Shaarei Shamayim

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KOL NIDRE 5775

KOL NIDRE 5775

Happy New Year! On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the “happy” part—about being happy in the New Year. Tonight, as we begin Yom Kippur, I’d like to focus on the “new” part—on how we can make it a truly “new” year. If you think about it, what’s new about it? The reality is that you’ll wake up and go through the same routines that you do every single day. The sun will rise and set exactly like it’s done every day of your life until now. So what separates one year or one month or one day from the next? It’s like the film “Groundhog Day” where a weatherman finds himself stuck in a time warp in Punxsutawney PA reporting on the annual Groundhog Day event. He keeps living the same boring day over and over.   

Do you ever get that feeling—that you’re in your own Groundhog day, stuck in Punxsutawney PA? Is that the story of our lives that we really just go through the motions—the same thing day after day, year after year? It reminds me what that famous Jewish philosopher, Yogi Berra, used to say: “It’s déjà vu all over again!”

A young man once came to the city of Kotsk to study with the famous Kotsker Rebbe, Menachem Mendle—19th century Chassidic master. On his 1st day, the Rebbe came over to him and asked him, “Young man, tell me, why you came to study at this Yeshiva?”

            He answered, “I came here to find Gd.”

            Now if you give that kind of an answer to a rabbi you’re expecting a pat on the back.           

But the Rebbe said to him, “To find Gd? What a waste of a trip. Gd is everywhere. You don’t have to come to Kotsk to find Gd. You can find Gd wherever you live.”

            The student was baffled and finally said to the Rebbe, “What would have been the right answer? What answer were you looking for?”

            The Rebbe responded, “You didn’t come here to find Gd. You came here to find yourself!” 

And that’s why we all came here tonight on Yom Kippur—to hear the voice of Kol Nidre and to find ourselves. This notion of finding yourself can be a self-absorbed exercise that leads nowhere. People go on these journeys to India, to Africa, to Memphis Tenn., to visit Elvis Presley’s pink Cadillac. Some spend years and years contemplating their naval to find out who they really are. And if they find out that they’re not really so exciting after all, then what?

And yet, within Judaism we find that there is something very important about searching for yourself—knowing who you are and what you’re all about. This is what the Kotsker Rebbe was saying to that student, “You came here to find Gd? No, your purpose must be to find yourself. Don’t tell me that you’ve come here to discover some lofty, abstract concept of a cosmic invisible, irrelevant Gd. By all means find Gd. But find Gd within yourself. Find Gd within your life. Discover your soul—the spark of Gd within you.”

There’s a statistic that 96% of Americans say they believe in Gd. This is wonderful because it keeps us clergy in business. But if you believe in Gd, then for Gd sakes make it real. Make it practical for your life so it means something. Is Gd involved in your life—not once a year when you’re forced to go to shule on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—but on a daily basis?

We can learn a lot about people’s views on life from the metaphors they use to sum up what it’s all about. Some people say, “Life is like a deck of cards. You have to play the hand you’re dealt.” To such people, everything is random. It’s about the luck of the draw. We’re all just pawns in a world that has neither rhyme nor reason. It’s all a matter of chance beyond our control. It is what it is and there’s nothing I can do about it. With this approach I can either succumb to hopelessness and despair or I can go to the other extreme and live it up with reckless abandon and indulgence because life’s just a deck of cards. Neither option is very appealing. To live so depressed because this is it…is not good. To live totally free and reckless because who cares anyway…is not productive.

Then there who those who say, “Life is a marathon.” Not only do you have to run, but you’ve got to come in 1st. It’s all about running and winning. You keep running and running without stopping for a minute to actually live life. You don’t stop to smell the roses because if you stop for a moment, someone is going to run ahead of you and you’ll lose the race. If along the way you have to step on those who stand in your way or neglect those who need you the most—what can you do? Life is a marathon.

How many of us live this way? We run and we run and we barely take the time to see those who are near and dear to us because we’re so busy running. We delude ourselves into believing that we’re doing it for their sakes. But in the process it is they who are being sacrificed. And then we look back and realize that we may have come in 1st, but we lost or neglected our family, our friends and our very lives.          

