Rabbi Rachel Timoner
Congregation Beth Elohim
One morning, when I was eleven years old, my father went in for his weekly massage. My father was in great shape. He was a tennis player and a runner, but he had a bad back. When the masseuse cracked his neck to conclude the massage on this one July day, my 52-year old father got up from the table and collapsed. The doctors later determined he’d had a massive stroke. It can happen with a neck crack. That morning he was planning a barbecue. That afternoon he was rushed to intensive care. He was in critical condition for months, paralyzed for life. He eventually lost his job, his career, his savings.
I grew up as a member of a Reform congregation, where no one would have guessed that I was going to be a rabbi. The tragedy that happened in my family made me particularly critical of the synagogue, which felt disconnected from what I was experiencing: terror in hospital hallways, despair in physical therapy rooms, loneliness at night. It’s possible that the people in the synagogue reached out to help my family, but I don’t think they did.
People seemed more concerned with the latest dresses, jewelry, or shoes than with what we were there to do together. We spoke about many lofty concepts in our prayers, but I didn’t see how those words affected people’s behavior. I felt that what we were doing in synagogue was hypocritical. It didn’t seem like anyone was actually praying, contemplating the fragility of our existence, or trying to be better people. It didn’t seem like hearts were opening or lives were changing.
By the time of my bat mitzvah rehearsal, my father was able to walk very slowly with a cane. He had been practicing for months. The rabbi was in a hurry. As my father made his way to the lectern for the aliyah, the rabbi snapped his fingers in impatience. At that point I knew that after my bat mitzvah I would never go back.
Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” Heschel continues, “When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship [replaced] by discipline, love [replaced] by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion— its message becomes meaningless.”
To me, in those years, Judaism seemed irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.
What did the synagogue have to do with my life?
That question lingered with me for the next decade. I did not know the answer. Is there a Judaism that not only speaks to the crisis of today but acts to redress it? Is there a Judaism where faith is a real, honest, living fountain, rather than an heirloom? Is there a Judaism that speaks in the voice of compassion for all of the hurting souls? Is there a Judaism that guides our search for meaning, that can speak to our lives directly, that can push us to become the human beings we need to be?
Even though Kol Nidrei is the single biggest night for the synagogue, sixty-five percent of American Jews are not in a synagogue this evening. Among those of us present tonight, a great number feel ambivalent about prayer, about Torah, about God, about Judaism, about religion, about synagogue itself.
Though there have been improvements since Heschel wrote his critique, Judaism has failed many people. I’m not the only one who had a bad experience as a child. Some kids loved religious school, bonded with their rabbi, felt at home in youth group, fell in love with summer camp. Others were bored. Others never heard about a God they could relate to or never understood what the Torah had to do with their lives.
Many adults were wounded by their rabbis and their congregations. Women excluded, treated like second-class citizens, and made invisible. Interfaith families shunned. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people called abominations. Jews of color treated as if they were not Jews. Jews without means turned away or shamed. Families without children ignored, single people left at the margins.
For those who have always felt welcome, Judaism often failed to keep up with changing spiritual needs, developing scientific awareness, and psychological growth.
Leaving off at age thirteen, many people never learned a mature, layered Judaism to meet their spiritual and intellectual needs as adults. So they looked elsewhere: to psychology, Buddhist meditation, yoga, literature, science, the arts. It’s good they found what they needed, but many don’t know that what they’re looking for is right here, in their own tradition. We have failed to teach it in a way that they can hear.
Our tradition on this day is to take responsibility for our sins in the collective. In awareness of the ways we’ve failed, on behalf of those who dedicate our lives to lead the Jewish people and to make Judaism live in our time, I offer this confession of our sins before our God.
Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve allowed services— worship of You, the Source of all Life— ever to be irrelevant, dull, oppressive, or insipid.
Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we have excluded or devalued women.
Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to teach Your people a sophisticated and soulful approach to prayer.
Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to teach Your people a sophisticated approach to You.
Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to nurture an evolving, deepening spiritual life among Your people.
Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to teach Your Torah in a way that touches hearts and changes lives.
Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we’ve committed when we have failed to speak and act from compassion.
Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to see and make a home for all of Your people, regardless of who they love, what they look like, how much they earn, or who is in their families.
Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed by failing to build communities that care for one another when ill, suffering, grieving, or in need.
Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we’ve committed by failing to lead effectively to heal this broken world.
God says to us in our prayers this night, salachti kidvarecha, I have forgiven as you’ve spoken. God is ready to forgive for all of the ways we’ve failed to make Judaism live in our time.
Are we ready to forgive as well?
Ten years after my bat mitzvah I’d had some spiritual experiences, unbeckoned and surprising. I found myself unable to ignore the questions they raised. What did I believe about God? Did I believe that life has purpose? At the end of my life, how would I know if I had lived well?
