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Hineni – Here I Am Ready for Change 

Kol Nidre
October 17, 2010

 

I’m going to begin with a quotation.  It’s dated August 2008 and reads as follows:
“Sometimes you just wish you were a photographer. I simply do not have the words to describe the awesome majesty of Greenland’s Kangia Glacier, shedding massive icebergs the size of skyscrapers and slowly pushing them down the Illulissat Fjord until they crash into the ocean off the west coast of Greenland.  There, these natural ice sculptures float and bob around the glassy waters near here.  You can sail between them in a fishing boat, listening to these white ice monsters circle and break, heave and sigh, as if they were protesting their fate.”
                  Those words from 2008 were written by Tom Friedman of the New York Times.  The words came to mind only a few weeks ago when Greenland’s glaciers came back into the news. 
                  Here’s a quote from the New York Times, dated August 12,2010: 
“An island of ice more than four times the size of Manhattan is drifting across the Arctic Ocean after breaking off from a glacier in Greenland, potentially threatening shipping lanes and oil platforms.  The iceberg is moving toward [water separating] the northwestern coast of Greenland and Ellesmere Island of Canada.  If [the iceberg] makes it [to that area] before the winter freeze, it will probably be carried south by ocean currents until it enters waters busy with oil and shipping activities…“That’s where it starts to become dangerous,” said Mark Drinkwater of the European Space Agency.”
                  This city of ice…this island of ice…began its journey almost the same day BP finally capped off the gushing oil from Deepwater Horizon.  Good work, BP.  The oil is sealed away.  The crisis is over.
                  Except we know it’s not that simple.  Let alone the floating ice metropolis in the Atlantic, we know the saga of the Gulf is far from over.  BP will clean the beaches. BP may succeed in more or less cleaning the marshes. By this time next year, the Gulf will probably look quite beautiful again.
                  It’s just that the real damage is not the kind of damage the casual sunbather can see.  What’s happened and what will continue to happen lies hidden beneath the surface of the water.  What has happened and will continue to happen to the brown pelican, the shrimp, the oysters, and the sea turtle populations isn’t apparent either.
                  By next summer we should be in pretty good shape if we don’t think in much depth about the Gulf of Mexico.  Everything should be fine if we also don’t wonder too much about that huge, new Greenland iceberg. 
Tom Friedman suggests we ought to be OK as long as we don’t learn what he calls the new language of Greenland:  something he calls “climate speak.”  A key phrase in “climate speak” goes like this:  “I’ve never seen that before.”  This refers to the phenomenon of rain in December and January in Greenland in areas north of the Article Circle.  One of the Greenlanders who knows the new lingo explained, “Twenty years ago, if I had told the people of our area that it would rain at Christmas in 2007, they would have laughed at me.  Today it is a reality.  [Something, I’ve never seen before.]”
                  Everything should also be OK if you don’t want some sushi, because I forgot to mention where and when the Atlantic bluefin tuna was supposed to spawn this summer.  This endangered fish, which is used in the rarest and most sought after sushi around the globe, mates in the Gulf of Mexico.  No one is sure if that happened or how the BP oil spill affected this all important reproductive time for the tuna. 
And that’s critical because, like cod and so many other fish, the Atlantic bluefin tuna are being fished to the brink.  Like lions and tigers on land, tuna and other marine wildlife are coming close to extinction.
                  This is Yom Kippur.  This is a night for confession.  So let us be honest.  If ever there was a time for candor, this is it.  We humans are not good with limits.  We are pushing the planet and its animal resources to the limit.  We want what we want when we want it.  We pretty much take, hunt, fish, and consume until someone or something stops us or until there is no more to be taken.
                  Do you remember the Viddui we will be reciting in a few minutes?  It’s the Confession prayer that lists our sins alphabetically.
                  a...b...c...
We abuse.  We besmirch. We consume.  We destroy.  We excuse ourselves.  We forget the consequences of our actions.  We are greedy.
                  I could continue through the alphabet, and I should go on because, as the saying goes, although religion ought to comfort the afflicted, religion also needs to afflict the comfortable.  And we truly do need to be uncomfortable tonight.  Remember an alternate name for Yom Kippur is Yom Ha-Din…the Day of Judgment.  This night is meant to be a time for severity.
                  But here’s the problem:  I have never been good at judging or condemning.  Plus Jews aren’t very good at being judged or condemned.
                  Something else strikes me as well when I think about our behavior.  I think much of what we do wrong is not done with malice.  It’s not done intentionally.
                  Most of us are on the whole pretty good people.  It’s just we are busy, distracted, and so caught up in our own lives that we haven’t got time to look beyond ourselves. 
                  That’s where the High Holidays come in:  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind us that, although we may not be bad people, we are certainly not as good as we can be.
