Sep 29, 2009

Kol Nidrei 5770/2009: "Hidden Treasures"

Kol Nidrei 5770/2009: "Hidden Treasures"
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

dedicated in love to the Netivot Shalom Community

Olam Chesed Yibaneh / We will build this world from love.(Ps. 99:3)

Some time ago, my father shared with me a powerful story, a story of a grandfather and a grandson. The grandfather, a traditional Jew, lays on his deathbed and makes a final request of his grandson. The grandson is prepared to create a religious school, give tzedakah - anything his beloved grandfather asks. So when the grandfather asks him to become a scuba diver, the grandson is shocked. He stammers his confusion to his grandfather, who explains:

"When I was on the boat coming over from the Old Country, I remember one picture very clearly: When we all saw the Statue of Liberty come into view, many of those on the decks of the boat threw their tefillin overboard. I want you to become a scuba diver so that you can rescue those pairs of tefillin."

As it turns out, this legend has made the rounds of oral traditions from early Jewish American immigrants to Shoah survivors. It was immortalized within the poetry of early 20th century American Yiddish poet Jacob Glattstein, and later appeared in the novel "In the Image," by Dara Horn. What were those who threw their tefillin overboard thinking?  They had suffered and survived the constriction of their religious freedom, only to abandon the artifacts of their tradition into the American abyss.

My own family's history includes a similar vignette. My father recalls that his grandma Nechama, for whom I was named, gave her Shabbat candlesticks to the American scrap-metal drives of World War I. Years later, when a celebration in my family brought Nechama to shul with my father, he heard her sing along with the Lecha Dodi. And he couldn't understand how someone familiar with tradition could have abandoned those cherished Jewish heirlooms.

And so here we are tonight, our stories right here, in this room, right now, waiting to have their next chapters written.  And we aren't exactly sure what comes next.  But before we focus on what comes next, how about what's next to us - who's next to us?  Do we know each other's dreams?  What are they?  What do we wish for most deeply?  And upon whom should we focus?  Ourselves? Those around us?  Our shul?  Our community?  Our city, our state, our country, our world?  For all of us, the whole world, are in serious need.  Where do we begin?

These questions might be driven by our own deep-sea expeditions, sorting through discarded objects and forgotten pasts, in search of possibilities for faith and purpose and health.   And it is much more complicated for us than a "recovery effort."  We are putting things together in ways our ancestors - perhaps even our parents - might never have imagined in an attempt to make sense of the world. 

Moments like those, of rupture and despair, even when survived, leave an indelible mark on our souls, an imprint on our memories so harsh that it can threaten to darken the future before us.  I had a moment like during our shul's trip to Israel this past summer. 

At Yad Vashem, Israel's living memorial to the Holocaust, my heart was devastated and hasn't really recovered since.  I had been to the rebuilt museum quite a few times, but hadn't worked with the famous names database.  I typed in my own last name, expecting to see a few still unidentified names from the Creditor family who had perished.  I was unprepared for what I found.  There was a page of testimony, submitted in May of 2001 by Ruth Brenner of Tel Aviv, describing the murder of a young man in Turczin Poland with the same name as my son.  I remember the shock, the tightening of my heart, the fear that there was no future.... I remember pouring out my emotions to the group in front of the memorial to Dr. Janusz Korczak, the famous educator who chose to accompany the children from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka instead of abandoning them. 

And as I spoke my own child's name and held the printed page of horrific testimony, I heard my very alive son laugh as he played with other Jewish children nearby.  And I collapsed, unable to bear both the broken-ness and the laughter in the same moment.  My eldest daughter and my son just held me, and gave me back my heart.  While I ask you not to talk to them about this - they'll read about it eventually - I share it with you because I think it represents something bigger, something important for our community.

I wonder how terribly the tefillin-throwers who abandoned the ritual-containers of their past must have suffered to be unable to explore the potential of the future.  I pray our moment cannot be compared with theirs. 

I believe, I hope that we are truly, deeply, prepared to explore our undiscovered futures.

As spiritual communities, we have a wonderful and complex identity, an honest reflection of the many reasons we call our shuls home.  We are visionary and pluralistic shuls, determined to imagine what might come next.  But again, where do we begin?

We are scuba divers, searching the depths, and we are moon-jumpers searching the heights for connection, the very thing that binds us.  The impulse in the midst of an increasingly-isolating world to not be alone.  And that's what it means to be created in the Image of God.  We show up as a community because we know, we pray, that our individual searches don't have to be lonely.   We join as community to together explore for hidden treasures.  That is what comes next - we must write together the next chapters of our dreams.

And we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

-Why are we here?
-Why does our community exist?
-What is the essence of what brings people to our shul?
-What is the fabric that holds us together?