Even with the alienating experiences from childhood, Judaism was in me; and I sensed that in order for me to be whole, in order for me to know who I am, in order for me to become who I need to be, I had to come home, I had to forgive, I had to find my way back to a synagogue. I had to see if I could find the Judaism that I was longing for.
Why are you here? Why did you choose to come home tonight?
Perhaps you’ve never missed Kol Nidrei. Perhaps you come out of loyalty or a sense of duty to family. Perhaps you’re here because it is a mitzvah to be here on this night. Perhaps you want to connect with your people, your tribe. Perhaps this specific place, Beth Elohim, is your home and you need to be here on this night.
More Jews come home to synagogue on this night than on any other night of the year.
Perhaps you are here because you feel the burden of what it is to be a human being, of struggle and suffering, of mistakes, harm done, weakness and pettiness, and you are trying to figure out how to be better, how to be good, even holy.
Perhaps you are reaching for meaning: you sense that there is so much beneath the surface and you want to touch that.
Perhaps you are seeking God; even if you’re unsure about the word God, or conflicted about what it might mean to you; perhaps you long to serve God.
Perhaps you are afraid of how little time you and I have on earth, and you want to understand how to live life well.
Whatever it is that brought you here, you have joined a great river of Jews coming home. Rabbi Alan Lew said, “Judaism believes in the particularity of time – that certain times have particular spiritual properties. … This day, Yom Kippur, has the power to heal. Because this is the day we come home.”
However, coming home is not easy.
We’re accomplished people: smart, capable, knowledgeable, skilled. But in synagogue we don’t all know the words, we don’t all know how to read the prayers. If this is supposed to feel like home, why do so many of us always feel like beginners? And how do you say these words and mean them?
If you grew up traditional with only Hebrew, the instruments and English might not feel Jewish to you. If you grew up Reform, what is it with all this Hebrew? If you don’t believe in God, how do you work with these prayers? Or what if you are wary of religion in general, you might wonder: am I participating in something harmful?
In my many opportunities to listen to you, the members of Beth Elohim, this summer, I heard something remarkable. Everyone here is stretching. Everyone here grew up with a Judaism different than what we practice here together. Some grew up Reform and have to stretch to make room for so much Hebrew and so little English. Some miss the grand music of the organ. Some grew up Orthodox or Conservative and miss it. Some grew up secular or not Jewish, and have to stretch to make room for all of this talk about God and all of these practices that feel new and foreign. Almost everybody thinks that someone else is naturally at home here, when in fact everyone is stretching. Everyone is adapting to a new home that we are making together.
Right now, my family and I are learning about what it’s like to make a new home. How exciting it is, and also how profoundly disorienting. You have to work to remember who you are. You miss your old home, where everything and everyone was known and familiar. Even if you didn’t like the synagogue or church you grew up in, even if it was a place you didn’t fit, it was what you knew.
Svetlana Boym, aleyha hashalom, was a brilliant Jewish playwright and professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard. In the Future of Nostalgia, she wrote that there are two kinds of nostalgia: reflective nostalgia and restorative nostalgia. Reflective nostalgia recognizes loss, glows with the ache of what was, makes us tender and longing for the past, but allows a different future to embody its elements. Restorative nostalgia tries to remake the present in the image of the past and cannot be satisfied with any present that differs from the idealized past. This second form of nostalgia, Boym warns, denies and rejects the complexity of the world as it is, forcing the world to conform to a memory. The impulse toward restorative nostalgia is one we all recognize – it’s when the way we always did things seems like the only right way.
Because the world is always changing and we can’t go back, because we share the world with people different from ourselves, coming home necessarily means stretching into the future. And that is always fraught with adjustments and compromises, with loss and yearning. It’s reflective nostalgia that allows the new to become familiar over time, that allows us to hold that tender ache of memory so that we can infuse what is with what was. Choosing to adopt our new home as the home we were always looking for.
Rabbi Alan Lew says, “The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams. Certainly it is the most ancient dream of the Jewish people as seen in our national resolve to someday rebuild the Bayit, the Home, the Great Temple in Jerusalem. [It is like] the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling around the bases….. And the truth is,” Rabbi Lew continues, “every time we come home, home is different, and so are we.”5
If all we knew as children was a sleepy, musty Judaism, a stale reenactment of something that once had meaning to our ancestors, then we come here expecting to be bored, expecting that the prayers and the Torah are not about us, not about our real lives and struggles, our hopes and our fears. If our expectation is that we are here just because we’re supposed to be, how can we be ready to receive, ready to make something meaningful happen? If, however, we come here open to the possibility of being surprised, of encountering something fresh, alive, invigorating, radically awe-inspiring; if we can consider the possibility that there’s a treasure here buried beneath all of these inherited words of the prayerbook; if we cultivate our curiosity, then we will find brilliance.