                  As Mordecai Kaplan teaches,  “The best we can do is generally better than we actually do.  To be troubled by that fact is to have a Jewish sense of sin.”
                  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks more strongly.  “Embarrassment,” he writes, “not only precedes religious commitment.  It is the touchstone of religious existence…”
                  In other words, Heschel teaches that one purpose of the High Holidays is to embarrass us.   
                  Not publicly.  That’s why we do the confession all together.  It’s sort of like getting in the water.  Who’s going to jump in first? No one volunteers.  Someone says I’ll go if you go.  It’s easiest when everybody goes together all at once.
                  The same holds true for the viddui or confession.  No one wants to go out there alone so we all go at once and, if we really pay attention to the words, well, it is embarrassing.  It is disconcerting.  Read the confession seriously and you are humbled because you have to admit you’re not as good as you could be. 
All of us could do better.  We should be better.
                  That is the message of a prayer that sneaks up on us very early in the holidays.  We encounter the prayer on Erev Rosh Hashanah only one page after blessing the holiday candles.  The Cantor chants it, but the words come out in Hebrew and, since it’s so early in the service, I think most of us pay very little attention to the prayer’s meaning.
But let’s make that right tonight.  Pause with me and let’s get that prayer into our heads.  To do that, you need to know something about one pretty famous Hebrew word.  It’s the word HINENI, which means I AM HERE.
 But HINENI isn’t only the response you could give in Hebrew if your teacher was taking attendance. When you say HINENI/I AM HERE,  you’re doing more than acknowledging your physical presence.
An example – When Moses happens upon the Burning Bush and learns that slavery is consuming the Jewish people, God calls Moses to attention and Moses replies, “HINENI.” When he says that, Moses doesn’t only mean he’s ready for class.  Moses’ HINENI before God means, “I’m present.  I’m strong.  I’m set to make history.” 
Earlier, when Abraham is told to bring Isaac as a sacrifice, he also stands at attention and says, “HINENI.  I’m here. HINENI.  You can count on me.”
I think you get the sense that saying HINENI means standing tall and making a commitment.
That’s what makes the Rosh Hashanah prayer so stunning.  In our service the word HINENI returns, but it comes at the beginning of a sentence that reads, “HINENI HE-ANI MEE-MA-AS.  Here I am…poor in deeds…lacking in accomplishments.”
In other words, I am not who I should be.  HINENI – Neither Moses nor Abraham, I am wanting, deficient, incomplete.
You know there’s only one time in the whole year when Jews historically used to get down flat on the floor in services.  That was Yom Kippur.  In fact, there is only one time in the year when Jews totally abstain from the niceties of life.  That is Yom Kippur.
And we do this because, when we really think about it, we realize abstaining is the least we can do in a world where our behavior is often so limited.  Consider seriously the enormity of our planet’s needs.  Take stock of the needs of fellow human beings around the globe, in our community, and in our own families.  Look at yourself in the mirror and, well, it’s embarrassing that we do so little. 
Our HINENI during the High Holidays isn’t what Abraham or Moses declare.  An honest HINENI out of our mouths is an admission that we have missed the mark.  We have sinned.
Pretty bad.  Pretty sad…
And…now…I’m going to make a confession…
I wrote this much of tonight’s sermon three weeks ago and had to stop because I couldn’t figure out what to say next.  No matter how I tried to develop the next paragraph, I was stuck. 
Hundreds of people were going to hear me give a depressing sermon. 
I felt as if I had driven a truck down an alley and come to a literary dead end.  I wrote a few paragraphs going in one direction and then some paragraphs going in another direction. No exit.
And the problem was that I didn’t want to just abandon the direction of this sermon because I believed I was going in the right direction.
After all, this is not Rosh Hashanah.  It’s not a night for apples and honey.  As I said before, this is Yom Ha-Din – the Day of Judgment. It’s not meant to be pretty. If you’ve ever gone card shopping, you’ve probably noticed that Hallmark does not sell a Happy Yom Kippur greeting card.
That’s because Yom Kippur asks us to confront how selfish, suspicious, greedy, quarrelsome, and self-absorbed we can be.
That’s exactly what this day is all about…And then…it occurred to me.  Although Yom Kippur is about sin, it is not only about sin.
Consider the very first words of the Yom Kippur liturgy that you and I will hear when we open our prayerbooks in a few minutes.  We won’t hear Avinu Malkeinu – Dear God, treat us generously because we have little merit.  We won’t turn to the Viddui/Confession – Chatanu, Avinu, Pashanu – We have gone astray, we have sinned, we have transgressed.
No, the first words of the prayerbook will be from Psalm 97 – Or zarua la-tzadik…Light is sown for the righteous and gladness for the upright.
Light?  Gladness?  Righteous?
I thought the whole point of Yom Kippur was to knock us down and remind us that we are not righteous.  Remember, Heschel?  He said Yom Kippur was supposed to embarrass or humble us.  So why begin with a verse that is bright with light and the promise of sweetness for righteous people?
Because Judaism teaches that although we can be as petty as we often are, we are not doomed to be so.
