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Kol Nidre

11/03/2019 11:14:12 AM


Rabbi Marcia Plumb

Kol Nidre CMT 5780

Over these high holy days many colleagues, including myself,on Rosh Hashanah,  are talking about the troubles of this past year—anti-semitism, gun violence, climate worries, and the deviciveness in our country.   All of this is important of course, and vital.   Many of us have had sleepless nights and we are living with distress on a daily basis.  What helps us get through the day, and face the future with optimism?  My sermons tonight and tomorrow will address how Judaism has built -in stress relief.  Judaism, on its own, cannot solve the climate crisis, or the epidemic of gun violence, but it can build hope and courage. Through Faith and prayer we can keep our souls strong and our hearts open.   Faith and prayer, the topics of my sermons tonight and tomorrow, are gifts from our tradition that help us face whatever challenges us.  
Over this past year,  I have found my faith in God to be fundamental to my ability to be resilient in the face of anxiety.   We know what we are supposed to do about the challenges of our day—we all read the emails asking us to write letters, go to rallies, vote for ethical leadership.  But I have found that I need my faith to give me the hope to get up in the morning after I have read the news.  Tonight, I’d like to share a bit about my faith with you, in the hope that you will share yours with me, and we will find resiliency together.  

Before I begin, let’s take a brief survey—how many of you would say you believe in God, whatever that means?  How many would say that God does not exist?  

Throughout the High Holy Days, we read many prayers about God.   Much of our Torah, and our High Holy Day liturgy, talks about God as one who judges our deeds.  In our liturgy, God is El melech, the king who sits in judgement over us.  In our Torah, God often behaves as the One who punishes us harshly for our sins.   Even in this post feminist age, we often think of God as the old man with a beard watching over us in the heavens.  These images of God may be yours too.  

None of these are the God I believe in.  None of them is the One I pray to.   There are at least 100 names and ideas about God, if not more, in our theology.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no one understanding of God in Judaism, and there is no right way.  There is only one God idea in Judaism that puts us outside the pale of Judaism—if you believe in many gods, rather than just one.  Judaism is clearly mono-theistic. But there are many paths to meet that God.  

The names I have used to speak to God have changed over time, and perhaps they have for you too.   My relationship with God has evolved too. I have had faith crisis, and hard times when I felt God’s silences, but each time I have rebuilt my relationship with the Divine and each time it has deepened and become richer.  I am grateful that I am part of a three thousand year old people that allows us the freedom to develop our own personal relationship with the divine.   How many of you have found that your understanding of God has changed over time?  

In fact, Judaism does not require us to believe in God at all.   When someone converts to Judaism, they are asked the same five questions that every convert has been asked for centuries. The questions are about peoplehood and observance. Converts are not asked about their faith.  Belief in God is not required to become a Jew. 
I have met many adults and children who declare that they don’t believe in God.

Belief is a funny thing however.   We may assert that we don’t believe in God, but suddenly we find ourselves praying when we are scared.   There is a difference between believing in God and talking or reaching out to God.  We can talk to God, and ask for help, even when intellectually we may not think a supernatural force exists in the world.    I know someone who is convinced there is no such thing as a divine presence, but whenever I visit she always asks me to pray with her.  

I wonder how many of you might do the same. 

Many intellectually  reject God because they don’t think there are miracles anymore, especially after the Holocaust.   God lets us down over and over again, they say,—just look at the world we live in.   How many of you would agree?  

   In London, I was a day school rabbi for several years.  I used to talk with the kids a lot about God.  There was a very smart little girl who asked me year after year, Is God real?  I would say yes, and she would say, prove it.   If God can make me fly, I will believe. 

Science has taught us to look for proofs.  If we can’t touch it, smell it, see it or prove it in a lab, then it must not exist.  For me, faith is like love—we cannot see it, or prove categorically that it exists, but we know it does.   The girl in the day school wanted a miracle, like the crossing of the red sea.  Many people think that God doesn’t do miracles anymore.  I know God does miracles—just differently from those in the Bible.   I haven’t seen the red sea part, but I see miracles around me all the time.  Giving birth,  gentle, peaceful deaths, showing kindness to strangers,  new life saving technologies,   breathtaking art and sunsets—all of these are miracles.  

I have a strong faith in a Divine Presence.  I always have, ever since I was a child. I feel God’s presence with me, surrounding me, within me, at all times.  A big part of my rabbinate has been about exploring and teaching about God and faith.  I try to bring God out of the closet.  

 I draw on many ideas and names of this One God in my personal prayers.  I need God in different ways at different times in my life, even on different days. 

My relationship with God has become even more vital in the past two years, with such unrest, and anxiety, in our country and around the world.    There are three different ideas of Divinity that I draw upon most after I read the news.   One is the theology of Reconstructionist Judaism, developed by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, which presents God as our conscience.  Name—God of the Still Small Voice. The second is Abraham Joshua Heschel’s radical amazement—the God who creates this amazing world of beauty and creates us anew every day.  The third is from the Psalms and the Talmud--the Shechinah, the image of God as intimate and personal. 

