This text of my Kol Nidre sermon from 9/29/17 –
One week ago tomorrow, on Shabbat afternoon, I took our dog for a long walk around the neighborhood with our niece Lily. Lily is the daughter of my brother and sister in law and just starting second grade, and as we walked we talked about various things – school, a strange bug we saw, the dog, cracks in the sidewalk – I guess pretty typical conversation with a seven year old. That morning she had come to Shabbat services, so I figured I would ask her what she thought about shul. ‘How did you like services?’ I asked. ‘It was pretty boring,’ she said. ‘What was boring about it?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you just sit around and say all those prayers.’
And I don’t know if Lily’s comments reflect your experience of shul, but I can tell you they brought back memories of my own childhood, and sitting in services next to my father, particularly on the High Holy Days. I had a general sense of what page the service ended on, and I would keep my finger in that place of the prayer book, counting the number of pages we had left to go. It was always exciting when the rabbi skipped a bunch of pages – for example, we’d go from page 60 to page 70! That was great! We were that much closer to the aleinu!
But if the prayers were challenging for me, what I did enjoy about shul were the various scriptural readings of the holidays. I liked hearing about Abraham and Sarah, I enjoyed the dramatic narrative of the High Priest and the YK day ritual that we read tomorrow morning. And I particularly liked the story of the prophet Jonah, that we will read at Minha tomorrow afternoon.
I am sure you all remember the story of Jonah. He is asked by God to deliver a message to the city of Nineveh and its residents, to tell them they have sinned but that if they repent they will be spared. As a child I didn’t know much about sin and repentance and all of that business, but I did love the part of the story where Jonah is swallowed up by a ? big fish! In my mind I tried to imagine how Jonah could have survived for three days and nights in the fish’s belly. I thought about how big the fish must have been to swallow a man whole. I wondered at how dark it was, Jonah all by himself, deep under the water, with no light and no source of comfort or hope.
And my favorite part of the story came at that moment – that low and dark moment in Jonah’s life – when the text tells us he prayed to God from the belly of the fish. קראתי מצרה לי אל ה׳ ויענני – In my trouble I called out to God, and God answered me. מבטן שאול שועתי שמעת קולי – from the darkest place I called, and You heard my voice. I don’t know how my niece Lily would feel about that prayer, but for me it has always had a distinctive power, and it has grown even more compelling as I’ve aged, and certainly as I’ve worked in the rabbinate over the last two decades.
There is a simple reason for that – in my eyes, Jonah’s prayer reflects the human experience, that at the difficult and dark moments of our lives, the moments of doubt and pain, the moments of loss, the moments of fear, the moments when we feel hopeless – at those moments we turn to God, we call out for help, and we seek God’s presence. But over the last few years I’ve become worried that we do that less and less today. I am concerned that our faith in prayer is waning, and that it has become more and more difficult for us to find in the experience of prayer meaning and value.
Many years ago Alvin Book, a long time member of Beth El, came to see me. When he walked into my office, in his hands, he held this little abridged Bible. These were standard issue, given to the Jewish soldiers in the Army during the Second World War. Alvin told me that he had landed on the Normandy beaches, on June 7, 1944, the day after D Day. The beaches were still not secure, and the troops were being heavily shelled. He ran to the closest fox hole he could find, a shallow ditch in the sand. And he huddled there, and he was terrified, paralyzed with no idea of what to do or how to move forward. As the shells were exploding he was saying ‘God please help me.’ And he told me he reached to his heart, because it was beating so heavily, and his hand hit the pocket of his uniform, and in that pocket was this Bible. And for some reason, just really looking for something to help him, he took this Bible out of his pocket, and with shaking hands opened it. And this is the passage he opened it to –
Out of the depths I call to You, O Lord. Listen to my cry, let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy…
I look to the Lord, I look to God, I await God’s word. I wait for God like watchmen wait for the dawn… (Psalm 130)
Alvin told me the moment he read that passage he felt a sense of calm, he felt that God was there with him, he felt he was going to be OK.
