Sermon on Kol Nidre 2015/5776
Life's a Bore, But That's OK
Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, September 22, 2015
I could hardly believe myself.
It was this past Thursday, September 10 and I was eager for the evening to arrive because it was opening night for the National Football League and the Patriots were playing. After a big scandal and talk of other scandalous behavior and then news of historically scandalous behavior, the Patriots and Tom Brady were returning. Football was back (with its violence, I know), and even during this first game suggestions were made that the Patriots were jamming communication between coaches and players of the opposing Steelers.
But football was returning for 2015 and I wasn't put out at all when my son, Dan, called me to ask tongue-in-cheek, "Do you think we could say a Shehecheyanu?" I laughed, but I got it.
Football is most certainly only a game. Like most sports, it pretty much involves a group of people chasing after, hitting, or kicking a ball. But when the game is good, sports engenders powerful passion. People like you and me cheer, hug, stand up, sit down, jump, rejoice, and mourn with all their might. Although I can only lay claim to be the most moderate of fans, I'm very much aware of the fact that sports is a tremendous force in our culture.
In a book entitled, The Joy of Sports, Professor Michael Novak argues that sports is a kind of religion. In a chapter called "One Nation Under Sports," Novak points out that sports uses pageantry and ritual as do all religions, and that sports draws on the great themes at the heart of religion: themes of sacrifice, courage, loyalty, and faith.
In sports, you win, lose, live, or die.
In a curious way, sports are ultimate. Sports are religious.
Organized religion - our own Judaism - doesn't quite reach that level. Years ago I sensed this here when one of our Sinai boys became a Bar Mitzvah in the midst of the NBA Finals. We looked kind of tame that day. I had to admit we were boring.
That morning, in speaking to the young man, I compared the two experiences.
It was late May. The Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks had actually played a season at championship levels. Now they were engaged in a best of seven games series and up to that point every game had been magnificent. No one could predict who would win the series. Each game had been undecided up until the last second. The series was evenly tied at three games a piece.
You couldn't ask for greater drama.
But there we were that Friday night and Saturday morning: dressed, seated, orderly, and duly respectful.
Noise and hoopla vs. quiet devotion.
Passion vs. meditation.
Who wouldn't rather be at the sidelines of a game, breathing in the excitement and feeling the blood pulsing through his veins? At moments like that you know you're alive; you know what victory and defeat mean.
Come to think of it, however, it's not only what we do here in formal religion that lacks the flash of sports. It's difficult to find anything anywhere half as intoxicating as sports.
By comparison to sports, most of life is boring, quite tame. After all, what do you (what do any of us) do most days?
Well, you do your job and, unless it's a brand new position or unless you're out of work, you've probably done your job many times over.
You've filled a cavity once if not 5,000 times.
You've taught colonial history or aspects of algebra to ten students if not 10,000.
You've done the paperwork for this house closing and 50 more.
You've explained your product and sold your product for 20 years.
And you've also gone through lots of other routines.
You've taken down the screen windows and put them back up.
You've changed your car's oil.
You've wiped the kitchen counter and done the laundry.
You've paid your estimated taxes.
Life, in short, is not dramatic. There are very few goal line stands, hardly any overtimes to break a tie. You mainly follow routines and repeat a great deal of what you have already done.
I think that may very well be what commends the way we Jews observe this New Year season.
There are no cheerleaders here. Hilarity and champagne have no place as they do on December 31 because we know that streamers and balloons are not true to life. What does connect to the reality of our lives are moments like this when we assemble quietly, expectantly, hopefully, and perhaps a bit anxiously.
Chanted texts, ancient lessons, recollection of successes and failures from the past year, satisfaction for what was good, regret for what could and should have been done better... all this creates the atmosphere of our very real Jewish New Year.
Our very restraint here - especially as Kol Nidre approaches - underscores the belief that life is not like shooting white water rapids. Life is more like a journey down the powerful Mississippi as the river rolls, turns, swells, speeds up, slows down, broadens, and deepens.
That's what life is and that is what we take note of tonight.
Not the exhilaration of winning the Super Bowl, but rather the steady pace of passing time and simply making the journey. Think of it, friends, you and I have made the circuit of the seasons and been together here ever since November 1988. Including tonight, we have shared Kol Nidre 27 times.
Do we know more tonight than we did so many years ago?
Do we feel more tonight than we did so many years ago?
Do I know more tonight than I did so many years ago?
Maybe tonight I more fully grasp certain wisdom in the Torah that I hadn't appreciated until I began to think about this quiet way in which the years go by.
You see, as I thought about the span of our years together, I realized that there is something surprising about the way in which the Torah is written. It looks as if the Torah's spacing is disproportionate.
After all, what does our primary scroll contain? It has only five books. One book narrates the events from creation through Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, and Joseph. That's a lot of history - centuries worth of history. The next book, Exodus, compresses the events of Egyptian slavery, the plagues, and liberation from Egypt into a mere 15 chapters.
