small apartment in Mt. Washington.  By the early 70s I was a diehard fan, watching games every Sunday, following news about the league, and keeping track of the players and their statistics.  Like with many of the youngsters today, there was a time when on Monday morning you could ask me how many yards a running back had gained or how many TD passes a quarterback had thrown on Sunday, and I could tell you without even hesitating.

But I confess that for the very first time in my life I am feeling what I would probably call a strong ambivalence about football.  I am still watching when I can, but some of the enjoyment of the game has been taken away from me, and as I watch I feel guilty in some way, as if I am complicit in something that I know is wrong, something that I should not allow myself to be sucked into.  And I also wonder if by participating, even in such a passive way, I am contributing to something that I normally would never condone – namely the perpetuation, and also the celebration, the glorification – of violence.

For a number of years now this feeling has been growing.  As the players have gotten both bigger and faster, and as the collisions on the field have grown more and more dangerous.  Then over the last couple of years my discomfort has grown even stronger.  It began to intensify with the information that has come out during that time about the number of football players who suffer from chronic brain trauma after their careers are over.  The NFL itself now is saying that one in three players will be affected by CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that results from repetitive blows to the head.  New information has come out that early onset of this disease can begin as early as high school with some young players.  The league has tried to cope with this by putting new rules into place about helmet to helmet contact, but it is not at all clear that these rules will make much of a difference.

So I have begun, on one level, to think of the NFL as a modern gladiator sport.  In ancient Rome the gladiator games were held in large arenas, with the best athletes of the time competing against one another in contests that literally resulted in the death of one of the contestants.  The fans lined the stadium, there were sponsors, the games made huge amounts of money, and the more violent and bloody the better.  We look back on those games as barbarous, as the kind of thing a modern society would never condone, as amoral.  But as we understand more and more about the long term effects of football, is it really that different?  The players may not die right in front of us on the field, but later they do die, as young men, once they’ve retired, once they are out of the public eye.  Is this really any better?  When we actually think through it, when we admit to ourselves that what we are watching on the field does have a direct cause and effect for the suffering of these players down the road, can we really be comfortable with it?  And I am not sure I can anymore.

The Talmudic rabbis were intimately familiar with Roman culture.  As they put the Talmud together they lived in a Palestine that was controlled by the Romans, where cities like Ceasarea, now a spectacular archeological dig just north of Tel Aviv, hosted gladiatorial games.  The rabbis knew what these games were about, probably many of them had attended gladiatorial competitions, and like with just about everything they decided they should make a statement about these events in the corpus of law they were constructing.  In general the rabbis were distrustful of Roman culture and its emphasis on the body and on physical strength.  In one particularly instructive rabbinic source dated to around the year 200 we find the following:  היושב באסטרין הרי זה שופך דמים  – one who goes to the stadium to watch gladiator competition is like one who has spilled blood.  That is to say, the rabbis believed that a spectator to the games was accountable, was in some war responsible – for the blood that was spilled and for the deaths that occurred.

If we didn’t know, maybe it would be different for us.  But we just can’t say we don’t know anymore.  It is all right in front of our eyes.  The statistics are available.  Even the NFL itself is acknowledging this at this point.  But the games go on, and the money keeps coming in, the fantasy leagues get more popular, and at the end of the day the sport is driven by the fans, and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger every year, despite what we know.  And I guess what I am saying this morning is given what we know, shouldn’t we know better?

Of course what I am saying this morning is close to heresy, or possibly even worse, in a big football town like Baltimore.  But there is a sense this season that the problem is spreading.  Certainly in Baltimore we should be sensitive to that, with what happened with Ray Rice and his wife over the summer.  And that public violent incident was followed very closely by a violent incident of a more private nature, the Minnesota Viking’s running back Adrian Peterson’s beating of his son.  Or what about the fact that in the last 10 days three high school football players have died while playing the game – a 16 year old on Long Island, a 17 year old in Alabama, and another 17 year old in North Carolina.  You have to begin to wonder at what point will we all take a ‘time out’ and have a serious discussion about this issue.  Not just that the players need better equipment, that the rules need to be changed to protect players, that tackling techniques need to be better, but a real conversation about the moral and ethical implications of what is going on literally right in front of our eyes.