Notice that nothing external changed in his situation. The shells didn’t stop falling. He was still lying in a fox hole. He was still in grave mortal danger. None of that changed. God did not make a miracle, create a protective shield, or move him out of harm’s way. His circumstances were exactly the same as before he reached for that Bible. But there was a transformation that occurred at that moment. An internal transformation. Something changed inside of Alvin, something that helped him feel a sense of courage and hope and strength that he didn’t have before.
And you know what? Rabbis also struggle with prayer. And Alvin’s story has helped me to understand prayer, how prayer works, and how it can be meaningful in my life, and maybe it can do the same for you. I think my niece Lily was on to something last Shabbat afternoon – prayer can be enormously difficult for us. As Lily said, it can be boring at times, after all we sit here for hours on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reciting prayer after prayer, and if you are one of those who mark the end of the service with your finger in the Mahzor, you know we still have a long ways to go. (In fact tonight, 40 more pages to be exact!) And there are additional challenges – Hebrew not the least of them! How many of us can read Hebrew well, let alone understand what we are reading? And even if we go to the English side of the page we struggle with the meaning of many of the prayers, some of them close to 2000 years old, and it can be difficult to understand how they can connect to us and our lives.
But I think the biggest challenge to prayer today is that we have lost faith in its power. We don’t believe that prayer can be a transformational experience, that it can make a difference in how we live, or who we are. One of the primary reasons for that is that we’ve come to think of prayer as a process of asking God for something. And once we ask, our request is either granted or not. In the simplest of terms, we ask God for a new bike. If we get the bike, we believe our prayer has been answered. If we don’t, we feel that either God said ‘no,’ or that God never heard our prayer in the first place. And if that is the way we think of prayer then we very well may sit here for hours on RH and YK and wonder whether it is even worthwhile opening our Mahzorim.
But what if we think about prayer differently? What if prayer is supposed to be what happened to Alvin Book on that beach 73 years ago? That the power of prayer is NOT about making external changes in the world. God does not miraculously produce the bike! Instead the power of prayer is about making internal changes, in our own hearts and minds. And then maybe, when we are transformed internally, we will go out into the world and make it a better place because of our presence in it.
Ten years ago tomorrow, on Yom Kippur afternoon, 2007, the Jewish year 5768, Rabbi Mark Loeb of blessed memory gave his last High Holy Day sermon to our congregation. Many of you will remember that in those days we recited Yizkor in the afternoon, and Rabbi Loeb spoke just before that Yizkor service. The Berman Rubin sanctuary was packed, fuller than I have ever seen it, before or since – my guess would be close to 2000 people were in the room. Rabbi Loeb was in a reflective mood that Yom Kippur, sensing the power of that moment in his life magnified by the most powerful day of the Jewish year, and he delivered his remarks with a characteristic brilliance, but with an uncharacteristic depth of emotion.
At the very end of that sermon he told the following story in the name of Rabbi Israel Salantar: “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I went out, and worked, and tried, but I found it was very difficult to change the world. Then I thought I might change my nation, but I found I couldn’t change my nation. When I realized that, I thought to change my community, but even that was too difficult for me. Now that I am an older man, I’ve realized the only thing I can change is myself. And if I can do that, then one day maybe I will be able to change the world.”
Had you asked Rabbi Loeb if he thought that the prayers we recite during these holy days are heard by God, I think he would have said “I don’t really know.” Were you to ask me the same question, I would say the same thing. I don’t honestly know if my prayers today will somehow reach God’s presence, in some distant heavenly throne room, or even in any way, shape, or form. But I do believe with all of my heart and soul that the prayers of my mouth and the meditations of my heart can make a real difference in how I understand my role in this world, in how I live my life, and in how I relate to the people that I love. And I also know that if those things happen through my prayers during these holy days, then my prayers will have truly been answered. So may all our prayers on this Yom Kippur arrive at their proper destination, transforming our lives for the good, enabling us all to enter this new year with faith, courage, and hope.