Kol Nidre 5779 Sermon

Kol Nidre – 5779
“Come On Home”
September 18, 2018

One of the most enduring family stories in the Gibson family saga is the one in which we finally took a vacation. My parents weren’t inclined to take five kids (10 years old and under) away at once because of all the predictable mishaps that you can imagine.

On top of that, my Dad was a workaholic and not looking to take time off from work at all. Maybe he saw himself as essential to his job, but Mom suspected that working provided him several hours of sanity away from the madness that the five of us showered on our Mom on a daily basis.

But, memorably, we did take a vacation. In 1961, we hired our favorite babysitter, jammed all eight of us into an early Ford Country Squire station wagon with the fake wood on the side and drove off to Cape Cod from New Jersey.

What no one counted on was us driving up in a hurricane. Hurricane Brenda slammed into the NY-Boston corridor with a fury. After a harrowing drive we finally made it to our little rented cabin and tried to figure out the essentials — who would sleep where, who would get first dibs on the one bathroom, you know the drill.

The next day, after the storm, my parents packed everyone back into the station wagon for a fun outing to the Baby Animal Zoo. We were well away from the cabin when my mother, out of the blue, called out to my younger brother, “Mark, you’re awfully quiet today! What’s going on?” She turned around and started to panic. “Mark? Mark? Where’s Mark?”

We had left him back at the cottage. He was five. It was the original “Home Alone,” decades before the movie. As I remember, my father pulled a U-turn in the middle of the road, and we raced back to the cottage. When we got there, Mark was on the front stoop, crying his eyes out. He was alone and it must have been terrifying.

My Mom scooped him up in her arms and tried to comfort him. We sibs were just happy he was okay and went off to play. As I got older, I shuddered at the memory of how my brother Mark must have felt to be alone and abandoned.

One of the most powerful aspects of Judaism is that as much as we care about each individual soul, we see ourselves as part of something larger, a family called the Jewish people. This peoplehood means that you, every one of you, is connected to all Jews living anywhere in the world.

It also means that you are connected…to every Jew that every lived. Born or converted, it doesn’t matter. Once you belong, you belong for the ages. When you’re a Jew, you’re a Jew all the way; from your first chicken soup, ‘til your last dying day! You get the picture. We don’t want to leave you crying on the stoop, like my brother Mark.

That is what today’s Torah portion is trying to teach us:

Nitzavim atem kulchem ha-yom. ALL of You are gathered here this day. The Torah goes on to describe the choices each of us must make between good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death.

And then Moses declares on God’s behalf that “I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day…and with those who are not with us here this day.” Huh?

How could these words apply to those who were not even there? The Sages answer that this phrase does not apply to those simply slept in late that day, rather to future generations, those not yet born. Or, to put it simply, us.

The Midrash makes this specific: Rabbi Yitzchak said…”[this includes] all the future souls [to be] created in the future that are not yet [flesh & blood]…(Shemot Rabbah, 28.6) We are all in this together, whether we have heard of this teaching or not.

We Jews transcend time and distance. All Jews who ever were, are or will be, by birth or conversion, are connected by mystic bonds we cannot fathom. We were together at Moses’ farewell speech. We were at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. We are together this night of Kol Nidre. All of us.

It is astonishing to realize that Judaism asks us to care about those in the group we have never met, will never know, and whose beliefs about God and Torah may well contradict our own. Our fates are intertwined beyond any rational argument.

Already I hear some grumbling, “What about me? What if I don’t want to be part of the group? I just want to be me, myself, go my own way, take my own spiritual journey!”

This conflict is real. Peoplehood is an ancient demand of the Torah. By contrast, the problems and challenges we face are modern, involving new ways of thinking, and unimaginable technologies. Most Jews in our day choose the new over tradition.

But consider this: precisely because of our immersion in technology and social media, we are increasingly isolated from each other. We live much of our lives on screens, in only two dimensions. We can shut another person out by tapping a button. We are less likely to encounter each other as we actually are, in voice or in person. Being online allows us to offer sharply edited versions of ourselves.