Demand for that conversation is finally beginning to grow.  But we all need to make sure it happens, to be involved in it and take part in it.  It is not an issue of a particular league, or even a single sport – it is an issue of culture, of societal expectations, of what we will accept and what we feel crosses a line.  And that culture is something we create together, and that line is something we either step over together, or stop in front of.  It seems to me the time of just walking blindly over that line is coming to an end.  When enough people stop in front of it the conversation will begin.  It is about time.  And it is clearly needed.  Lets make sure it happens soon.

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One Trick Poney

Some years ago a rabbi from the Atlanta area named Shlomo Lewis delivered a sermon to his congregation on the High Holy Days in which he called for a global awakening to the threat of Islam against the civilized world.  The sermon was racist, paranoid, alarmist, hateful, and narrow minded, but something about it captured the attention of a number of people in the Jewish community.  I know this because the text of the sermon was forwarded to me a number of times the year he gave it, and people have continued to send it to me off and on in the years since.

This year Rabbi Lewis repeated his infamous ‘sermon.’  He dressed it up a bit by referencing more recent events, but in essence the sermon is the same.  I was taught in Rabbinical School that one should be able to sum up a sermon in one line.  For Rabbi Lewis’ sermon of this year that line might be:  it is us or them, so we had better wise up and destroy them first.  Seems to me an odd message to deliver during the days when we turn inwards to examine our own lives, and are supposed to think of gratitude, hope, and life.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Lewis has a right to say what he wants.  It is his pulpit, his shul, his congregation.  But it seems to me that leaders from around the Jewish community should step forward to remind folks that this is a dangerous kind of rhetoric.  In the Muslim world we are all too aware of clerics who step in front of their congregations to preach hate.  And when they do, we always say ‘why won’t someone from the Muslim world criticize the person who said those things.’  So when someone in the Jewish world says those things, shouldn’t we step forward to criticize?

Not to say that Rabbi Lewis doesn’t have some pedigree.  Some of you may remember Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest who gained national prominence in the 20s and 30s through his weekly radio addresses.  They were often filled with anti-Jewish rhetoric, commonly based on classic anti-Semitic tropes.  The Jews are controlling the world!  The Jews have a secret plan to control the world’s banks.  The Jews are persecuting Christians, with the intent to ultimately destroy them!  In one broadcast Coughlin claimed that the Jews had been behind the murder of 20 million Christians and had stolen 40 million dollars of Christian property.  And this was on the radio for everyone to hear!  Had Rabbi Lewis and Father Coughlin been working at the same time they could have helped each other write material.  Or perhaps Rabbi Lewis, in his research for the reworking of his sermon, read through some of Coughlin’s old articles from ‘Social Justice’ magazine.

I do not mean to make light of the dangers of radical Islam.  They are real, and they are serious.  But they also require a thoughtful, measured, intelligent, and rational response.  Rabbi Lewis, in his remarks, gave in to his own fear and loathing, exactly what the High Holy Days encourage us to confront and fight against.  We should all be sure that we do not follow his lead.  Instead, I would recommend reading the Wall Street Journal article published this week by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  He does not shy away from the seriousness of the situation for Jews today.  At the same time he understands that instead of ‘us against them’ we are all in this together.

You can read his excellent piece at this link:  http://online.wsj.com/articles/europes-alarming-new-anti-semitism-1412270003

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Going Home – Kol Nidre 5775

Many of you know that I grew up in Binghamton NY, a small town of about 46,000 people just over the PA line, almost 4.5 hours drive directly north of Baltimore.  I haven’t lived in Binghamton since 1982, the year I graduated from high school, and so for the majority of my 50 years I have lived in other places, and in fact at this point Becky and I have lived in Baltimore longer than I lived in Binghamton, but still in my mind, and I think in my heart, Binghamton is and always will be the first thing I think of when I think of home.

