Monday, October 6, 2014

Yom Kippur Morning 5775 - It's Time to Put on our Israel Jerseys

           When I lived in Israel during my days in the seminary; aside from Ulpan, classes in Zionist history, Mishnah, liturgy, tiyyulim – trips throughout the countryside, I took time to participate in a burgeoning new fixation called Fantasy Football.
This took place in our computer lab, as Wi-Fi though in existence by then, was not widely available. Together my classmates and I gathered around that computer lab. We drafted our teams, and I actually won that first year, which was pretty amazing given the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. What I did know is that I was hooked.
Flash forward about a decade and I was invited to play in a rabbis-only league. One of the great things about his league is we all have about the same amount of time to devote to our teams, which is practically none. Now before you think this is strange, I would like to note that according to a Forbes Article, there are an estimated 32 million people in the US and Canada who play fantasy football, making up nearly 10% of the US population.[1]
            For some Fantasy Football is more than a hobby, it is an obsession. Thankfully, for me, it is about as low a priority as a hobby as you can get. For those of you not familiar, the basic tenants of Fantasy Football are that you participate in a league often made up of 10 to 14 owners. These owners hold a ‘draft’ where they draft players from every NFL team. They then ‘field’ this team based on a set number of positions like one quarterback, two running backs and the like. You then play your team against another owner every week. Points are based on things like receptions, yardage and of course touchdowns. The most well-known players tend to go first, with kickers going last. I will admit that I am a bit of a homer and I have consistently drafted Justin Tucker for just about every team I manage. There are playoffs, and if there was a fee for the league, usually the top two or two three teams end up winning money.
            One of the curious oddities about Fantasy Football is that, as an owner, you can find yourself rooting for teams you would never think you would root for simply because they have one or more of your players or are playing against your opponent. For example, it would not be unusual for a Baltimorean to have Ben Roethlisberger as his or her starting quarterback on their fantasy team despite their feelings about the Steelers.
            All of this can lead to strange emotions with feelings of divided loyalties. I, for example, like many of you, want the Ravens to win every week. However, this past week, I wanted the Ravens to win, but I also wanted the Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to have a stellar day, as he is one of my receivers on one of my fantasy teams. Thankfully Benjamin had a good game and the Ravens crushed the Panthers, so all was right with the world.
            But this notion of divided loyalties got me thinking to about issues relating to it in the broader world as well. In our history as Jews, our national loyalties have often been called into question. This was one of the consistent themes, especially in Europe in the 1920s and 30s. And the accusation has even cropped up in this country from time to time. Thankfully there has never been Federal action determined by such accusations as was made against the Japanese-Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But it is something we do keep an eye on.
            No, I was thinking in terms of divided loyalties with regards to our feelings about Israel. One of the most recent accusations that cropped up this summer is an old one that has taken new form. Israel is supposed to be the shining light in the sea of the Middle East. And whenever Israel reverts to acting like any other nation would, given the circumstances, it is emotionally troubling for some of us.
            For many, Israel is judged by a higher standard because it is a Jewish country. Somehow, we, the chosen people, are supposed to act, not as the rest of the world acts, but instead, we are supposed to do better.
            I think this is part of the reason for the argument against Israel’s so-called disproportionate response against Hamas. No matter how much Israel may have tried to minimize civilian casualties, She would always be still in the wrong. Never mind the fact that Israel spent millions with help from the US to build Iron Dome to protect her citizens and property from rocket attacks.
            The argument of disproportionate response is supposed to make us feel a sense of divided loyalty even if it is not true. For example, it was a common theme in the media who consistently reported that most of the victims in Gaza were innocent civilians. It was common knowledge that 72-82% of the victims were innocent because no one bothered to dig deeper and look at the numbers.
The reality is, Hamas employed a policy of deception. They did this by doing things like removing uniforms from soldiers making it seem like they were innocent victims. There are even videos of soldiers ‘playing dead,’ to make it seem like there were more victims than there actually were. According to recent analysis, it is much more likely that as many as 47% of those killed were combatants and/or terrorists, making a 1:1 ratio. Which though disturbing, is a much higher ratio given the nature of urban warfare.[2] And yet we feel divided.
