Kol Nidre 5784 Sermon
By Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman
525 thousand moments so dear,
How do you measure the gift of 36 years?
In case you weren’t aware,[as the song from Rent makes clear]
this new year marks my 36th, my double-chai at LT!
It’s a long time to be a rabbi—all the B’nai Mitzvah kids & weddings & funerals.
All the unanswerable questions, the questing spirits, the broken hearts.
Its an even longer time to be a rabbi still in the very same place!
5784 reminds us, especially me, that life, in Joni Mitchell’s poignant song,
Really is a “Circle Game” seasons going round & round like a carousel in time.
YET because the circle spirals ever upward, it returns, but not actually to the same place, for we and our world are always moving on, never quite the same.
I was a 28-year-old kid when the Sirkman family arrived at LT.
The ‘boys’ now 38 were only 2…
Just ordained, filled with excitement to do the rabbi-thing for real,
Everything was new…Energized to connect every R.S. kid,
To transform young family connections, to link the generations,
Truth be told…I really had no clue!
Sure, I had tons of creative program ideas,
and dynamic ways to deliver them that could engage lots of people.
I was a whiz at marketing faith…
But being the “kid rabbi in a sacred candy store,”
Beyond the sweetness & holy energy high from increases in consumer consumption
I didn’t really know WHY…
WHY did all my efforts matter so immeasurably, to the community I served,
To the Holy One, and to me?
Beneath all the innovative programs and wicked cool catchphrases,
WHAT was the sacred purpose at the core?
And HOW, on that carousel in time, was I responding to a timeless Call
One meant not for me alone, but for us all?
Since this journey has only been possible because we’ve shared it together,
Our response must begin with the reason we’re all here…
Unique in our calendar, YK is our day for being At-One,
for standing face to Face with the Holy One, for doing a ‘deep-dive’ w/ the Divine.
Today we undertake that internal reckoning to make ourselves spiritually right with God again…Yet, all the action points not UP, but out.
For this holiest of holy days is about TESHUVAH,
The code-word whose meaning is our compass.
As master Talmudist Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz teaches,
Teshuvah is a 3-part-path…
A Return, a going back to God, made real by
Our Turning Around, rerouting our life direction,
Which becomes our Response [Thirteen-Petaled Rose, pg 126]
And the Spiritual GPS text we plug in to direct us:
“For wrongs between a person & God, the Day of Atonement atones.
But for wrongs between one person & another, YK does not atone,
Until we have made peace with one another.” [Mishna YOMA]
This sacred day brings us full circle,
Compelling our Teshuvah, our Return for a year of days to come,
by turning us towards one another…
And what Road do we take to get there?...ROUTE 36!
SO, even though I got 75’s in math throughout high school,
Let me share three Life Equations, Teshuvah Takeaways,
Reflecting revelations on these past 36 years,
Not alone renewing our sense of sacred life-purpose, why we are here,
but likewise, empowering each of us to answer God’s Call…
Life-Equation A…36÷2 = 18…18 + 18 = 36 [Are you with me so far!?]
Every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent.
18, of course, is CHAI, Life…And how does a life find fulfillment?
By linking Life with Life, which gives us Double-Chai!
Sounds obvious, yet its anything but…
Even in a pre-pandemic world, it would not be an exaggeration to say
Loneliness has long been an epidemic.
Nearly 25% of the population of our nation say they felt lonely,
Isolated in 2020…and in 2023, post-pandemic the number has risen.
Just this year the surgeon general said:
“Addressing loneliness is one of our generations greatest challenges.”
And though current researchers, quantifying loneliness and its psychological impact have begun to propose pharmaceutical solutions, I believe they are missing the boat…Loneliness does not equate with being alone.
Our ability to self-reflect and process/even struggle with our feelings,
enables self-growth…[It is what today is all about!]
But loneliness is a whole ‘nother level…
You can live in Midtown, be in the middle of a crowded dance-floor,
And still experience devastating loneliness.
Humanities specialist Prof Daniel Russell pinpoints the problem:
“Loneliness sets in because the set of relationships you have, your social network, is not meeting your needs nor fulfilling expectations.”
Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, whose husband, a research doc dubbed Dr. Loneliness, when he died five years ago, reframed his research,
and her focus from pursuing a pill to perceiving social purpose…
She now advocates GRACE in the face of loneliness,
Her acronym for Gratitude, Reciprocity, Altruism, Choice, Enjoyment.
WHAT is LT if not a community of GRACE, a social network wherein,
as people connect, they discover a sense of sacred purpose…
36 years ago, I thought my purpose as a rabbi was affirmed by
big-time programs. The larger the number, the greater the success!
Today, I know, it is what happens before or after or instead of those programs, between people, in the hall or on the street,
the conversing and commiserating and celebrating—the sacred schmoozing,
person to person, that matters most.
Two decades ago, when they changed the name of our movement
from UAHC to URJ, Union for Reform Judaism, I suggested an alternate, though it did not receive serious consideration.
I thought we should rename Reform: Punim to Punim Judaism.
Living Punim-to-Punim means connecting, seeing in that face a whole person, an invitation to mutual discovery,
a true turning towards the other that recognizes, though no two faces are alike, each person carries within the same sacred imprint…THUS,
Punim-to-Punim means mutual appreciation, the possibility of purposeful connection that can lead to real relationship…
Though, for me, the moments are beyond measure…Join me on the bimah.
There we are, Punim-to-Punim at a Shabbat morning, kids Becoming BM…
After the BM is all done with the d’rash, as I connect their teaching
to who they are, talking face to face as if it’s just the two of us, all of a sudden,
A crazy thing can happen…I see in that face, genuinely listening, hearing w/heart,
Rafi or Maya or Jonah’s eyes well up, internalizing the magic of the moment.
And, glancing at their parents’ faces in the front row, filled to the brim with love,
in that awesome reflection of Punim-to-Punim betweenness,
I catch a glimpse of God.
Naturally, its not reserved for milestone moments, nor for the rabbis/cantor alone. We are all part of this Punim-to-Punim collective, for we all got The Call,
To “Go forth, to a land that I will show you…”
And our shared destination?... “To be a blessing!”
RASHI points us in the right direction:
‘Up till now,’ the Holy One explains, ‘The blessing was in My Hands alone.
‘But from here on in, you will possess the power to bless.’
Living a Punim-to-Punim Life means understanding,
When you stop and listen, when you support someone else’s life-struggle, when your compassionate presence helps another feel heard/seen, to know they are not alone…Answering The Call, you become a Blessing…And responding with heart, they become a blessing for you too!
YET, even as we aspire to live Punim-to-Punim,
we can’t/don’t always see things eye to eye.
Life-Equation B…12+12+12 = 36
We tend to be tribal, ‘12-minded’ in nature, not merely when it comes to baseball team loyalty, but in our overall outlook on life.
We see through the prism of our own particular life-perspective,
label it what you will: Optimist-Pessimist-Fatalist…Right-Left-Center…
Red-Blue-Purple…We perceive life through a color-coded filter,
and those who see it differently, politically, culturally, religiously,
are not just off color but off-base, downright wrong.
Has this nation ever felt more polarized?
Have the State of Israel’s factions ever felt more at odds? [More on that 2morrow]
HOW, in such a dangerously divided world,
can we learn to disagree w/o demonizing?
WHERE do we learn to model a dialogue that reflects the ‘Dignity of Difference?’
Where else, but in this Covenant Community?!...
Peter Block, organizational development guru, in his book Community,
identifies the key. “A critical task of leadership in creating true community is to preserve space…for the surfacing of doubt and dissent.” [Community:The Structure of Belonging, pg.137]
WHAT, after all, is the secret sauce to this People Israel’s enduring survival?
We’ve never stopped arguing!
The Talmud, our vast rabbinic repository of Torah Law & Lore is actually
a meandering three-centuries-long debate as to the right Jewish Way/Halachah.
But it leaves us with a multi-lane highway, preserving diverse opinions without
Telling us which way to go…WHY? So we can join in the argument ourselves!