Then comes the rest of the Torah: 25 more chapters of Exodus, followed by all of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy that describe what happens as our people journey to the land of Canaan.
3 ½ books out of 5 are devoted to only 40 years in the Sinai wilderness.
How does that compute? Unless it's Judaism's way of confirming that life really isn't lived at heroic Abraham or Moses moments. We don't regularly experience peaks of confrontation and revelation. Instead of that, most of the Torah describes 40 relatively unremarkable years in the desert because that's what life is like. It's made up of simple days and undistinguished weeks that grow into years which ultimately become what we call a lifetime.
Do you remember what used to happen every year after the Super Bowl football game? Within hours of the victory, the winning quarterback would appear on TV and declare, "I've just won the Super Bowl and I'm going to Disney World." The camera would then pan to a glorious view of Orlando and everyone across America would imagine the wonder of a free Disney vacation.
But vacations - even the best of them - come to an end. And the best quarterback has to go home where he, like us, confronts real life with its quieter triumphs followed by its share of setbacks, frustrations, aggravation, learning and, God willing, satisfactions.
That's life - not you in the newspaper headlines but you reading the paper around the kitchen table at breakfast.
Which isn't so bad at all, for as life unfolds and our experiences multiply, something important does happen. We grow. We mature. At our best, we develop something called character.
Consider the difference, for example, between an intern at age 28 and an attending physician at age 48. Both "know" their medical facts. The intern may even be more current when it comes to "knowing" the latest medical breakthroughs. But if the older physician has listened and learned well over 20 additional years of living, he "knows" something the intern cannot know.
Because he has lived and essentially apprenticed that much longer at life, the older person has a storehouse of experience that can never be taught in a book.
He's had some aches and worried about those aches the way he never would have 20 years earlier. He's been a spouse; perhaps he's been divorced.
He's been the adult child of older parents. Perhaps he's nursed those parents as they lost some of their powers and perhaps he's begun to confront his own mortality.
And, perhaps, he's become a parent along the road. In which case, he has felt the powerful protective love of a parent, he has stayed up at night caring for a tiny little human being, and he has certainly learned something about a parent's limitations when it comes to charting a child's life.
When someone has tasted life and survived life, he or she is simply different.
You might not be able to record the differences on the back of one of those sports cards kids collect. No one keeps statistics on how many times an adult child spends time with his or her adult parent. No one logs how many times a parent bites his or her tongue to give a child a second chance. No one cheers when a husband or wife stands by his or her spouse.
But these daily statistics are the only ones that count. Year after year, they are the stuff out of which our lives are made and our characters shaped.
I think Goethe, the 19th century German poet, put the matter just right. "Life," he said, "is a quarry out of which we mold, chisel, and complete a character."
Notice the time-consuming verbs: mold, chisel, and complete. They are there because character doesn't emerge in nine innings or two 30-minute halves.
It takes time.
Living means coping, improvising, responding, learning, adapting, tripping, getting up, persisting, trying, and retrying so that when landmarks like Yom Kippur arrive, we can look back and say, "Mistakes and all, I made it. I did it. I think I'm even a shade wiser and, God willing, I'm ready for another go-round."
How do I know this is the wisdom of Judaism?
I know it because there is not a character in the Torah who reaches his peak without a journey. In fact, the only two Torah characters we follow from childhood onwards (Jacob and Joseph) almost disqualify themselves as heroes because they are too smart for their own good as young men. Both of them have to live life (Jacob working for his uncle; Joseph sold as a slave in Egypt) until they develop the character that makes them worthy.
It's only when they have spent years growing that each can truly embrace his family and friends. It's only then that each reaches full stature and becomes memorable.
And so it is for us. Every year when I first announce the new year... 5774... 5775... and now 5776, we are given a chance to realize how far we have come. The very size of those symbolic numbers reminds us how much has gone into this past year... into all our years together... how many challenges, how many milestones, how many endings, and how many beginnings. On 99 out of 100 occasions, there aren't firecrackers or cheerleaders. But that is OK because you and I, each of us quietly, were there and we ourselves gave meaning to the moment.
It may not have the electricity of an athletic showdown.
But it is life, and, thank God, that curious, perplexing, enchanting phenomenon is most certainly ours on this night of nights, our night of nights.
I think Pablo Casals, the renowned cellist, may have understood us best when he made the following comment at the age of 75. His international reputation as a virtuoso long since assured, Casals was asked why he continued to practice the cello four hours daily.
"Because," he answered, "I think I'm making some progress."
God willing, we have also made some progress together over the years even as we have done as individually.
Like Jacob, like Joseph, we're stumbling but growing. We are carrying on as best as we truly can.
Quietly, day-by-day, we've made progress this last year just as we shall most surely continue to make progress this year and in the years to come.
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