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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Yom Kippur 2016 Sermon by Rabbi Jamie Korngold

Enjoy this video of Rabbi Jamie Korngold's sermon from Kol Nidre - Yom Kippur 2016:

Transcript of the video:
Kol Nidre Sermon 2016
Rabbi Jamie Korngold

My daughter Ori listens to Harry Potter on an incessant loop. I read the entire series to her and when we turned the last page, she said, “Again! Let’s read it again!”

I downloaded all the books on Audible for her.

Now Ori can visit the world of Harry Potter whenever she likes.

When we are in the car, Ori disapparates out of the way-back and apparates into Hogsmead to drink Butterbeer with her pals Hermione, Ron and Harry.

Sometimes late at night I hear her listening. She has trouble sleeping and so she turns on her ipod and jumps into the Floo Network and travels to Hogwarts where she practices her

 Patronus Charm in the Room of Requirement with her friends until she is tired and comes back home to sleep.

Ori doesn’t visit all the books. I’ve noticed she turns away from the later, darker books. She knows what has been written cannot be unwritten, but that does not mean she needs to hang out in that section of the book. So she doesn’t.

My mother also lives in the world of imagination. I wish I could listen in on her sound track as easily I can Ori’s.

But I cannot. My mother has Alzheimer’s and although physically she lives a mile from my house, I’m not sure where she dwells. If she too is caught up in an unending loop, I hope it is one of our many trips to Jones Beach.

My sister and I jumping over waves, squealing as the saltwater catches us, splashing each other with delight. Mom is reading a book, relaxing in the sun, the smell of coconut sun-oil, the taste of sand-crusted peanut butter sandwiches and the cold fizz of Tab.

Some Alzheimer’s patients are belligerent, angry, scared. Others are happy seemingly content. I am fortunate that my mother is happy. I don’t imagine this is a choice. More likely it’s just what loop your brain is stuck in.

Sadie, my older daughter and I, take Bubbe out for dinner every Thursday night. We went to Smash Burger last week and my mother pronounced her spinach-goat–cheese-cucumber topped burger the best burger she had eaten in her entire life.

My mother doesn’t know what she had for breakfast this morning let alone recall the long line of burgers she has eaten. This is the upside of Alzheimer’s and she goes with it. To her, everything is the best ever.

I’ve taken to asking my mother questions like, “Mom, tell me something.”
“What kind of thing?”  She asks.

“Anything I say. I just want to hear your voice.”

 “Aren’t the leaves beautiful?” she says pointing out the window. And Sadie and I launch into a long conversation about Colorado leaves and New England leaves and how I really must take her East some day to see them. Mom drops out of the conversation – conversations are hard for her to follow --  but she listens.

Last week I asked my mother, “Mom, what words of wisdom do you have for us?” And she said, ”Wisdom?” and I said,  “Yes. What do we need to know?”

And she said, “Just enjoy each other. That’s all. Just enjoy each other.”

There was time when I would have thought her answer trite and gone off in search of a more esoteric teaching. But now I know, my mother is right. That is the most important thing, each other.

When Alzheimer’s comes for you it demands that you downsize. It starts small – a forgotten sweater, misplaced keys,

but eventually you forget a meeting, a vital phone call goes unmade, and soon Alzheimer’s takes your job, then your drivers license, your house with the table at which you fed your children, your favorite books with the notes scrawled in the margins (too complicated now), then your activities go one by one as you forget the rules, and then names of people drop out until only a very small circle of recognition remains. My mother has downsized to this truth: the most important thing is each other.  Soon that too will be gone.

Ori disappears into the world of Harry Potter. But she always comes back. My mother on the other hand, is slowly, truly disappearing.

It occurred to me the other day, that what my mother is teaching me with her illness is also the central lesson of Yom Kippur.

We cannot always control what life hands us; all we can control is what we do with it. 

The raw, painful truth.

Yom Kippur – is the holy day of raw, painful truth.

We are asked to come to this day unmasked.  In white. 

This is why on Yom Kippur make-up is prohibited. So too is fancy clothing, jewelry, perfumes, food, water, electronics. 

We are meant to come here vulnerable, unmasked, unadorned.

Without illusion or distraction.

The rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the successful and the broken, we all stand as equals.

Tonight we are meant to face a frightening truth.

Our central prayer for the evening Unetantokef, asks the question:

Who will live and who will die?

This can be heard as an inventory – this year we lost Steve Meyer’s mother and Larry Rosen’s sister among others, which is startling enough. But I don’t actually think that is what is intended.

I think the question:

Who will live and who will die?
Is meant to be answered - All of us.

Some of us will die too young, with much left undone
and others will die too late, with our minds or bodies riddled with disease.

How I wish I could give some of my mother’s days to someone else. But that is not how it works.

But the real question is faced with this naked truth of our mortality, what should we do?

How do we bring meaning to our existence?

The prayer, Unetantokef does not leave us hanging.

Rather, it answers it’s own question:

Meaning is found in teshuvah, teffilah, and tzedakah.

Let me explain.

Teshuvah – turning.

On Rosh Hashanah we discussed teshuvah as turning back to our best selves. Repenting, changing and forgiving.

On Yom Kippur we broaden this understanding of teshuvah, turning -  and think of teshuva as our ability to react, the ability to effect change in our own lives.

