Yom Kippur 5773: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

The Doorway to a Life of Legacy: Don’t Just Leave One, Live One!

Yom Kippur – Rabbi Greg Wolfe

“Deep in our hearts we know that the best things said come last. People will talk for hours saying nothing much and then linger at the door with words that come with a rush from the heart. Doorways, it seems, are where the truth is told. We are all gathered at a doorway today. It’s the end of something and the beginning of something else…. We linger there with our hand on the knob chattering away like Polonius to Laertes. Now remember ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’… and don’t forget ‘This above all: To thine own self be true and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.’ But the very best things said often slip out completely unheralded and preceded by the words, ‘Oh, by the way.’” (from Alan Alda’s speech at his daughter’s graduation from college, http://wqbe.com/blog/alwoody/alan-alda-commencement-1980-address-41912)

How universal are these moments perched at the threshold!! Haven’t we all experienced them? These particular timely insights were offered by Alan Alda (over 30 years ago!) at his daughter’s graduation from college; a doorway moment that resonates, still, with poignancy for each one of us. For who has never had to leave or say good bye, welcome a change or make a shift at some point in their lives?

Liminal moments are powerful times in our lives for growth, change and transformation. These are doorway moments where the most important things we say are given voice just as we are almost out the door because, at these points of transition, everything opens! It is in this place that we can do our best inner-work, to see, in this moment, unfettered by the realities of day-to-day life, who we might yet become as individuals and as a community. Before we arrive at the end of Yom Kippur, new gateways will have opened and others closed. But, oh, by the way…until the very last door closes, our work is never finished.

Our doors, in our family, are swinging a lot these days, in both directions. It was only a few weeks ago that we packed up the last boxes, bags, suitcases, and assorted paraphernalia to be loaded up into our cars to transport our son, Noah, to his next big adventure as he set off for an exciting first year at college in Southern California. That was a momentous transition as one door closed just a little bit more and a brand new one was flung wide open.  And it was only a few days ago, now, that my wife, Julie, flew to Milwaukee, where her parents, Sophie and Sherman lived, to help pack the final boxes, suitcases, and sundry things that one collects over a life time to be loaded onto a moving truck destined for Davis, CA. Now we are thrilled to welcome Sophie and Sherman with open arms into our community, where they are embarking on an exciting adventure to make a new home for themselves here with us. Again, one door closes and yet a completely new door is swinging open, beckoning with possibility and promise.

Yom Kippur, itself a gateway, provides us with a sacred opportunity for things to shift as the normal boundaries are loosened; a chance for the holy re-“atunement” of our souls to take place during these 10 Days of Awe, known in Hebrew as the Yamim Nora’im. Nora, comes from the Hebrew word Yir’ah, which is actually rooted in the Hebrew word for seeing, ra’ah. Reb Zalman teaches that yir’ah, often translated as awe or fear, is really neither. Actually, he teaches, yir’ah is that awe-inspiring sense of truly being seen and accepted, in totality, for who you are; a work in progress! (This idea is discussed in Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, Zalman Schachter Shalomi, p. 21-22) When we come before the Holy One, there is no hiding; everything is laid bare. We are all seen, however, through God’s eyes of compassion. God gazes at us as we cross over into a new year and says, “It’s OK, I see you for who you are….  Oh, and by the way, I love you all the more.”

What is true for us in our personal life’s passages is also just as true for us as a community as we stand in the doorway of another year, hand on the knob, a foot still on either side of the threshold. Last year we were blessed to celebrate our past, as we reached the remarkable milestone of our 50th anniversary as a community. This year we traverse into new territory, setting our sights on our future as a congregation. Together we will build new dreams upon the visions and spirit of our founders, which have sustained and nurtured us, and, in the process, deepen the ties that bind us all together, young and old, holding us in sacred community.

Rabbi Edward Feinstein shares a teaching about the Jewish concept of kedushah, holiness, that captures how all that is holy happens in the spaces in between us:

A family, a circle of friends, gathers about the Shabbat table to share a celebration. A cup of wine is raised. The wine is not sacred. What is holy are the bonds that gather us together to celebrate life. So together we recite a prayer called Kiddush.

Two individuals are in love, devoted to sharing their lives together. And words are spoken. You are Kadosh to me. This rite that bonds two souls together is called Kiddushin.

A loved one has died. With tears, we rise in the presence of our community to declare that even the great sadness of death cannot sever the bond that holds us together. This prayer is called Kaddish.

Kiddush, kiddushin, Kaddish, kadosh, kedushah–all mean holiness, and all mean opening the self to embrace another. We form around ourselves a circle of those we care about. The circle includes family, community, nation. We worship a God whose circle of concern is infinite. Adonai Ehad, God is the infinite circle of concern encompassing all of life.

Kedoshim tihiyu, “You shall be holy”: this is the highest spiritual aspiration of Jewish life. Open up the self, draw your circle wider and wider, until it approaches the infinity of God’s circle.

