Kol Nidre 5774
by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Tonight, on the holiest night of the Jewish year, we stand before God, stripped of our comforts – without food and drink. We don’t even have a text. As we don’t read Torah tonight, we don’t even have a story through which to connect to God. That’s because the text is our story. The text is our year. We look back at the year that has passed, and forward to our hopes and aspirations for the coming year.
Depending on what kind of year we’ve had, we come to this moment from a very different place. When it was a hard year of grief or struggle, we hope for a new, better chapter to begin and pray for strength. When it was a wonderful year, we are grateful for the year that has passed, and hope that joy will continue in the coming year. Much of the time, we come to this night somewhere in between. We have things that we’re struggling with, regrets, or sadness, and yet gratitude for our blessings.
For me, this past year has been one of those years – with real highs and real lows. When I look back on the year, I ask myself: what have I learned? I realize that there are three significant moments that stood out as spiritual lessons. All three of those moments took place because of people in this room – in the Library Minyan. And they actually all happened within one month of each other. They made me realize the blessing that this community is in my life. As an expression of my gratitude, I wanted to share with you what I learned this year from you and how you have collectively inspired me.
So tonight I’m going to share with you those three stories which I hope will inspire you as they did to me. In the Tanach, the word malachim (angels) – is often used to refer to people who impart an important message, and who are usually not referred to by name. Often, there are three of them. I too had threemalachim this year – people who shared important messages with me, and I too am not going to refer to them by name. The Torah readings for both days of Rosh Hashanah refer to a malach, so it’s a fitting time of year to ask ourselves: who have been our malachim this past year and what have they taught us?
I’ll share with you my three malachim tonight.
1) As background to the first story, let me tell you a little bit about my childhood. I went to Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, in Maryland, where our esteemed Rabbi Malkus has gone to lead. And yet I’m sure, the school has changed a lot since I went there.
When I was in the fifth grade, the girls in my grade divided themselves into groups. The popular girls formed a clique called the “Lavender Ladies.” If you were not popular enough to be in the Lavender Ladies, then some of the girls formed the “Purple People,” and “the Silver Satins.” These spin off groups worked for the Lavender Ladies. I wasn’t cool enough to be in any of these groups. So at recess, the silver satins would stand at different parts of the playground and tell me that I wasn’t allowed to go on those parts of the playground because it belonged to the Lavendar Ladies. My middle school years were lonely, but thankfully my parents let me switch to another school for high school instead.
Fast forward to three years ago, I got a phone call out of the blue from a woman named Shira who went to Jewish day school with me. She had become a rabbi. I assumed that the context of the phone call was that she wanted to connect as colleagues. However, a few minutes of schmoozing into the phone call, she explained that there was a different reason for her call. She had run into my father (who is friends with her family) in Washington. My dad asked her how she liked our day school, and she said she really liked it. My dad responded: “Ilana hated it so much that we pulled her out. There was a group there called the Lavender Ladies that made her miserable.” What my dad didn’t realize was that Shira was the head of the Lavender Ladies. So Shira had called to say: ‘It’s Elul. The high holidays are coming, so I wanted to say I’m sorry.’ I was surprised, but told her not to worry about it. It was a long time ago.
Now, fast forward three years to this year. In March, I got an email from my stepmother that a friend from the Library Minyan had posted an article on her Facebook page that she thought I would want to see. The person (who I’ll call angel #1) had simply posted the article because she thought it was a powerful article – not realizing that she knew the people in the story. The article was called: “I was a mean girl: before I was a rabbi, I was a Lavender Lady.” The article recounts (without our names) Shira’s conversation with my father, how she lost sleep that night, how she thinks of me often, and how she’s trying to teach her daughter to be kinder than she was when we were kids.
More even than the phone call, what impacted me about the article was that three years after her encounter with my father, Shira was still reflecting on her behavior as a child. This gave me a chance to email Shira, thank her for the article and offer her forgiveness in a way that I couldn’t when I was surprised on the phone. Her article created a measure of healing in me about a dark chapter of my life. I realized that I had been heard, and my feelings had mattered. Without realizing it, my first angel was able to impact healing within me and between Shira and me.
