Kol Nidre 5777
Rabbi Jill Perlman
Every year at the beginning of the second semester of our tenth grade confirmation experience here at Temple Isaiah, I create two concentric circles of chairs, one facing in and one facing out so that my students can look one another in the eye as I ask them a series of questions. Every once in a while I say switch and the inner circle moves down by one.
It’s like speed dating…but not.
I ask them to listen to their partner, not to judge, to share only what they’re comfortable sharing. There are ten or so simultaneous conversations happening at once between pairs; it’s a beautiful cacophony of story. After a few questions about winter vacation and favorite activities to get us comfortable, I start to dig deeper.
Describe a time in your life when you felt powerful.
After a few “well, what do you mean, powerful?” type of questions, the conversations take off. There’s an energy to them. These young men and women sound powerful as they share stories of their own power. I hear someone talking about serving on student council and another about what it feels like to be a mentor, making a difference in a young person’s life.
I call out, Switch.
Describe a time in your life when you felt powerless.
There’s some pause here. There almost always is. And then the stories start. A time when someone was bullied. Or someone watched from the sidelines as someone was being bullied. Someone else speaks about a death in the family.
Switch. And we’re back to power.
Describe a time in your life when you saw injustice and you acted on what you saw.
Describe a time when you didn’t act on an injustice you saw.
What is the biggest injustice you see in the world that needs to be addressed?
What keeps you up at night?
The tone always changes after these conversations. Many students are leaning forward. There’s personal investment now. I’ll bring them to text later that evening; we’ll dive into what Judaism has to say about power and powerlessness. But first, we begin with them. For they are each an eternal text. I want them to know that they are each Torah with wisdom and holiness just as each one of us is.
I begin this semester, which is focused on Judaism and Justice, asking these questions to help our young men and women understand that they are indeed powerful. They can do amazing things. They can mentor and help and challenge and stand up and educate themselves to better themselves and the world.
And I also want them to tap into their own powerlessness. For they are that, too.
At ages 15 and 16, these extremes are at their fingertips. They’re on top of the world, discovering something new every day,… but they also need a bathroom pass at school because we don’t yet trust our teenagers. (We should by the way.)
And that’s life no matter how old we are. It just plays out in different ways. Balancing our extraordinary power with our extraordinary powerlessness.
We have two pockets and in those two pockets, we should carry two notes. One note should read: Bishvili nivra ha’olam—“For me, the world was created.” And the other: V’anokhi afar v’efer—“I am but dust and ashes.”
We are at the heart of the universe and yet nothing really at all.
A historian once said, “Astronomically speaking, man is almost insignificant.” But it was a theologian who said, “Astronomically speaking, man is an astronomer.”
We are the tellers of our own tale, you see. The spinners of our own story. We are significant or insignificant, powerful or powerless based on our own interpretation. We decide that we matter…
If you’re convinced that the world is meaningless, then yes, the world as you experience it around you will probably affirm your assumption. If you understand that you have a purpose on this earth, then in all likelihood, all will appear to align for you on your journey. We are the ones in charge of connecting the dots. We are the ones who recognize beauty in the chaos.
Upon reading the first few chapters of Genesis, a close reading reveals that there are two creation stories with which we need to contend, two stories of how we, human brings came to be.
In the first account, which primarily makes up what we know as Genesis Chapter 1, man is given the mandate to take charge of the world and some read to subdue it. The great Jewish thinker, Joseph Soloveitchik calls this first human being Adam I or Majestic Man. The Man who wields control over creation.
The second Adam, in our second account of the creation of the world, is the Adam who is the keeper of the garden charged with taking care rather than control of it. This is the Adam over which God proclaims, “It is not good for man to be alone.” He is the Adam who needs relationship. Soloveitchik refers to him as Adam II or Covenantal Man. He works in partnership with the earth, with other human beings, and with God. He seeks no need to rule it.
Scholars, rabbis, readers – we’re all puzzled by this double account of creation. Why do we have both? Did the great Editor up there flub, make a mistake?
Soloveitchik chides us on taking everything so literally. He offers that we have both accounts because they are both true in that they both reveal something essential about who we are as human beings. These two variant Adams are the opposing sides of human nature. Whereas Adam I is our ambitious self, Adam II is the inner, the moral side of our being. Whereas Adam I wants to rule the world – and could, Adam II simply wants to serve it.
In every one of us abides these two Adams and we have no one single home.
We need Adam I. He gets things done. He creates, he dreams big, he leads the team. He strategizes to get the win on the football field or in the conference room. He asks for a raise when we deserve it. He is our urge to strive for excellence in all that we do.
