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Rabbi Joey's Kol Nidrei Drash

Kol Nidrei Drash, 5777/2016

The Last Drash

Rabbi Joey Wolf

            This is likely the last time I’ll give a Kol Nidrei drash for Havurah.  The last drash – my son Simi, said it reminded him of the Last Waltz[1][2].  I appreciate the obvious similarities.

            No, but I am philosophical about it. 

            Look, I’m left with some worries.  This is because I think of myself as religious, but in a contemporary way.  Over the years I have made it a point to let you know that I don’t regard myself as any different from you – we’re all steeped in the same secular, agnostic culture.   And even though I may have had a jump on you, (when I took my first tentative steps on a pathway back to Jewish spiritual practice in my early 20’s), it still seems like it was just yesterday that I set out on this path.

            So I’m amazed – where did the last thirty years go?  It’s been thirty years this coming summer since I landed here with you in Portland – and I wonder what it all adds up to?

            Hineni………  “Here I am.”  Like the chazzanit’s “prayer before the prayer” I disabuse you of the notion that I stand before you with self-confidence.  Eynee ch’day v’hagun l’chach.  I, after all this time, feel “insufficient and unworthy”.  Tonight this will be my confession, as someone who has tried to be a Jewish leader, one who prays and observes.  .  . and still doesn’t feel totally comfortable with the legacy I’m leaving you.

            I wonder, honestly – have I gotten away with something?   I confide that I’ve never had a sure sense of doing this, in the sense of it being a “role”, being a rabbi.  I’ve always seen what I have been doing as an extension of everything else I knew from when I was young.  I’ll explain:  I always saw myself as an interpreter of sorts, going back to my discussions on the fly with grade-school and high school friends.  They’d ask a question about the meaning of a ritual or an idea in the Torah they’d heard about.  They were baffled, sometimes they were joking around, derisive.  But they’d pause and wait to hear what I’d have to say.  We were all secular American, middle class kids.  I went to Hebrew school five times a week and I hated Hebrew school just like they did – I even set records getting kicked out.  I’d say that we were all after the same things that kids are – but there was a space in which I held a fascination, a deep respect, for ancient ideas, somehow, I guess. 

            I used to explain it that I was fortunate to have a few very powerful teachers along the way.  But this fact really doesn’t account for why it is that what these adults had to say resonated for me more than for my friends.  And exactly what was it that resonated?  Ancient poetry?  Injunctions about the good life?  I know there was travail in these words – there was suffering and longing.  And there was a love for our people.  This thing we call ahavat yisrael  (love for the People Israel)– I’ve explained in the past that I learned it from going upstairs to my grandmother’s informal salons.  The living room was full of smart women – there were some men up there too, but they were generally not as smart and less enthusiastic about everything, certainly less loquacious!  We lived in a duplex outside of Boston, so there was an easy kind of comity about it, as guests came and went and felt free to visit downstairs on their way upstairs.

  I learned this Jewish connectedness on Friday nights too around a table, where my father made Kiddush.  We invited family and friends over every week, and I looked forward to coming inside from a fierce competition on the driveway basketball court in the driveway.  (We had this basketball rim mounted to the outside wall of our kitchen, right off the dining room and there was this loud, vibrating sound inside the house whenever the ball was shot.  It must have driven my mother crazy while she was cooking.)  Outside we were at it – knocking one another around, sweating, cursing, some of the best basketball players in town.  But then it grew dark, and we came in for Shabbat.  One or two friends would join the others around the table.  Usually a favorite uncle was there, maybe an aunt, but people, I’ll tell you, we enjoyed having with us.  I was always proud to bring my friends to that table – some were Jewish, some weren’t.  I’ve told the story to some of you before that I have this old friend.  He lives up in Victoria.  Anyway, he wasn’t Jewish and when we were getting ready, after dessert, to head out, he asked my mother, “Mrs. Wolf, would you like me to blow out the candles?”  My mother said, “No, no!” 

            But what I’m saying is that once dinner was over, we did what everybody else was doing.  We were teenagers, off in fast cars to wherever teenagers go to discover “what’s going on”.  (There was never anything much really “going on”, in fact.) 