            We also feel divided because we are not really familiar with what Hamas is. We know they are a terrorist organization that until recently was in control of Gaza, but we may not even be aware as to why they started attacking Israel. The answer lies, not with Gaza or Israel, but actually with Egypt.
            Hamas was founded in 1987 and was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.[3] The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 and is a pan-national organization that is also Sunni. So you can imagine the excitement by Hamas when the Muslim Brotherhood won significant victories in the Egyptian elections in 2012 following the fall of Hosni Mubarek. The Brotherhood placed Mohammed Morsi as the first democratically elected president of Egypt, and opened the floodgates of support to Hamas through the tunnels at the Sinai Gaza border. According to some estimates, Hamas and Gaza received more than half of their income through the interactions taking place at these tunnels totaling at least $1 billion, over half of their annual budget.
            The problem for Hamas was on July 3, 2013, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown by the Egyptian military. This coup placed a new government in power, one that was viciously against the Brotherhood, and also against Hamas. Hamas now found itself in political and economic no man’s land. So how did they react?
They could strike at Egypt, but how would that be perceived by the Arab world? So instead, they started by kidnapping three Jewish boys and then launching rockets into southern Israel. And yet, deep down, there are experts who believe Hamas did not want to start a war in this way. Instead by attacking Israel in a war they probably did not mean to start, they ultimately hurt themselves significantly with Israel’s destruction of numerous tunnels and the targeted killing of some of their most important leaders. Hamas in many ways was defeated. And most feel there will be a significant time of peace in the land. Whether that is one year or five or twenty, remains to be seen. But we ask ourselves, because we feel divided and conflicted, was it worth the cost?
            We are conflicted because of the loss of any innocent life. According to my colleague and new friend Rabbi Ben Goldstein, he “recently heard a story from Rabbi Alan Lucas. He said that one of his college students came to him this summer and asked him if he believed that the loss of a Palestinian child’s life was any less tragic than the loss of a young Israeli soldier’s life. He tried to figure out where she was coming from, and finally answered, “No and Yes. No – there is no difference between the loss of a Palestinian child and the loss of an Israeli child, they are equally tragic. And Yes – because, you see, this one is my son, and although equal in tragedy, I feel the pain so much more.” “But he in not your son!” His student yelled. He smiled at her and said simply, “That my dear, is where we disagree.” [4]
As Rabbi Goldstein goes on to explain, “The loss of innocent life is tragic, and the acknowledgment of that fact does not lessen the validity of the war that occurred. We know that Israel has every right to defend her citizens. We know that tunnels built from Gaza were created with the sole purpose of death and destruction. We know that the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers demanded a response from the Israeli government.”[5]
Could Israel have handled things differently? Perhaps before the war, but I am not sure what it could have done differently once it was attacked. This became even more pronounced when we witnessed the world’s responses to the Gaza War, which unlike it’s response to the Syrian Civil war where 100 times as many people have been killed so far, the world chose to attack Jewish communities, especially those in Europe. This new wave of so-called Anti-Zionism feels suspiciously like Anti-Semitism, probably because it is.
            Thankfully, for our brethren living in places like France, there is an option available for them that was not available for Jews in Europe 70 years ago, and that is to make aliyah, to immigrate to Israel.
            Fortunately, for most of us here, that is not something we need to seriously consider unless we feel passionate about living in Israel. But isn’t it nice to know that Israel is an option.
            That being said, the war this past summer has hurt Israel. It hurts Israel’s image abroad, and it hurt tourism. Though a number of my colleagues went on solidarity trips during and immediate following the cessation of hostilities, many other tour trips were cancelled.
            I mention this because I am sometimes asked: what can I do to help? One thing you can do is travel to Israel. We have a congregational trip planned for this upcoming December. We are scheduled to leave on December 7th and return on December 17th. It will be a whirlwind trip to visit some of the highlights of Israel like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And we may even make a trip down to Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city if there is enough interest. To be honest, we don’t have the numbers just yet, but we would love to make a go of it. That time of year is the perfect time to travel to Israel as it is neither too hot nor too cold. And we will even be there at the beginning of Chanukah, which means it is a great time to get in any last minute Chanukah shopping. We would love to have you join us. Feel free to speak with me or David Carp, and we will be happy to provide you with more information. All we need are twenty people, a double minyan if you will. And I can personally guarantee that Israel will be happy to see us.
