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Dealing With Lifes Challenges and Changes – Kol Nidrei

October 05, 2003

I have always found the Kol Nidrei to be the most evocative prayer and melody in our tradition. As I hear the words chanted, I am transfixed and transformed, moving through time and space to a place that feels remarkably familiar. The Kol Nidrei sings and speaks to us of vows and values: what it means to give one’s word and the sanctity of the spoken promise. It recognizes the human desire to do well and the human tendency to falter.

Tonight we’ll explore the drive to survive and desire to excel through the words of the Avote v’Imahote: the prayer of praise to our patriarchs and matriarchs. The key words of the Avote v’Imahote are “great, strong, awe-inspiring, sustainer, helper and healer” – they refer to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and they are also words we use to describe loved ones who touched and influenced our lives.

My parents, as many of their generation who endured the Holocaust, had their faith severely tested. Both of them were raised in Orthodox homes: my mother in Galicia, my father in Russia. The Shoah caused them to redefine their faith, from Orthodox to Reform, and they always affirmed who they were as Jews. My father and mother fled the Nazis in October, 1938, just a few weeks prior to Kristallnacht. They arrived on these shores in 1940 via London and carved out new lives in this country. One of the most endearing and enduring memories of my childhood was seeing my mother benshing licht over the Shabbat candles, and my father reciting the kiddush. My mother spoke about her faith in God more often than did my father. He was virtually silent on the matter, save for every erev Shabbat when he chanted the kiddush with unrestrained passion. For my parents, the words yih’tzee’aht Mitz’rah’yim/”the exodus from Egypt” reminded them of their hasty departure from Vienna. It was during those moments of fervent devotion while chanting the kiddush that I was most cognizant of my father’s connection to our faith, but it was not until this past Summer, seven months after my mother died, that I came to hold in my hands something extraordinarily precious and sentimental.

In the last few years of his life, my father’s body was assaulted by Parkinson’s disease and heart trouble. He did not speak to us about his doubts or fears, or the severity of his afflictions, though in time they became painfully evident. In June, among my parents’ belongings in our home, I found this {hold up and show!} unremarkable checkbook holder, save for what is inscribed in it in my father’s handwriting, legible in a way that leads me to believe that he wrote the words shortly after learning about the seriousness of his heart condition or upon being told that he had Parkinson’s, but long before his writing became illegible words reduced to truncated strokes on paper. To this day I do not know if he recited these words as a mantra or if he simply wrote them down as his testament of faith: “My Ribono shel olam/[God] the Master of the universe, is my partner. I am not afraid.” This is a perfect echo of what would become one of my favorite verses in the Torah, when in his dream of a ladder set on the ground with its top reaching to the sky, Jacob heard God tell him, “Remember, I am with you. I will protect you…I will not leave you.” {Genesis 28:15}. In the same breath, I speak of my father’s love and legacy.

Life is both bold and fragile. The life cycle is filled with peaks and valleys. Laughter and tears intermingle. The word “bittersweet” comes from the lexicon of life’s journal. Yom Kippur is a time when we measure the value of what we have by the threat of what we might lose. When we stand to sing Kol Nidrei or recite the words of the Unetaneh toe’kef/”Who shall live and who shall die?” we think about those who were present and praying with us last year but who are now gone. They too sang and recited the same words, not knowing that the coming year would claim them for death. “That’s life,” the song goes: what you have and cherish can be gone in an instant.

How neglectful are we about relationships that die while we still live? It is not always easy to plan to have and hold, only to let go. I am with individuals, couples and families at some of their most powerful, celebratory moments – standing together under their chuppah or naming their child – and also at times of overwhelming grief. I’ve seen relationships where love is replaced by recrimination and then avoidance, and when the couple is together it feels like the air has been sucked out of the room. When they speak about the future, they do so in the first person singular. Letting go is difficult, but staying together seems impossible. I’ve been with highly articulate, incredibly task driven men and women who have worked for years to establish themselves in their careers, only to discover that downsizing, office politics, or perhaps the need for change and growth brought them to a terminus. Uncertainty and overwhelming questions about the future abound. Fatigue replaces fortitude, depression displaces confidence. They feel as if they are stuck in a long, dark tunnel and there is no light at the end. I’ve seen friendships flounder on the shoals of perception and rumor, and try as they might, those who once felt a powerful bond of connection are unable to prevent its demise. The sense of loss is so pervasive that it feels like a lingering death. One reaches out to the other, but to no avail. The silence is painful.

