The Inspiration We Need – Kol Nidrei 2016

Kol Nidrei | October 11, 2016

Shanah Tovah.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since we last gathered together on this occasion. We have each grown, we have each changed, we have each encountered many new experiences. It’s been a big year for me filled with many highlights. I suppose getting married has to take the top spot on that list, it is kind of a big deal. But coming in just behind that on my list, more of a 1A than a 2, was definitely my appearance on Sports Jeopardy.

While there were many highlights from my time on the show, and yes, the winnings were nice too, one of the top moments for me was having the opportunity to meet the host Dan Patrick. If you’re unfamiliar, Patrick is a long-time sports media personality with a lot of years at ESPN and now hosts his own national radio show. As someone who grew up during the golden age of ESPN, when SportsCenter was “The Big Show,” and having worked in sports media for a few years myself, Patrick is someone I have long admired. He is always relaxed, smooth, calm, and never flustered. His dry sense of humor carries him through serious on-air interviews, and the many funny moments and outtakes.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have moments where I imagined myself doing his role, channeling my “Inner-DP” here on the Bimah. And let’s be honest, are our roles so different? We each stand behind a podium narrating the progress, making sure to keep things moving as planned, with the right people in the right places at the right time. We each have tight time constraints, him because he can’t outrun the network clock, and me because I can’t commit the great sin of keeping people from Kiddish too long (well, not on Yom Kippur I suppose). Both of us try to stay calm and relaxed, organized and prepared. And we each have hidden behind our podiums, endless papers and notes helping us make sure we have all the information we’ll need. So really, are our roles that different?

The answer, I realized after some reflection, is a definitive yes. Our roles are incredibly different. As much as I might fantasize, when I’m standing here on the Bimah, I’m not hosting the TV show of Shabbat and Holiday services, I am a rabbi, leading a congregation in study, in prayer, and in inspiration. Yes, I do have to keep us all moving and get us to the right pages at the right time, yes I want to appear relaxed, confident, and calm, yes I want to effortlessly look down at my notes, spreadsheets, and books, and come up with the right information, but more often what I really want to do is this.

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via GIPHY

Focusing on the “production details” of the service, is time consuming, challenging and distracting. I realize the details of maintaining the flow of the service are important, which is why we take it upon ourselves in this role so that you don’t have to. But at the same time, when I do focus so much on the “hosting duties,” staying smooth and keeping the show going, it’s so hard to concentrate, to pray, and to find inspiration. And if I’m not inspired during our services, how can I expect anyone else to be? How can I inspire others if I can’t inspire myself?

Inspiration. It’s something we talk about often, but do we ever really think about it. There are entire industries of inspirational speakers, books, quotes, posters and wall-calendars. But what is it really? The dictionary says it’s “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something,” but what is it we want to feel? Many of us say “we know it when we feel it.” It’s more of an “indescribable feeling.” For some it comes during our prayers, our community gathering together to celebrate and reflect. For others it comes in reading a book or watching a movie. We all have our own sources of inspiration and it’s likely that no two of us share the same ones.

So, What inspires me? Yes, I have my fair share of quotes, songs, and movie scenes, but these are just for the small moments, when I need that quick pick-me-up. But for those big moments, the times when I need serious reflection, I look elsewhere. Mainly to three areas – to the natural world, to our sacred traditions and texts, and to those people who impact our lives.

You may remember the words I shared with you on this occasion last year, speaking about the inspiration I find from the world around us, and the space above us. I’ve since learned this is true for many others in our community. Not necessarily the space part, but still finding that inspiration from the natural world. There are many who feel inspired by a hike through the woods, a morning on the beach, or simply the clouds in the sky. One of the great theologians of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was often fond of speaking about “radical amazement.” “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” he said. “To get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.  Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.  To be spiritual is to be amazed.” For many of us that amazement, that inspiration comes from the natural world around us.

I experienced this myself in a new way this past summer when Naomi and I traveled to Wyoming for our vacation. Yes, Wyoming. We visited the rolling hills of Jackson Hole and spent time in two National Parks, the Grand Tetons and the original National Park, Yellowstone. We hiked through forests, mountains, alongside streams and lakes, and ran into our fair share of bison along the way. While each of these sites brought along the beauty and majesty of nature, there was one site in particular where I felt most inspired.

Aside from its rolling valleys and dense forests, Yellowstone is the Geyser capital of the world. Watching Old Faithful blow about every 80 minutes brings with it a fair share of radical amazement, but geysers like this one are only one of the types of thermal features in the park. There are also hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles that dot the landscape. Without getting into specifics, each of them is a slightly different way of the earth’s volcanic forces coming to the surface. Yes, the hot lava bed that lies beneath the surface, interacting with steam and water on their way up.