            Another way we can help Israel is through the purchase of Israel bonds. I am now going to ask you to take am moment to look at the forms that are on our seat, and if you are so willing, to fill them out. Yes, I am giving you permission to ignore my words for the next few moments as you look over the forms.
As the Israel Bonds website explains, “From its launching in 1951 and continuing through the present day, Israel Bonds has played a unique role in Israel’s rapid progression from struggling agrarian nation to global economic powerhouse….
Proceeds realized through the sale of Israel bonds have helped cultivate the desert, build transportation networks, create new industries, resettle immigrants, and increase export capability. Today, investing in Israel bonds supports a nation of extraordinary innovation that continues to push the boundaries of modern technology.
Israel Bonds has been widely praised for its extraordinary legacy of achievement. In the words of President Shimon Peres, "The investment of Israel bonds in Israel's economy has reaped huge dividends."[6]
And unlike our ReJewVenate Campaign and our Share the Load Campaign, which are vital for Har Sinai Congregation, and I highly encourage you to participate in, Israel Bonds are an investment. You can give them as gifts, add them to your portfolio, and for those of you who make pledges to the Associated, you can make your annual gift through the purchase of an Israel Bond.
Our Har Sinai ARZA Committee coordinated this effort and will be collecting the cards at the exits when you leave the Sanctuary. So please consider participating in this program so vital for Israel’s continued economic future. And make sure to drop off your cards as you head out.
            The third thing we can all do is become more active as what I would call, ‘defenders of Israel.’ What I mean by this is that in some ways, this Gaza War was the first Facebook war with memes being shared across Social Media. I probably made more posts concerning Israel this summer than I have ever before. I did this to try to combat the rash of misinformation that abounded in Social Media circles.
            The traditional media likes to report the sensational. They like to base their stories on the angle of a David versus Goliath scenario, with Israel as Goliath. Though if you have read Malcom Gladwell’s most recent book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, one can come to appreciate the central problems with this metaphor. But that is a sermon for another day. What we do know is that Israel has so few friends out there; She needs help from as many circles as She can get.
            Another option is to join me at this year’s upcoming AIPAC Policy Conference in 2015. I had the chance to attend my first conference last march with Cantor and Graciela Gerber, David and Marilyn Carp and Stewart and Nadine Sachs. Though I had to leave early due to the snowstorm, it was great to be able to spend time with 13,000 lovers of Israel. There were Jews and Christians with a wide divergence of opinions, but they all were there to show their solidarity with Israel. They were also there to continue to work with our government and especially Congress, to encourage them to continue to build upon the mutually beneficial relationship between the U.S. and Israel.
            This year I am planning on attending the entire conference, and I would love to have you join me as part of the larger Baltimore Jewish coalition. You will have the chance to hear from scholars, experts, politicians, Israeli leaders and so many more. And then you will be given the ability to go to Congress to advocate for Israel with our politicians including our very own Senator Ben Cardin who is also coming to speak at our Brotherhood Paid Up Dinner on Thursday November 16th at 6pm. So mark your calendars for the Dinner in November and the AIPAC Policy Conference coming March 1st – 3rd in Washington D.C., it is well worth it.
            Israel still faces many challenges. A nuclear Iran is one of the most pressing not just because of the imminent threat that would represent to Israel, but because it would also lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. And one thing I think we can agree on is that the world does not need more nuclear nations especially in such a volatile region.
            And this is not even to comment about ISIS or the Islamic State or ISIL, which is an important conversation, but one to have for another day. What I can say is that Israel continues to live in a very dangerous neighborhood. It would be nice if she could just move to someplace quieter, but that is not the reality.
