Kol Nidre 5782 2021: What does it mean to be a Jew?

 Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation B’nai Israel 

Kol Nidre

September 15, 2021 

When clothing was made by hand, the Rabbi asked the tailor to make a pair of pants in time for the Passover holiday service. Six weeks went by and the Rabbi was getting nervous, since he still had no pants. Two hours before the service the tailor came running with the pants. The Rabbi was happy but told the tailor" G-D made the world in six days and it took you six weeks to make a pair of pants." The tailor replied "Yes, but look at all the problems with the world, and look how perfect your pants are"

Today we wear our kittels, so no one can see how perfectly tailored our pants are!  Today we stand to pray to the Holy One.  We gather to acknowledge our imperfections, to imagine a world filled with redemption, where ALL live in peace.  Yet we know the journey there is not always easy or straightforward.

Rabbi Israel Salanter lived in the 19th century in what is now Lithuania.  He founded the modern Musar movement, an ethical mindfulness movement that encourages us to look internally and to slowly improve our character.  He shared a different story:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family.

Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world.

In true rabbinic fashion I share this story because I only agree with it 50%.  I believe with all my heart that we CAN change this world AND that we need to work to change ourselves.  While there are so many examples that challenge this text, I want to share one personal one.  One of our own community members worked tirelessly in the days leading up to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.  They thought they were just doing what anyone would do, yet their efforts, using their online and human networks, helped to bring a number of individuals to safety.  Partnering with Gulfcoast JFS, which itself is partnered with HIAS, they truly saved lives.

Yet, like so many heroes, they did not recognize the tremendous difference they made!  As a rabbi, I have the privilege of being in the right place at the right time more often than I should.  It is truly an honor to be able to share holy moments with people, yet there is one prayer that always humbles me:

I think of our daily prayers which include this challenge:

רִבּוֹן כָּל הָעוֹלָמִים לֹא עַל צִדְקוֹתֵֽינוּ אֲנַֽחְנוּ מַפִּילִים תַּחֲנוּנֵֽינוּ לְפָנֶֽיךָ כִּי עַל רַחֲמֶֽיךָ הָרַבִּים, מָה אָֽנוּ מֶה חַיֵּֽינוּ מֶה חַסְדֵּֽנוּ, מַה צִּדְקוֹתֵֽינוּ, מַה יְּשׁוּעָתֵֽנוּ,..

אֲבָל אֲנַֽחְנוּ עַמְּ֒ךָ בְּנֵי בְרִיתֶֽךָ, בְּנֵי אַבְרָהָם אֹהַבְךָ שֶׁנִּשְׁבַּֽעְתָּ לּוֹ בְּהַר הַמֹּרִיָּה .

Lord of all the worlds! Not on account of our righteousness do we offer our supplications before You, but on account of Your abundant mercy. What are we? What is our life? What are our acts of kindness? What is our righteousness? What is our deliverance?4

However, we are Your people, children of Your covenant, children of Avraham, Your beloved,8

לְפִיכָךְ אֲנַֽחְנוּ חַיָּבִים לְהוֹדוֹת לְךָ וּלְשַׁבֵּחֲךָ וּלְפָאֶרְךָ וּלְבָרֵךְ וּלְקַדֵּשׁ וְלָֽתֶת־שֶֽׁבַח וְהוֹדָיָה לִשְׁמֶֽךָ: אַשְׁרֵֽינוּ מַה־טּוֹב חֶלְקֵֽנוּ וּמַה־נָּעִים גּוֹרָלֵֽנוּ וּמַה־יָּפָה יְרֻשָּׁתֵֽנוּ: אַשְׁרֵֽינוּ שֶׁאֲנַֽחְנוּ מַשְׁכִּימִים וּמַעֲרִיבִים עֶֽרֶב וָבֹֽקֶר וְאוֹמְ֒רִים פַּעֲמַֽיִם בְּכָל־יוֹם:

Therefore, we are obligated to thank You, to praise You, and to glorify You; to bless, to sanctify, and to offer praise and thanks to Your Name. We are fortunate! How good is our portion! How pleasant is our destiny! How beautiful is our heritage! We are fortunate that we rise early and stay late - morning and evening - and twice daily say:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ יְהֹוָה אֶחָד: “.”

