Kol Nidre 5779

G’mar Hatimah Tovah

Once the Baal Shem Tov stood in prayer in the midst of his circle of students.  He drew out his prayer extensively, and his students were not able to wait so long.  So they scattered each one to his own way.  When he completed his prayer, he became very angry at his holy fellowship and said that due to their having departed and not having prayed together with him, they had caused a great separation.

He then told the following parable: as is known, birds leave the cold country in the winter and migrate to the warm lands.  Once it happened that the residents of a warm land noticed that among the birds that had come to them in the winter there was one bird the likeness of which they had never seen in the entire world, both in its beauty and in its form.  However the bird alighted on a very tall tree where it was impossible to reach.  When the king heard about this unusual bird, he commanded that many people assemble.  One would climb on the shoulders of the second, another on him until they would reach the treetop and be able to take the bird.  The people did as the king had commanded, one climbing on another until they reached the treetop.  But the first people who stood at the bottom became impatient standing and waiting and cast off those who were on their shoulders and departed.  Clearly the others fell to the ground and were unable to seize the beautiful bird in accordance with the will of the king.  The key intention of the king was that each one should assist the other so that together they would have the power to ascend to the treetop.  But if the first people abandoned their place and each one scattered to go his own way, even those who stood above would be unable to reach and the plan of the king would be disrupted.

The Baal Shem Tov said: I would have been able to achieve many things if we had stood together in prayer, but now that you have abandoned me I was unable to reach it alone.  Therefore, a person is obligated to join with one’s fellow, and the two of them with one who is higher than them and they with one who is higher still.  In this way, one can reach the treetop.  (Torah of Reconciliation, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis)

Tonight is about reaching the treetop together.  It is about standing together in prayer and the potential that opportunity has for each and every one of us, when we all join together.

Marc eloquently began the conversation for us as he inspired us to think about the questionAyeka –where are you?  How will you be involved in the synagogue this year?  How will you answer Heenani –Here I am!

As Marc rightfully said, there are so many ways to be involved in the synagogue; more ways than you can imagine.  Tonight I want to talk about one specific area that needs you, so that we can reach the treetop.

I want to talk about minyan, our daily minyan.  I have tremendous pride in the fact that our synagogue offers a daily evening minyan, a Sunday morning minyan, and helps to ensure a minyan in mourners’ homes.  And more to the point, these services are lay led.  I am so proud of our minyan at Temple Emanuel.

Often, the leaders of the services are not Cantor Sokoloff nor me, but congregants.  I am always so proud when congregants are leading our davening.  It is a tremendous source of pride for me that my synagogue sustains a weeknight minyan and has so many leaders in the community.

But as much as it is a source of pride for me, it is also a source of worry.  I know the reality that many Conservative synagogues cannot boast that they have a daily minyan, because many do not.  Some have a few days a week and some do not offer minyan at all.  And I know that it takes a community –literally –at least ten Jewish adults each evening to sustain the minyan.

Look around the room tonight, it is crowded.  And close your eyes and think about the way this room felt over Rosh Hashannah and has felt tonight and will feel tomorrow. . . the power of everyone being together, shoulder to shoulder, davening together.  There is something powerful when we are all together.  It literally is as if we are climbing on top of each other’s shoulders, reaching the treetop, or more precisely, heaven.

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote this beautiful teaching in response to the idea of so many people returning to synagogue over the holidays:

It may well be the case that the word “religion” is related to the word “ligament,” from the Latin ligare, ‘to connect.’ One might argue that the word refers to beliefs that connect a person to God, but I am inclined to side with Emile Durkheim that the role of religion is to bind us to other people in order to evoke together the sense that God is in our midst. We don’t go to church or synagogue to find God; God may indeed be more accessible in nature on a sunny day. We go to church or synagogue to find other worshippers who are looking for what we are looking for, and together we find it. We become something greater than our solitary selves.”

In a little under twenty-four hours from now we will be reading the book of Jonah.  To refresh our memories, the story goes as such: the people of Nineveh are in need of teshuvah, of repentance, as God declares their wickedness.  God commands Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh and urge them to change their ways.  And what does Jonah do?  He runs in the complete opposite direction.  Rather than becoming involved, he chooses to distance himself from the situation.  He finds himself on a boat, tossed off the boat, and into the belly of a fish.  Ultimately, he goes to Nineveh and warns the people.  The people heeded Jonah’s warning and changed their ways.  One would expect Jonah to be pleased that his warnings were heard and the people of Nineveh were spared.