A few lessons that come out of this story for me:
The first is the power of the Internet. We often talk about the power of the Internet for bad and there’s plenty of lashon hara (degrading speech) on the Internet. We don’t talk as much about the power of the Internet for good, as an instrument of Torah and of healing. With a simple click of the mouse, we have the power to bring healing to those we don’t even realize need it most.
This reminds me of the Shofar. When blowing a shofar, one blows into the small end, and the sound comes out the big end. The noise that you make to blow a shofar is a small sound, but it comes out louder. That’s why the shofar is the symbol of this season. It teaches us that small actions can have a big impact. We can awaken and heal people’s hearts who we don’t even realize we are reaching. My father had no idea what impact his one sentence remark would make on Shira; my first angel had no idea that posting the article on her Facebook page would have such an impact on me. The message of the Shofar is: Don’t underestimate the positive power of the smallest action.
The second lesson that comes out of this story is about the power of our tradition. If this story didn’t happen in a Jewish context, Shira could have certainly called me to say she was sorry. But our tradition made it so much easier. She could say: It’s the High Holiday season, and therefore I wanted to call. Our tradition gave her an excuse to call and gave us a vocabulary to make up with one another – which is what this season is all about.
I want you to imagine for a moment: What if everyone in this room (within the next two weeks before this holiday season concludes) made one phone call– for some kind of slight we made – whether it was recent or twenty years ago. Imagine how much healing could ensue.
Actually the telephone receiver is the same shape as the shofar. Each one of us has the power to make a big difference with smallest action. Let’s follow Shira’s example and pick up the phone.
2) The first story was about the Internet. This second story is about the power of the spoken word. This story took place at a Library Minyan bar mitzvah. Guests came from all over; the occasion was a reunion of old friends. During lunch I sat with several friends—one from here and a mutual friend who was visiting from out of town. I was seated a few seats away from these friends, so while it was clear to everyone that I could hear them, I wasn’t part of the conversation. My friend was there with her new baby, and I guess the topic of having children came up.
The friend from out of town (who I’ll call Angel #2) recounted the difficulty she’d had in conceiving her children and said, “We normally take it for granted that whenever one wants to have a baby, then you can, but that’s not the case. Actually it’s a miracle. Getting pregnant is a miracle. Carrying the baby to term is a miracle, and every year that they continue to be healthy is a miracle too.”
This angel’s words stayed with me, and during subsequent struggles, I found myself returning to her words and found that they served to snap my life back into perspective.
In her recent memoir, Maya Angelou described a similar moment in her life.
Maya Angelou recounts that as a young, single mom, she once got entirely overwhelmed. She went to see her voice teacher Willie, who gave her a pad and told her to write down your blessings. He said: “Write down: I can hear; think of all the millions of people all over the world who cannot hear a choir, a symphony or their own babies crying. Write ‘I can hear: Thank God.’ Then write down that you can see this pad, and think of all the people around the world who cannot see a waterfall or flowers blooming or their loved ones’ face. Write ‘I can see – thank God.’ Then write down that you can read. Think of the millions of people around the world who cannot read the news of the day or a letter from home.” Maya Angelou filled up the yellow pad with her blessings, and she calmed down.
Just as Maya Angelou made her list that day, this Yom Kippur is a good time to take stock and make our own mental list of our blessings. This community and its many angels are surely high on my list.
On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the Shofar 100 times each day, which correspond to the 100 blessings that we are supposed to say every day. Perhaps that’s why we blow the Shofar often on Rosh Hashanah and not on Yom Kippur until the very end. On Yom Kippur, we realize that we’re the Shofar. The Shofar is actually shaped like human esophagus and mouth. Our words go further than we thought. My second angel wasn’t even speaking to me. Neither of us could have known how much her words would mean to me. We all have the power of shofar every time we speak – in our casual conversations – to awaken other’s hearts and remind us of our blessings.
3) The third story is about direct speech. In the other stories, the people didn’t intend to communicate with me. In this story, someone spoke to me directly.
