I changed my mind walking to Shul. I was going to talk about one thing and then decided to take a different route, based on what fell out of the sky.
On the 8th Avenue sidewalk near Union Street I saw a satellite TV dish (Direct TV, RCA) that had blown off someone's roof in the tornado and lay, neglected, on the ground. In a moment of inspiration I picked it up and realized that I had a prop to begin the sermon. I immediately ran into my in-laws, who remarked that they had seen it, too--I think if not blown off the roof it served to symbolize for many who walked past it in the storm's aftermath as a kind of metaphor for our time--the dynamic between the human need for continual connectivity and God or Nature's powerful potential to call the shots and "connect" at will.
I had one text I knew I wanted to use, the opening lines of Psalm 19. The entire Psalm is here. Worth reading, because you can see how many of its lines get used in Jewish liturgy--7-9, the Torah liturgy; 14 from the end of the Amidah.
The tension between a TV signal sent throughout the earth being felled, and decisively so, by a mighty wind, was too good to pass up. And frankly a miracle that no one was hit by the falling dish as they ran for cover on Thursday.19:1 For the Leader. A Psalm of David.19:2 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork;
19:3 Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night revealeth knowledge;
19:4 There is no speech, there are no words, neither is their voice heard.
19:5 Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath He set a tent for the sun,
19:6 Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course.
19:7 His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it; and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.
19:8 The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
19:9 The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
19:10 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the Lord are true, they are righteous altogether;
19:11 More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
19:12 Moreover by them is Thy servant warned; in keeping of them there is great reward.
19:13 Who can discern his errors? Clear Thou me from hidden faults.
19:14 Keep back Thy servant also from presumptuous sins, that they may not have dominion over me; then shall I be faultless, and I shall be clear from great transgression.
19:15 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before Thee, O the Lord, my Rock, and my Redeemer.
In any case, I mused about the word "dish" walking to Shul. I thought of the first kugel I ate, off a dish; I thought of a petrie dish, where life saving experiments are made; I even thought of Cole Porter's use of the term "dish" to connote the object of one's desire. And then the satellite tv dish. I loved the line in 19.5--"their line is gone out through all the earth."
But before reading those words, and holding up the dish, I wanted to convey what I thought was an emotion that was coursing through the room and was very much on the minds of many, especially given the themes of life and death that permeate much of Yom Kippur. So after Yom Kippur and Shabbat greetings, I simply said, "Yesterday we almost died!" And many people laughed, conveying that truthful sense of wonder and desperation and gratitude that we had evaded a swift decision from God and Nature to do what they will with the earth where we live. Secondly, in thanking Rev Meeter and the leaders of Old First for hosting us, I said among the 1300 people sitting in the Church for Kol Nidre were literally hundreds of Jews who, upon seeing the tornado and its aftermath proclaimed, "Jesus Christ!" Storms drive us to the Church in the first place with last year's ceiling collapse; now a tornado on erev Erev Yom Kippur and here we are proclaiming the name of your lord--nice work, Daniel!
We had a good laugh. The catharsis was important--humor plays that essential role and with mention of the tornado out of the way, along with a very healthy dose of gratitude that despite the destruction we had all been spared our lives, we could address Yom Kippur.
The core of my thoughts attempted to speak to the themes of utter seriousness that were upon us. Each year on the Bimah for Kol Nidre is one member who usually has a joke or two to share with me. But this year there were no jokes. We talked about the soaring poverty rates; the unemployment that continues to plague; and the anger and accusations that fly across the political spectrum with little hope of productive progress. Though one can feel helpless in the face of it all, it is important to remember and practice Judaism's central idea--that each of us are responsible for our place in the world, making what difference we can.
I told the story of two students I knew at NYU during my years there from 1998-2004. One from an observant background; the other, a non-believer. Each of whom surveyed the landscape of the obvious dislocation of the early 21st century and had decided to make a difference in the world *locally* by creating systemic change from the ground up. One has partnered with Amish farmers to produce kosher, organic grass-feed meat. The ethical and the religious melded into one and represented for those kosher keepers of the faith (present company included) a valuable and important contribution to the world. The other was among the first to volunteer to provide relief through the American Jewish World Service's first-ever Alternative Spring Break, which NYU piloted with Columbia University at Ruth Messinger's request and the program itself has grown to reach hundreds of young people over the years, introducing them to the vitally important work international development and critical philanthropic support for NGOs.
Holding up the dispatched dish, I wanted to convey the actual disconnect between those who stir the pot by clamoring to the airwaves and those who seek to make sense of our nutty times by rolling up their sleeves and doing the work, on the ground, to redeem our world. How many were in the pews at that moment? Hundreds and hundreds, each of whom with the potential to add goodness and kindness to our world. We can decry a paucity of great leadership (thankfully our congregation is blessed with an extraordinary and hard-working United States Senator!) or we can do it ourselves--creating an unstoppable force for good in the world.
This fall the Charles H. Revson Foundation awarded us a grant to expand our work of outreach fellowships by creating a Community Organizing Fellow--Isabel Burton--who has done extraordinary work already meeting with dozens of congregants and community leaders to talk about what kind of work we might engage in to create systemic change. And in the process, secured a small grant from UJA Federation of NY for Jewish Social Action month in order to partner with the Osborne Association to create an ongoing effort to provide educational and moral support to children of New York state prisoners. This year, in addition to our annual Yom Kippur Appeal for valued and needed financial support, Isabel created a Yom Kippur Social Action Pledge Card, which allowed people to make a promise of what they want to work on in the year ahead. There were numerous choices listed based on her "listening campaign" (classic community organizing principle number one: listen!) and a write-in section for other suggestions as well. Having a Fellow engaged in this work, God willing, means that the best of intentions--that dreaded bogeyman of good work, "follow-up," will be realized.
Our pal Seth was with us for dinner before services and he reminded me of a great story about Rabbi AJ Wolf, of blessed memory. Seth grew up in his congregation in Chicago and loves to share stories and imitations of Arnold's inimitable style and moral urgency. In deep, gravely voice, he channeled Arnold: "Yom Kippur means we all must die." That thought, along with what we must do to avoid death, propelled me toward Shul for Kol Nidre.
What if Yom Kippur really were the day of our death? Had we done all we could to live our lives to the fullest? That is the question on our minds--not so much *will* we live but *how* will we live?
And one certain measure of *how* we will live can be discerned through what we commit to doing in the year ahead to alleviate suffering of the poor, the unemployed, the incarcerated; to support human rights; to green our buildings, our homes, our community; to provide shelter for the homeless. The fast God seeks, says Isaiah, is not the affliction we cause our bodies but rather the service we offer others.
If we die today, we all must ask, what is the measure of our lives?
The tent for the sun that is mentioned in verse five of the Psalm above--what is that tent but the structures we build in the world which allow for the light of Torah to shine?
If you are a reader of this blog and you want to get involved, write me or contact Isabel at firstname.lastname@example.org