Hear Israel, Adonoy is our God, Adonoy is One

This prayer is a challenge to us.  It takes us down and then brings us up again.  It acknowledges the feeling that many of us have at THIS moment “are we worth it?  Do we merit another year?”  The answer is clear. YES.

You are worth it.  We are worth it.  We have purpose, meaning and drive for the year to come.  Like those perfectly tailored pants, it may take us a little time to discover our meaning, but we are here and ready.

Tomorrow morning, our haftorah from the book of Isaiah has clear demands for us.

58:5. Is this the fast I desire,/A day for men to starve their bodies?/Is it bowing the head like a bulrush/And lying in sackcloth and ashes?/Do you call that a fast,/A day when the LORD is favorable?

58:6. No, THIS is the fast I desire:/To unlock the fetters of wickedness,/And untie the cords of the yoke/To let the oppressed go free;/To break off every yoke.

58:7. It is to share your bread with the hungry,/And to take the wretched poor into your home;/When you see the naked, to clothe him,/And not to ignore your own kin.

This haftorah tells us what it means to be a Jew.  It demands that we take care of one another.  It demands that we stand by one another.  It demands that we help those in need.  On Monday, I received a text saying that more volunteers were needed to help with a Feeding Tampa Bay event organized monthly by the SPPD.  It was absolutely the worst time for me, but I knew I could not deliver this sermon if I said no!

To this day, people wonder what it means to be a Conservative, a Masorti, Jew.  They say, “Reform is social justice, the religion of the prophets.  Orthodoxy is adherence to halacha, to Jewish law.  But what is Conservative?”  

Conservative Judaism is the law and the spirit.  It is celebrating all that is amazing and wonderful with our tradition AND acknowledging that our world does not look exactly like it did 3000 or even 30 years ago.  It is more than “tradition and change.”  It is more than “Emet and Emunah.”  It is authentic, dynamic, passionate Judaism.  It is an acknowledgement that Judaism is greater than the sum of its parts, that our relationships with the Divine may be unique, and that we are better when every Jew has a voice.  When faced with COVID, my colleagues knew that we needed to link together minyanim online--but it was not enough to simply SAY that--we needed sources, traditions, and understanding that there was some precedent for such a radical change.  While the process took significantly longer, the same was true when JTS began admitting female and LGBTQ students in 1985 and 2005, respectively.  It was an evolving process that took into account the halachic, social, and human history of the Jewish people.  It was trying to do the RIGHT thing in the RIGHT way.  

To be a Conservative Jew means to ENGAGE with tradition.  This is what we strive to do at CBI.  It means to participate in Jewish life at home or in shul.  It means to be a part of a community.  It means to help one another when we need assistance, to cry together, to laugh together, to dance together--and before too long, to eat together!

To be a Jew means to be connected to God, Torah and Israel.  As a Conservative Jew, we wrestle with all three of those concepts.  For some, God is an active participant in our lives, someone we speak to regularly and even accept answers from.  To others, God is the good we do, envisioning a far less theistic answer.  Torah can be defined expansively or narrowly, yet we know that it is the wisdom of the Jewish people, the wisdom of the Divine and the way we live our lives.  Israel is the land and the people.  It is all of us AND the holy place we call our eternal homeland.  To be a Conservative Jew is to be engaged in all three of these holy endeavors.  It does not mean to agree with all of them at all times, but to consider and reconsider their places in our lives, to improve them and us--as Rabbi Salanter said. We start at home, within our own souls, but we must continue to work outwardly.

Standing before you, sharing this offering of my heart and soul, I pray that you will join me for the next year.  Commit yourself to engagement and you will find meaning along the way. Together we will work to build a community of love, of passion, of excitement, of joy, of self-awareness, of compassion, of hope, of learning, of practice, of study, of Torah, of Israel, of God, of peoplehood, of Conservative Judaism.  We will start right here and continue to create beauty and holiness in ever-expanding circles, until we truly change the world.  It may take us some time to sew those pants, but I think they’ll look great when we are finished. 

Video can be found at the 41 minute mark: