“P.S. – I LOVE YOU TEMPLE SINAI . . .
“THE UNCHANGED MELODY”
A Sermon Series for Kol Nidre Eve 5776
September 22, 2015
Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn
Congregation Temple Sinai
New Orleans, Louisiana
More or less, coming from nowhere, the Cantor asked me, in a moment of whimsy (to which he is sometimes given) calling out from his study to my study:
Hey Rabbi, what do you think are the chances that
you could ever imagine a scenario in which,
with you in good health, the Cantor at Temple Sinai would deliver the sermon on Kol Nidre Eve?
Mind you, this theoretical question was posed many weeks prior to the arrival of August 2005, and seeking to answer the Cantor’s query in the very same whimsical spirit in which it was posed, I replied good naturedly, in words somewhat approaching these –
Not as long as I have pulse or breath!
P. S. – Temple Sinai and Cantor Colman I LOVE YOU . . . The Cantor did deliver the sermon on Kol Nidre that year! And the Rabbi? Where was the Rabbi? He held forth in Baton Rouge!
After the storm, we all decided that it would be wise to hold our services that year in Baton Rouge and it was a highly emotional experience. Don’t forget, most everyone was still in shock and up to their ears in claims adjusters. Two hundred or so Temple Sinai members were now living in the Baton Rouge area at least temporarily, and, for whatever reason, that particular year the gracious B’nai Israel Congregation had need of a rabbi. Hence, we held early and late services, and it was comforting and inspiring for us all to be together as a united Reform Congregation.
Andrea and I were temporarily living in Atlanta and just prior to Kol Nidre, precisely as my flight landed in Baton Rouge, Andrea called to report that Cliff Kern had just called her with the long awaited news, this Louis Comfort Tiffany Ner Tamid – our Eternal Light – was now once again casting its reassuring glow in our sanctuary.
I tell you that I cried upon hearing that joyous news! And that’s how (thank God with both pulse and breath) I preached in Baton Rouge on that Kol Nidre Eve, while (with some lights on and some still off) the Cantor delivered the sermon to the combined uptown New Orleans Reform Congregations from this very pulpit. And isn’t life a hoot!
But this year we are all together – the Cantor singing (so beautifully as always) and the Rabbi at the pulpit asking you:
• Now, what’s your take on this holy night?
• What brought you here tonight to join with your fellow Jews on this, the holiest night of the Jewish year?
• Someone once told me, “Well, isn’t that the night we plead for our contract to be extended in The Book of Life for the New Year? Others have recollected how on this one night their parents absolutely insisted that the whole family would show up in Temple, no questions asked, and so now they impose the same upon their children!
Well, whatever the rationale, I know that we would all like this night to be one rich with personal meaning, and a deeply touching encounter with the Spirit.
This is after all, the one night in all the year, when we are privileged to hear that haunting chant which Leo Tolstoy once labeled –
The saddest, and yet, the most uplifting
of all melodies.
The Kol Nidre – the text alone is said to be 1,500 years old.
We long, don’t we, for a profound encounter to validate the whole notion of atonement which is so central to Yom Kippur? But can it really deliver such, this “UNCHANGED MELODY?” Can a 9th century chant attend the aching void of 21st century angst and regret?
Last year, our Confirmands focused their personal remarks during the Confirmation Service on the Talmudic phrase which crowns the marble ark right above our heads here. The phrase, “Da Lifney Mi Atah Omed: Know before whom you stand” is a powerful call to acknowledge that we are not, any one of us, the center of the universe, and that life demands a healthy dose of humility. This verse from tractate Berachot, Babylonian Talmud “know Before Whom You Stand!,” literally lifts our eyes to a realization which is at the very essence of this Kol Nidre Eve! Let me ask you – before whom were we standing while our Torah scrolls were assembled before us by our synagogue leadership?
First, we stand before ourselves this night, don’t we? We Jews atone in a group, but our confession is a personal and individual one. How do you like this new Prayer Book? Have you noticed that the editors doubled the length of the Avinu Malkenu Prayer – formerly “Our Father, Our King”? I tell you there are sins enumerated in this prayer now that most of us have yet to have a chance to even commit!
Yet as Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz interprets:
Those faults ought to be regarded as the seeds of virtue,
in that they represent the trigger mechanism of
the journey back which enables us to rebuild our
personality and our past.
(We) should regard the faults as something constructive
like the beginning of a new and beautiful story.
Now, that is a fabulous interpretation of this Kol Nidre moment. We become our own judge and look at ourselves with a degree of both mercy and severity, wondering what has become of this person and the promise they embodied when first their parents held their child’s little hand in their own?