            Israel is not a perfect State. She is a state governed by people, and people are, by definition, imperfect. And this imperfection can again lead to feelings of divided loyalty. I can say it is not divided loyalties if we are not 100% supportive of all of Israel’s policies. Heck, none of us agree on the policies of our government, so why should we always be in agreement with Israel? What I can say is that there is certainly a time and a place to challenge and criticize, just as there is also a time to show and demonstrate unwavering support of the only continually stable and vibrant democracy in the entirety of the Middle East.
            I started off by talking about Fantasy Football where one can sometimes feel mixed emotions because they find themselves rooting for players on opposing teams. However, for true fans, they’re loyalty as a fan is always unwavering. They are loyal to their team. To expand the metaphor once further, my team, like the Ravens, is Israel. I proudly wear their jersey loudly. And I know they can use my support. I encourage you to join me in supporting Israel by traveling their with us, buying Israel bonds, supporting causes relating to the liberal Jewish movements in Israel, and being an advocate. For as Rabbi Hillel said, “Im ein ani li mi li,” “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
            May this coming year be one where we work together as a community to show our support to the Land, to our Land of Israel. Whether we choose to travel there as a community, purchase bonds to show our solidarity, or simply to stand up for Israel even as we challenge many of her decisions, all of these are key and vital ways we can be part of demonstrating our love and support. For if we are not for Israel, who will be?



[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/leighsteinberg/2012/08/28/fantasy-football-madness/
[2] http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/183821#.VC162L5TIx8
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamas
[4] http://tbemc.org/rabbi-goldsteins-rosh-hashanah-sermon-day-1/
[5] Ibid.
[6] http://www.israelbonds.com/learn/history.aspx

Erev Yom Kippur 5775 - A Year of Living Kol Nidre

This Erev Yom Kippur we stood as the haunting music of Kol Nidre was recited.  Kol Nidre, though arguably the most well-known melody of the High Holy Days, is perhaps the least well understood.  To start, it is not a prayer.  Instead it is part of a legal formula.  It is recited in front of the Beit Din, the rabbinic court, which is symbolized by the Torah scrolls we remove from the ark. 
Kol Nidre most likely came to us from the Gaonic Period, which stretched from 589-1038 in the Common Era.  Kol Nidre has a fascinating liturgical history.  At various times, it has been both accepted and rejected as part of the Erev Yom Kippur Service.  The text itself has been somewhat fluid as it has changed over time as well.
One of the most significant changes was made by Rashi’s son-in-law, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel, who lived in the early 12th century.  The RaM, as he is affectionately known, changed the original phrase “from the last Day of Atonement until this one” to “from this Day of Atonement until the next.”  By making this change the RaM made Kol Nidre, in legal terms, a priori having reference to vows one might not be able to fulfill or might forget to observe during the ensuing year.
What this means for us is that, having now heard Kol Nidre, we get the opportunity to start off this coming year with a clean slate.  But there is a caveat.  Kol Nidre only applies to the vows we individually make to God.  Any vows we make to anyone else, those we are still on the hook for.
This notion of annulling ‘all our vows’ has led to much confusion and even at times accusations against the Jewish people.  There have even been rabbis over the generations who have tried to remove Kol Nidre from the worship experience.  Perhaps it is the melody even more than the language itself as to why Kol Nidre persists and haunts us so much.  And yet, when one really thinks about the words of Kol Nidre, one might be tempted to spend a year without making vows.  A year of living Kol Nidre, if you will.
I can see it now.  An author writes a blog post, which becomes a book, which in turn is made into a movie.  The movie stars Mila Kunis in a romantic comedy along with Seth Rogan and all the misadventures and miscommunications that result from Mila’s character deciding not to make any vows, promises, oaths, pledges, guarantees, or declarations for an entire year.  Lots of statements would begin with, “I will do my best” instead of “I promise to…”  Of course they could not get married during that year.  And forget the Associated’s annual campaign or NPR’s almost daily campaigns, as both require pledges.  I can see it now, instead of being like Jim Carrey’s movie “Liar, Liar,” our imaginary film would be called, “Equivocate, Equivocate.” 
All of this silliness points out an essential truth: we do have to make promises, oaths, and the like in order to be able to function in our relationships with each other and with God.  It is simply part of the human condition.  This is not to say though, that the idea of spending a year dedicated to doing something or avoiding doing something cannot have practical and spiritual applications in our own lives.