There are consequences to this, as we all know. Despite social media, many are lonelier than they have ever been. Despite too many online contacts to count people feel alienated, isolated, cut off.

This loneliness is not natural or harmless. It attacks our sense of well-being and our physical health. Medical literature claims that loneliness is now as much a mortal threat to us as obesity.

Journalist Judith Shulevitz writes: "Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking…even cancer…can metastasize faster in lonely people."

Freelance reporter Elle Hardy adds:

 “Divorce, technology, and erosion of communities have left people… increasingly alienated. The curse of isolation is…nowhere...felt more keenly than in the United States...”

She’s not writing about poor white people in Washington County or West Virginia. She’s writing about us. As connection and community have eroded, we Jews are suffering terribly, too. Despite our Torah’s call to stand together this day, our community is breaking apart, resulting in incalculable damage.           

It’s our job at the Beit Knesset, the House of Getting Together, to remedy this kind of loneliness. But we fulfill this need far too rarely, for far too few of us. It’s not for lack of trying. I wish we could say we were succeeding, but too often we’re not.

Rabbi Larry Freedman, who worked here more than a decade, wrote recently that attendance at Shabbat evening services in his synagogue has collapsed recently, especially among families with children, despite inducements ranging from family programming to really good sushi. He wondered if anyone else experienced this. He was flooded with responses from more than 100 colleagues.

They wrote that for many of their congregants services were inconvenient. They interfered with sports schedules or people were just too tired to come out on Shabbat evening. And since most Reform Jews don’t go to services on Shabbat morning…

My colleagues were left to wonder if the synagogue even has a future. And I wonder, is this Temple Sinai’s fate? To suffer slow decline into irrelevance?

Maybe our services are so meaningless and boring that people don’t come? But you know, our services are a far cry from those of 30 years ago. Some veteran members laugh and say, “Rabbi Ilson wouldn’t recognize this service! And he sure wouldn’t approve!” Which is okay in my book!

Visual tefillah, music, and accessible teaching abound. So, although I’m not kvetching to you about coming to services I think you would feel good if you came more often. I rarely meet people here on Friday night who say, “Boy, was that a waste of time.”

But frankly, I’m more interested in the problem than assigning blame. For what we experience here and throughout our movement is part of a national trend.

More and more people are turning away from all organized religion. They are famously called the “nones.” They now represent more than 23% of Americans in general and a much higher percentage of younger adults.

Some choose secular passions, such as sports or concerts. Others seek more individual spiritual experiences, exploring God in the Laurel Highlands, arranging for private bar and bat mitzvahs, picking apples for the fall instead of coming here for Rosh Hashana.

Now, it goes without saying that everyone is free, free to come here or go there; free to claim a place in our community of love and faith; and free to seek spiritual meaning on her or his own.

But listen to journalist Stephen Asma, who wrote recently in the LA Times:

 “These nones tend to believe in the soul, divine energy, mystical realities, ghosts, fate and myriad other superstitions…They also tend to eschew formal social gatherings and regular group activities.

Young nones, in other words, are adopting one of the least helpful aspects of organized religion (magical thinking) while abandoning one of the most beneficial (social bonding).

[By contrast] communal prayer, storytelling, singing, celebrations, rite-of-passage ceremonies and even fasting: These group activities create…deep bonds…They are the very point of religion...

 (Online) spirituality apps promise to supercharge your mindfulness and positive thinking. [But] app spirituality, too, leads to a solitary practice.”

And loneliness. Always back to the loneliness.

For going on 31 years, I have looked you in the eye and opened my heart and said repeatedly, you matter.         

You matter to others.
You matter to friends.
You matter to family.
You matter to this sacred community.
You matter to Rabbi Gorban, to Cantor Berman, to Drew Barkley  and Judy Mahan.

And you matter to me — more than you will ever know. Not for your financial support. Not for your extra donations. Appreciated, yes. But those are not the reasons for my caring about you.

It’s nothing you do. It’s who you are, a soul with infinite worth. Fred Rogers spent his life teaching us that. And by being part of this community, you give all of us something of your unique worth. You are a gift of God. Each of you. Every one of you.

You may choose not to believe me. Some of you will disappear after Yom Kippur for another year. But please, please, please, listen to me for this moment while I have your attention. The way to fight off the loneliness that is killing us is by coming together more, not less.

I know, an individual spiritual experience on a Rocky Mountain peak is powerful. But its half-life is brief and limited by memory. Remembering it may not sustain you when things are not so beautiful or wonderful in your life, such as when you feel impossibly alone.

More than anything, I want those of you who are lonely to come home. Here. To consider this as a home for you. To be with others, touch each other’s lives, do good with and for each other and our world, that is what this spiritual home is supposed to be about.

How might we make Temple Sinai more of a home? I have a few ideas, as you might imagine. I’ll share six of them with you tonight, on Kol Nidre. You tell me your ideas too — write them to the email address on the screen.

1) At my home we grow vegetables, or at least Barbara does. It makes our home, homey. The time has come to plant a community garden here. A community garden would bring us together to put our hands in the soil and to grow veggies for our food events.

More importantly, it would give us a chance to grow food for the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, run by our member, Matt Bolton. There is nothing like asking the earth to grow food with the prayers of our hands in the soil. Drew Barkley is drawing up plans for us to start up this spring. Our wonderful food expert, Steffi Wright, is ready to help. Come home to garden in your Temple Sinai garden, starting this Spring!

2) I learned music not only from early piano lessons, but from singing. We sang as a family, every Shabbat meal over challah and sometimes around the piano. That’s how I learned the great American songbook as well as countless Jewish tunes.

Singing together can lift us out of our despair. How? Because it can literally dissolve our self-consciousness. It relieves us of the burden of thinking about what we are doing and feeling at every moment. This past spring, we held our first Folk Shabbat. Most of the seats were filled and the sound of everyone singing together raised the roof! People were absolutely radiant when they left the room.

We can and should do this more. Cantor Berman and I are always scouting new voices for our choir. But this is different. Come and sing. Sing with people you know and with those who are waiting to meet you. Sing and feel warm and accepted. I am so thankful to Ben Wecht and John Schiller for helping us organize Folk Shabbat. Now it’s time for monthly informal singing here in our home. Let us know if you want to participate!

3) Home is where we hear stories of our family, the ones who came before us, the ones whose legacies we share and bear. We should be hearing more of each other’s stories; grandparents sharing what they have learned through hard experience; those who have struggled through disease, heartache, or crisis should be telling their stories for our sake as well as theirs. Sharing stories is not for AA alone.

If you have not taken part in synagogue life, maybe it is time for us to hear your story! Tomorrow afternoon we will have our own version of Moth-storytelling during a special Beit Midrash. Your fellow congregants will share stories of their journeys without notes, without fear and without judgment. Come tomorrow afternoon and check it out if you are not already going to another learning session! Look for notice of our own regular story sharing here at Sinai.

4) At the risk of getting all Ashkenazi-Eastern European ethnic, home is where you got a bowl of warm, healing Jewish penicillin, you know, chicken soup. How many of you have ever made chicken soup from scratch? Or baked a challah with your own yeast dough?

I think we should not only learn to make it and keep some in our caring fridge at all times, I think anyone walking into the building this winter should be able to get a cup of it, with or without kneidlach, you know, matza balls. It may not cure the common cold, but it sure makes you feel better, from inhaling the steam to downing the broth. You will have to decide whether you like your matza balls sinkers or floaters.

We have master chefs here like Paula Rulin, Annie Wiedeman, and Leon Edelsack who will help us learn the sacred art of soup. Maybe that is your talent, too? And not just soup — every one of us should be able to come here and pick up a fresh challah for Shabbat. We just have to make them — help us out!