We can be oblivious and mean-spirited, but we don’t have to be.  It’s not in the genes.  We are not doomed because of an original sinfulness on our part.
On a good day, we may conduct ourselves pretty poorly.  On a bad day, we may be worse.  But Judaism teaches that there is always another kind of day. There is a new day when we can be different and better.  We can make a fair stab at being righteous and worthy.
Listen to Elie Wiesel.  “What then are we humans?  Hope turned to dust.  But the opposite is equally true.  What are we humans?  Dust turned to hope.”
We can change.  We can do what Judaism calls teshuvah.  We can turn ourselves around and get back on track.
Do you remember my talking about the beauty of blessings back on Rosh Hashanah morning?  I said then that Jews were on a sort of mission looking for as many opportunities as possible to say Baruch atta Adonai – Praised are You, God for the blessings in our experience.
A few days after Rosh Hashanah I was reminded about a blessing that suits our moment perfectly.*  It turns out that Jewish tradition requires us to say a blessing if we meet someone we haven’t seen for a long time  It goes like this:
Baruch atta Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha-olam, mi-cha-yay ha-metim.  Praised are You, God, Ruler of the universe, who revives the dead.
Sounds strange, doesn’t it?  Unless you think about what being alive offers every human being.  Being alive means that we can change.  It means we can, in a way, be reborn or revived every day, and so, if you meet someone whom you haven’t seen in a long time, he or she is not necessarily the same person when you see him or her again.  He or she is new – hopefully even improved.
Time allows for change.  Each of us can remake ourselves. Yom Kippur is all about saying we should remake ourselves.
Although our prayerbook doesn’t get quite this idiomatic, you might say the biggest “copout” on Yom Kippur is to say, “That’s the way I am.”  If you quarrel with someone and try to resolve the disagreement by saying, “That’s the way I am,” you’ve probably missed the point of this day. If someone crosses paths with you and shrugs it off by saying, “That’s the way I am,” that person is also ignoring the purpose of Yom Kippur.
Saying “That’s the way I am” contradicts the message of Yom Kippur because it says:  that’s my nature, that is who I have been and who I will be, I can’t or won’t change.
Here’s my favorite new reading of a text I mentioned only last week.  I was talking about the fascinating way in which the Torah describes God at the Burning Bush.  I told you that the Torah bravely resists pinning down God or faith by simply offering this description of God - Ehyeh asher ehyeh - I shall be what I shall be.
Preparing for tonight, I thought of a totally new reason why God may be described as if God is in process – I shall be what I shall be.
Maybe that’s the Torah’s way of telling us that if God can change or adapt, we humans need to do the very same thing.
This is not easy.
Since it’s Yom Kippur, let’s be honest.  For most of us the default setting comes pretty close to couch potato.  I don’t mean we are inactive.  Lots of us exercise physically.  The problem is that most of us have a tough time getting off the couch as much as we should when it comes to matters of truth, justice, and love.  We get lazy.  We get by.
And that’s what Yom Kippur comes to counter.
As Heschel put it, the day comes to embarrass us. Yom Kippur enumerates our failings.  It makes us remember what we’d rather not remember.  Yom Kippur takes us down a peg or two. 
But here’s what I’ve learned:  Yom Kippur doesn’t stop by humbling us.  It goes on to energize us.  To tell us that just because we messed up yesterday, doesn’t mean we need to mess up tomorrow.  Just because we have let others down in the past, doesn’t mean we are doomed to do it again.   Just because we have seen the world through our own eyes, doesn’t mean we can’t grow and reach out to others so much more bravely, kindly, and generously.
The caterpillar does not become a butterfly overnight, but it does happen.  It must happen.  We’re responsible for seeing that the same holds true for us.  Teshuvah.  Change.  Grow up.  Grow out.  Grow beyond.
According to legend, the angels were envious of human beings when God began planning to create human beings back in the beginning.  The angels had heard that these new beings were to be created by God personally. What’s more, these humans were to be created b’tselem elohim – in the divine image. 
What were the angels going to do?  According to the legend, the angels decided to hide the divine image so that it couldn’t be found by human beings.  One of the angels suggested hiding the divine image at the bottom of the ocean.  Another angel proposed burying the divine image on top of the highest mountain. 
A third angel proposed an even better place for concealing the divine image  “Let’s hide the divine image in the heart of every man and woman.  That will be the last place they would ever search for it.”
*****
Ladies and gentlemen, we are a slightly sorry lot.  It’s true.
We disappoint others; we certainly disappoint ourselves.  We’re here today and tomorrow to admit this state of affairs.
But we are also here to move beyond despair.
There is something precious buried within each of us.  A divine spark.  A divine possibility.  Dust turned to hope.
Join me.
Help me.
Tonight, let’s fan the flame.  Shine a light.  Repair ourselves and repair our small part of the world as well.

 

 

*With thanks to Rabbi Jack Riemer for his insight about this blessing and the copout of saying “That’s the way I am.”

 

 

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