I mention this because the year of living (blank) is a very popular narrative choice out there in blogs, books and movies.    For example, there is the book: Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at it for a Year.  As the publisher explains, “When Kjerstin Gruys became engaged to the love of her life, she was thrilled—until it came time to shop for a wedding dress. Having overcome an eating disorder years before, Gruys found herself struggling to maintain a positive self-image as her pending nuptials imposed a new set of impossible beauty standards. She decided to embark on a bold plan for boosting her self-esteem while refocusing her attention on the beautiful world around her…. (In the book) Gruys vows to give up mirrors and other reflective surfaces, relying instead on her friends and her fiancĂ© to help her gauge both her appearance and her outlook on life. The result? A renewed focus on what truly matters, regardless of smeared makeup, crooked eyebrows, or messy hair.”[1] 
But this is not the only one.  A few years ago there was the blogger Julia Powell who spent a year cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, in a period of 365 days. Her blog then became a book: Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, which of course was then made into a movie: Julie and Julia starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Julia Childs. 
Following a more religious perspective, there is A.J. Jacobs: A Year of Living Biblically where the author attempted to follow the Bible as literally as possible.  All I have to say about it, is the man is blessed with an incredibly understanding wife.
And for those of you Georgia fans (the state not the football team) out there, there is the book My Jesus Year by Benyamin Cohen. Cohen, who is the son of an Orthodox Rabbi, over the course of 52 weeks, attended any number of various Christian worship experiences in order to find his way back home.  One of my favorite chapters was the one entitled, “Wrestling with God.”  It was all about Cohen’s experience with a congregation called, “Ultimate Christian Wrestling.” 
As Cohen explains, the UCW creator Rob Adonis told him that he “started to piece together a show that would serve the purpose of entertaining, educating, and most important, ministering to the world…
Yes to the world.  Just about everything connected with UCW is referred to on a grand scale.  Titles like ‘World Heavyweight Champion’ are bestowed upon its athletes, and the matches are ambitiously called ‘crusades.’  Giving such bold names to these seemingly mundane matches is just one of the many reasons Adonis is so successful.  If there were just wrestling, it wouldn’t be so vital.  But those in attendance at … (the) event really feel they are watching soldiers of God on a mission.  A battle between good and evil, a veritable Passion play for the hillbilly set.”[2]
What all of these bloggers and authors and movies have in common is not that they tried something for a year, for 365 days for 52 weeks, but that they really committed themselves to their explorations: be it of cuisine, love, self-esteem, themselves, or in Cohen and Jacob’s case: God.
The other thing these authors also all have in common is that their journeys led them to conclusions they were not expecting.  As Benyamin Cohen wrote, “He drank from the trial-sized cups of Christianity.  He is, by no stretch of the imagination, an expert in each denomination – but he can tell you what each tastes like.  And this caffeine-induced rush of religion awakened him to the many paths we all follow toward faith.
Cohen learned that God can be found in the unlikeliest of places.  He learned not to judge others.  He learned that people of faith have more similarities than differences.  He learned that the first step is always the hardest.  The many lessons he’s learned … have already started to help him become a more serious Jew, someone who looks to religion not as a burden, but as a source of hope.  And when his faith occasionally wanes, as it does for all of us, he can draw on these experiences to bolster himself.”
As Cohen goes on to say, “At the end of the day, he just wanted to be the Jew he always knew he could be, one who’s jazzed about his Judaism.  But he had to choose it.  He had to make it his own.  He had to find his way back to the synagogue of his youth.  He had to find his way back home.”[3]
            As we know, there are many religious pathways to God.  Whenever I discuss world religions with my confirmands, I begin with a simple question: name a religion.  Inevitably they end up naming a whole multitude.  Some are monotheistic, some are polytheistic.  Some are new and some are very very old.  But each is an attempt by its founders, leaders, and followers, to build a connection to God.  As a very small minority, yes even here in Baltimore, we Jews are acutely aware of how many different religious traditions are out there. But what you might not be aware of is that even within our own religious tradition, there are many pathways to God.