Several years ago there was a very wealthy Jew who passed away—he was worth a billion dollars. He was also a very religious man and an extremely charitable man. He left behind 2 wills with instructions. The 1st will was to be opened immediately upon his passing. The 2nd will was to be opened at his shloshim—after 30 days. When they opened the 1st will they saw that their father instructed them that he be buried wearing a particular pair of socks that he had put away in the right side of his top dresser draw.

            The children found the socks and took them to the Chevra Kadisha Burial Society and told them about their father’s instructions. As much as the Chevra Kadisha didn’t want to upset the family, they respectfully explained that this was not in keeping with Jewish tradition and refused the request—even for their very generous father.

            The children took their father’s request to the top rabbis of the city who confirmed the decision of the Chevra Kadisha. Since the father was a religious man, the children reluctantly accepted the ruling of the rabbis.

            At the Shloshim 30 days later, they opened the 2nd will which read: “My dear children, by now you would have buried me without my socks. I just wanted you to truly understand that a man can have a billion dollars, but in the end he can’t even take along one pair of socks. Use your time and the money wisely. Be engaged with your families and communities and always be charitable.” My friends, there is a way to win without having to see life as a marathon. 

And there are those who say that life is a big stage and you have to act your part till the curtain falls. We go through the motions of life…but it’s all an act. It’s all one big charade for some acceptance, for some applause by the neighbors. We put on a show to make a good presentation. We keep up with the Joneses—always conscious of what other people think about us. And so we live our whole lives without discovering who we really are because we’re so busy in this charade of life on this stage that we created.

So what is life really about? It’s about discovering your unique purpose in this world and being true to it. It’s about illuminating your surroundings with your unique purpose and constantly growing in your pursuit of it. You have a gift. It’s a gift that Gd gave you that no other creation has. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Birth is Gd’s way of saying, “You matter; you’re important. You have a role to play—not for the people on your block…but for Gd. And so find your purpose and bring Gd’s light to this world as you help others in your unique way because that’s who you really are.

Does this happen to you as often as it happens to me? Your phone rings and you don’t recognize the number. You pick it up and it’s an unfamiliar voice. You realize the party on the other end has the wrong number and so you say, “I’m sorry you have the wrong number.” But they don’t hear you because they’re so busy talking. They keep talking and talking and you keep trying to tell them that they have the wrong number. Does this sound familiar? In a sense this captures the story of the Jew today. You see, Gd keeps calling and calling and we keep saying, “Sorry you have the wrong number.” And yet Gd refuses to look for another number. He keeps calling us back again and again.

Gd appeared at the burning bush to Moses and told him to lead His children out of Egypt. Moses said, “Sorry Gd, you have the wrong number. It can’t be me. It’s the wrong party. I’m not your man. Pick someone else.”

            Gd said, “I’m AT&T. I know all the numbers. I’m the one who gave you your number and so I know I have the right party. So let’s keep the line open and let’s do some good work together.” And the rest is history.

How about a Yom Kippur story? Gd called Jonah whose book we will read tomorrow afternoon. He said to Jonah, “I want you to go to the city of Ninveh and inspire the people there to change their destructive ways. “

            Jonah said, “What? Hello? I don’t hear you. It must be bad reception here.”

Come on, be honest. How many of you do the same thing. You get a call from someone you don’t want to talk to…or you don’t like what someone is saying…so you say, “Hello, hello, I can’t hear you. I must be in a place with bad reception.” You’re not the 1st to do it. Jonah did it. “Bad reception, “ he said to Gd. “I don’t hear you. Sorry, I think you have the wrong number.” 

            Jonah said, “I’m not cut out for that. I should go to Ninveh and tell people how to live their lives? Me? You must have the wrong guy—the wrong number.

            Gd said, “I’m Verizon, I have all the numbers.”