Though it happens across the spectrum of our congregation,
There may be no place argument’s more alive than Chevrah Torah,
Our Shabbat AM weekly study I’ve been privileged to teach 36 years.
The secret to why its so electric is the RAV, Joseph Soloveitchik’s insight:
Once you, or your commentary, comes to the Table, you never leave…
[Even if you are long-gone from this world.]
So, the two-dozen people gathered in person plus the 18 regulars on-line,
All focused on some key Koshi, a question like:
WHAT does it mean to Choose Life?...engage in the dialogue
not just with RASHI [11th century Torah Cliff Notes]
And RAMBAN [12th cent. Mystic] and with MIDRASH RABBAH [5th cent. Compilation]
But, of Blessed memory, with Bernie Axelrod, defiant defender of free-will,
And Irv Zuckerman, storyteller & God’s muse, and always with Rita Grunbaum, survivor & witness to the strength of human spirit…
For the real magic…relevant as Arnie’s urging remains,
Compelling as Harley’s insight always is, learned as Lloyd,
Apt as Steve or Clarence’s textual connection,
Or timely as Elaine or Jane or Bishop Wayne’s comment may be,
The magic is that no one viewpoint is victorious.
Multiple opinions co-exist, contrasts connect, creating a montage of meaning.
Rather than tribal warfare, 12 against 12 against 12, our aim is to share a dialogue that adds up to more than the sum of our parts…
Class Day speaker this June at his alma mater, University of Chicago,
Bret Stephens gave us all a lesson in the sacred art of argument…
As Stephens said
“I want to thank you for all you’ve done to make the college better while preserving what always made it great: the conviction that to think clearly, we must be able to speak freely; that to disagree intelligently, we must understand the views of our opponents profoundly; that to change other people’s minds, we must be open to the possibility that our minds might be changed.”
In contrast to the cutthroat culture of conflict that plagues our public square,
We must foster a dialogue shaped by ‘the Dignity of Difference.’
But strong as we carry our convictions, how do we even begin to get there?
By taking a page from Hasidic Master/Mystic Reb Nachman of Bratslav’s playbook.
‘Argument’ he teaches, ‘was an essential aspect of Creation. Before creating,
God’s Presence filled all space. But. in order to make room for the world,
God self-contracted—the Oneness receding to allow for the Many-ness of the world to take shape…So it is when we talk Torah, or social issues, or politics.
IF our sincere desire is to enter a true dialogue,
To expand and really learn, we must shrink our ideas a bit to make room for others.
For only as we do can Creation be renewed. [Shrinking the Sacred, Abi Dauber Sterne, EJP, 11.13.22]
Notwithstanding those who are bent on our destruction,
considering those with whom we disagree as deserving of dignity,
Giving even that guy who always knows better the benefit of the doubt,
We create a culture of honor where no one is counted out…
Life-Equation C…30/Lamed + 6/Vav = 36
As Jewish Mystical folklore informs us, there exists 36 righteous souls upon whose daily goodness & blessing the continued existence of our world rests,
known, by their number—the Lamed-Vavniks.
In this highly imperfect world, the 36 persist, though all-too-human themselves,
Living lives of humble-hearted holiness, living out their ultimate life-purpose:
Sharing a kindness that helps our world feel more like Eden again.
And here’s the kicker: They don’t know they are Lamed-Vavniks, and neither do we!
Which means that anyone along this carousel in time could be.
With external appearances often framing [if not misinforming] our assumptions,
you just never know.
Which brings me, of all places, to Barbie…
With the backdrop of Barbie-Land, a place of plastic perfection and eternal bliss
Where every day’s a good day and every night’s a girl’s night,
Unchanging as it is unreal, existential dread quickly cracks the façade.
Interrupting a Barbie Dream Dance Party, the host herself poses a horrifying ?
“Do any of you guys ever think about dying?”
