It’s Never Too Late to Turn – Kol Nidre 5779

What is it about Kol Nidre?  Is it the haunting chant?  Is it our memories of parents and grandparents whose somber persona on this night ripples through our core?  Is it the powerful stories our spouses and partners shared with us about their memories?  is it knowing that Jews around the world, on this night enter into sacred space to find some connection with God? Is it just a yearly habit? Even in Israel, a country 80% secular, an eerie respect envelops this hallowed night.  According to Hannah, our March, Israel trip guide, “even secular Israelis go to synagogue, some, even go inside the doors.” Others stay home, but few, betray this night’s solemnity.

Tradition teaches us that Kol Nidre inches us closer to a God who serves as our judge….a God who has the power to determine our destiny… a God who, we pray, will gift us with another year life…and if we can be a bit chutzpadik here…we pray God gifts us with healthy life in this new year. Even if we believe the theological image of a judging God–only for a moment, even if for the other 364 days a year we experience God more distant…even remote…the Noraim—these Days of Awe inject us with a reverence we brush against scarce few times during the rest of the year.  Perhaps, the entire day or for fleeting moments, something within, beckons us to let loose of old habits—allows us to dream and vow greater diligence in the New Year to——-to——each one of us can fill in the blank.

Think about it for the moment.  Each year, like the recitation of Happy Birthday, marking our debut into the world, we stand, Torah Scrolls cloaked in white, the generations of congregational leaders before us. Eli and Cantor Bach imploring God, not once, but three times on our behalf, to annul the vows that we will make and break in the year ahead. How many of us, year after year, offer up the same prayers of repentance that echo our words from the year before?   Some could say, it’s the ‘same old same old’ rhetoric—Kol Nidre is nothing more than a habit…or worse, an obligation.  Is what we pledge here tonight really going to make a difference?  Perhaps, some of us feel Kol Nidre is not for us at all. We are masters of our own fate.  We control our destinies.  We do well enough, enjoy success, health, good family.  Our world is complete.  Perhaps, we are here just to placate our loved one sitting next to us.

Rabbi David Stern, president of the CCAR, our Scholar in Residence in November, wrote the following reflection in our Machzor:  (p.17) “In its emphasis on humility, Kol Nidre provides a corrective to the toxic certainties of polarized discourse.  What if we approached each other with the humility to recognize that our most confident convictions will always be qualified by the limits of our own knowledge and understanding?  In its haunting melody and strangely legalistic language, we begin to sense the twilight truth:  our high horses too often stumble, and our soapboxes stand on shaky ground.  Kol Nidrei grants us the gift of sacred uncertainty:  the chance to begin this new year with a sense of what we do not know, rather than a narrow certainty about what we do. It’s what Buddhists call ‘beginner’s mind.’  What if every time I were ready to proclaim some self-evident truth, I allowed Kol Nidre to whisper in my ear, “Says who?”

Tomorrow afternoon we will hear from three congregants, Sam Koppel, David Smith and Julie Salamon, and their reflection on specific soul-traits. I mentioned soul-traits in my Yom Kippur sermon last year.  Soul-traits, are the human characteristics so integral to our humanity—graciousness, compassion, steadfast love, forgiveness, to mention a few.  Human qualities that must be intentionally honed each day.  And acting from these soul-traits each day is hard work. Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham in his Shnai Luchos Habris wrote:  Correcting one’s defects is the very reason our soul is sent to this world. (On Lev:1:18)  And Maimonides reminds us, “We are each born with a unique mix of abilities, inclinations, circumstances and traits, to correct.”  (Mishneh Torah, Dev. 1:2)

Soul-Traits provide the daily checks and balances needed so desperately in our in our lives…in our world.  If one were to do a rewind of this past year…if we were to scan and count the headlines and news stories containing words of sinat chinam—Words of Baseless hated—discriminating words of anger, arrogance, bigotry, superiority and prejudice.  Venomous words, too often, attached to violent acts of intolerance as well as   racist and antisemitic acts.   Narcissistic, misogynistic hurtful and wicked words—to count the number of references to such words and actions for just one month, would be a daunting and exhausting task.  And it’s everywhere:  in bars, in the streets, on college campuses and in every state of our country, which seems more of a dis-union of States today, than The United States. This toxic venom knows no social or economic, no religious or ethnic distinction.  And we hear words of hate and bigotry from both the elected leaders and self-imposed leaders of the world. We hear inflammatory and provocative words hurled with nuclear force.  Explosive and inciting words that should demand world leaders to cry out in a single chorus:  Ashamnu…Bagadnu…we have sinned…we have transgressed…Confessions, I fear that will never come from their lips.  Leaders, whose egos and narcissism play Russian Roulette with their constituents’ lives.