When I hear of another shooting in Kansas,  another method to keep out immigrants,  uncivil behavior, or another melting glacier, and action needs to be taken, I call upon the name of God outlined by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, from the story of Elijah.  I call this first image of mine, the Still Small Voice.  In the story about Elijah, trying to hear God’s voice, the Tanakh says that God spoke to Elijah not in the thunder or lightning but in the still small whisper.  Morechai Kaplan took this whisper further and declared there is no external supernatural God.  Rather, God is our ethical conscience—the force within us that motivates us to do good.  When we need energy to rise up again and speak out, the still small voice gives us  determination and strength.   When I feel hopeless or I turn away from the news with an apathetic shrug of my shoulder, I know I need to listen closer to God within me who demands that I act.  
The ethical actions we do because of the Still Small Voice of conscience helps us create our own hesed miracles of lovingkindness.  
Doing good in the face of continued negativity is an example of a miracle.  We know God exists when we create these miracles.    
 When we are kind, we make God real;
• When we are compassionate, we make God real;
• When we work for justice, we make God real;
• When we ask forgiveness of the one we hurt and when we forgive the one who hurt us, we make God real.

A book about Mother Theresa reveals that for more than half her life, even she felt no presence of God. The more attention she attracted in the world as a symbol of faithful service to God, the more she felt like a hypocrite because she doubted the existence of both heaven and God. And yet despite the doubts that filled her heart and her mind, she engaged herself fully in tending to the poor, the sick and the dying in Calcutta. 
Mother Theresa may have had a crisis of belief, but she responded to it by re-doubling her efforts to do what she knew God would want her to do as if there were a God.
Mordechai Kaplan would have said that Mother Theresa had a strong inner voice of God, of divine ethics.    If Mother Theresa had been Jewish, she would have been a follower of Mordechai Kaplan.  When I need to push through hopelessness, I too turn to my God-given inner voice of justice and ethics.   I wonder, how many of you might share the belief in God as our ethical voice?  

When I need to feel joy, I focus on my second name of the Divine--God as Creator.  
When I see the beautiful sunset,  meditate in the forest, or go to the window on Shabbat morning to pray with the sun on my face, or when I look at all of you,  and the people around me who I don’t yet know, I experience Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschels radical amazement.  I am struck by how amazing God’s creations are.  There is no better artist, no better creator, nothing with more imagination than our Creator.  Who else could have made an orchid, or the human body?  When I walk the rooms of the Hermitage or the Uffizi, museums with remarkable art, I feel God’s presence.  God created us with abilities to transcend our bodies and make sublime interpretations of our world.   

 When I feel particularly powerless in the world, or overwhelmed by the negativity around us and within us, I pray for radical amazement.  I ask God to help me see the beauty in the world.  I am then restored and renewed.  When I thank the Creator for this world, my gratitude outweighs my fears.   Heschel said, ‘Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation.  The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.  What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.’  (God in Search of Man, pg. 46-47)
A prayer by Alden Solevey speaks of radical amazement:
This is an amazing life,
A gift of moments
Precious and dear,
Profound in joy,
Profound in sorrow.
This is an amazing life,
Blessed are the gifts of life.
Blessed is the Giver of life.
Blessed is this amazing life.
- Alden Solovy, This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day
When I need to transcend the individual challenges of our day, I pray to, as Heshcel says, ‘get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.’ 

How many of you also find solace in God as creator of a miraculous world?  Who find joy and spirituality in nature?

When I find it hard to reach the level of radical amazement, when I am stuck, or afraid,  I turn to the Shechina, The third name of God that I reach for most often . The concept of Shechina originates in the Psalms but is developed in the Talmud and in Kabbalah.  It is the understanding of God as female,  close and personal. It is the opposite of the High Holy Day idea of God as king and judge.  Shechina is like the unconditional love of the best of mothers; one who will listen with compassion and care at all times, no matter what we need to confess or share.  The Talmud says that when we were exiled from Babylon, the Shechina went with us.  This is the aspect of God who cries with us during hard times, and walks with us when we are too fragile to walk alone.   The night of the hurricane in Houston, when I was alone with my father and water was gushing in, I asked the Shechina to be with us no matter what happened.   As I mourn the loss of my father, I feel the Shechina holding me in my sadness.   When I put my children to bed, I pray that they will feel the love the Shechina surrounding them through the night.   When we sit in the Sukkah, the Shechina sits with us as well.  

A lovely prayer by Trisha Arlin calls on the Shechina to heal our wounds:
A Prayer for Compassion
By Trisha Arlin
Baruch Atah Adonai Brucha At Shechinah
Blessed One-ness, Blessed Connection,
Kadosh Baruch Hu:
May we find relief from our hurts and fears.
And may we not, in our pain,
Lose our empathy
For the hurts and fears of others.
We pray for all who are in pain.