We need Adam II. He quiets us down. He reaches out for help. He takes our emotional and spiritual temperature. He asks: what is life asking of me, what am I asking of life?
Adam I wants to know how the world works. Adam II wants to know why. Why in every way. What is our purpose, why are we here.
Those two pockets? The teaching continues: At times when we are arrogant and smug, when we begin to lose our grounding on this earth, when Adam I is all that we are, that is when we are to reach into our pocket and pull out the note that reads: I am but dust and ashes.
And at times, when we feel that we are not enough, that the world is too overwhelming, when we wonder if we have the right to speak up and even if we do, will it make any difference at all, that is when we are to reach our hand into the pocket with the message: For me, the world was created. I can do something.
It’s all in discerning when to pull out the right note; it’s all in discerning when we have let the pendulum swing too far to one side or the other.
Now we know that there are those of us who live in the world of believing that we are only dust and ashes. We feel like we are never enough. We are not smart enough, not nice enough, not rich enough, not brave enough, not pretty or handsome enough. We re-play mistakes we’ve made in a never-ending blooper reel in our heads. Life is more moments in the dark than in the light. We feel lost in the crowd. We wonder: does anybody know I am here? I’m screaming and nobody hears me. For those who live primarily in dust and ashes, this is the year – please - to reach into the other pocket and remember: the world, it was created for you. You are powerful. You are enough.
And there are those of us floating, those of us who feel more than confident that yes, the world is indeed ours. We are not only smart enough, we are smarter. We are not only nice enough – we are the nicest. We have all the answers. We’ve got this. You don’t even need to show up, that’s how much we’ve got this. For those basking in the light, this is the year to reach into the other pocket and remember: you, too, will return to this earth as you came for the dust always returns to the dust.
And this needs to be said as well: I cannot ignore the gendered nature of these extremes. Whereas self-esteem is expected in men, self-aggrandizement is expected in women.
Humility as a behavior can play out as subservience, and subservience used to be a necessary expectation of women and still is to a degree. We don’t have to look very far back in our history to know that women in particular were taught to put others’ needs well before their own. The pendulum for women shifted so far over to the selflessness side that when a woman ventured forward to step into her own ambition, she was treated as treif. She’s not very lady-like. We still feel those ripples today... don’t we?
It is more than time to re-calibrate. This is a journey about noticing how much space you take up in the universe. It is time to ask yourself: Are you always the loudest voice in the room? If so, then step back, leave room for other voices. Or is your voice always missing? If so, it is time to step in and speak up.
If you are unsure which pocket you need to look in, it’s the one instinctively you don’t want to look in – that’s the one.
The world was created for me. I am but dust and ashes. The truth is that most of us live at neither extreme. Women and men alike, we all struggle with the need for control and the realization that there is little control to be had.
These two pockets, these two life messages – they’re both painfully and poignantly true. The world is ours. We are unique. We have power. It is up to us. Up to us whether we will do something with our existence, give something back – or not. And it is also true that the world will continue spinning long, long after we are gone. Most of our names will not be remembered in a few generations. In 100 years, God-willing, this room will be filled with all new people.
On Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we celebrate the birth of the world, it’s easy to feel like anything is possible; indeed, it’s all for us. And today, on Yom Kippur, the day on which we mimic death - no food, no drink, no sex, traditionally dressed all in white as we might be at our own funerals, a day full of repentance – it’s easy to feel as if the dust is returning to the dust.
From the Talmud, we are taught to repent one day before our death. Most of us, however, have no idea when that day will come. Will it be tomorrow, will it be next year, will it be in forty years? To repent one day before our death when that day is an unknown means every day is, of course, a potential last day. Abraham Joshua Heschel wisely knew: “The fact of dying must be a major factor in our understanding of living...”
Not in that Carpe Diem, Seize the day kind of way. No, it has to be more. There has to be more to life than our own happiness and our own pleasure.
Can being honest about our mortality have the power to change how we live?
Each night in our home, after we turn out the lights, as my children lie in their beds, we ask them:
What was your favorite part of the day? They share their worst parts, too. Sometimes, we talk about something that we could have done better as we get square with our lives before bed.
And then comes gratitude. We ask: what do you need to say thank you for?
I am thankful Josh shared his snack. I am thankful for the rain because the plants needed it. I am thankful you took me to karate. I am thankful for you, Mom, for you Dad.
…And we’re thankful for you, Lev and you, Eli, and you, Maya.
The 24th Psalm: The earth is God’s, everything within it, the world and all who dwell on it. In other words, we’re all renters on this good earth. We own nothing. Being honest about our mortality can ground us in gratitude and provide a new perspective on making meaning in this life.Thank you, God, that we have been blessed to open our eyes one more day. This world is a beautiful place – it really is. And it deserves that we open our eyes in radical amazement and awe to take it all in.