5) What if you can’t get out of your apartment? You don’t have to be lonely. Arlene Smith runs our Seniors-Calling-Seniors program. You deserve to hear a friendly voice asking about you and how you’re doing once a week. Just call the office, and we’ll put you on the list. You are part of this family, and we care about you, even if you only ever participate in services by watching them online. If you don’t need a call, maybe you could make one to someone who does. Let us know, and we’ll find you a place at one end of the phone or the other.

6) If you are a young adult and are looking for your own group here at your home, talk with Rabbi Gorban. She leads monthly “After Hours” gatherings for young adults every 3rd Shabbat. She also loves the outdoors — she is more than willing to take you on a mountaintop spiritual experience! Imagine affirming who you are as a Jewish woman or man by saying Shema with the sun on your face and the wind in your hair with others just as exhilarated as you, not just by yourself.

These new ventures are not simply to add to a busy Temple Sinai schedule. They are intended to remind us we belong together, to band together against loneliness, anger, and despair, which lead to depression, addiction, and suicide.

The world we face today can be terrifying, from our hateful politics to a more difficult financial landscape. This home is not an escape, rather a refuge. It is not a hideaway, but a place to gather our strength to go back out into a world that desperately needs our hope, faith, and idealism. It is here where we struggle with God and Torah and do this sacred, prophetic work.

This home, right here, is where you can come and be accepted and, at the same time, be challenged to grow and be the soul you have always had the capacity to be, to live the life you have wanted to live, whatever challenges you face.

The cost of admission? Your desire to take part. You can bring along your heart and your mind for free. Your troubles are welcome here, especially if you are looking to lay them down. Your loneliness has a place here if you want to kiss it goodbye. You do not have to be alienated or isolated unless you want to be. This should be a home for you, your Jewish home.

One of my favorite singers is country songwriter John Prine. Despite an illustrious career, I lost track of him until this spring. He’s 71 now and just put out a new album called “The Tree of Forgiveness.” It is reflective, ruminating on life in general and the end of life in particular.

I love his song called “Summer’s End.” He sings sadly about things passing until he hits the chorus, which is simple: “Come on home. Come on home. You don’t have to be alone. Come on home.”

It doesn’t matter where you’ve been. Doesn’t matter if you’ve had hard times. Doesn’t matter if you haven’t been back in a while. Just come on home. Come on home. You don’t have to be alone. Come on home. Not because of guilt. Because your wellbeing may just depend on it and, chances are, you’ll feel good about it.

When my brother Mark was left behind, he suffered terribly, for an hour or so. But there are so many of us, too many of us, who suffer in silence for months and years. They suffer in mind and heart and body. They feel alone, so, so alone. They may hide it with a smile out in public. But God, they feel alone. And it doesn’t have to be this way. You belong. Here. Here is where you belong. You deserve to have your tears dried, this night, tomorrow, and in the days to come.

One last thing about home. Every Shabbat growing up, I blessed my kids as part of our Shabbat meal. Home is where my children know they will be blessed. Today, on Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, here, in your home, I believe you are deserving of blessing as well, as our Torah says: “Atem – Nitzavim Kulchem Hayom – All of you – standing here this day!”

Would you allow me, this perfectly imperfect vessel, to come closer and bless you this moment as you deserve?

Y’varerch-che-cah Adonai v’yish-me-re-cha
May God bless you and keep you!

Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vee-chu-ne-ka
May God shine God’s light on to you and be gracious to you!

Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha v’ya-seim l’cha Shalom!
May God lift up God’s presence to you and grant you joy, life
fulfillment, blessing, love and most of all, peace!

Welcome home tonight and tomorrow! You don’t have to be alone. We’re waiting to welcome you and bless you, over and over again. Just come on home. You don’t have to be alone. Come on home. Here. To this place, your home. Come on home.

Stay connected to our community!