Instead, Jonah was greatly distressed that the people heeded his warning and God forgave the Israelites.  Resting in the heat of the day, God provided a plant to shade Jonah.  Yet, a worm attacked the plant and it withered.  Jonah was aggrieved at the loss of his plant.  And God asks Jonah:

You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight.  And should I not care about Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well.

And in that final question we learn the point of the story: why we read it year after year on Yom Kippur.  We learn that the point of Judaism is to become involved, to not run away, but rather to become connected and entrenched.  It is to care for others, to stand on one another’s shoulders to reach great heights and to be something greater than just ourselves.

That is what minyan is all about.  It is about caring for one another and becoming involved.  I can pray at home alone, it is perfectly acceptable.  But I cannot say certain prayers without a minyan and I cannot read Torah from a scroll without a minyan.  It is not a full prayer experience when I am by myself.  The presence of ten Jews together creates a holy spark, it creates the right situation for a full davening experience.  It takes each and everyone’s presence –everyone’s involvement.

In minyan, we become something greater than our own selves.  Think about how important your presence is for mourners who come to minyan to recite the holy words of Kaddish.  Your presence for them is essential.  In your presence you tell them that you –our community –cares for them and are holding them in these challenging times of being a mourner.  The same for those who come to observe a yahrtzeit.  Your presence helps people remember their loved one among those who care, among their community.

And yet, so many evenings, we struggle for a minyan.  We struggle for ten Jews to come together to pray together –to become more than themselves together.  We have over five hundred families that belong to Temple Emanuel . . . that is more than a thousand Jewish adults –people over the age of bar / bat mitzvah age– that belong to the synagogue . . . and we need ten Jewish adults each night.  Think about those statistics.  It should make it nearly impossible that we would struggle for a minyan.  Yet we do, far too often.

Yes, we have minyan duty that is assigned and so many of you honor your minyan duty responsibility.  You come and you bring your assigned number of people.  Thank you.  I am so appreciative of your commitment to minyan duty.

But it doesn’t always work.  You are away when you have minyan duty, the other families did not bring enough or did not show up, you didn’t get your postcard at all, your postcard came too late or got lost in the mail pile, you just got tied up at work that night, or you assumed we did not need you because the last time you came, we had triple the amount of people necessary for minyan.  That does happen sometimes too!

There is the notion of the bystander effect that sits in the back of my mind.  It is the idea that there are other people who are present who witness the same situation.  There is an assumption that someone else will act.  It is the idea that you are not needed to do anything because someone else will take care of it.  Yet, everyone believes the same idea and no one does anything.

I want to tell you tonight, you are needed.  Your presence, your participation in the minyan can make all of the difference for our community.  You might be the one who ignites the spark so that we have a minyan.  And it might just be on a night that you are not assigned for minyan duty.

Tonight, I am asking you to come to minyan, to come on the evenings you are assigned and in addition to come on the evenings when you can, on the evenings that you look at your clock and it is 7pm or 7:15pm and you realize you can be at the shul by 7:30 and make a difference.  I am asking you to help make the minyan and not assume someone else is –to not assume minyan duty will ensure we have a minyan.  More to the point I am asking you not to assume you are not needed.  You are needed, each and every one of you. Come, see what is happening, connect with God and connect with one another.

The holidays are special.  There is always a sense of coming home when we are all together and see our friends after being away for the summer.  We know who we are going to see as we have our usual seats and our usual neighbors in shul—you might even be catching up at this very moment.  Let’s not wait until the holidays again . . . pick one day a month, the third Thursday, the first Tuesday of the month that you and a few of your friends will come to minyan and then go out for ice cream afterwards.  Minyan is always done before 8pm.  I promise.  Pick Wednesday night of each week.  Come every other month . .. make a commitment to the shul in this holy way.

Answer Marc’s question of Ayeka in this holy way.  Heenayni –Here I am –at minyan.  Like the Baal Shem Tov, there are many great things we can accomplish, when we stand in prayer together.