Acknowledging her own mortality, leaving Barbie-Land behind for the real world, Barbie finds out what life is all about: Daring to live “Outside the Box,”
Letting no one put you on a pedestal of perfection,
Or label you through their limited perception, but rather—to be REAL,
Grappling with life’s inequities, foibles and falls, changes & challenges,
By embracing the imperfection that makes us holy human,
able to grow and get back up, and give the greatest gift we have to offer:
our most authentic selves…
How ironic that this 1960’s icon of impossible physical ideals
teaches us the ultimate spiritual life-lesson of the Lamed-Vavniks:
Because the blessing comes from inside, appearances are more than deceiving.
We never truly know whose presence might be a pillar upon which our world relies.
Which means—we must treat everyone we meet as if they are…
I met Mickey my second week at Larchmont Temple.
Rabbi Poller mentioned in passing: Michael Severin is coming in to see you.
Well, I thought, that’s news to me. I guess I have my first counseling session.
Mickey’s family, I came to find out, wasn’t just among the Village royalty,
but dated back way further to the first Jews in Larchmont.
The old sign Z’virin Liquors, that became Severin Realty,
still stood [next to Sophia’s Bagels] back in ’87 when I arrived.
His father Phillip was town historian & poet…
And what began as a bi-weekly meeting, you could call it counseling,
Became for me and for Mickey, too, a life-changing relationship.
I learned Mickey’s life-story, his struggles…
How hard it was to grow up an artsy Jewish kid here in the 40’s…
How, after his undergrad degree at Yale and an MFA at Harvard,
life’s unimaginable incongruities & injustices, the suicide of a dear friend,
made Mickey, in his own words, “go mad.”
How he reclaimed his hold on living and continued to create,
And above all, to share his sweetness…
reading storybooks at Mamaroneck Avenue Pre-K [in Maryann Leitner’s class]
How countless teens sought his counsel without even realizing,
Talking regularly with that kind-hearted, disheveled, cigarette smoking guy
always sitting on the bench on Addison Street, or at the corner table at Carlyn’s Cove.
Our weekly dialogue, now extended over the decades,
With Mickey posing impossible-to-answer life-questions,
Hoping to clarify, his “Jewish confusion” became a chance for me to do the same,
Compelling me to question assumptions, to reach deeper for life’s truth…
Wouldn’t you know it, Mickey became part of our extended Sirkman family,
At Sirk-Seders and our regular Shabbat table, Susan often buying household items for his unkempt studio apartment at 11 Addison, trying to make his life more livable.
And as Mickey moved to Sarah Newman when he was in his late 60’s,
he became my Friday 4PM stop, to check-in and take him down to Shabbat Services
there with Rabbi Bogin that he so loved…
And always, to receive a Mickey musing…usually a social critique
On how we humans could grow to be more humane, more caring, more menschy.
It wasn’t only me…The residents & staff of the nursing home all felt it.
For nearly 25 years, I thought I was taking care of Mickey.
But as his parting question every time I saw him made clear,
“Jeffrey, what can I do for you?”
Mickey was nourishing my neshoma, feeding my soul. HE was counseling me!
It was only after I did his funeral in May 2010, as Susan kibbitzed with the Sarah Newman staff and I took in the crowd of caregivers standing there at his grave
That I realized/it hit me: Mickey was a lamed-Vavnik.
His humble-hearted unpretentious presence,
His persistent questions merging with his unrelenting hope,
His faith in human goodness even from his wheelchair…
Through the blessing of his undying love, he kept us going,
And moved all of us, moved me to be more.
Somehow, broken beyond repair, Mickey was making this world more whole.
We each can be an answer to God’s Call.
And you don’t have to be a math major to understand how…
Life’s equations are yours to add up…
36 years and, largely thanks to you, I’m just now beginning to get it.
When we are here for each other—to listen & argue, to question & console,
When we’re able to see past a preconceived outside to a sweetness, a spark within,
When our care transcends our kvetching,
when our turning towards one another brings new hope,
we are not alone living Covenant, but punim to punim to Punim,
giving the gift of our true selves,
we are making this circle game we call life more whole, even holy…
And God knows, that’s why we are here!
So, for this New Year…May it be! AMEN.