There is a b’rachah we say upon seeing unique sites in nature – lightning, mountains, a beautiful view. ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוקינו מלך העולם, עושה מעשה בראשית – Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who performs the wonders of creation. When I saw those thermal features in Yellowstone, I could not help but think of this blessing. Staring into a cave called the “Dragon’s Mouth,” a cave that spits out water, steam, sulfur, and loud gurgling sounds as it leads deep down into the earth, I found myself thinking, these are the literal forces of creation – the exact forces that formed the earth and shaped it into the planet we live on today.

Oftentimes when I say the words of various berachot, I do so more out of habit, or tradition than anything. I don’t often think about the literal words as I say them. But in that moment, witnessing the forces of creation firsthand, I realized the Truth our blessings are capable of leading us to. That the wisdom of our tradition is being connected to the world around us, so that one might help us recognize the other.

In a similar manner, our sacred texts and traditions, have a way of sharing just the right message at just the right time. One of those moments will happen for me tomorrow morning. Just prior to beginning the Musaf service, Hazzan Holzer will chant the words הנני העני ממעש – “Here I am, empty of deeds, in turmoil, afraid with the fear of that One who sits enthroned on the praises of Israel.” It’s a private meditation said by the Hazzan expressing the inadequacy anyone may feel, not simply standing before God in prayer, but doing so on behalf of others. It’s a prayer of humility that is said prior to going before God in our most intimate moments of prayer.

And even though we are nervous our prayers will not be heard and accepted, even though we are unsure of our fate for the year ahead, we express our confidence that we are ready for this task, for this sacred obligation, and we do so with one word – הנני – here I am. This one word is a powerful statement. It’s the ultimate human response to the call of God. It’s the word used by Abraham at the beginning of the Binding of Isaac, it’s the word used by Moses when God appeared to him in the Burning Bush, and it’s the word used by our prophets Samuel and Isaiah when God first calls out to them with their sacred work.

There is a beautiful teaching about this one word and this sacred prayer from Rabbi Chaim of Volozhyn, a great rabbi in Poland in the late 1700’s. He was a student of the Vilna Gaon and his descendants include the Soloveichik family of rabbis and even Shimon Peres, Z”L. Reb Chaim teaches:

“At the beginning of the human story God called to Adam and Eve in Eden, “Where are you?” – איכה? (Gen 3:9). So He has done ever since: He calls to each of us, here where we are, this person, in this situation, at this time, saying there is an act only you can do, a situation only you can address, a moment that, if not seized, may never come again… There is an act only we can do, and only at this time, and that is our task. The sum of these tasks is the meaning of our life, the purpose of our existence, the story we are called on to write. God’s call is almost inaudible. It speaks in “a still, small voice” a קול דממה דקה (1 Kings 19:12) meaning a voice we can only hear if we are listening. But it is there, and if, from time to time throughout our lives, we create a silence in the soul, we will hear it.

“Our lives, offered in faith and trust, are the answer to God’s question. There is no life without a task, no person without a talent, no place without a fragment of God’s light waiting to be discovered and redeemed, no situation without its possibility of sanctification, no moment without its call. It may take a lifetime to learn how to find these things, but once we learn, we realize in retrospect that all it ever took was the ability to listen. When God calls, He whispers out our name – and the greatest reply is simply Hineni, “Here I am,” ready to heed Your call, to mend a fragment of Your all-too-broken world.

“Let nobody in Israel ask himself: what am I, and what can my humble acts achieve in this world? Let him rather understand this… not one detail of his acts, his words, and his thoughts is ever lost. Each one leads back to its origin where it takes effect in the height of heights.” (Koren Yom Kippur Mahzor, 770-771)

What Reb Chaim teaches is that our texts and our God call out to us. That God is there calling us in a still, small voice, and it is upon us to find a way of listening, to make the most of this opportunity, to not throw away our shot. To be able to answer Hineni, here I am, when our moment comes.

For all the times I find myself in difficult moments, the tasks that feel more gameshow-like and less rabbinic, the times when I find myself without the inspiration for our sacred work, I try to remind myself of this one word – Hineni. That I am here, that I am trying to listen for that still, small voice, to know that God is there working through me to inspire myself and hopefully others. I’ll admit, it’s difficult sometimes. Finding the holiness in spreadsheets, in emails, in calendars, but it is in these moments in particular when I need the inspiration more than any other. And it is in these moments that I look for that inspiration in our texts and traditions, in our ability to answer the Hineni calls, and also in my third source of inspiration, in the people who have answered their own calls and inspire others to do the same.