Jonah decided to run away. He ran to the city of Tarshish and boarded a boat. A huge storm comes up and he was thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale or some really big fish. And there he was in the belly of this big fish. And Gd called out to him in a booming voice, “Can you hear me now?” Jonah miraculously survived the ordeal and went to Ninveh and saved the city from destruction.

My friends, we all experience times in our lives when we hear words and thoughts that inspire us—that animate our souls. It’s your spiritual cell phone ringing inside you. It’s calling your number—the number to your soul. It’s Gd reaching out to you saying: “Can you hear me now!? I need you. I want you to help me out here.” Gd has assigned each of us our own special number—our own unique set of talents and strengths and capabilities. He put each of us into our own unique environment—our own set of circumstances—so that we can effect it, so that we can make this world a better place, a holier place, a more Gdly place than it was before we came.

So how do we respond to the call? Do we say, “Gd you have the wrong number? Pick someone else? What was that that you wanted from me? Something about me going to shule on a regular basis? Me? Ha, it can’t be me. You want me to bring a little bit of Shabbos into my home? Are You sure you have the right number? I should start studying Torah and take Torah classes? Me? Are you sure You’re talking to the right person? You want me to get involved in charitable causes and give of my own hard-earned money? Me?”

We run away to our own Tarshish—running away from life. And then things happen in our lives and we can’t make any sense of it and we ask ourselves, “What’s going on here? Why has this happened to me? Why do we struggle so much?” What we don’t realize is that we’re in the belly of a fish and Gd is dialing our number asking a simple question: “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?”

We’re sent into this world on a mission, for a purpose. Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t run away to Tarshish. Go to your Ninveh, to where Gd sends you. In Judaism the exercise of finding yourself means getting to know your unique inner potential and your talent to impact Gd’s world…and then to actually do something about it.

It’s Yom Kippur and it’s time for a confession. Your rabbi loves bacon. Not only that, he loves cheeseburgers, ham, shrimp, clams and lobster. There I’ve said it. I’ve been holding this in for about 52 years since I last had any of these and now I’ve finally let it out. I became kosher at my Bar Mitzvah. I’m not sorry, mind you. The Talmud teaches that we should not say that non-Kosher food tastes bad, but rather that it probably tastes delicious—only Gd decreed we shouldn’t eat it. But although I’ve not eaten these things in a very long time, they’re still Gd’s creations and—according to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidut—there’s something a Jew must learn from each of Gd’s creations.

Take the lobster, for example. I used to love lobster dipped in melted butter. Yum! The next time you feel like a lobster, however, I have a much cheaper option for you. A cockroach turned upside down looks so similar to a lobster. Step on a cockroach and as all the ooze gushes out, note the similarity between the roe of the lobster and the ooze. This is because a lobster is nothing more than an ocean cockroach. And according to Andrew Zimmern—Jewish chef and TV host of “Bizarre Foods”—with enough butter sauce, the cockroach tastes—as one TV chef used to say—“OOHHH TASTES SO GOOD!” So after Yuntif, enjoy your lobster. Sorry!

Anyway, a lobster has a soft body and a very hard shell. So how can a lobster grow if the shell is rigid and won’t expand? As the lobster inside grows it feels confined, imprisoned. When the tightness of the shell starts disturbing the body, it finds a place to hide under water. It then sheds its shell and remains in hiding until it grows a new shell that is bigger and wider than the one it shed. For those who question belief in Gd, just study any creature or any plant and contemplate the miracle of its survival.

Getting back to our lobster…the very feeling of confinement, of discomfort is the signal that it has grown to the point where it has to get out of its shell and grow a new one, a bigger one. And so with us! Oftentimes we get this terrible feeling of discomfort inside—feeling constricted, inhibited, like we’re choking. We can’t function; we’re miserable; we’re distressed and we can’t figure out why. Today we try to explain it with a variety of psychological labels: anxiety, depression, manic, panicking, by-polar. We assume that our condition must be pathological or deeply psychological. And so we go to therapists for a diagnosis, for analysis, for therapy and medication.

