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It Takes a Lifetime
Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro September 25, 2012



I would like to start with a reflection. It was written by Rabbi Larry Kushner after his move from Boston to San Francisco.

Since we moved out to San Francisco, I’ve taken up road biking, and I want you to know that my route is spectacular: it’s along the Marina, by Alcatraz, Sausalito, and up to the Golden Gate Bridge

One day, not so long ago, there I was, biking along, minding my own business, when I glanced over my right shoulder toward the bay and there, not more than twenty feet away from me, flying in a perfect “V” formation were about three dozen pelicans – huge creatures with their long beaks and enormous wingspreads, doing about twelve, thirteen miles per hour.

They were so low that we were on the same eye level – except of course, I was on a bicycle on the land and they were in the air above the ocean.

And then, as I looked at them, they turned their heads, looked at me, and one of them spoke.
She said, “It’s good to be alive.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I whispered, out of breath from trying to keep up with them.

“You and us, we’re all just creatures, you know,” said the big bird leading the formation.
But before I had a chance to agree, he only nodded and led the formation up into the fog and out of sight.
But, you know, the pelicans, they’re still out there. So are the seals and the microscopic creatures in our protoplasm, hurricanes, children laughing in playgrounds, income taxes, the galaxy of Andromeda, and this essay – one great organism of being.


Have you ever felt this way? Ever felt the sense of being part of something, connected to something larger? Ever felt humbled or stood in awe before the “great organism of being?”

I have and I know you have because last Fall you told me so. It came out in the God survey when many of you responded to questions about feeling God’s presence or experiencing a spiritual moment. You said that you had had sacred times when you were with your child or grandchild, at a baby naming or wedding, and at Shabbat services. One person wrote about being touched by the quiet light of the Eternal Light here on Kol Nidre night. Another had felt a power beyond himself as he cared for his dying mother.

But what moved more people than any other experience…207 out of 338….that’s 64% of the respondents…was being outdoors and, in the words of the survey, “experiencing nature’s wonders.”

Under the canopy of the sky, many, many of us have definitely felt some kind of kinship with something beyond us. You could call it God – except I learned something else from the survey. When you (and I) talk about God, we tend to have a very particular image in mind. Most of us are not generally talking about a figure in the sky. When we use the word God, over 70% of us are rather talking about a presence, about a force for hope or love in the universe. We are talking about a spirit.

Not everybody believes this. Younger people are less likely to have this sense for a presence in the universe. Even though 338 people responded to the survey, I am pretty sure some of you who felt the least sense for the spiritual may have not even engaged the survey.

Still, there is a sense among many Sinai congregants…especially at this twilight…early evening hour…that what we occasionally feel on nights at the Cape or beautiful days in Vermont or while biking in places as far away as San Francisco is real.

There is more to life than what we see in the everyday, and part of what brings us here tonight is the desire to get in touch with this feeling of awe. We often we feel are part of something bigger than us, and on this night of nights, we are here to explore that connection.

Which leads in turn to the most Yom Kippur of Yom Kippur questions.

Let me put it this way: You see, something interesting happened in last year’s God survey. Once those of you who responded to the survey were in the mood of the survey and thinking God thoughts, there was a question which invited you to imagine being able to ask God any question you had.

Many people asked about justice and fairness. Why so much evil in the world. But just about as many surprised me by asking even broader questions (what I would call Yom Kippur questions) such as: God, why are we here? What’s the purpose? Where are we going?

It’s those kind of ultimate questions that are on our radar this evening.

I like to describe our situation by suggesting that all of us all year are on a journey. We hike our way along the path of life, and the High Holidays are that time when the year long trail leads us to the top of a mountain. On Yom Kippur, in particular, we clear the treetops and get ourselves high enough up on that mountain to see it all. Up here, we’ve got perspective. At the peak, we can finally see back where we’ve been for the year. We can try to look ahead. Way up here, we set aside time to wonder about the meaning of the whole panorama - this whole journey we call life.

Why am I here? What’s the purpose? Where am I going with my life?

At one level, this last question seems like a pretty simple question. Most of us are going to make a living. That’s our job. Even those of us who are retired pay close attention to the material side of life. Investments, interest payments: We made a living in earlier years and need to be sure now that we can sustain ourselves over the coming years.

This is what we do. This is what the Mishnah meant when it taught, “Without flour, there isn’t room for Torah.” Which is to say, without basic necessities (read income) who has time to wonder about life’s meaning.
Of course, there is another side to the Mishnah’s quote. Without flour, it’s true there isn’t Torah. On the other hand, without Torah, there can’t be flour. Which is to say, without some sense of purpose, what good are the clothes, cars, and gadgets we collect over the years.

Something like this must have been on the mind of the medieval Christians who built the great cathedral of Chartres, about 40 miles outside Paris. This past summer when Marsha and I were in France we visited Chartres and what struck me most about the old cathedral was the astonishing piece of art worked into the stones of the floor.