These are big questions.  Ultimate questions for our community.  And, given the amazing opportunity before us with all the newness in the air, what better time is there?  And if we don't dream now, when will we?  When could it be more important?

I seem to remember that I spoke last year of a deep hopelessness, of feeling the burdens of the world weigh down on our shoulders.  Not much has changed.  Just a few days ago, the President of Iran called for Israel's destruction in front of the United Nations General Assembly amidst a growing likelihood that the world will be forced to respond to Iran's nuclear program.  Our burdens have not gotten lighter, not here in Berkeley, not in California, not in our Country, not in Israel, and not in our world. 

But there is something different in the air this year.  I believe, I pray, there is something waiting.  Something good.  Something important.

A legend, told about the remnants of dreams:

"When God decided to create the first Adam, God gathered dust from the four corners of the Earth, rolled it together, mixed it with water, and made red clay. Then God shaped the clay into a lifeless body, the first golem, stretching from one end of the world to the other, and brought it to life. So large was it that God's hand rested upon it. So large was it that the angles mistook it for God, and they wanted to say, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts." So God caused sleep to fall upon him, so that all would know he was but a mortal man.
"While the golem of Adam lay sleeping, God whispered in his ear the secrets of Creation, and showed Adam the righteous of every generation, and the wicked as well, until the time when the dead would be raised. And, as God spoke, Adam witnessed everything as if he were there.
"And later, when Adam did come to life, he dimly remembered all that God had revealed when he was only a golem. And, at night, in his dreams, he still heard God's voice recounting mysteries, and telling of all that would take place in the days to come. In those dreams Adam would travel to those places and see the events firsthand, as a witness.
"And since there is a spark of Adam's soul in every one of his descendants, there are a few in every generation who still hear the voice of God in their dreams. (retold by Howard Schwartz in "Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism," p. 127)"

The definition of a mystic, according to Gershom Scholem, is a person who is "deeply dissatisfied by this world and longs for its peace, yearning for a world that will never be, and who struggles nonetheless for its birth. (adapted)"  Scholem's unsettled mystic is, for me, exactly the reason we are here.  We are, in a certain sense, communities of mystics.  We could just as easily not show up, and yet here we are, looking for something.  Nothing forced us to come, and yet we wouldn't be anywhere else.  We sense, I believe, that by participating in the life of our shul family, we are doing something important.  And we are.

Here are the dreams I believe we affirm by our existence and our commitments as a community:

·         It is possible to be a global citizen and a traditional Jew.
·         It is possible to be a part of an ancient people and also to affirm the place of Krovei Yisrael, non-Jewish members of Jewish families, as full and cherished parts of our Jewish communities.
·         It is possible to be fully anchored in Torah and also to believe and work towards secular and Jewish equal marriage.
·         It is possible to be proud of our many accomplishments and also acknowledge and respond to Jewish Alcoholism and Jewish Domestic Violence.
·         It is possible to have a vibrant Davening life, a strong particularly Jewish identity, and also to pray, eat, and learn with our Muslim and Christian cousins.
·         It is possible to have an unconditional relationship with the State of Israel which includes engaging with opposite viewpoints, listening well and not shouting over.
·         It is possible to start a Jewish journey without fear of being judged for starting the journey later in life.

These are sacred redemptive aspects of our identities as shuls.  There is so much left to do, so much work waiting for us, but as we enter Yom Kippur, the humbling majestic moment of acknowledging our inevitable mortality - let us not miss the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to these much-needed gifts, ones we've labored over and ones which will inspire others as well.

These are far more than the recovery of tefillin - they are acts of spiritual yearning, of authentic Jewish dreaming that is the very heart of sacred community.  Certainly, effort goes hand in hand with every dream, but I believe we build a legacy with every step, every conversation. 

In my family, this happened by reclaiming the legacy of the melted candlesticks and pursuing a Jewish journey.  It happened when my children's laughter pierced my pain.

In our community, this happens when, while we ARE putting on our tefillin and we remember to look around to see who could use some help with theirs.  It happens when we wear badges with smiley-faces because that simple act makes the very difficult decision for some of us to enter a synagogue just a little easier.  It happens when we lower our Shulchanot, our Torah reading tables, so that someone in a wheelchair can see the Torah during their aliyah.  It happens when we don't overlook the founders of our shuls in our excitement to greet someone new.

I believe that our incredible hybrids of Jewish traditionalism and unconditional inclusion are the best Judaism has to offer, that we are committed to pursuing meaning and integrity and that those demand consistent encounter.  We aren't just scuba divers - we are artists, adding our personal and shared vision to a legacy stretching back thousands of years.  Just reflect for a moment about what we're doing right now: fasting, praying, just waiting for that shofar tomorrow night - these are all embodiments of mindful yearning for a better world.

