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Rabbi Joey’s Kol Nidrei Drash 5776

September 24, 2015

Erev Kol Nidrei. Yoma, the Aramaic for “The” day. We’re stopped in our tracks. An awful lot of people not eating, sitting in one place, standing together tomorrow for long stretches of time. Think back – as long as you can, to when you first remember people fasting for an entire day. Remember wondering, who was it for? For what purpose? I can remember the faces of the people I saw together only at this one time of the year – all of them in shul … There was only one other occasion I remember seeing some of these same people, aunts, uncles, people much older than me stopped in their tracks … It was when they confronted the sudden loss of someone they loved. They stood huddled together, at a loss for words …

It became the custom at some point in the early Middle Ages, it was in the Rhineland communities, for Jews to associate this white kittel worn on Yom Kippur with the tachrichim, the shrouds worn by the dead. Both experiences – of profound loss and passaging on this, the holiest day of the year, were understood to have a similar power to reunite us with what’s ultimately truthful. I think I’ve always associated Yom Kippur with a coming and a going unlike any other.

On Yom Kippur, the Mishna tells us, we are supposed to follow customs we associate with mourning: we are called upon not only to fast and not to drink, but to refrain from wearing leather shoes, to not bathe or put on perfume, to abstain from lovemaking. We ask ourselves some hard questions tonight and tomorrow.

Although we know that the rabbis wanted to sensitize us to life’s precarious balance, the culture we live in perpetuates a different myth. It pits us against one another, celebrates the triumph of some over the many vulnerable others. So the news that people around the world are forced to flee their homes sets us off, as do the demands by Black people for reparations, or those who warn about a rape culture on campus. These analyses highlight longstanding inequities – systemic aspects of privilege and insularity, yet they are met with demurrals and righteous indignation in the court of public opinion.

A comfortably uncomfortable society issues milder, vaguer forms of protest. In Portland, we imagine that by sprouting ironic facial hair or by distilling our own quality oaked plum brandy, we resist the status quo, the people in power. We have indirect avenues for demonstrating non-compliance and removing the severity of the decree, often by removing ourselves from the pain of what’s going on.

When all is said and done, our culture of material gratification owes much to pre-modern ideas of happiness. I mentioned David Foster Wallace and his book Infinite Jest on Erev Rosh Hashana. He saw this society’s predilection for quick relief as deriving from what nineteenth century German romantics called “Weltschmerz” – the melodramatic experience of “world pain.” Accordingly, our “coolness” to the pain experienced by a turbulent world around us amounts to boredom with it – all of which leaves us feeling more anxious and distressed. We can know precisely where the work is that we need to be doing, and yet we are driven to separate ourselves from it, to wall ourselves off. Thanks to technology, we are data-driven and at the same time data-annihilated. We have never been so aware of what’s happening in the world and yet so anesthetized, though the pain is never totally blocked. As Lucia Berlin writes in one of her short stories, “In the dark night of the soul the liquor stores and bars are closed.”

There’s a real life-and-death story unfolding out there, people at sea, on our borders, seeking refuge, hospitality, shelter from burning metal, blister of sulfur mustard gas, the threats of thieving gangs. It’s a life-and-death story, we realize, about the breakdown of civilization and order: it swirls around us and worries us. We read the description of God tomorrow in the Machzor: L’vochen le’vavot b’Yom Din. L’Goleh Amukot ba-Din. In this piyut (this liturgical poem), God is imagined as one who sees clearly what’s going on outside us at the furthest reaches, and He/She fathoms our innermost machinations at the same time. If we take up our theme of “the heart that hears,” there’s the awareness of a pulse, a heartbeat inside of us that’s the heartbeat of the universe. The world’s narrative is our own – when we recount it, we realize how precious it is to us. Every human story counts.

The midrash puts it in these terms: “When Rabbi Levi ben Sisi died, Abba the father of Samuel gave the eulogy. He said: What was Rabbi Levi like? He offered a parable: It was like a king who had a vineyard and in it were a hundred vines that produced a hundred casks of wine. The vineyard was his prized possession. Over several seasons, the vineyard was reduced to ninety vines … and he made a hundred casks of wine. Then over time, due to inclement weather, he had to make due with eighty. Soon the vineyard was reduced to seventy, and then down to sixty, less than fifty vines. But every year, no matter what, it continued to produce a hundred casks of wine. Finally, the vineyard amounted to this one single vine that was left, and still … it produced one hundred casks of wine. Said the king: Chaveev alay zeh ha-gefen mee-kol pard’sim she-yesh lee. This one vine is dearer to me than all the vineyards which I possess. So it’s the case that the Holy One Blessed Be S/He said: Rabbi Levi was as dear to me as the whole world put together. And, you see, this is what it means that he is gone.”

To let in, to fathom, the loss of this one human being is to grapple with the whole world as we know it … suddenly all gone.

It’s what Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son, when he speaks about the assault on the Black body and uses the term “plunder.” It’s the oil companies’ drive to drill in the Arctic wilderness and it’s the copper mine consortium in Arizona that rewrites laws and threatens Apache sacred sites. Plunder – it’s our lungs having difficulty breathing, when the fires burn out of control and this past summer was hotter than ever before. It’s a prominent automobile company rigging the game with the EPA and consumers across the globe. Plunder – it’s the televised spectacle of Republicans, nearly all men, vying for who can be the most racist and anti-life and invincible. And yes, all of this – in the face of photographs of Syrian men and women and children running for their lives – but it could just as easily be Yemenis or Eritreans or Rohingya or Hondurans or Salvadorans …

When we stop everything tonight on Erev Kol Nidrei, we stop the charade. We come to grips with the totality of things – the “everything in one,” life’s preciousness. We bear witness to the avarice and injury and the complacency. No surprise then that two of the greatest mitzvot we have are to rescue people who are in danger and to escort out those whose waning moments in this life are otherwise spent alone, for us to transact the business of what we call chevrah kadisha. In both cases, we see ourselves standing at the doorway, as it were, and we catch a glimpse of the whole world. There’s the one vine in the vineyard that produces one hundred casks of wine – the most complex, the one whose taste lingers on the palate. This is sacred work. Loving and caring for the human being “on the threshold” – in front of our eyes.