Common wisdom teaches that ‘you can’t go home again,’ but by a simple twist of fate our oldest, Talia, decided to go to college at Binghamton University, and so over the last year and a half I’ve been back to Binghamton a number of times, after not having visited there in over a decade.  Each time I go I feel compelled to take a few extra minutes to drive by the house my family and I lived in, or the field where I played my high school soccer. It is where I grew up, where I became who I am today, where I formed my values and my sense of what is important in the world – it is home.  And what I want to argue tonight is that you actually can go home, that in fact sometimes it is even necessary to do so.

I imagine many of you are familiar with the rock star Sting.  He was the bass player and lead vocalist of the Police in the late 70s and early 80s, and after the group broke up he went on to a successful solo career.  Sting was one of the most prolific voices in rock, releasing on average an album every other year during a twenty year span.  But then something happened to him, and for whatever reason, he couldn’t find the creative juices to write new music.  A year went by, then two, then 5.  He made some music during this time, recoding other people’s songs, collaborating with other artists, but he didn’t write a single original song.  Eventually 10 years would pass, and in recent interviews Sting said that he just thought he was done – that he had nothing left in the tank, that he no longer had the ability to write a new song or have an original thought.

But then, for some reason, he started to think about the town he grew up in.  An industrial town in the north of England, where the street that he lived on led right down to a shipyard where some of the largest ocean going vessels in the world were built.  Sting recently gave a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk, one of those short speeches about creativity that are video taped and put up on the internet.  In the talk he described the way that his writer’s block ended – as he began to think about growing up, the small town he lived in, the colorful characters that lived there, the songs just started to come.  Some mornings he would wake up, and an entire song would pop right into his head, lyrics, music, all of it, as if it had been bottled up, just looking for a way to get out.  In a sense, he was able to rediscover his creative ability, to rejuvenate his song writing, by going home.

One of the things that was interesting about Sting’s talk was that it stood in stark contrast to most other TED talks.  The vast majority of them – and there are now close to 2000 posted on line – are about the future.  The speaker describes an idea or a technology that is being born, that is forward thinking and change oriented and progressive.  In this way most of the talks reflect our obsession with what is up and coming, what is new, what is around the corner, what is the next big thing.  But Sting’s talk was the opposite.  Instead of looking forward into the future, he talked about going back to the past.  At the end of the day the future is guess work.  But the past is known, it is familiar.  It is sights and smells and textures that are ingrained into our minds.  It is people and experiences that have shaped us, defined us.  A grandmother’s gefilte fish or brisket.  A grandfather reciting the kiddush.  Melodies – like Kol Nidre – that we’ve heard time and again.

It is a bit strange when you think about it – we approach the holidays AS IF they are about the future.  We talk about the beginning of the year.  We wish each other a good year, that the next 12 months should be filled with blessing.  But the holidays really aren’t about the future – they are about the past.  The Rosh Hashanah scriptural readings are about the history of our people, Abraham and Sarah’s struggles, Hannah’s longing for a child, and Rachel and her love of the Jewish people.  On Yom Kippur we read about the ancient Temple rituals in Jerusalem that brought meaning to the lives of our ancestors, and we recite the Yizkor prayers when we recall those with whom we’ve shared our lives who have passed from this world to the next.

And in our private prayers we think about the year that has gone by, about our lives, our relationships and accomplishments, but also our mistakes and regrets.  We remember the shofar as it sounded when we were children, or sitting at services with our parents and grandparents.  In a sense, you might say we spend our time in shul during the High Holy Days going home, going back to times, traditions, to ideas, to values and memories that are inside of us, but that might get lost in our day to day lives.  But they are there.  And we do need them.  And one way to recover them, to find them again, is to go home.