I know that it doesn’t always feel that way. To me either. It’s difficult to parse the beauty when so many are in pain. When children in Aleppo are rescued from collapsed buildings literally covered in dust and ashes, when water fills the streets in Haiti and too few are taking notice, when so many are disillusioned to say the least about the current presidential campaign and the possible future of our country.
If the world was indeed created for us, then what are we doing to it?
Well, as Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
In other words as we say at our Passover tables: B'chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim. “In every generation, one is obligated to consider oneself as if one personally had come out of Egypt.” I came out of Egypt. Me. And you. You came out of Egypt, too. There was a journey and we made it to the other side. It’s a template for hope.
The story of the Exodus isn’t just a story of the past. It was never meant to be. It’s for us – now. Rebbe Nachman teaches, “The Exodus occurs in every human being in every era in every year in every day.”
We were slaves and we use our humble beginnings, this memory of who we were, memories that trigger our own sense of powerlessness in this world today to push us to courageously right our wrongs, to make this world more whole. To do the sacred work of rescuing the refugee and rebuilding homes lost in the hurricane and speaking up for a better future.
Because our humility is our strength. Our marginalization is our power. The world is made of dust so of course, this world was made for us as we are made of dust as well.
This is what I believe: We are enough, but the world is not yet enough. We as human beings are enough, but the world is not yet enough.
It is from our suffering that our compassion is born. And so we need to urgently get to work showing and sharing that compassion.
One last story: A woman was traveling on a train to be with her family. As she leaned out through an open window, one of her gloves fell out. She reached into her other pocket, took out the other glove and threw it out the window, too. Some people watching her asked her why she tossed the glove away. She said, “After losing the first glove, I realized that the second one was not necessary for me, but perhaps someone outside the train would find both and use them.”
This story is about more than a glove. It’s about recognizing that loss can lead us to living out our lives with love and compassion for someone outside of ourselves. That is how we begin to make the world feel a little more enough.
Rabbi Larry Hoffman visited us a few weeks ago to kick off what will be a year-long process of visioning for our future, determining who we are and who we will be as the Isaiah community. What are we really all about? What values are at our center?
There will be a series of conversations throughout the year, including one tomorrow at 2:15 during our traditional Yom Kippur study session. These high holy days are a reflective time for each one of us as individuals, but it is also our time as a community to reflect as well.
On vision and values and purpose, on creating a world of enough, let me offer this. There is infinite wisdom in those two notes in those two pockets.
I believe that we are stronger when we are a community that challenges us each to cultivate a genuine sense of humility. We appreciate all of your accomplishments, all of your Adam I-ness, but we are about nurturing your Adam II here. That moral center that guides the rest of your life.
Yom Kippurim sounds an awful lot like Yom C’Purim, a day like Purim. The day of masks. Perhaps it is to remind us of the masks we wear every day, how we try to hide who we truly are.
Well, my hope is that today and for all of your tomorrows, you know that you do not need to wear those masks here. And we want to help create a world where you feel you do not need to wear them out there either, where no one does.
We have humble beginnings. One is obligated to see oneself personally coming out of Egypt – why? Not only so that we can be linked to our past, but so that we can be linked with all who suffer. We’re in this together.
We are and we must be a community that realizes that even though we are but dust and ashes, we are still enough – and in a world that it not yet enough, there is work to be done, so much work… and so, let’s get to it.
As the prophet Micah proclaimed, we must act justly, love mercy, and humbly walk with our God.
Astronomically speaking, we may be insignificant, but theologically speaking, we are God’s partners on this earth. And that makes all the difference.
Shanah tovah. G’mar tov.
 Teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Peschischa.
 From “Two Pockets” by Rabbi Joshua Davidson in Naming God, edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. The referenced historian is Harry Elmer Barnes and the referenced theologian is George Albert Coe.
 From The Lonely Man of Faith, Joseph Soloveitchik.
 Genesis 2:18.
 Line adapted The Lonely Man of Faith, Joseph Soloveitchik.
 My thinking here on Soloveitchik’s two Adams has been inspired by David Brooks in his book, The Road to Character.
 Pirkei Avot 2:10.
 Heschel, “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.”
 Psalm 24:1.
 From Spiderman.
 Talmud Pesachim 116b.
 Story from Rabbi Joseph Potasnik found at: http://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/judaism/2009/08/hope-and-encouragement-for-tough-times-from-jewish-leaders.aspx?p=8#G44cftXjSfQkl8TT.99
 Micah 6:8.