It’s time for us in Havurah Shalom to be taking in a family that is fleeing the violence. We did it once before, when we supported a Cambodian family many years ago. We need to do this again – it will take a team – more than providing the space in someone’s home. There will be many needs, for transportation, vocational assistance, support for kids, food, clothing, translators. We need to be ready as soon as we can offer our help! Let me know if you want to be a part of a team to coordinate this effort. We can be the angels at the doorway. As Psalm 121 says, “God guards your going out and your coming in” – tsayt-cha u’vo-e-cha.

But tonight, I’d like to talk about what we can be doing at the doorway for people on their way out – for the dying – that we are not yet doing. It’s called halvayat ha-met. As I’ve said, this is the mitzvah of providing a loving “escort” on the way out.

The spiritual practices I’m talking about establish us as people who care deeply and presently when all is lost. By lending support when individuals are grappling with the end-stages of life throughout the year, or in the hour of death, our soft voices, our outstretched hands, vibrate with the heartbeat of the universe! The fear that all is gone, torn asunder, can be very great. Certainly, for those of us who have been around for a while and built strong relationships – we’ve been in this vineyard for a while – we can expect that a shiva minyan will gather at our side, people will sit and pray together – they’ll sing and smile. We’ll be able to retell quiet stories about the loved one who has taken leave of us.

However, often it’s the case that the mourning experience is more dislocating than it used to be. We might be new in the community – not know folks who can lend a hand – or we may be unfamiliar with traditions that are loving and caring. We can be at sea. A parent has died on the other side of the country, and there’s the anxious hasty trip and surprises for us on the other end. It’s unexceptional that, upon the death of an elder in the family, we can find ourselves making airlines reservations to and from three destination points – to a place where a loved one lived out her final years, and then on to a place of burial (where the family originally lived), and finally home again. Shouldn’t we still make it a point to reach out as a community? What might it mean for us to create a ritual that marks re-entrance? Did you know that Jewish practice pays special attention to washing the body of the deceased, clothing him or her in the plain white garment, reciting verses from the Song of Songs, asking permission to be there and to let go. Shouldn’t we be paying attention to these things? Shouldn’t we in Havurah Shalom be both a place of refuge and a way station on the way out?

On Shabbat morning, November 14th, we’ll have Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky with us. And for those of you who know and remember Me’irah when she was such a part of our group, she is now someone who has done a great deal of work as a Jewish hospice teacher in the Bay Area – and we ask that you consider joining us in study and learning and thinking into the early afternoon. November 14th – remember that date. We’ll have a potluck and spend a bit of time after lunch talking about how we can take better care of one another.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote: “On a cosmic scale, our life is insignificant, yet this brief period when we appear in the world is the time in which all meaningful questions arise.” He could have been saying this about Yom Kippur. It’s a little more than 24 hours of being together pondering these questions, until the hour we “lock the gates” at Ne’ilah. But we can see ourselves as playing the role of “doorkeepers” all year long. And in that way, we bear witness to those who are coming and those who are leaving – and it connects us to a richer kind of living.
The poet Louise Gluck presents the riddle: “At the end of my suffering/ there was a door. Hear me out: that which you call death/ I remember.”…

Something happened to me since my own father died. When I’m on the phone with one of my daughters and she’s uneasy about something coming up, I might try to comfort her by saying something serious, but a little bit silly at the same time. Then I’ll find myself chuckling. And she’ll say to me very lovingly, “Dad, that was Grandpa’s laugh.” … And I’ll tear up and realize that my father, may he rest in peace, is sharing a private self-effacing joke, leaning over and speaking off the cuff in his own inimitable way to me and giving out a little bit of love the way he did when he was living and we were all together. We are at our best when we take the time, as we do on Yom Kippur, to consider the distance between where we are standing in the here-and-now and “what’s out there” – a distance that we can overcome, if our eyes are open.

Jewish tradition teaches us, on this night of nights, when in the old shuls all the memorial lights were lit up, that we are all in here together. The people we loved and adored who died long ago and only yesterday are in here – and so are tomorrow’s kids. The people of color dislocated because of gentrification and spiraling ever-higher rents are in here with us and so are the undocumented citizens and homeless ones on our street corners who we’d otherwise prefer were invisible. We are walking in circles, eyeing one another in the stories of old, wondering at what point we’ll convene to remake the world – to be One.

See, this is the meaning of that single vine that produces that great wine – Chaveev alay zeh ha-gefen mee-kol pard’sim she-yesh lee. “This one vine – it’s dearer to me than all the vineyards put together.” The vineyards on top of the hill, in the sunshine, the ones down low away from the light – they are all one and the same. Those who occupy executive suites– and the windswept, thirsty ones rowing ashore on a Greek island – we’re all the same. The dear ones we remember on this Day – YOMA – the day – are with us and we are with them.

One vineyard, one vine, one grape. The whole world is here and now.


Following this drash, Havurah member Alicia Jo Rabins sang this song, “Make Me Like the Vine,” which she composed for the service. Read more here about Alicia Jo, her music and teachings, and the course she’s teaching at Havurah on “Women In Torah.”

Sun, January 29 2023 7 Shevat 5783