This a text version of my Kol Nidre sermon from 5777 –
Our cool fall weather is reminding me very much of the HHDs of my youth in upstate New York, and going to services at the small Reform synagogue where my family belonged. Kol Nidre night was a special night for me. My mother would stay home with my little sister and brother, and my dad and I would walk to shul, just a few short blocks from where we lived. When the service was over we would walk home together along the quiet streets, able to see our breath in the crisp air and truly feel the beginning of a new year.
Just this past Shabbat I marked the 39th anniversary of my bar mitzvah, celebrated at that Temple which was the focal point of my family’s Jewish life. A small synagogue bar mitzvah is very different than it is at Beth El. I studied one on one with my rabbi to prepare, meeting with him weekly in his office. My synagogue had an unusual tradition in terms of how the Torah was read. We did not learn to chant the text, we just read the Hebrew word by word. But we were required as we read to translate into English. From the Torah itself! This meant that I understood every word that I read from the Torah 39 years ago at my bar mitzvah, and still to this day many of those phrases stand out in my mind.
The most memorable of them all comes from the end of the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy. It is a well known verse, and you may recognize it. I’ll read it the way I did 39 years ago at my bar mitzvah: העידותי בכם היום – I call to witness against you this day – את השמים ואת הארץ – the Heavens and the Earth – החיים והמות – life and death – …- ובחרת בחיים – and you shall choose life! I can assure you that 39 years ago when I read those words from the Torah I had no idea I would one day be a rabbi, but those are the words – particularly that last phrase – ובחרת בחיים – choose life! that I would like to talk about with you this sacred Kol Nidre eve.
Certainly the idea of choosing is something we encounter every single day as we are constantly surrounded and confronted by choices. Have you been down the aisles at Wegmans? They’re just endless. Paper or plastic for your groceries? But bring your own if you’re an environmentalist. Been to Starbucks lately? There are at least 20 different ways to order a cup of coffee. Walk into a liquor store and it seems you can find a single malt from every town and village in Scotland. If you want to order new sneakers on Nike’s website, there’s an almost infinite – and I mean that literally – infinite number of combinations from which you can choose. And if you’ve tried surfing to watch something on TV, you’ve had the experience of navigating hundreds and hundreds of available channels.
But while we may find all those material choices either liberating or frustrating, they are nothing like the Torah’s call to choose life. Why would the Torah need to tell us that in the first place? It seems obvious – almost everyone is going to choose life! And what exactly does that mean, to choose life, how do we do that? I think there’s a vital message or two in the Torah’s words not normally on our minds, but worthy of consideration this KN eve.
Think, for a moment of the ancient Greeks, contemporaries of that Deuteronomy text. Their idea was that every facet of our lives is predetermined, that the gods or blind fate controlled the destiny of each person, and that regardless of how hard you try, regardless of the choices you make, there’s nothing you can do about it. Remember the story of Oedipus – he did everything in his power to prevent himself from killing his father, but in the end it happened anyway, because it had been decreed by fate. This idea of the inevitability of life’s direction can also be seen in Freud’s belief that our inner drives and urges control us. In modern times the same argument continues, with geneticists who claim that our destiny is determined exclusively by our genes, that every decision we make and action we take is predetermined by our DNA, by our genetic code.
But Judaism says no. In fact, precisely the opposite is true. We have freewill. We can choose our course of action, and when we do, we can control our own destiny. That’s precisely the point of the Book of Jonah that we’ll read tomorrow afternoon. And I think that’s why the Sages chose it as the very last scriptural text we encounter, as the sun sets on yet another HHD season we’ve been granted. The people of Nineveh are examples of the power of human freewill to change an apparently predetermined destiny. When the book begins the Ninevites are doomed. God has decreed that the entire city will be destroyed, in fact, Jonah’s mission is to tell them that they are about to die – עוד ארבעים יום ונינוה נהפכת – in forty days time Nineveh will be destroyed! That they as individuals and the society and culture they’ve created are doomed.
But the people of Nineveh choose a different path. They fast. They turn aside from their sins. They cry out to God, weep in the streets, d0 everything in their power to repent. And the choices they make, change the decree. Some of you remember the Santana hit song from 1969 – “You’ve got to change your evil ways!” That’s what the Ninevites did – and they chose well, because it worked, and they and the animals in their care were spared.
It’s exactly that challenge – and that opportunity – that the tradition puts before us each year on the HHDs. It reminds us that we can choose, that we do have power, and that the choices we make can have a real impact on our lives, on the lives of those we love, and on the world beyond. Just as we can undo inappropriate vows on YK eve, we can correct unworthy actions each day of our lives. And that’s one of the ways I understand the phrase from my bar mitzvah portion – choose life means that we can determine the kind of life we want to live, that we have a measure of control over who we are and what we do, and if we are not yet who we want to be, we can choose to be better.
But when the Torah says “choose life,” there’s an inherent question bound up in those words – what kind of life shall we choose? If we have that power, if our choices do make a difference, what kind of life should we prefer, what choices should we make? And what I would like to suggest this evening is that our options are not just about choosing a good life, doing the right thing, being a good person, kind and caring. It’s more than that. It’s choosing a particular kind of life. It’s choosing a Jewish life.
I know that it’s not so simple to choose a Jewish life today. We live in a secular world, with all its demands, opportunities, temptations, challenges and yes, its attractive choices. And often – more and more often, in fact – our secular lives come into conflict with our Jewish lives, presenting us with difficult challenges. When Hebrew school conflicts with soccer practice, where should a parent choose to bring a child? It is a choice. When a yom tov day and a work day conflict, will it be work, or celebrating the holiday with family? Should we engage in Jewish life, by choosing Jewish books to read, studying Jewish texts, celebrating Jewish holidays, contributing to Jewish charities, living by Jewish values? Shall we make the synagogue our spiritual home?
ובחרת בחיים – “and you shall choose life” means that also is our choice, and it is up to us to acknowledge the struggle in which we are engaged and to know when the choice for faith and tradition, for culture and values is the one we should be making. And we should not allow the onslaught of secularism to unravel the spiritual and cultural texture of our Jewish lives. And maybe the beginning of a new year, maybe on a Yom Kippur, maybe on a cold Kol Nidre night, we can decide that in the year to come we’ll choose Jewishly more often.
Kol Nidre is a night of annulling vows and promises, but I want to make one promise tonight I think I can keep. In all the choices that are ahead of us in the year to come, each time we choose Jewishly our lives will be enriched, our connection to our history and tradition will be strengthened, and we will grow in spirit and in soul.
May we do that together – as family, as friends, as a sacred community, in a sweet new year –