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October 11, 2016

Yom Kippur Appeal 5777

Abigail Pogrebin

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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Rabbi Plaskow of Jupiter, Florida, refuses to miss his regular Wednesday golf game – even when, on one particular year, it falls on Yom Kippur.  After the morning service, he sneaks off to the golf course by himself, sets up at the first tee, swings his driver – hole in one. Walks to the next hole – smacks the ball clean in the air…BAM! Hole in one again. Third hole: same thing.  Moses, who is watching this from heaven, appalled, turns to God and says, “God! Plaskow is playing golf on the holiest day of the year!  How can you be rewarding him with the best game of his life?!” With a shake of the head, God offers a bemused smile. “Reward? What reward? Who’s he gonna tell?”

The more I tried to improve my golf game this past summer (which, if you ask my loving husband, Dave, did not happen), the more it occurred to me that atonement is like golf: You want to be better. You’re often missing the mark. Sometimes, you take a mulligan (which, for those of you who don’t play, is a do-over). Sometimes, you get the shot just right. But, more often, you beat yourself up for your mistakes. And yet – you keep getting back on that golf course. To me, that’s Yom Kippur in a nutshell: resolve to improve, fall short, try again.

The more serious message of this holiday is that you might not get infinite mulligans, so live a life you can stand by…right now. For me personally, that’s less maudlin then it is motivational. The Yom Kippur liturgy asks us to look hard at our priorities. Central Synagogue helps us crystallize them.

One of the most poignant aspects of my role as president is that I receive an email from our clergy every time we lose someone in our community – sometimes as many as five in one week. It alters one’s perspective: to hear about congregants, or relatives of congregants, who have passed away: a parent, a brother, a spouse, a child. Their empty seats in our sanctuary don’t just personalize Yom Kippur’s Unetane tokef prayer – “Who will live and Who will die.” They have also given me a window into Central’s profound pastoral care.  It is humbling to realize how often one of our clergy sits at a bedside – in a hospital, hospice, or living room, easing someone’s final days… to witness the hours they spend with the family before the funeral –  collecting stories, helping talk through the sadness (and often shock) of bereavement. Theirs is a sacred assignment, which they meet with unfailing sensitivity, attentiveness, and grace.

And just as our clergy and staff drop everything to tend to our pain, they are equally alert to – I’d argue essential to – our celebrations.  They are makers of memory, creating moments that become the most indelible snapshots of our lives: the nursery school toddlers blessing their first challah. The bat mitzvah girl chanting Torah with assurance at this podium. The confirmation teenagers standing proudly in their white robes. The weddings under beautiful chuppahs, conversion ceremonies where our rabbis welcome new Jews, and the baby-namings at the ark when our tiniest congregants are raised aloft like Simba in “The Lion King.” Whenever I see our rabbis take a prayer shawl and enfold a marrying couple, a pair of new parents or a bat mitzvah boy, I think, That’s it – that’s what this place does: Central wraps its arms around us. This synagogue says over and over again, ‘You’re part of this family, and we’re going to see you through it all, from birth to burial, the simchas and the sorrows.  We will be with you.’

In this day and age of endless choices, distractions – and a glut of content that can make our heads spin – one could ask, Who has time for synagogue?  But it’s precisely because of all that noise that we turn to this place – to find peace, connection and meaning away from the fray. To help explain to our children why we light candles every Friday night, or make a sandwich for a person who lives on the street, or pay a shiva call.  All of you reaffirm – year after year, with your hearts, your time and yes, your resources – that indeed, we’ve got time for synagogue. This synagogue. You have chosen to fortify a temple at a time when so many Jewish institutions are struggling. Your faith in Central signals your faith in the Jewish future at a moment when that identity is being tested not just on college campuses, but around the world.

So on this Kol Nidre, as we prepare for a day of reckoning and reflection, I hope you will make this year’s Yom Kippur appeal one of our strongest. It is your generosity that makes possible every comforting, educational, meaningful thing that happens here. The support we give Central is precisely what allows this synagogue to give so much back to us. Please don’t think any amount is too small…or too large; every gift is a gift.

Central Synagogue helps us keep our compass and find the quiet in the noise. To me, that’s better than any hole in one.

G’mar chatimah tovah – may you be inscribed for a good year. And thank you.