Here is our common bond: all of us nurture dreams but life gets in the way – work, family, schedules, demands and deadlines. Dreams get deferred, filed away in a folder labeled ‘Things To Do.’ As the years go by, the folder gets bigger, until one day you look at it and realize that time is no longer on your side. Clarity of sight, strength of body and acuity of mind have changed. You edit the folder’s contents until dreams become hopes, become memories, become regrets. In his collection of Hasidic tales called Ten Rungs, Martin Buber writes, “All things revolve around a single question: How can we fulfill the meaning of our existence on earth?…not with the mysteries of heaven, but with your life and mine, in this hour and the next?”

Part of growing up is realizing that there are things you can control to a larger degree than you think is possible. Love need not be lost. I have seen relationships reclaimed through force of will and goodness of spirit in therapists’ offices and hospital rooms. I have seen couples who thought they had no future build a future for themselves; adult children and their aging parents who virtually stopped speaking to each other because of fear of infirmity or the suffocating burden of dependency, resume dialogue; people who, resigned or cashiered from one job, found greater fulfillment in a similar position elsewhere or discovered unanticipated joy in a completely different field. I have seen parents devastated by the death of a child somehow go on to reaffirm life in ways that I cannot fathom, and I stand before them in awe. Nine years ago, the then-ten-year-old daughter of friends of ours in North Carolina fell to her death while hiking with them. We visited Tom and Wendy in Charlotte this past summer and, much to my surprise, Tom spoke to me about the immediate aftermath of Kylie’s death and the years that followed. Their son is two years older than their daughter would have been, and six years after her death another daughter was born. Life, as Tom said, does go on: dramatically changed, forever altered, but still… Tom spoke for almost half an hour without interruption and finally arrived at a point that reduced him to tears. He told me that the students in his daughter’s high school graduating class dedicated a plaque in her memory at the school, and next to her name is the year of her graduating class. Between sharp intakes of breath, Tom said, “She is part of something beyond her family. The students who were her classmates have always remembered her, and what they did in her memory, and for us, is indescribable.”

I have seen people succumb to the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or the termination of a job, and I have seen an even greater number surmount what they have faced to create the possibility of a hopeful future. With the help of family and friends, the wisdom of our tradition and the moorings of faith, they have navigated their way through shoals to unanticipated, tranquil ports. The human spirit, while not indomitable, is incredibly resilient.

In her book entitled Fugitive Pieces, author Anne Michaels tells the story of a boy who, in 1940 at the age of seven, burst from the mud of a war ravaged Polish city where he buried himself to hide from Nazis who murdered his family. He was rescued by a Greek geologist who did not recognize the boy as human until he began to cry. Athos, the name of the man Jakob Beer came to know and love, told him, “I will be your koumbaros, your godfather, the marriage sponsor for you and your sons.” Early in the novel, Jakob tells the reader, “Athos didn’t want me to forget. He made me review my Hebrew alphabet. He said the same thing [to me] every day: ‘It is your future you are remembering.’”

The Avote v’Imahote prayer speaks elliptically about the miracle of Jewish survival. We are part of that unbroken chain and we strengthen its links by giving our children Hebrew names; performing Jewish rituals in our homes; reading and discussing Jewish literature; talking about God and living in ways that give meaning to belief; traveling to Israel; and tapping into our Divine qualities that make a difference in the lives of those we know and those we have yet to meet.

This is the time of year when we choose what it is we wish to remember, who and what we cherish, and how this year might be different from, and better than, the last. Looking back a year from now, let it be said of each of us, “You were gadole, gibore, norah, hasideem – great, strong, awe-inspiring sustainers, helpers and healers. You kept our faith alive and made it meaningful. You tried to build bridges to heal and strengthen relationships. You learned to say “I’m sorry” more than thinking “So what?” You cared more and loved better.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin