this the text of my Kol Nidre sermon (5776/2015)
It was the evening of the 5th of July, now some two and a half months ago, when Becky and I found ourselves amongst the 75 thousand or so Grateful Dead fans who packed into Soldiers Field football stadium for the band’s last concert. It was a great night, one I will remember for the rest of my life. Great friends, great music, and an even greater spirit of celebration. If you know any Deadheads you probably know that we have a terrible habit of standing around and talking about the band’s concerts ad nauseam, and although I am tempted, I will spare you a full review of that evening’s music. But I would like to describe for you one particular moment.
It was at the beginning of the second set when the Dead went into probably the best known and most beloved song of their 50 year career, a song called Truckin’. It is about both the freedom and difficulty of being on the road and traveling from place to place for music, whether you are the band or a fan. The tagline of the song is ‘sometimes the light is all shining on me, other times I can barely see,’ not a bad line for a rabbi, but also perhaps a general description of how we make our way through life. And for years when the Dead played that song in concert, when the band sang those words – sometimes the light is all shining on me – the house lights of the venue would come on, and suddenly a place of darkness – a concert hall – was flooded with light. And so it was at Soldiers Field on July 5th this past summer. Suddenly every corner of the stadium was illuminated – 75 thousand faces were visible, and for a few moments, every thing seemed clear as day.
The light that bathed us on that warm July night in Chicago was physical, an actual light that enabled us to see, but there was another kind of light in the stadium, an invisible, inner light that warmed our souls and touched our hearts. It is a very different atmosphere here in the Rubin tonight, let me assure you! But at the same time there is something about the Kol Nidre ritual that we enact this evening, so familiar to us. The removal of the Torahs, the solemn procession, and then the chanting of Kol Nidre. As the Torahs make their way through the congregation the Cantor sings over and over again a single Hebrew phrase – אור זרוע לצדיק ולישרי לב שמחה – light is sown for the righteous, and for the pure-hearted, joy. It is a verse from the 97th Psalm, and it captures the sense of awe we feel at the beginning of Yom Kippur. Outside the sun is setting, darkness is falling. But inside the synagogue on KN eve there is a sense of light, not physical light, but a spiritual light that Yom Kippur can bring into our souls. This is a light that can illuminate our lives and our world, enabling us to see things that we didn’t see before, to have a sense of clarity and understanding about who we want to be and how we should live.
And it is that sense of light that I think we come to shul looking for tonight. There are many reasons why Jews come to shul on a Kol Nidre eve. Community, a sense of responsibility, guilt, family, tradition – the list could go on and on, and the reasons may be different for each of us. But we all come here hoping to feel something genuine, hoping to be touched by the ancient prayers we recite and rituals we enact, hoping that by sharing this experience with one another and with God we will emerge from it feeling a greater sense of light and life and hope and healing in our hearts. And that is the possibility that Kol Nidre extends to us.
This past summer while on the plane to Chicago I read a fascinating article about a man named Jacob Riis. Riis was a Danish newspaper reporter who lived and worked in New York City in the late 1800s. Because he was an immigrant he had a special interest in those who came to these shores looking for a better life, and he began in his work to focus on stories about the squalid conditions in the tenements on the lower east side. He wrote story after story describing the jam packed rooms, the unsanitary conditions that people lived in, and the difficulty that these new Americans had in finding even the most basic services for themselves. He wrote for the local papers. He wrote for national magazines like Scribners and Harper’s Weekly. But despite the thousands of words that he wrote, nothing was changing, and no one seemed to care.
Riis knew the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ and he hired artists to make drawings that were published with his stories. But he knew what he really needed were actual photographs. His problem was the tenements were totally dark – even in the day time! There were no windows, and electric lights were virtually non-existent. How can you take a photograph in the darkness? But in 1887 someone had come up with a rudimentary technology called Blitzlicht that created a bright flash just at the moment a picture was being taken. The first ever flash photography. And so Riis went into the tenements with photographers, and they snapped pictures as the flashes were going off, and those pictures captured what life in the tenements was truly like. Riis put the pictures together in a book he called How the Other Half Lives. It became a best seller. And in 1901 – in large part due to Riis’ photographs – the New York State Tenement House act was passed, and it would be followed by a series of progressive reforms that included factory safety, work hour limitations, and school access, that made America a different – and a more just and kind – country.
I’ve thought about why those photos had such a dramatic impact. Part of it must have been that for the very first time many Americans were actually seeing the immigrant experience fully illuminated, and they could scarcely believe the suffering and the inhumane conditions that existed right under their noses, in the cities they worked and lived in. But I think it was more than that. It wasn’t just seeing the conditions. It was seeing what those conditions did to actual men and women and children, it was seeing their haunted faces and hopeless eyes, it was seeing that something inside of those people had been lost, that their inner light had been extinguished.
It is possible that some of us in the room tonight may have had relatives in those tenements. Our ancestors who came to these shores, just 2 generations ago, lived in a state of poverty and need that we can barely imagine. They built their lives literally from the ground up, creating the foundation that we all stand on today. And one of the things we admire most about them, one of the things that stays in our minds when we think of them, is how they managed – despite their hardship – to keep their spiritual light alive. I think often of a passage in Jonathan Sarna’s book on the history of American Jewry. At one point he contrasts the shuls of our parents and grandparents with the shuls of today. 75 years ago our ancestors sat on Kol Nidre evening in modest buildings and rented movie theaters, with borrowed chairs and make shift arks that contained a single Torah, and they could not have even imagined the beauty and grandeur and size of a building like this, or the power and wealth of a community like ours. But their Kol Nidre services were filled with passion and emotion, with tears and a heartfelt attempt to reconcile with their loved ones and with God. Their spiritual lives were vibrant and were filled with an inner light that illuminated their days.
Do our lives still reflect that kind of inner light? If there were a photographer in our homes, taking pictures of our daily lives, what would our own faces look like? Not in the planned poses of today’s selfie culture, but in the unguarded moments. Sitting at the dinner table wondering how to communicate with someone we love. Or at our desks concerned about the future of our jobs. Or in a quiet moment when we are reflecting on the achievements and characters of our children. The inner light that guided our parents and grandparents did not come from wealth or material things. It did not come from prestigious job titles or fancy homes. Instead it came from family and faith. From a sense of God’s presence in their lives, from their belief that they were connected to something eternal, to the Jewish people, to a sacred tradition and culture that could nourish and sustain them.
And what I would like to suggest to you tonight is that that very same light is still there for us. It calls to us through the haunting melody of Kol Nidre, it tugs at our hearts and gently beckons to our souls. It is something that we can bring into our own lives, something that can nourish and sustain us as individuals, as families, as partners in Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people, and as members of the human family. It is a light that can illuminate our lives, helping us to turn off the noise and glitter and distraction and to see what really matters. That light shines for the righteous and the pure of heart, and it can shine for us too.
So let us open our hearts tonight to that ancient light. Let it warm us and connect us, to one another, to our tradition and our people, and to God. And let it shine, let it shine, let it shine – in a new year of hope, health, and peace –