That is exactly what Sting discovered.  He found his creative muse again by going to the past, by going home.  It was real to him, it opened up his mind and his emotions, it reminded him of his own essence, of values that he was raised with, of people that he knew, of ideals that had formed him that he lost track of over time.  He didn’t go to his home town physically, he went there in his mind.  But in that journey he found a true sense of rejuvenation, of renewal, of creativity and meaning and purpose about his life.

And that might be the key to it all.  He didn’t go back to the past to live there, to stay there.  It wasn’t to soak in nostalgia and remember the good old days.  Instead he went back to find himself.  To look at his childhood with the eyes of an adult, and with those eyes to have a deeper and fuller understanding of the events that shaped his life and his character.  But then, with that deeper knowledge of who he was and where he had come from, he was able to move forward into the future with a stronger sense of where he wanted to go, of who he needed to be, and of what songs he needed to write.  In some powerful and important way it was going home, going back, that enabled him to go forward, and to move into the future.

Life does have a way of taking you in different directions, blowing you off course.  Dreams can be lost, lofty goals abandoned.  Once loving relationships may sour and fade. Health once so abundant that we were indifferent to it can change to aches and pains and very much worse. Time, so plentiful, that we didn’t mind killing it, may suddenly seem to be rushing away.  Sitting in shul on Kol Nidre eve, as we do year after year,  helps us remember that this can happen to all of us, in the course of a single year.  How much more so the course of an entire life?

Yet there is something reorienting about going home. At the end of the day the idea is very simple.  When you go forward, do so with a backward glance.  Don’t ignore the memories – don’t leave them behind.  Bring them with you, return to them again and again, let them remind you of who you once were, and of who you wanted to be.  Be empowered and strengthened by what you’ve overcome, by what you’ve learned.  Move forward, but look back.

There is a short story, written by the British author Sumerset Maugham, called the Colonel and His Lady.  It tells the tale of a stodgy old British colonel and his wife.  They’ve been married for many years, and each morning they sit together at the breakfast table barely speaking to one another, sipping coffee, as he reads the papers.  One day the Colonel is surprised when a package is delivered at the door, filled with newly printed books.  He is astonished to learn that his wife has written a short novella, but he is entirely uninterested in it, and doesn’t bother to even see what it is about.

Some weeks go by, and one night he is at a party.  An old acquaintance asks him if he has read a new book that everyone in literary London is talking about, a short novella about a woman who has a passionate affair with a dashing younger man.  The Colonel replies that he hasn’t heard about it, and the man pulls a copy out of his pocket, and the Colonel recognizes the cover of the novella that arrived at his door, that his wife has written.

He takes the book, and he rushes home, stays up all night reading it.  It is indeed the story of a passionate love affair between the book’s author and a handsome, caring, noble young man.  The Colonel is incensed.  He waits at the breakfast table for his wife to come downstairs, and when she does he confronts her.  “How could you do this to me?  Not only to have an affair, but to write about it, everyone in London knows, and I am a laughing stock.”

She denies having an affair, but he presses her and presses her.  “Who is the man?” he wants to know.  “At least tell me that.”  And finally she looks at her husband, the stodgy old colonel, and says “It is you. The book is about you, the way you used to be.  It is about those first years, when we fell in love, and the life we had, how happy we were.”

And  there the story ends, the future left unresolved.  But I would like to think that with that memory recaptured the Colonel and his wife revived their love for each other and renewed their relationship with a sense of meaning, purpose, and hope.  Exactly what we all wish to find on Yom Kippur.

Kol Nidre is an evening that stirs memory.  It is an invitation to go home, an opportunity to draw strength from the past as we look forward to the future.  There are new songs to be written, and tonight we are reminded that we can write them.  Kol Nidre is both memory and hope, past and future.  It is itself an ancient song that opens the door to a new year.

Lets walk through that door together.  Into a year of hope and health, of courage and strength, of family and friendship and peace.  But the last person through, don’t close that door – leave it open.  When we look back in the year ahead, we will be able to see – and to feel – its warmth and light –

may that blessing be part of all of our lives – amen

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