So where do we turn on this sacred night? Where do we find soul traits illuminating our paths?  Who are the role models who inspire and teach us, that through turning, positive change is possible?  Not unflawed heroes, whose lives were always exemplary, but individuals whose lives new both joy and defeat, and still inspired generations.

In the recent issue of Kesher, I quoted Nelson Mendella who said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”  I can’t imagine those words resonating more today, than for Sherman Scullark.  Can I assume that everyone knows this household name?  For decades, Chicago’s South Side has been a boiling cauldron of violence and racial tension—a tension that in 2016-17, broke all records.  (CNN Ryan Prior, August 17, 2018).  According to a recent CNN article by Ryan Prior, “in the first weekend of August alone, 66 people were shot in Chicago, twelve of them lost their lives.”  Gang wars are epidemic in the windy city—but, not for all.   Many had given up on the Pullman neighborhood due to the relentless violent clashes between two rival gangs:  Risky Road and Maniac Fours. Both gangs’ stray and targeted bullets silenced innocent lives, and the soul traits of compassion, tolerance, and love were buried with the dead.  And then, one day, gang leader Sherman Scullark, “unarmed, walked up to his foes out in the open and he got straight to the point—the 32-year-old was tired of the violence.  It turned out his old enemies were too.  They talked out their differences right on the spot.”  Less than 24 hours later, an unrecognizable peace emerged in the Pullman neighborhood.  Eight months later, with the assistance of corporate sponsors including the Chicago White Sox, the area has a new playground.  Like the rosy ending of West Side Story—the two rival gangs put down their guns and picked up wheelbarrows to build the playground together.  They turned their spears into pruning-hooks and did not teach war anymore.   One gang member reflected, “he hoped kids don’t have to worry about dodging bullets, and none of the nonsense…the playground will come to represent a new direction for the next generation, they ‘won’t have to follow in none of our footsteps.”  “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”  Although Chicago’s south side ruptures with  violence, Sherman Scullark’s demonstration of restraint and forgiveness created shalom bayit-peace within his home neighborhood. One small victory!  Would that world leaders could put aside their own self-interests and egos and do what’s right for their nations.

In addition to Sherman Scullark, I would like to suggest that we can gain inspiration on this Yom Kippur from three Americans, whose lives were diverse, challenged, and lived with integrity.  Lives not perfect by any means, but  indomitable spirits who left the world a better because they once walked this earth.

The first is Fred Rogers.  I must admit, I grew up on Captain Kangaroo and Bozo the Clown.  Mr. Roger’s neighborhood emerged on the scene in 1968—a year that saw a sharp escalation in the Viet Nam War—the year America would witness the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.  I confess on this Kol Nidre eve, I wasn’t enamored with Fred Rogers, not until I saw the documentary on his life, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”  How many here have seen it?  Impressive wasn’t it?  Mr. Roger’s created a safe, fictional neighborhood whose core message was acceptance of and appreciation for each person’s gifts.  His mantra, “I like you just the way you are.”  The take away for me from that movie, was the incredible difference Fred Rogers made in the world. Yes, he dedicated his life to children, understanding their confusion and fears.  Following the 1969 race riots in Washington, New York, Chicago and Detroit, Fred Rogers took on the adult hard-to-grapple with topic of race relations.  The simple gesture of inviting the black policeman, Mr. Clemmons, to cool his black feet next to Mr. Roger’s white feet in a small blow up pool spoke volumes. The visual of black and white, side by side, said it all.  And one day after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Mr. Rogers didn’t miss a beat and ran a special episode dealing with the deaths of both King and Kennedy. Let’s remember, this was the ‘60s when cancer was no referred to as the C word—people didn’t like talking about that which made them uncomfortable.  Fred Rogers didn’t shy away.  But, for me, for us on this holy night, Fred Rogers is our teacher of the difference of one– in his appearance before the Senate Appropriations committee in 1969—when his show and PGS were still in their infancy stages.  This young Presbyterian minister, sat in front of the veteran Senator Joe Pastore, and using the same adult, respectful tone with which Rogers spoke to children, he disarmed the senator, engaged him, gave him goose bumps and solely was responsible for securing $20 million dollars for an at risk-fledgling PBS.  20 million dollars in 1969 is equal today to $139 million dollars of PBS’ $445 million dollar budget. No small change.

