October 10, 2019
Yom Kippur Appeal 5780
Good evening. It’s a privilege and a pleasure to come together again to this service, in this season, where we take a step forward—together as one community and individually—into these Days of Awe and reflection.
I think by now some of you may have cottoned onto the fact that I’m not originally from these here parts.
The Synagogue I grew up going to in London had many similarities to ours. Next year, like Central’s milestone anniversary this year, my childhood synagogue will celebrates its 180th anniversary of its founding. It has a magnificent sanctuary. It is a flagship congregation of progressive Judaism, helping to set the agenda for British Reform Jewry.
Of course, there are many, many differences that sets Central apart and makes it unique. One distinction of which I am often aware as I sit in services …is a single line of Hebrew…that is inscribed above our ark.
It reads “Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed”… “Know Before Whom You Stand”
Rabbi Salth will be speaking about this charge during these Holy Days. And tonight, I want to reflect briefly upon this simple, profound and challenging commandment as well.
“Know Before Whom You Stand”… It’s one of those dictums that on its face is impossible to achieve.
How are we to ever Know with certainty? For those of us who do not believe in God…for those who believe completely…or for those of us who can bounce back and forth, or are somewhere ambiguous in the middle…none of us can truly know. And if we can’t Know, what’s then the implication of having that commandment in the center of our sanctuary and our vision as we pray?
It’s a challenge I’ve wrestled with, especially when my daughter and I have our not infrequent somewhat animated dialog about her conviction that God does not exist, and what that might mean for her practice of Judaism. Ahhh Teenagers…
But in trying to square that circle, I was reminded of one of the poems that has graced our Yom Kippur Yizkor service.
Entitled Life is a Journey, the first verse says: [[Birth is a beginning…and death a destination…and]] life is a journey from childhood to maturity and youth to age; from ignorance to awareness; and ignorance to Knowing.
Perhaps that is what we strive toward in these Days of Awe….Knowing our regrets for the year past and hopes for the year ahead…our flaws and stumbles but also knowing where we persisted, persevered and proved ourselves – to ourselves.
May this be our time – our season – to mark another year on each of our personal Journeys as well as walking forward through our communal Journey. By doing so, perhaps we will each be better equipped to “Know Before Whom You Stand.”
And in doing so may we connect a little deeper with each other, with our families, friends, and indeed ourselves… may we ask ourselves the searching questions…and resolve to find the answers within us.
And then, through our reflections, prayers and deeds, may we—as my grandmother would admonish me—Stand a little straighter in the year ahead.
Shana Tovah to you and your families…
It happened at an old synagogue in Eastern Europe during Yom Kippur. When the Shema was said, half the congregants stood up and half remained sitting.
Now this was a proper shul. The half that was seated started yelling at those standing to sit down, and the ones standing yelled at the ones sitting to stand up.
The rabbi didn’t know what to do. His congregation suggested that he consult one of the original founders, a housebound 98 year old woman. So, he went to the nursing home with a representative of each faction of the congregation.
The one whose followers stood during Shema said to the founder, “Is the tradition to stand during this prayer?” She answered, “No, that is not the tradition.”
“Aha!” said the other one. “We were right! The tradition must be to sit!” But she answered, “No, that is not the tradition.”
Then the rabbi said to the old woman, “But the congregants fight all the time, yelling at each other about whether to sit or stand.” The woman interrupted, exclaiming, “Now THAT is the tradition!”
When we were last together, at Rosh Hashanah, I talked about the commandment inscribed above our ark – to Know Before Whom You Stand. Rabbi Salth is also sharing his wisdom over these High Holidays.
Tonight, on this Kol Nidre, I would ask us to think about our Synagogue through a different imperative: Know With Whom You Stand.
Look around this sanctuary. We have families representing the magnificent kaleidoscope of modern, Reform Jewish life today. Different backgrounds, upbringings, and family structures. Some raised as Reform Jews; others chose to join later in life. Some can trace our American Jewish ancestry back generations; others may be recent immigrants. Some may meet a traditional definition of a Jewish couple…and others, including me and my fiancée, may proudly stand here as an interfaith family, warmly and fully embraced by our community.
Each of us has a distinct story…and in that combination there is so much strength.
We need the strength that comes from each other.
But we don’t just need to know with whom we stand. We should also Know For What We Stand.
As Central Synagogue, our fundamental mission is to make Judaism vital, relevant, positive, and lasting. We work tirelessly to ensure that the beauty, depth, ethics, and joy of Judaism are brought to life –for our members, and beyond.
First, we create transformative Jewish experiences through continuously renewing how we practice our Judaism. You can see that in the wonderful new prayer books and service we used on Rosh Hashanah…
Or the Live Streaming of worship services that reach thousands each week, spanning over 100 countries, but also importantly including our own members, our college students without access to a vibrant Reform service – like my freshman son…Hi Josh – and homebound seniors, and those living far from a synagogue.
Second, we cultivate stronger relationships between our members through every single program, activity and service we undertake. This focus is what underlies our commitment to employ full-time religious school educators, who provide a stimulating, innovative experience for over 700 enrolled students.
It is what drives our member-led CORE Groups that today bring more than 300 congregants together each year in small groups for deeper connections. It is what is behind the commitment of our volunteers, getting up before dawn, to serve 26,000 breakfasts to the needy last year, or those who go every week to mentor underserved High School Seniors applying to college.
Third, we strive constantly to reach out to, and be inclusive of, members with different backgrounds, political beliefs, and ways of observing. Look at the Center for Exploring Judaism (CEJ), which welcomes anyone – 1,000 people and counting—wishing to explore Jewish life, regardless of background, beliefs or goals for that knowledge. Nearly 90% of the parents who recently completed that program now incorporate Jewish rituals into their homes and for their children.
And finally we recognize we are fortunate to draw on plentiful resources of talent, infrastructure, and a committed and passionate congregation.
So, as that committed and passionate congregation, here’s the part that I think you know was coming. We need you to continue to do all of this— and so much more.
Your support is critical. It enables
• our magnificent clergy to lift us up in worship…
• our exceptional professional staff to keep literally everything about our congregation running – including tonight’s service…
• our team to care for those of us who need desperately to see a friendly face, a supportive hug …
• our children and adults to have their Jewish eyes opened and minds engaged by our educational programs…
• our congregation to take a stand against injustice and wrong…
• and countless other moments large and small where we make Reform Judaism matter.
Please consider giving to Central. Thank you in advance for doing so. And thank you too if this is the year you consider increasing your commitment to us. We appreciate and cherish every single gift of whatever size, because each one represents your commitment to enables us to do more, better, and deeper.
And for those of you watching today online, please know you too can give through our website.
It’s often said that we Jews see history in a linear way – as a silk thread connecting past to present and future.
In this year, our 180th as a community, I would offer that, instead of that thread, our community is like a length of rope – comprising a countless interweaving of individual strands, each layering on top of what went before and connecting to what will be. That intertwining makes a rope strong and powerful. But a rope can also fray if we don’t care for it.
As inheritors of the past, present-day stewards, and guardians of the future, on this Yom Kippur, let us Know with Whom We Stand, and For What We Stand, and take comfort, inspiration and hope for the year to come.
G’mar Ch’atimah Tovah—may you and yours be inscribed for a good year.
And thank you.
Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.