In March, I was asked to lead the Musaf service. Musaf is just a few pages long, and it isn’t hard for me to do. I was asked to lead a couple days before, and I thought nothing of it. When I lead Musaf, it wasn’t special in any way. I didn’t prepare or find new melodies or do anything different with it. Afterwards, an older gentleman came up to me, and said: ‘You lead so beautifully. Where I come from in Europe women were never allowed to lead services, and it was just so wonderful to hear you.’
I considered this a spiritual turning point in my year because he gave me historical perspective on that moment. What seemed to me like no big deal was actually a huge deal in the context of Jewish history. I was raised in an Egalitarian synagogue; I lead the whole service at my bat mitzvah. To me, it was always a given that I could do that, but if I had been born any earlier or into a different community, it would not have been a given at all. The fact that I got to lead Musaf or that I get to speak to you tonight is an enormous blessing.
More broadly, the fact that we get to be here tonight, assemble and pray without being afraid for our safety is an enormous privilege in scope of Jewish history and contemporary world. Just as my second angel reminded me what a miracle my family is, this third angel reminded me what a privilege it is to be able to participate in our faith.
What I learned from this story is that while I need to pray with people my own age (who have kids to play with my kids), I also need to pray with older people so that they can share with me their life’s wisdom and their historical and spiritual perspective. This interaction with this gentleman reminded me how special the Library Minyan is. Nowadays, when there are many services at once in a synagogue, what often happens is that people separate by age, and each age group prays in a different area. The treasure of Library Minyan is that it’s a place where young and old pray together.
The most powerful service for me this year was when Miriam Elkins gave a drash about Israel Independence Day and how she felt when she was a child when the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. Then Hannah Lande (who is in eighth grade) and her mother Mandy led Musaf, followed by the little kids who sang Adon Olam. We really had the feeling of dor l’dor, of generation to generation participating.
Whereas synagogue is a place to find people who have gone through what you have gone through, synagogue is also a place to find people who have gone through things you’ll never go through – who have lived in different times and places and who can provide perspective and help you appreciate the miracles in your life.
Some of you know that I gave a sermon last year where I gave a reading list of biblical novels. Recently, I’ve been reading memoirs and I made a list for you of these and the holiday on which I would recommend to read them. This change of genre began with Tom Fields-Meyer’s book, Following Ezra. I had known Tom for years at synagogue, and I was blown away by the wisdom of his story. This experience made me want to learn as much as I can from those around me. Looking around the room, I see collection of wisdom and life experience. My hope for the coming year is that we may learn from each others’ stories.
The stories I shared with you today all point to the same conclusion. We are all Shofars to one another. As we enter this New Year, share the Torah that’s in your heart. Listen to the Torah in other peoples’ hearts – whether in books, the Internet, the phone or by talking face to face. Let’s be angels to one another.
The high holiday liturgy teaches that: “B’shofar Gadol Yitakah v’kol dimmamah dakah yishamah: The great Shofar is sounded and a still, small voice is heard.” Actually, the reverse is also true. A small voice can be spoken and a Shofar blast can be heard. A word of wisdom, quietly spoken at Kiddush, on Facebook or at lunch can become a Shofar blast which awakens our hearts. In this coming year, may it be that Kol dimmamah dakah yitakah v’shofar gadol yishamah– A still small voice is spoken and a big shofar blast is heard. And let us say Amen.
Sukkot: Hope Will Find You by Rabbi Naomi Levi
Simchat Torah (or Father’s Day): Following Ezra by Tom Fields-Meyer
Chanukah: We Plan, God Laughs, by Rabbi Sherre Hirsch
Passover: Sacred Housekeeping by Harriet Rossetto
Yom Hashoah: How to Survive Anything by Rabbi David & Yetta Kane
Yom Ha’atsmaut: The 188th Crybaby Brigade by Joel Chasnoff
Mother’s Day: Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou
Shavuot: Blessings and Baby Steps by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Tisha Ba’av and the Weeks of Consolation: Faith Unravels by Rabbi Daniel Greyber
Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur: The Holy Thief by Rabbi Mark Borovitz