What if, what if this here will nourish us? What if this is what we most need in our lives right now? That’s what I found when I came home to synagogue in my 20s. I found myself to be surprised. Some of you have a similar story: you’re shocked by how much you’ve fallen in love with Shabbat morning services. You can’t believe the way you delight in Torah study. Something has awakened in you here and synagogue has become essential to your life. But that’s hasn’t happened for everyone.
If I do nothing else as your rabbi, I must help you see that we are inheritors of something unspeakably precious, something directly relevant, not oppressive but liberating, not dull but invigorating, not insipid but imaginative, something that will make our lives better, more vibrant, more meaningful, more whole.
Once you see that Judaism is urgently about you—your work life, your marriage, your life as a parent or grandparent, the questions that sit in your very heart, once you see with fresh eyes what this treasure can be for you, it will be compelling, even irresistible.
Torah is not just the scrolls in that ark – Torah is a deep conversation throughout time about how to live.
If we knew how to live, there’d be not one hungry person on earth. We’d be in touch with the pain of our world and know how to heal it. If we knew how to live, we’d feel and know every day how much we love the people we love, and so would they. We’d be conscious of how much we can learn from every interaction: every meeting, every email exchange. We’d be kind, even when our flight is delayed, or are children are intransigent, or the line is long and we are late. The wisdom in Torah is as great as any wisdom on earth and it is ours.
I want us to bring Torah into everything we do at Beth Elohim. From budget meetings to building maintenance, from social action to swimming. Here’s my challenge to you: open your eyes to Torah. Make it yours. If it fails you, alienates you, offends, seems arcane, don’t give up. Dig deeper. Every time you come to meet with me, for any kind of meeting, bring Torah. Find a verse on the web or in a book. Bring it as an offering. I will have in my office a fountain of Torah, a bowl full of verses. If you forget to bring one, you can pick one out. We’ll look at it together. You will see that Torah is about you and Torah is a way to come home.
And not just Torah, also Avodah. Prayer is not meant to be a rote recitation of something borrowed but not ours. Our prayers are the poetry of our people, and the prayerbook is a compendium of the longings of our hearts. When we learn how to pray— really pray— we are right there in those words and letters, we find our own voice singing inside of them, and our voice mingles with the voice of our people through time.
Once we know how to do that, those prayers will hold us and accompany us and guide us through every moment of our lives – in times of exultation, loneliness, contentment, despair.
Avodah, tefilah, prayer, is what we do the most together, but so many of us don’t have a way in. I’ll be teaching a class on Shabbat mornings designed to give you a way into prayer. Join me at 11:30 every Shabbat to take the prayers apart, find out what they mean, see how you can relate, find your own voice, explore who or what you think you’re talking to. And we’ll see together that prayer is a way to come home.
Not just Torah, not just Avodah, but G’milut Chasadim. We need each other. Our people have known this at least since the Roman conquest and the ensuing diaspora, when we defined a minyan. We know that we are interdependent. We may be rugged individuals in the American marketplace, but our people are wise enough to understand that the most important moments of our lives will take place in the company of community. This is where God lives. Beyond us, yes, but also within us and between us.
We make real community when we decide to show up for one another when we’re hurting, lonely, sick, suffering, mourning, sleepless with a new baby, unemployed, single and looking, moving, retiring, aging. These are the moments that will test us.
After my father’s stroke, many people disappeared: he wasn’t powerful or important anymore. Some people didn’t know what to say or how to act. Four families showed up.
They drew close, taking shifts in the hospital, bringing food to the house, making sure we were not alone. We called them Eli’s Army, and there was no getting through those years without them.
Chesed means loving-kindness. G’milut Chasadim are acts of lovingkindness. At CBE the Chesed Committee makes meals for people who are sick or helps to form a minyan for people who are mourning. But Chesed doesn’t have to be only a committee. I challenge all of us to be part of Chesed, taking it upon ourselves to show up for one another. Rabbi Katz and Carol Shuchman are revitalizing Chesed at CBE this year, making opportunities for all of us to bring meals, visit, send notes, be counted in a minyan, run errands, call, and organize others to be there. In short, to never let any of us suffer alone. Chesed, G’milut Chasadim, is a way to come home.
Torah, Avodah, G’milut Chasadim. The world stands on these three things. Three things you and I need, three ways to come home.
In the words of Rabbi Maggie Wenig, “Come home,” [God] wants to say to us, “Come home.” But … she is afraid that we will say, “No.” “We are so busy. We’d love to see you but we just can’t come. Too much to do.” God … is waiting for us… She will leave the door open and the candles burning … Perhaps one day…perhaps one day we will be able to say, “Avinu Malkeinu, we have come home.”
Hashiveinu Adonai elecha, return us Adonai, to you, v’nashuva, and we will come home.
Yom Kippur has the power to heal because on Yom Kippur we come home.
It’s time to come home, CBE.