So today, years later, I feel the same pulls to the culture we live in that you do.  I love rock music and beautiful paintings, nice cars, good wine.  I’m a foodie and I’m a sports junkie.  This is a civilization of trophies and attainment:  we all, to one degree or another, are immersed in it and spend our lifetimes, to whatever extent we can, steering through and away from these modern-day idols that are so ubiquitous and claim our attention.  As we have witnessed in recent days, it’s a crude and disgusting brand of social politics that has hijacked us over time.  It didn’t happen yesterday – it’s been going on for a long time, only it’s out in the open now:  the self-promotion, the mendacity, the thuggery, the misdirection.

            Hineni………. Here I am.  After thirty years – I think it’s possible to say that we, as human beings, tend to look around us and identify with the “things” in our lives, the catch phrases that define us, the slogans, the bumper stickers, the gauges that somehow reflect what we think we know about who we are – despite the fact what we are ephemeral.  And then we raise our children with these signs – they become our surrogate competitors, our indicators of how well we are doing.  We develop their prospectuses, breathe a sigh of relief for everything that works out right, lose a night’s sleep when things go wrong.  We are high rollers, speculators.

            But really – what of us?  Who are we?  What are we capable of accomplishing?  What can we honestly say we have done, when it’s all over?

            This is my worry, whenever you ask me (and I realize for most folks it’s just a conversation-starter most of the time, but still…) when you ask me to size it all up, what it means that I’m retiring as your rabbi.  What has it amounted to?

            I can’t account for it.  It seems like yesterday when I first came here – and expressed surprise and delight, thorough joy at your joy, amazement at your spiritual audacity.  I experienced humility in the face of your honesty, your laughter, your tears.  You were angry too – you would brook no false piety, nor did you for a moment seek to replicate the last generation’s pro forma brand of religious spectatorship. 

            I asked myself:  What kind of rabbi could I / should I be, in the face of your truthfulness?

            There was something else going on here.  You did Torah.  It was a crazy thing.  What I mean is that (and you may not be conscious of this today – you may take it for granted) you have always examined the commentaries.  I still think about it today.  I’d visit you in your homes:  several of you had bookshelves filled with the latest books on Jewish spirituality, inquiries on ancient texts.  It blew me away how you were “right in there” with these things and talked about it all.  And, of course, as all this material has gone online, you are in the thick of it.  It’s the stuff that is often reserved for just rabbis in other places.  Or if it’s not just the rabbis, there is frequently an exclusive clique or a code by which only a few have the rights to teach Torah.  Everyone sits passively, spiritually lobotomized.  But in Havurah Shalom, you taught Torah.  You were passionate about it!  It may not have been perfect Torah; in fact, there have been some pretty screwy things said in our precincts over the years – but you have always been chutzpahdik about it! 

The point is you bought the books and cut a path into the thicket.  And Torah, as you correctly understood it, inspired a transformative vision of the world too.

            And I have wondered, given this, what did I bring?  Eynee ch’day v’hagun l’chach.  I am insufficient and unworthy. 

            I return to my roots.  I’m wondering, at the end of my career, about why I pray?  What makes me religious, and by default – you (supposedly) less religious than me – your rabbi?  How am I supposed to imagine that what I am all about is in some way distinguished from who you are?  Specifically, if I so identify with you, just as I did with my friends growing up (now you are my friends!), so what does all this mean? 

            (Extemporaneous:  I mentioned that some people inevitably ask me, “Joey, where are you going to live?”  I mean, where am I going to live?  What does that mean?  I live here – I’m looking around the room….  YOU are my friends, you are my community.  What am I going to do when I retire – move to Heaven?!)

            Hineni.  .   .  In halachic terms (in Jewish law), this special “prayer before the prayer” before the Amida tomorrow is called a reshut:  it’s a disclaimer!  It’s a way the leader of prayer on behalf of the community gets to ask permission – and to admit something about themselves before launching into this supremely important task. 

And here I am, as I have always been – wondering if I am an impostor? 

            What made me begin to pray?  What impulse led me to become a rabbi, even well before I was on the track?  I can recall going out and buying my own Siddur that would fit in the palm of my hand like a large ocean shell revealing wonders from far out at sea.  I remember buying my first kippah, its colorful embroidered design – I could clip it to a full head of hair, my first “true” tallit that I could wrap myself in.  I remember making the decision to bind my arm and encircle my head with the tefillin – to wear the words of the Shema on a daily basis.  It united me with my ancestors in a visceral way.  I saw a man, a teacher, coming from shul on Shabbat, trudging home, he was very old – and at this point I reflected that I should not forsake him.  Me binding myself in tefillin meant that you didn’t have to be old – you could be new – and put tefillin on!