I have told you a bit of my search for faith and God in my life.  I have shared three of the names I use when I call out to God—voice of ethics, Creator, and Shechinah. 

 But actually, this is all irrelevant for you.  You need to find your own relationship with, and understanding of God.  It reminds me of a story of a young man who  traveled to a village to ask a famous rebbe for the secrets of God.  
.He said,  “Great Rebbe, please teach me about God!” the young man pleaded. “I want to learn the secrets of God.”
The rebbe stared at the boy’s face for some time, and then finally responded. “I will teach you. But tell me, do you have a place to stay?”
“A place to stay?” the boy asked. “I don’t need a place to stay! I want to master the secrets of God!”
“Yes, of course.  But first, go and find a place to stay.  And then we’ll learn the secrets.”
In this town there were no rooms to be had.  So he decided to build his own home, even though he had never done so before.  It wasn’t easy, but finally, he built himself a home! It wasn’t big. It wasn’t pretty. But it was cozy, and warm, and it was his! He never thought he could do such a thing, but he’d done it. So he returned to the rebbe.
“Rebbe, I built myself a home. I would never have believed I could do such a thing … but I mastered the skills, and now I have a home. Now, please, teach me the secrets of God!”
The rebbe said, “Of course, But first, go get a job.  
The young man left the rebbe and began to look for a job.
This was a farming village. Everyone farmed their own land. So the boy began a farm behind his home. He had never done farm work before. But he learned quickly and he worked very hard. He planted, tilled, milked cows and gathered eggs. His farm was a success. He gathered a basket of produce, and brought it to the rebbe.
“Rebbe, you told me to find a place to stay, so I built a home. You told me to get a job, so I learned to farm. Look, I bring you of the fruits of my labors! Now, please share with me the secrets I have waited so long to hear!”
The rebbe answered—go get married.  Then come back and we’ll study the secrets of God. 
In the town, there was a girl he liked, and he suspected that she liked him. They fell in love. In his whole life, he never knew he could love someone as much as he loved her. So they married.  
The boy returned to the rebbe. “Rebbe, you told me to find a place to live, so I built a home. You told me to find a job, so I began a farm. Then, you asked me to get married. Now, rebbe, please, teach me the secrets.”
What do you think the rebbe said?  
Go have some children the Rebbe replied.  
So, he and his beloved wife had children. And the young man discovered that he could love even deeper, and work even harder, and feel more complete than he ever had before. 
So he returned to the rebbe.
“Great Rebbe, when I came to you years ago, I asked you to teach me the secrets of God. You told me to find a place to stay, you told me to find a job, you told me to get married, then you told me to have children. Now, Rebbe, I am ready. I have done everything you asked. Now, please, teach me the secrets of God.”
The rebbe said, “Not yet. You’re not ready yet.”
“But what else do you require?” the boy cried, “What else?”
“Soon you will know.” And with that, the rebbe turned back to his books.
Soon after, a messenger came from the boy’s village with an urgent message. His grandfather was ill. He needed to return home at once.
The boy rushed home. He found his grandfather weary and sick. He sat with his grandfather and they talked, sharing all that life had taught them. And when the grandfather realized that his grandson had grown into a man, learned and wise, he smiled weakly and fell asleep, and peacefully he died with his grandson beside him.
The boy cried with a sadness he had never felt before. He loved his grandfather, and missed him so much. He knew no way to escape his loneliness and pain. How could he ever feel good again? How could he ever find a way back to life?
But as the days went by, sweet memories of his grandfather replaced of some of his pain. And he found the way back to life, to his family, to his happiness, to the rebbe.
Rebbe, am I now ready?  
“Yes, my son. Now you are ready to hear the secrets.” The rebbe took a deep breath. Then got up, and walked to the window. He stared at the sunset outside.   “You came here years ago looking for a God outside yourself — far away, up in the universe. But the best place to find God is within: in your own ability to grow, to learn, to build, to produce, to love, to share, to care, and to overcome life’s pain. You need no more secrets. You have already found the God you came looking for. My son, you already know the secrets.”
The boy listened to each word. He knew that the rebbe was right. Having done all the rebbe asked — having built a home, and made a living, and loved a wife, and cared for a family, and having said good bye to his grandfather, he knew inside that the rebbe was right. All the secrets he needed were his already.
May we each find the faith we need.  

May each of us be inspired by God who dwells within us,  
energized by  God  the Creator, who gave us the gift of life and the amazing earth, 
 and comforted by the Shechina who will shelter us under her wings of love and peace., 
may we both see and create miracles in our world.  May we feel held, loved and renewed In this new year of 5780.  May God bless us.  May we feel blessed.  


Sun, July 12 2020 20 Tammuz 5780