It’s a maze maybe 40 feet in diameter.

You couldn’t be in a building that was more certain of itself. The architecture is as bold and resolute as could be. The building tells you there is a God and our task is to be God’s servant.
Nevertheless, there is this maze.

What does it signify? What is it doing there?

I think it’s the builders’ way of saying that, no matter how sure you are about where you are going in life, you can’t ever be 100% sure you have life under control. Life is not a spreadsheet. Life is rather like a maze where getting to where one really wants to go is not easy.

You may have all you want but not be all you want. You may build as fabulous a sanctuary as any in all of Europe, but your personal journey isn’t thereby complete.

No, you still need to make sense of your life. You’ve got to thread the needle. You’ve got to solve the maze and discover whatever it is that will give your life roots and purpose and wholeness.

Here, tonight, this is the challenge we confront on our Sabbath of Sabbaths. We’re here to acknowledge that life is like a maze. Not simple. Not direct. It takes work to make sense out of the choices, opportunities, and dilemmas life hands us.

This sense that life takes work is what the Torah teaches in an indirect way. Do you remember how it took our ancestors 40 years to get to Canaan? Did it ever strike you as strange that the journey essentially took a generation? After all, if you or I were to walk directly from Egypt to Israel it wouldn’t take us much more than a few weeks. The literal trip is not that long.

So why the 40 years or as the Torah puts it…Why does it take a generation to travel to Canaan?

Because the trip our ancestors took was more than a walk through the Sinai Peninsula. It was really a journey to the Promised Land and, according to the Torah, you can’t get to your life’s destination without investing a lifetime.

Our ancestors’ trek through the Sinai symbolizes the journey all of us make along our path of life, and it just so happens to take about a lifetime to get wherever each of us is meant to go in our lifetime.

I’d like to think that is why Yom Kippur works better and better the more seasoned a person becomes. Because the older you get, the farther along the path of life you get, the more you realize how complicated the journey is. With time we become less sure that we are so easily in control of life. We develop a sense that there is something larger…some larger pattern…working around us, through us, beside and beneath us.

Over the years, you must have noticed the quilt in the auditorium. It was done in 1991 when Sinai celebrated its 60th birthday. That Fall we asked every student in the Temple school to decorate a fabric square on one of the holidays. We asked the youngest students to do the “easiest” holidays. They did Chanukah, Shabbat, and Purim because they were the most visual. We worked our way up through the grades, giving the older children less concrete holidays. The second oldest students were given Rosh Hashanah; the oldest got Yom Kippur.
Looking back on it, there was probably a greater wisdom at work when it came to allocating the holidays. We gave the oldest students Yom Kippur because at a profound level Yom Kippur requires maturity. Yom Kippur really only makes sense when you have lived a bit, stumbled a bit, struggled, questioned, and wondered a bit about this gift we call life.

You might say, only people who have taken a wrong turn on the maze of life, perhaps even walked a mile or more in the wrong direction can fully appreciate the power of this day.

And what is that power? What grabs us strongly about Kol Nidre?

I believe we are here, for at least a few hours, to stop being in control. To let go. We are here at the mountain top to gain a sense for the direction of our lives and to ask great questions about the shape of our lives.
We are here to be vulnerable. To be humbled. To be honest. To regret. To apologize. To confess.

And maybe one other thing: We are here because of this story. It’s a story told about the two sons of a Chasidic rabbi. The boys liked to play the game of “rabbi” and “chasid” or follower.

One day, the two were playing their make-believe game. Zalman, who was seven years old, took the role of the rabbi while the younger boy, Sholem, who was five, took the part of the rabbi’s chasid or follower.
Sholem, the little one, asked what penance he should do for having forgotten to say the correct blessing before eating an apple.

His big brother replied, “For the next 40 days you are to study the laws of blessings twice a day. You must recite every blessing to yourself silently and then say it aloud so that everyone with you can hear what you say.”
Sholem, the younger, objected. He told Zalman, “That’s not right. You didn’t do it right.”

Zalman argued, “How can you say that? I’ve watched our father through the keyhole when someone asked him the same question and I gave his exact reply.”

Sholem responded, “I watched father too, but you didn’t do it right…Before he gives an answer…father always sighs.”


That is what we need to do tonight.

Let go right now. Ask great questions. Be vulnerable and honest. Regret, apologize, and confess.

Those are tonight’s challenges plus this last one: We need to sigh.

Sigh over our certainties.

Sigh over our mistakes and failures.

Sigh over missed opportunities.

We need to sigh for the times we rush too quickly through life.

We need to sigh for the times we lose sight of our highest values.

We need to sigh for the times when we just don’t listen to the pelicans.

“You and us. We’re all just creatures. One great organism of being. “

What a mystery.

What a life.

One family. One community longing to fly.

All of us longing to be loved and to give as much love as we truly have.




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