And the year before Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood aired and two years before Detroit would be the stage for racial violence, Aretha Franklin re-released Otis Reading’s song, Respect, and the rest is history. In her death last month, Aretha Franklin became larger than life.  She wasn’t idealized in death.  Her life struggles were underscored:  two pregnancies before she was 15, being raised by her single parent, minister father; her battle with depression and drugs.  None of these details was glossed over in the stories released after her death.  And two years before her death, (March 2016) Refinery 29 identified Aretha as one of the women who changed your life. If you’ve ever power-sung Franklin’s version of “Respect” in the shower, she’s changed your life. Besides her effect on everyone’s start-of-the-day confidence levels, the Queen of Soul made multiple historic firsts in the music industry. In 1987, she was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2005, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2010, Rolling Stone listed her as #1 on its list of 100 Greatest Singers, calling Franklin “a gift from God.”  Indeed, Aretha Franklin was an inspiration to generations.  But as much as she inspired with her soulful voice and personal persistence, she is also remembered for her involvement in the fight for civil rights, often accompanying the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement on marches and protests throughout the country.  Rep. John Lewis stated, “If it hadn’t been for Aretha…and others, but particularly Aretha, the Civil Rights Movement would have been a bird without wings,” Lewis says. “She lifted us, and she inspired us.”   (Rolling Stone 8/17/18) And President Obama stated, ““Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade – our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.”  Aretha Franklin embraced the soul traits of compassion, empowerment, determination, love and inspiration.

Perhaps, we can say, it’s easy to look at TV and Music icons for inspiration, but what about more questionable arenas like politics?  Especially politics today—in a country that is sorely divided by a serrated blade of hate and discontent and lack of civility.

When one looks at Senator John McCain’s voting record, Americans across the political spectrum, could highlight votes cast by Senator McCain with which they vehemently agreed and disagreed.  His own colleagues, senators of red, blue or purple persuasion, respected his courage, his patriotism and his heroism.  House speaker, Nancy Pelosi once said of him, “When Sen. John McCain comes to a meeting, they know somebody showed up. He’s a formidable figure, respected globally, and even across the aisle and across the Capitol.”  And 10 years ago, when running for president, the Pew Research Center published the five most frequently used words to describe John McCain:  Old, Patriot, Bush-like, Experienced and Honest.  Let me underscore here Honest—not a soul-trait usually associated with Washington insiders or government officials.  John McCain respected his opponents—nothing bespeaks that fact more than his request, for his two greatest political opponents, George W Bush and Barrack Obama, to deliver the eulogies at his funeral.  Each spoke eloquently.  But it was Henry Kissinger, who captured Senator McCain’s post-death gift and charge to America, in saying,  “John has bestowed on us a much-needed moment of unity and renewed faith in the possibilities of America. Henceforth, the country’s honor is ours to sustain.”  May our country—may those in Washington—honor his legacy and strive to be rodfei shalom—pursuers of wholeness within our borders—may our political divide, like the blue & red stars and stripes on our flag—touch the sacred white stripes of a truce to put asunder the lies, degradation and divide existing in Washington.  May politicians of every color-persuasion find the soul traits of courage, honesty, judgment to bring America back into an orbit of humanity.

For McCain, one’s character is perhaps, a person’s most critical soul trait.  Senator McCain said in his book, Character is Destiny, ““It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy. That is all that really passes for destiny. And you choose it. No one else can give it to you or deny it to you. No rival can steal it from you. And no friend can give it to you. Others can encourage you to make the right choices or discourage you. But you choose.”

Is that not our role here on this hallowed night—to concentrate on what makes us tick….to acknowledge our wrong-doing—to make amends with those whom we have hurt?  News of Senator McCain’s death appeared on my Apple watch while attending the 100th Birthday celebration of Leonard Bernstein, at Tanglewood.  I don’t believe it was mere coincidence—rabbis have that prerogative—that all of us at Tanglewood learned the news of his death on our phones and watches, as the opening lyrics of Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish were being sung.  An appropriate tribute.

Indeed, Henry Kissinger was on target:  even though sadness accompanied the deaths of Aretha Franklin and John McCain, there was an even greater cathartic moment—people across racial, economic and political aisles were united in celebrating and mourning these two icons of mentschlikeit.  No one here this night needs to become a Fred Rogers, Aretha Franklin or John McCain—but we do have the obligation to become the best that we can be.  Perhaps, that will require us to make a course correction while the damage is still fresh, and sometimes it means having the courage to make right, a transgression from the distant path.  Some of us may say—water under the bridge can’t be redirected—it’s too late and the chasm between us and those we’ve offended grows wider and remote each passing second.   We know that our prayers to God for forgiveness will not be heard unless we’ve asked forgiveness from those we have wronged.  And we also know that over the years, many if not all of us have allowed time to wash over our misdeeds, and our words seeking forgiveness never left our lips. Are the doors of teshuvah always open—or is there a statute of limitations on seeking forgiveness?  The following story provides pause and inspiration for us this night.