            Up until that time in my life, Judaism was an “ism” – a set of abstract values, coordinates on GPS – but in no way part of my embodied life.  I kept this “ism” at an arm’s length, because that’s the way all secularists have been taught to “appraise” things they possess.  .  .  But I have been making challah now on Friday mornings for the better part of 45 years.  I like to say I am proud of “creating a total mess”, (Lisa gets out of the kitchen – she can’t stand it), getting the sticky dough on my fingers, and then I clean it up too.  I have been keeping Shabbat, not just remembering it, for about that long.  It’s a part of me.  And I’ve kept sacred time by showing up for a minyan on Shabbat morning for most of that period.  That’s the important thing.  It’s a day of rest.  I’m not running out to the world or doing whatever the rest of the world is doing just because Friday night is over.

            But am I really greatly different from you?  And what is it that I have accomplished in your midst?  I keep returning to that.

            When I was younger, I learned from some important teachers, as I have said – but what did they teach me, or how did their teaching work on me like some kind of magic?  I composed these thoughts and then erased them and then composed them again, as I questioned what I remembered:  I think that I must have heard something deep within me, perceived something ancient and abiding.  I guess that what I cultivated and carefully transmitted to friends was something in the way of a quiet awareness.  The Kotsker Rebbe explains it in a commentary on Moses being Eesh Anav Me’od, a “very modest personality.”  It’s a curious phrase used to describe him.  The Kotsker says that Moses cultivated a kind of patience – a “space”, if you will – for being small.  Again, I am struck by how much of our society has lost its way – how much it is enamored by bloated, arrogant figures who game the system.  They rush headlong into what belongs to others.  They are loud.  They certainly cannot chant a hymn.  They cannot even complete a thought.

But I return to my original question:  I want to test the proposition that there was something – a “space”, a reverberation – that moved me towards Jewish spirituality and learning. . . But what was it?

Clearly, back when I was a kid I learned about the sacred texts, but they were the same ones that others around me either dismissed or forgot about a minute later.  They may have been texts in the Torah or in the Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah.  Later they were poets, maybe Hasidic teachings.  But it wasn’t the texts themselves –  I think that what a few of the especially good teachers did was attune me to what I can only describe as the Timeless Voice resident in this sacred language.  It was the Sound of the Universe, if only we could all open to it.

Just yesterday morning I paid careful attention to the psalm for the second day of the week (you read a specific psalm assigned to the day of the week after Aleynu when you are davenning in the morning)…  So I was reading the psalm for Monday, and, specifically, the last verse “l’ma’an t’sapru l’dor acharon”.  I was startled, because when I was formulating what I’d say to you tonight, I thought of this precious Voice that comes through the generations from long ago in the past.  It’s ancient like the Shofar blast.  But this verse in the psalm teaches us that we have an obligation to channel that voice until “the last generation”.  It’s past and future.  L’dor acharon.  The final generation.

I had one unbelievable teacher my freshman year at Brandeis – I have never had a teacher like him – and everyone who sat around the table remembers the power that held us together in that small seminar room as if it were yesterday.  That’s the Sound of the Universe operating behind the words.  The text on the page danced for me, I can tell you that.  It still does.

            All of this I am revealing to you only months before I retire, because (and many of you know this), “becoming a rabbi” was not ever something I “planned” to do.  I realize this probably sounds idiotic, but even in rabbinical school, I was simply doing what I had always done – studying and transmitting, connecting with this stuff.  When I finished rabbinical school, I was astounded, because the person who “placed” rabbis was the father of my closest friend in rabbinical school (who will come here later in the year to speak), Wolfe Kelman, alav ha-shalom. . . Suddenly, on the phone, he tells me to go to Austin, Texas.  Before I know it, I’m interviewing there and I have a “job”.  I can’t tell you how strange and scary it was for me when people started calling me “Rabbi”.  Or “Ra-bayh” (Texas accent).  I really hadn’t thought much at all about playing a “role”, and it was overwhelming. 

            Hineni….  When I arrived here 6 years later in 1987, I was glad you could call me by my name.  And here in Havurah, I have been doing what I have always done from the beginning.  I’ve been Wondering.  Explaining.  Translating.  Praying.  Seeking.  Chasing the Truth.  And, in turn, representing to the best of my abilities, what I believed was urgent and sacred to you.