Don’t get me wrong. There are certain situations where such treatments are absolutely vital and essential. But often, my friends, this feeling of discomfort is actually a sign of health. Rather than it being some malady of disease it could be a signal to the body and to the soul that it’s time for growth. In other words, your shell is too small. Follow the lead of the lobster. When it feels constrained, it doesn’t panic or go to a lobster shrink. It knows that it’s now time to move on to bigger and better challenges. The answer is not always therapy. It’s not always medication. It’s not running away to Tarshish or to India or to Timbuktu. The answer is growth.

When we do a mitzvah, a good deed, when we follow one of the commandments, when we practice our traditions, when we act kindly to one another, when we study Torah…we create new garments, a new shell for our soul. So if your soul is being squeezed; if you don’t have peace of mind; if you don’t feel a sense of calmness of spirit in life; that simply may mean that it’s time to stop choking and starving your soul. It’s time for bigger garments—a bigger shell.

Let’s face it, growth means change and change for most of us is not easy. But that’s what Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur are all about. Our tendency is to always leave things the way they are to maintain the status quo—not to rock the boat. To live, however, means to grow. And if that means taking some risks, don’t be afraid. Make some changes. Shake some things up a bit.

Abraham was tested by Gd 10 times—from being thrown into a fiery furnace to putting his son upon the slaughtering block. But with each test Abraham emerged stronger, wiser, better. When difficulties and adversities come our way, instead of getting angry, instead of getting depressed…the challenge is to ask ourselves, “How can I grow from this?”

It’s true that the sun always shines in the desert. It’s never cloudy, never gloomy, never overcast, but at the same time, nothing grows in the desert—miles and miles of sand. For something to grow it has to rain. And with the rain comes clouds that temporarily obscures the sunshine. My friends, don’t live in fear of the clouds of life. Instead of getting angry after it rains, try to appreciate the growth that comes from it.

Life is not like a deck of cards where you’re stuck with the hand you’ve been dealt. We’re not victims of circumstances. We are the controllers of our destiny if we have the wisdom, if we have the strength and if we have the courage to change. 

Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur are all about change. The message is that we can shed our shells of indifference, intolerance and neglect. We can restore our relationship with Gd. When we recite the Ashamnu and Al Chet confessionals, each time we beat our hearts, if we really mean it, we’re chipping away at those shells, making room for new growth. The Al Chet confessional is mostly straight forward, but the Ashamnu is more challenging. And so I have left on all of your seats an Ashamnu Companion by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller to assist you.

My friends, make good use of your time here tonight by focusing on how you can change. Seize the moment. Have the courage to grow, the courage to change. Yes, repair your relationships with your loved ones by asking for their forgiveness and you forgiving them. If you have not already done that, do it over the next 24 hours. But tonight, think of what you can do differently this New Year to enhance those relationships—whether it’s speaking more softly, more gently, whether it’s resolving to listen more carefully to them without interrupting, or whether it’s spending more time together doing the things they like to do.

Have the courage to seize the moment to grow and to change your relationship with Gd. Pick one new mitzvah you can regularly do that you did not do this past year—whether it’s making a date with Gd every week by lighting Shabbos candles Friday nights, having a Friday night Shabbos dinner a couple of times a month, coming to shule on Shabbos at least a couple of times a month, bring the Presence of Gd alive in your home by making your home Kosher, eating out only Kosher, putting a mezuzah on all your doors, come to our Tuesday night Talmud class and/or Sunday morning Kabbalah class, put on tefillin in the morning. Whatever it is, have the courage to seize the moment to grow and to change your relationship with Gd.

My friends, we all experience moments of awakening, moments of inspiration beckoning us to change. We can either turn away from the opportunity—feeling more and more constrained in our old shells. Or we can do Teshuva tonight and break out of our old shells. Don’t be stuck in your own Punxsutawney PA., living the same boring days over and over. Make this a truly “new” year. We can summon the strength to seize the moment and change course. So my friends, the next time your spiritual cell phone rings, pick up the phone and answer it and say, “Gd, I can hear you now! I am here and I am ready. It’s time to change and I have the courage to do just that.” Amen!

                                                            Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

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