A few months, ago my colleague, Rabbi Zoe Klein, posted a story on the CCAR Facebook Page.  Let me share an abbreviated retelling of that story.

“In September 1970, Barton’s Continental Chocolate Shop took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. Barton’s Candy was founded in New York by chocolatier Stephen Klein, a Viennese Jewish refugee. Barton’s commissioned Rabbi Klein’s father, James Grashow, to make a print of “Abraham, the first Jew”, for the ad. It was a powerful and beautiful woodcut.

Her father made an edition of one hundred prints, signed and numbered. At the time, he was 27 years old. A Swedish art dealer saw the ad in the newspaper and fell in love with the work. Someone put him in contact with Mr. Grashow and he came to their apartment and wanted to represent him in Europe. Keeping one print for themselves, the Grashows,  with trust and naiveté, gave the art dealer 87 prints.  They never heard from him again.  Mr. Grashow went on to have an incredible career: Prints in the NY Times, the poster for the Centennial celebration at the Statue of Liberty and album covers for Jethro Tull and the Yardbirds are among his accomplishments.

On July 12 of 2017, 47 years later, Mr. Grashow received the following email from Norway:

“Dear Mr. Grashow.

My father was in the art business in the early 70s. He passed away a couple of years ago. Now my mother also passed away, and we found a series of “Abraham” when cleaning out their estate. It’s a series of 100, and we’ve got lots of them.We are three siblings that live in Sweden, Norway and California.  We would love to have your input, and look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,
Cathrine, Christer and Charlotte

The Grashows were stunned and responded back immediately writing:

Hello and thank you for reaching out. This answers a mystery that started 47 years ago. They shared the story and asked if they would send a few prints to him.

The art dealer’s three children, now ages 57, 60 and 62, were mortified. They said that their father had been in the art business for only about three years, and the he had become a minister. They had loved the print. it was framed and hanging over the mantle of their childhood home. When they found the prints, they researched James Grashow on the internet and saw the extent of his work. They had contacted him to find out what they were worth.

The three siblings wanted to return the prints. They made an incredible decision. They wanted to repair their father’s wrongdoing, and they wanted to do it in person. They arranged a date and flew into New York and took a train to Westport, Connecticut. Mr. Grashow met them.

They greeted him with smiles and hugs.  In his studio, they opened the suitcase. Wrapped in a yellow and white quilt was the original cardboard box, and inside were 87 prints. As soon as the box was opened, Rabbi Klein’s mother burst into tears. It was a moment of true, redemptive teshuva. It was a literal “return.”  They shared the day and lunch and they left.  The next morning one son wrote the following : Thank you for a fantastic day together yesterday!. This day will stay in our memories for all our lives and we’re so happy that we were able to correct one of our father’s mistakes.”

These three siblings teach us that it is never too late for teshuvah.  They could have mailed back the prints and the Grashows would have been happy.  To journey to Connecticut with the prints—engage in face to face conversation and repent for their father’s chet—they embodied the soul trait of teshuvah:  acknowledging a wrong-doing, having remorse for the action and making it right—even when it wasn’t your chet to begin with.  Not dissimilar to children of Nazis who still atone for their parents’ sins.  And the Grashows, displayed the soul-traits of gratitude and forgiveness  It was a ‘pay it forward’ teaching moment for all. Indeed, the doors of teshuvah—true return are always open.

And let me return for a moment to wood-cut print of Abraham.  Abraham, the first Jew, didn’t develop a relationship with God when his life was just beginning.  Abraham was 75 when he heard God’s call.  It would have been understandable for him to have said:  Thank you but no thank you, God.  I’m comfortable—I’m not up for a new adventure. But Abraham’s one act of faith, one moment of turning, literally, in a different direction, birthed the Jewish people.

In her post, Rabbi Klein offered a copy of the print to colleagues who would provide an appropriate home.   I quickly responded to her post.  This is print #41, of Mr Grashow’s, Abraham.  It will hang in our synagogue—and each time we walk through the doors and our eyes meet it—let it serve as a precious reminder…that change is always possible….and seeking forgiveness and wholeness, is a year-long –365 day journey.  As Rabbi Stern said, “Kol Nidrei grants us the gift of sacred uncertainty:  the chance to begin this new year with a sense of what we do not know, rather than a narrow certainty about what we do.”  Perhaps, when we least expect it, we will seize the moment, turn anew, make a difference.  Shanah Tovah.