But as Jews, we are very reluctant to even try to walk down one of these paths.  Or as a Jewish Times article stated: Why Don’t Jews like to Pray?  As the article goes on to state, “Perhaps it is because we struggle with a belief in God; a 2006 Harris Poll Survey of Religion found that 12 percent of Jewish respondents claim they don’t believe in God.  Another 24 percent weren’t sure (the highest statistic of all identified religious groups … (and) maybe we think our prayers don’t do any good.”[4]
Or perhaps we are reluctant to walk one of the myriad of pathways because of the lure of modernity.  Science and personal autonomy seem to have more answers for us than our religion.  Our religion is outdated and irrelevant for what is going on in our lives.
However, as a religious leader, we are all too quick to blame our followers for this, when it is quite possible that it represents more a failure of our movement as a whole.  As Professor Eugene Borowitz explains, “Liberal religion, which preached accommodation to the culture as its new messianism, must share in this indictment of our culture.  It once seemed so obvious that autonomous moderns would make a place for religion in their lives if we modernized our old rites and made self-commending what God’s will once imposed upon us.  As long as liberalism emancipated us from the tyranny of old orthodoxies, its innovativeness elicited enthusiasm.  But as a once repressive culture advanced to permissivism, freedom became more our problem than our redemption.  ‘Why not?’ became a terrifying opening self-destruction and social rot.  The apostles of change and adaptation found themselves with nothing independent to say about the limits that would keep us from joining society’s onward rush into amorality.  Rationalism and science, the two great mentors that we thought would be the basis of ennoblement, lost their mythic authority.  We discovered that they reinforced relativism more than they specified enduring values.  And by substituting personal growth or self-fulfillment for God’s revelation, liberal religion now looked to be only another social agency eating away at our faith in high standards for human responsibility.”[5]
By trying to integrate religion so completely with modernism, the end result was that we have instead of validating modernism, we’ve somehow managed to undermine our religion.  And by undermining our religion, we have also undermined our sense of community, our common sense of purpose.  This common goal is towards the betterment of ourselves as individuals, the betterment of our social circles, the betterment of our communities, and ultimately the tikun, the repair of the world entire.  We cannot do it alone, it is a collaborative effort.  This is in part why we, as Jews, pray together, as individuals.
But talk of modernity aside, when it comes to faith, I think the key mistake we make in all of this is the notion that we human beings act rationally.  It is only others who are irrational.  And therefore, if we are rational, our religion must be rational as well.
And yet study after study demonstrate that we are not the rational creatures we would believe ourselves to be.  Studies now show that 77% of our daily decision-making is driven by emotion.[6]  What that means is that a little over 7 out of every 10 decisions we make are not rational.  Instead, we act in ways that defy logic and common sense all the time.  As is often the case, we justify our decisions only after we’ve made them.  There are an increasing number of fields dedicated to this decision making process both in psychology and in economics. 
One example of this is in the advertising world.  “Ask anyone whether they pay attention to advertising, and they will say no. They will tell you that they ignore the claims that brands make in advertising. That is true up until they make a decision to buy the brand, then, provided the brand lives up to their expectations, suddenly the claim becomes a belief. So let’s not forget the power of advertising claims to justify a purchase decision after the event, even if they are discounted beforehand.”[7]
And if that is true of our decision making process, just imagine how much more of our daily existence is not as entirely rational as we would like to believe.
Yet, if we expect our religious traditions to be rational, when we ourselves are not, we are doing a disservice to our tradition.  Therefore any truly meaningful conversation about pathways to God starts with a simple statement:  Faith is not a rational act.
Therefore, the first step, one might argue is to accept that faith and belief come from a place that is both above and beyond.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel articulates in his accumulated work Between God and Man, “There are moments in which, to use a Talmudic phrase, heaven and earth kiss each other; in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known opening a vision of what is eternal in time.  Some of us have at least once experienced the momentous realness of God.  Some of us have at least caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him.  There may come a moment like a thunder in the soul, when man is not only aided, not only guided by God’s mysterious hand, but also taught how to aid, how to guide other beings.”[8]
If there are many pathways to God in our tradition, and faith is not necessarily a rational act, where does that leave us?  As we started our conversation, it leaves us with the opportunity to either continue or begin our own spiritual quest, be it over the course of today, or the month of Tishrei, or over an entire year, or perhaps even longer to explore and search.