If I asked you to think of a few inspirational people right now you might come up with a list of statesmen, peacemakers, athletes, celebrities, maybe people from the present day, maybe people from history. There would undoubtedly be many names we’d recognize, but besides these, who are the people near to us, the ones we see in person? How do they leave an impact?

I find that I am sometimes inspired most by people who’s names I don’t even know. There was the guest speaker who, during staff-training at my first summer on staff at Camp Ramah in the Poconos 15 years ago, taught me that just because I’m having a difficult day, it doesn’t mean the next camper deserves any less of my time and energy. There was the anonymous pilot in the Atlanta airport, who after his own flight was canceled stranding him for the night, spent the next hour helping passengers use the computer rebooking center, making sure they each had a place to spend the night and a flight the next day. There was my neighbor, who suggested to me on Thursday night that our cars were parked in a prime tree-falling area so we should consider parking them elsewhere during the hurricane. And there were the rest of the neighbors, who when a tree did fall in that spot, came out with their gloves and chainsaws to remove the tree within an hour. Each of these people had their moment to impact the people around them, and each was ready, calling out Hineni.

These are the people who inspired me. Who are the people who inspire you? Think about who has inspired you this week? This month? What are the moments that inspired you since last time we observed this occasion together? What inspired you to answer the call – to say Hineini, here I am, ready to make a difference?

These days we are too often caught up with the many negative and scary things we see in the news. People being killed because of the color of their skin, the person they love, the God they pray to, or the country they live in. Leadership spouting hateful name-calling or being more interested in their own welfare than their country’s. With all of this hate filling our world is it any wonder we struggle to find hope or to be optimistic? Is there a way for us to see through all of these challenges, all of these dark clouds that block our view?

This is why we need our inspiration. To remind us that the night is always darkest before the dawn. To show us that even after a hurricane, there is a sunny day. It’s times like these that we have to find inspiration. Whether that comes from the world around us, the people around us, or our tradition, we need this inspiration now more than ever.

I’ll admit that in the past few weeks, this has been particularly difficult for me. The weeks leading up to the Holidays are always busy and stressful for rabbis, partly because we may be more focused on the form than the function – more focused on things running smoothly than on the messages we teach. But this year in particular, as I continue to learn the ebbs and flows of rabbinic life, I have struggled more than I’d like to admit, to find the inspiration that I need, that we all need.

Thankfully, on the advice of friends, colleagues, and teachers I have sought to find the things that inspire me, so that I might have a chance of inspiring you. And yes, I have found inspiration in the places I’ve gone and the people I’ve met, but there is one piece of our tradition, one particular text that I always return to for my own inspiration. It’s from a section of the Talmud that details what particular rabbis prayed for at the conclusion of their Amidah. It’s also the text that was used as a blessing at my rabbinic ordination, and again as a blessing as I stood under the Chuppah on this very spot.

“May you live to see your world fulfilled,

May your destiny be for worlds still to come,

And may you trust in generations past and yet to be.

May your heart be filled with intuition

and your words be filled with insight.

May songs of praise ever be upon your tongue

and your vision be on a straight path before you.

May your eyes shine with the light of holy words

and your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.

May your lips speak wisdom

and your fulfillment be in righteousness

even as you ever yearn to hear the words

of the Holy Ancient One of Old.” (Berachot 17a)

I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I will never be Dan Patrick. The gifts he has, the smoothness, the recall, the hair, are simply not the gifts I was blessed with. But I also realized the people I see on TV are not perfect either. They can stop the camera and try again. On the Bimah we don’t have that option, so we won’t always be perfect. Now as we stand on the brink of Yom Kippur, I ask for your forgiveness. Please forgive me if I stumble a little bit while announcing a page. Please forgive me if I have to double check my notes before leading us in the next reading. Please forgive me if we end a few minutes early, or even, a few minutes late. I hope you won’t worry about these, so that I also don’t have to worry about these, and can instead focus on being present for myself and our community. In these moments I appreciate the gifts I have received. The opportunity to teach and to share, the privilege in leading you not in a show, but in prayer. It’s taken me some time, but I now realize that these gifts are far more valuable, far more meaningful, and far, far, more inspirational than those I saw on TV.

The inspiration I have found in all these areas has helped me during my own challenging moments and I hope they can help you find your own inspiration too. Whether that comes for you from nature, from our tradition, or from somewhere else entirely, I hope that it does come from somewhere. In the year ahead I pray that all of us can find the inspiration we need, so that we all may live to see our worlds fulfilled, our hearts filled with intuition, and our words filled with insight.

Shanah Tovah.