            I thought about something else only a couple of nights ago.  You know how the Bereshit stories we read on Rosh Hashana have this leitmotif operating in them – this prominence of the word “to be seen”?  There’s a place that will “be seen”, there’s a well of water that “gets seen” (it’s in a nearby chapter), there’s a sacrificial animal “that will be seen” just in the nick of time.  As readers, we can’t help but feel that the principal characters in the story are on the cusp of being seen too – but, for now, they are undisclosed, especially to themselves. 

Reb Tzadok HaKohen, the great nineteenth century Hasidic teacher, explains that ever since Adam and Eve had misconceived longings for things in the Garden of Eden, (their eyes beheld the fruit on the Tree of Good and Evil and they desired it and it got them in big trouble), our human capacity to see clearly has been impaired, (really seeing things is complicated) and we must rely on hearing – becoming attuned.  So these stories from Bereshit demonstrate that things can only be seen over time.  What is perplexing now can take a lifetime to become clear. 

            In this sense, I have always considered an aspect of my work on your behalf in Havurah, in terms of “being seen” out in the community – in a manner that is consistent with your public commitments to social change. 

This aspect of “being seen”, however, has often left me feeling bereft on a more profound level of us “being seen together right here”.  You know, we are really a precious community – people who glow with one another.  Look around the room.  Nothing has made me happier along the way than introducing you to one another – to be discover powerfulness and this thing called chesed, kindness in a world that is often not that way.  Just to be with one another is holy.

As a person who prays, it would make me happier if we could find a way to “be seen” among ourselves more often – in a deeper way.  It’s what Heschel, ever known for and, in fact, chided by his faculty colleagues at the Seminary, for being out in the streets too much (!), referred to as “depth theology”.  In Heschel’s words, “it’s what happens within a person to bring about faith.”  It precedes all the mirroring in public, the self-promotion, the demonstrations, the vigils, the photo-ops.  It’s about how we become quiet together; it’s the willingness to predispose ourselves towards Eternity – right now and alongside one another.  Often there’s no particular grandeur in this – cultivating spiritual honesty is often an austere and lonely business.  But there’s the beautiful music that arises from within us – music which we in Havurah know something about!  Even when we cannot see it, we hear it moving within us.

            There’s the line from Avinu Malkeynu – we’ll be singing it tomorrow evening at Ne’ilah – that each of us knows.  We say:  Avinu Malkeynu chaneynu va’aneynu kee ayn banu ma’asim.  This might be one of the earliest lines I learned as a little kid, as a Jew.  And since I learned it early on, I was praying it before I learned anything at all about prayer.  Like Hannah, whom we read about in the haftarah on the first day of Rosh Hashana, my lips were moving and much later I found out that what I was doing was called prayer.

What does it say to us?  Avinu Malkeynu – “Our Ancestral Being Reigning Supreme Energy”. . Chaneynu va’aneynu – “Grant us favor and answer us”. . . Kee ayn banu ma’asim – “Because we have no deeds.”  In the end, when all is said and done, we worry that we ourselves are running on empty .  We wonder:  what have we accomplished in the face of what’s new?  Standing at the brink, gazing at the vastness and complexity of the Universe, there’s the feeling we have no substance, no content, no claim.

            On the other hand, Hineni. . .  Maybe this is what I leave to you – the chance not to think about Jewish spirituality in terms of God, of how this or that theology measures up, but of the awareness that we can and must attune ourselves to the proper order of things;  of the knowledge of the depth of the silence around us, the meekness and awe we can experience; of the stirring rest on the seventh day; of the emptying out of greed and covetousness; of the humility and reverence that accompanies the person who is truly glad to be alive.  Of discovering kindness and emulating it again and again.  Of demonstrating hospitality to those who ask to come inside where, after all, they belong to be.  Of stepping aside in the face of the Earth’s clamor, even amidst its most chaotic moments. 

Hineni – in a glimmer we are seenthe world is seen and together we are in the creation story, caring for everything around us, cherishing it – and it has been so good for me to be in this – creating with YOU! 


[1] This was the rock group The Band’s final album, based on a concert they gave together in 1976 – a favorite!

[2] The above footnote was for the benefit of my mother, who certainly heard the music again and again, but may need reminding.

Sun, January 29 2023 7 Shevat 5783