“Know Before Whom You Stand”! Well, before Yom Kippur comes to an end, we certainly ought to look at how we stand with others. Tonight we are beginning a conversation on our relationships. We’ve all just entered a New Year. It would be well to sit ourselves down to think:
Here’s how long I have been on this earth.
[And then you fill in the number of years.]
The sum of my actions, my decisions, my attitudes,
– for better or for worse, they are going to reflect
the person that I have become – so far on my journey.
The decision to make changes and adjustments
is mine to make because I am a free moral agent
and my Judaism teaches me that.
But, it cannot be denied, that at the end of every life, whenever that happens (and, God willing, you will be 120 years young when it does), but at the end, it’s just as Robert Louis Stevenson once put it:
Sooner or later, we have to sit down
to a banquet of consequences.
You want to know how you’re standing with others? Go ahead and take a glimpse. It is Kol Nidre after all! My friend Maurice Boyd taught me some 30 years ago that:
• If what you’re after in life is power, then you better forget about love. Because, it’s very difficult to have both.
• If what you really want is security, then don’t think about ecstasy, because you won’t find it.
• If your basic attitude to people is one of confrontation, then don’t expect them (dear ones included) to come knocking at your door when what they need is tenderness.
• If you really are nothing but a materialist, don’t look for the spiritual values of life. Because, you’ll never understand them.
• If you view life as a rat race well, then don’t be expecting to find any dignity in it.
• If you’re interested only in quantity and not in quality, you better keep your averages up.
• If you love life in the fast lane, then by all means don’t set your heart on anything that takes time.
• If you think your children are your own possessions, then don’t expect them to be blessed with free and creative spirits.
• And, if you are merciless on the way up, don’t look for mercy on the way down.
• And if you live by the sword, then by God, you’d better carry one. Because, you see, life is symmetry. What goes around comes around. The chickens come home to roost. And we really do reap what we sow.
In his book God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel, says this of our accountability:
Human action is not the beginning.
At the beginning is God’s eternal expectation.
In every act we either answer or defy,
we either return or move away,
we either fulfill or miss the goal.
So there I’ve done it. I have brought up the subject of God on this Atonement Eve. Good thing too, because I’m the rabbi here! “Da Lifney Mi Atah Omed – Know Before Whom You Stand” – You stand before yourself, and before those with whom you share your world. But, not a second too soon – we recognize that we stand here on this holy night before our Creator.
Somewhere, along he dark corridor of the past, I only hope and pray, that a parent, a teacher, a sibling, an aunt, an uncle, once turned to you and asked you about your dream for yourself.
We all stand tonight before our Creator Who has a continuing dream for our life’s unfolding, and it will be revealed to us in God’s good time. So, you see, you’re never too old to dream. Keep your eyes open and your heart attuned for God’s calling to richer meaning and worthiness.
I’ll admit, I have always been fascinated by person dreams! I was so lucky to be captured by mine as a young boy. How? Picture this: It was 1958. Now, imagine your rabbi in that opening scene from that fantastic movie “Pretty Woman.” I’m ten years old wondering where in the world I was. And that happy fellow from the opening scene of Pretty Woman – welcomes me to Hollywood, excitedly inquiring:
What’s your dream?
Everybody comes here;
This is Hollywood, land of dreams.
Hey mister? Hey, what’s your dream?
And ten year old Eddie Paul Cohn from Glen Burnie, Maryland and answers the fellow as honestly as he can.
Me? My dream? Hollywood? No, I thought it was supposed to be Cincinnati! I want to be a Rabbi of a wonderful Reform Temple, because I love being Jewish and I want to help others to feel that love too.
And, oh, if it wouldn’t be too much to ask, it needs to have a great pipe organ. And a Ner Tamid, an eternal light that will not go out. (OK, I’ve added that part for dramatic effect!)
Here’s the truth: you and God; God and you have helped me realize that young boy’s dearest dream and I am most humbly grateful for your love and receptiveness these 28 years. And here we are together, now, each of us at different places on our search for faith and on our own life’s journeys.
So, you say, it’s Kol Nidre Eve but I’m not sure about God, prayer, and life and beyond? Everyone has their doubts, everyone! Doubts are perfectly okay just don’t ever imagine that give up on your need to search. No matter what, keep searching.
Yes, I remember it like it was yesterday. And I did indeed cry when, in all of the confusion we were all suffering, the happy news reached me, that this holy lamp was once again rekindled.
You know, Jewish existence is a miraculous story and our history as a people is nothing short of the world’s greatest drama. Nothing about our Jewish continuance has ever been inevitable. But look – the lamp is lit, and at 146 years young, I LOVE YOU TEMPLE SINAI, with all my love!