What is the opposite of holiness? In Hebrew, the opposite of kadosh is hol, translated as “ordinary,” but hol literally means “sand.” Sand has no cohesion, no connection, no bonds. When you are in relationship, you share a bond with an Other. It’s this world of hol, sand–of lonely, unconnected selves–that you come to community to escape. (paraphrased from Feinstein’s teaching in Ron Wolfson’s, Relational Judaism, p. 47)

It is in that precious moment in the “in between” that we discover holiness. Though there are many doorways in our lives, all share an important poignant feature of opening our hearts to reflections on our past and, at the same time, imaginings about our future. We stand between what was and what is still yet to be. Our minds are drawn to ponder issues of continuity, to explore questions of what do we take with us and what gets left behind as we move on through. What is lost and what becomes a part of our ongoing legacy? That is, how shall we live, moving forward, in a way that both draws on the wisdom of the past, carrying with us the truth of those who have gone before us, and also inspires and stimulates new possibilities for today and tomorrow. There is a wise parable that invites us to begin to envision what it might mean to truly live in the holiness of the “in between,” where community only exists because of what we bring to it.

A wealthy nobleman, who lived in a small Jewish village, was getting on in years and he wanted to do something important to leave his mark on his community. He desired to create a lasting legacy for the people whom he loved so dearly. He pondered and he weighed all of his options. At last, he smiled as he decided that he would construct the most perfect synagogue as his special gift to the community. He hired only the best artisans and craftspeople from far and wide. For months, the town was abuzz with excitement as workers labored in secret, day and night, on this holy enterprise. None of the villagers were allowed even a glimpse of the project before it was completed. Finally, the big day arrived and everyone in the village gathered for the momentous dedication of their new synagogue. People stood in the doorway and peered in through the windows, but it was too dark to see anything from outside. The benefactor shared with everyone, as they crowded around, his dream that this place would reflect the very best that everyone had to give. Then the people were welcomed inside. They marveled at the beautiful handiwork and the great care that went into the design. But, after looking around at the extraordinary new building, someone asked, “But, where are the lamps? Where will the light come from?” The nobleman pointed to rows of elegant iron hooks that lined each wall of the synagogue. Then he gave each family a lamp with a ring at its top. “You must bring these lamps when you come to the synagogue,” he told them. “Whenever you are not here, your part of the synagogue will be dark, but when you come, when you show up, your presence will illuminate our building, and the light of our community will radiate forth into our world.” (many thanks to my colleague, Rabbi Alan Rabishaw, for sharing this story.)

By building the synagogue in the village, not only has the nobleman given a gift, but he has created an ingenious living legacy that will inspire and engage that Jewish community for generations to come. This lampless synagogue points the way towards what is of most value in a thriving community.  And–No–it’s not to take out the light fixtures! In his newest book, Jewish Megatrends, Rabbi Sid Schwarz identifies four major trends that are charting the course for a vibrant Jewish future. These four emerging themes in successful Jewish communities 1) emphasize seeing the wisdom of our tradition in the context of the world’s religions and in the language of contemporary culture, 2) encourage creating communities that are meaningful, supportive, empowering and non-hierarchical, 3) stimulate a passionate pursuit of social justice activities, and 4) seek out experiences that provide transcendent meaning and a sense of purpose.  These keys to opening new Jewish doorways draw upon ancient Jewish wisdom, yet also provide a modern twist that speaks to the sensibilities and concerns of Jews today.  I see these same four Jewish values–wisdom, community, justice and purpose–represented symbolically in the synagogue whose members are entrusted with the responsibility for providing their own light.

The synagogue in the story illumines the Jewish legacy we can be living. Each of us has been given the gift of sharing a light that is uniquely ours. The synagogue is a living, interactive tool, which enables something transformative to happen only when we show up with our lamps. Each of us can discover our own light, our own wisdom and inner-knowing, and also that of others, only when we are all present. The gift of the lamps represents a sense of empowerment and ownership over this light. No one can shine our unique light for us. Each person must play their part in the community, and our community is strengthened by the fact that we know that life will be diminished if we don’t show up. Our absence is palpable. As we begin to become aware of the impact of our light on others, we can begin to imagine how we can use our light to make their world a better place, filled with the light of justice and goodness. With the light of our lives we bring meaning and purpose into our connections with others and the light of our souls shines through.