I believe ours are rare and crucial Jewish homes, where Jews, non-Jews, Gay, Straight, Multi-racial, Jews-by-choice - all of us are explicitly recognized and cherished, not just tolerated.  We learn together, support one another, celebrate moments together. We cook for each other.  We bury each other.  We comfort each other.  We are more than communities - we are constantly expanding families. 

I believe we must constantly look not just at but through the windows which make up the boundaries of our sacred homes.  I believe we have an obligation to share our model with others, to continue inviting our Christian and Muslim cousins into our sacred home, so that we can learn together and build a better world.  We've begun that process and musn't stop, for self-isolation leads to the wrong kind of religious passion. 

I believe our dream is basically to live up to this teaching by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, that "a religious person is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."

I ask each of us to dream big this year.  But begin small.  Choose a mitzvah and try it on this year.

Here are three Mitzvah suggestions for body, heart, and spirit:

1)      Body: If Kashrut has been a foreign concept this year, connect with Magen Tzedek, the new initiative of the Conservative Movement, a newly released kashrut certification built upon the commitment to protect workers, animals and the Earth in the production of food.  This ethical-ritual hybrid can inform and inspire your life on a daily basis.  (see

2)      Heart: Be a Malach/Angel of Welcome.  Make an effort to learn someone else's name.  Decide to invite them over for Shabbat dinner.  (Or invite yourself over!)  Don't let Kashrut be an obstacle - there is always a way to work it out.

3)      Spirit: If shul matters in your life but you've been more of an observer recently, find your voice and be a builder of this magnificent dream.  Tap into a Dreaming Process.  Sign up for an Adult Learning opportunities, participate in Social Justice activities.  Let the warmth of a vibrant Davening life touch your soul.  Play Pinochle, Join the band, do something!  Bring something new - be an active part of your sacred home.

This might sound like a message that isn't global enough, or grand and sweeping enough for Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment.

But I believe that our shuls, in all their authentic, intense, egalitarian, participatory, diversity, are purposeful conduits to God.  

I believe that God is more complicated than any object of prayer, more than any one faith, more than any image, and that our community represents an approach to Infinity.  Our way into God, the discrete path known as Conservative Judaism, is a way of connecting to all of humanity.  For if belief in God can be understood as the two affirmations - a) that there is more than me in the world and b) that every individual is infused by a divine spark - then it falls upon each of us to nurture our particular souls to hear the call and act on behalf of every other in the world. Our deepest religious sensibilities as a shul are aligned with our deepest human sensibilities.  And we strengthen those aspirations through everything we do, everything we are.

Yes, that's heavy.  Because I just suggested that every human act can heal, and that therefore each of us carries the burden of the universe on our shoulders in every small action we take.  Here's a story to help us laugh while bearing the burden.

A poor man, gathering sticks of wood in the forest, packs them in a torn sack, throws the sack over his frail shoulders, then stumbles, the sticks scattering to the earth.  Frustrated, the man cries out to God, "This is the last straw! I am poor, my wife is sick, my children are neglected. Send the Angel of Death and let him take me from this earth!" His prayer is promptly answered, and the Angel of Death suddenly appears, asking, "Did you call for me?" Startled, the poor man stammers, "Yes, yes, could you help me gather up these sticks?" (many thanks to Rabbi Yoel Kahn for this story!)

Let's resolve to share the load.  Remember how deeply we dream for the world, and that that's what brings us together in community.  And our purpose is far beyond just showing up - we are here because we are together building a paradigm of spiritual community that needs to be here, that needs to be everywhere.  A non-fundamentalist sacred home.  Just imagine what will happen when word gets out about how good it can be, how the experience of a dreaming community can heal even the paralysis of past nightmares.

So I bless us all, and myself, to nurture our souls!  To Dream!  Because if you are strengthened, your connection with our shuls are strengthened.  And if our shuls are strengthened, then we are positioned much better, as Heschel put it, to suffer together when harm is done to others, and to band together to defy despair.

·         Yes, we are scuba divers.  We recover and restore the glory of our ancient faith.
·         Yes, we are artists.  We invent combinations that didn't exist before we brought them into being.
·         But we are so much more than that.  We are old, young, black, white, straight, gay, single, married, tall and short.
·         We are real communities, with all the human drama and emotionality - and hope - anyone could dream for.

May we remember that everyone around us carry a divine spark.
May you remember that you do too. 
May our sacred communities be strong, legacies for later generations we are blessed to create every day.
May this be a year of connections, of discovery, and of dreaming - for us, and for the world around us.


Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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