Admittedly the term spirituality is thrown around a lot.  One phrase I hear quite often is, “Rabbi, I am not a religious person, I’m a spiritual person.”  I have struggled for years with what exactly this means.  As I have come to understand, it means that they, who say this, are not sure if they believe in God, and if they do, it is certainly not the vision of a man with a long white beard watching everything that we do, and knowing everything that we do, while selectively choosing to intervene in history, and sometimes in sports.
And it means that the traditions, rites, acts, of religious communities have become to them, irrelevant and insignificant.  But it also means, quite often, that they have not found anything in their lives to replace it with on a comparable level.
For them and for us we need to acknowledge there is something greater than us.  How we want to define that, I will leave up to each of you.  For the human experience, the Jewish experience has almost always been framed in the narrative of the individual within the community.  There is a collective endeavor we are all a part of.  What drives this endeavor is the the idea of: we are all part of something greater.
If we can acknowledge that, then we can certainly feel comfortable with the concept that we don’t know everything.   And in today’s world, do we not know everything, but we are all reaching levels of incompetency at faster and faster rates.  And this is not to be derogatory or insulting.
I used to know a tremendous amount about computers.  Back in college I had a 386 machine that I could take apart, and even program to some degree.  Nowadays, aside from upgrading the RAM in my laptop, I couldn’t even dream of explaining most of what our modern technologies can do today, let alone how they do it.
If this is true of technology, so it must also be true of the world as well.  Yes science uncovers new facts all the time, but new truths are and will remain elusive.
Which leads us to our third point, to have a genuine spiritual connection means both becoming fully engaged and letting go.  By becoming fully engaged means to find an entryway of meaning.  For some this is Torah Study.  For others this is worship.  For others it can mean Jewish mysticism or a thousand other ways to uncover the sparks of the Divine in our world.
Seeking takes a lot more energy and work than rejecting.  In many ways this is what Kol Nidre is all about.  It is about re-engaging in the journey towards discovery.  Discovery of self, discovery of others, and discovery of meaning. 
And we have to be willing to let go.  Kjerstin Gruys had to be willing to let go of looking at herself in a mirror in order to find her own inner beauty.  Julie Powell had to let go of her fear of cooking in order to find her inner chef.  Benyamin Cohen had to let go of his Judaism, not something I am advocating by the way, in order to find his way back home.
We need to be able to let go of our preconceived notions of religion, tradition, and the like.  The quest for the spiritual.  The quest for meaning.  The quest for God.  None of these are new.  One can say that our ancient ancestors began to carve the road on which we continue to tread to this very day.  And we don’t even need to write a blog, a book, or a movie to do so.  We can even take more than a year if we would like. In this way, we may not be Living a year of Kol Nidre, but we can certainly incorporate its lessons into our own spiritual lives.  And if we do so, we may find ourselves uncovering aspects of our tradition that can bring meaning, purpose, and joy in ways we may never have imagined.  We just have to be willing to let ourselves get caught up in the journey. 
L’shana Tova



[1] http://www.amazon.com/Mirror-Off-Wall-Learned-Looking/dp/0399160175/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1378761352&sr=1-1&keywords=mirror+mirror+off+the+wall
[2] Cohen, Benyamin, My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith, Harper One, 2008, pg. 119.
[3] Ibid., 246-247
[4] Jewish Times, August 23, 2013 pg. 47.
[5][5] Borowtiz, Eugene, Renewing the Covenant, A Theology for the Postmodern Jew, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1991, pgs. 21-22.
[6] http://www.biworldwide.com/blog/how-people-really-make-decisions-the-irrationality-of-behavioral-economics/
[7] http://www.millwardbrown.com/global/blog/post/2013-04-22/Let-me-justify-that-decision.aspx
[8] Ed., Rothschild, Fritz, Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham J. Heschel, New York, Free Press Paperbacks, 1997, 70.