A legacy is something to live, not just something that we leave behind to others after we are gone. Our legacy is active; how we live our lives each and every day. It is what we model with our deeds, how we inspire others through our character, what we create, how we teach, how we continue to grow, work, and touch the lives of others in meaningful ways. This is our life’s work, and this is our legacy. Legacies don’t stop simply because we pass through one of life’s doorways. There are always more doors that are opening and closing. We are creating our legacies now, today, and every day, until the final door is closed.  And even what we do today may live on long after we are gone. Oh, and by the way, legacies are not just for those of us who have been welcomed through the glorious gates of AARP-dom, either. No, thinking about our legacy is important at every age. The sooner we begin thinking about the legacy we want to live, the better, because the sooner we will start to live it! (This great idea of  “Living a legacy instead of just leaving one” comes from encore.org)

We might imagine these four megatrends or themes, highlighted by Schwarz–Wisdom, Community, Justice, and Purpose–as doorways into a richer, fuller Jewish life within our own congregation, too. Oh, by the way, the amazing thing is…these doorways already exist in our synagogue and they are just waiting for us to enter through them. And when we do open these various doors of Jewish expression and embrace the opportunities they provide, we may just discover what our legacy is meant to be so that we can start living it.

Doors to A life of Wisdom (chochmah) can be found in many experiences in our educational program this year. One of the best examples of this new wisdom model is our dynamic Chaversangha, a contemplative community of learning, which, thanks to the leadership of Michael Amster and many others, offers an engaging exploration of Jewish and Buddhist practices. Steve Cohen and our adult education committee have also compiled a particularly robust offering of classes and programs. I am especially excited about two interactive seminars I will be leading, both of which begin in early October. There will be the Engaging Israel class sponsored by the Hartman Institute exploring the Jewish values and ideas at the foundation of our relationship with Israel, and the Making Prayer Real class, which will help us develop the Jewish tools to take ownership of our spiritual lives. These are just a few of the opportunities to learn and grow, and share your own knowledge.

Doors to A life of Justice (tzedek) are bursting open this year at CBH! Your first stop might be joining in on the work of our burgeoning Social Action committee, lead by Walt Sherwood. Here you will find ample opportunities to talk and learn about, and work on the issues that matter most to you in our world. To whet your appetite here are a few exciting offerings coming up: Our Social Action Shabbat, on Saturday, December7th, will be dealing with the critical issues of immigration. Shoshana Zatz coordinates our regular Community Meals program and would absolutely welcome your participation. We have also been active in the Interfaith Rotating Winter Shelter, and this year we will be housing the homeless here on the week of February 2-9. Denise Hoffner is really hoping to reach out and get more people involved earlier so please be sure to take part in some of the many mitzvahs needed to make this week happen. Our annual Mitzvah Day is taking place on Sunday, October 13th, and this year we are hoping to expand the number of partners greatly by inviting our chavurot, committees and groups to take a leading role. You can speak with Michael Bobell or Shoshana Zatz to find out how you can make a difference. And, on September 22, our Caring Committee will be hosting a very special training and informational session with Alicia Mittleman from the Jewish Federation about caring for our seniors and those with limited mobility. We may not solve all of the world’s problems, but with your help we can certainly do our share to bring some tikkun, or healing, to our world.

Doors to A life of Community (kehillah) will certainly be a central focus of this year’s community conversations that I spoke about on Rosh Hashana. With a goal of deepening our relationships with one another, we look forward to hearing your stories and passions, and helping you connect in new meaningful ways to your community.  I also want to let you know about one other very exciting community building opportunity that is coming up. Our Union of Reform Judaism Biennial will take place on December 11-15 in San Diego. I hope you will join me and your Bet Haverim partners, along with 5,000 other Reform Jews, for workshops, sharing and an inspiring Shabbat. This is always a tremendous experience where you will truly come away with new perspectives on Jewish life.

Doors to A life of Purpose (kedushah) abound in all of the activities I have shared, in addition to the many holiday celebrations and Shabbat services that occur on a regular basis. If you are looking for ways that the deeper spiritual message of Judaism might speak to who you are and who you are hoping to become let me encourage you to become a regular member of our Shabbat minyan, where kehillah and Kedushah flourish. Be sure to join us, as well, for this year’s ever-popular Kol HaNefesh contemplative spiritual encounter, Yom Kippur afternoon at 3 PM. We want to hear about what other spiritual opportunities you would be interested in creating. Your voice and spirit really make a difference.

These are merely a few sparks to ignite your own passions and imagination. There is so much more that can only come about as we interact with one another, tell our stories, and inspire one another as we participate together in our congregation-wide conversation about your Jewish dreams and the legacy you hope to live.

As we actively step through each of these doors together, we are living a glowing legacy–not just leaving one–that will inspire those around us to live lives of Jewish meaning and purpose, and will create a dynamic model for future generations to follow.

As we enter each of these doors together, we are creating a bright Jewish future that is deeply intertwined in the life of the world around us, and which also speaks to the heart, mind and spirit of the Jews of our times.

As we pass through each of these doors together, we are lifting a lamp that lights the way to greater Jewish engagement, a more vibrant Jewish community, and paths that will enrich our own lives.

oh, by the way….thank you for being in my life and sharing this journey with me, I am so blessed to have learned so much from you; I am thrilled by the possibilities and by the opportunities we will have to craft our legacies together. Oh, by the way, … one more thing! Remember, I love you all for the special light that you each bring to this holy place!