On our Rosh Hashanah hike we were discussing the power of teshuva, turning, and one of our participants asked us to imagine a field of sunflowers, any entire mountain side of flowers, moving their yellow heads in response to the moving sun.

So too, she continued, we have the power to alter our reactions.  We are not stagnant. We can move, react, change.

Victor Frankel, a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote a book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

In it, he explores the question of how are we to cope with debilitating suffering? What are we to do when life does hands us more than we can cope with? 

During the Holocaust, when every aspect of humanity was stripped from the prisoners, the only thing that remained within their control was how they reacted to the situation. Frankel writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing…to chose one’s attitude…to choose one’s way.” And he explains further, “Human freedom is not freedom from conditions, but freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.”

We do not choose our suffering or the diseases that afflict our loved ones, but we do choose our attitude, we do choose our way.

The principal of Ori’s school, Kent Kruger, recently sent out an email with parenting tips. He reminded us that as a survival technique, our brains are wired to pay 3-5 times more attention to the negative then the positive.  As I am sure you all know, our tendency to only hear the negative is why when giving feedback we are supposed to first offer praise.

Mr. Kruger emphasized that turning toward the positive is a learned skill that we need to teach our children and ourselves. “They come home complaining about the friend who wouldn’t play with them at recess,” he cautions,  “but really the rest of their day was amazing. You must direct them, teach them that they have a choice on what to focus.”  

Michael J. Thompson called this, “Don’t interview for Pain.” Meaning, don’t ask questions that corner people into dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives.  Perhaps they have moved on. Rather, ask open questions and see where it goes.  I’m not saying we should ignore our pain, we do need to speak it – but when we are done, l want us to encourage each other toward the light rather than to abide by our human tendency to dwell in the darkness.

Back to Ori’s modeling for us -  she knows well, that we cannot unwrite the fictional tragedies that occur during the Battle of Hogwarts, but neither does she need to read that part of the story again and again and again.  Rather, we like she, can point our attention to the magical discoveries of book one, a flying motorcycle and a delicious albeit squashed birthday cake. We can choose to dwell on the memory of a friend appearing at the moment he was needed and from that experience, draw inspiration and motivation to be good, responsive friends. We have some choice in the recitation and recollection of our own books of life.

And we can be like my mother, who faces each morning with blankness where there should be a plethora of vibrant details and soothing memories, yet in response, declares each smell, taste and touch, the best ever.

Teshuvah – turning, We cannot control all the parts of our lives, but we can control our response. 

Now let us turn to the second of the three answers we are given. 

Teffilah – prayer.

Prayer, in the Jewish tradition, is an opportunity to rant, to rail, to beg, to argue, to plead, to grieve, to thank, to request, to notice.

But in Judaism prayer is expression without the expectation of answer. There is no magical hand, which will deliver or change or intercede based on your prayer or your deeds.

Yes, prayer is a powerful outlet for expression, but more than that, it is an opportunity for connection.

When you know our prayers, you are able to experience the power of your voice joining with mine, joining with everyone else in this room, joining with Jews around the world and throughout history. When you join your voice with mine, with our People, you are connecting into a community so much larger than yourself.

What is prayer? Prayer is s a pathway to community. It is a tangible reminder that you are not alone. We stand here with you. We don’t have answers. We cannot change your suffering but we will hold you. The meaning of the prayers is not in the translation, the meaning is not found in the words, but rather in the act of togetherness of saying the words.

The most important part of Yom Kippur is its subtle message found in the act of Jews coming together to pray. It is this: You are not alone. We, your family are with you. We stand as your equals beside you.  Around you. We hold you. We love you.

Teshuvah –turning,
Teffilah – prayer
 and finally: tzedakah.

Tzedakah is the act of turning outward to find meaning. Tzedakah is noticing that there are other people in need, other people’s hurt, which could be ameliorated by your action, your kindness.

Tzedakah is giving back, engaging in.

It is how we turn inward pain into outward action and through that action perhaps, perhaps, the pain slowly dissipates.

I was startled the other day when I realized how many people I know personally who have started foundations in the memory of their child.

Giving back to our community when we ourselves are in pain leads us back toward life. It reminds us that we still have a purpose here, despite our own palpable suffering, we remain effective and affective.

Why do people give donations to our congregation or to any non-profit?
Yes, they give because they believe in what we do and want to perpetuate it.
Yes, they give because they want other people, who cannot afford it, to have access.

But really, they give, we give because it feels good to give.  Giving makes us feel part of something, it makes us feel needed, it makes us feel alive.

The rabbis teach that even the poorest among us, even the one subsisting on gifts from the charity plate, should perform acts of tzedakah. Why? Because we all have something the community needs.

One of congregants, goes to Morning Star Assisted Living once a month and leads a Shabbat celebration for the residents.  Another goes into schools and reads to underprivileged children. Another leads the “I have a Dream Foundation.”  One of our members recently donated a kidney anonymously. I could go on and on but I won’t.

The point is, tzedakah – allows us to engage and through that engagement, through that giving back, we find meaning in the world and we create meaning in our lives.

Tzedakah. Giving. We are needed.

Teffilah – Prayer. We have a community who will hold us.

Teshuvah –Turning. We have a choice of how we respond to life.

People often ask me how my mother is doing. My mother is aware that she is slowing losing her mind. How does she cope? What does she choose?

Last week my mother, Sadie and I were rocking in chairs in front of her house.
My dad was seated facing us. We were talking about our days, as we do. Mom likes to hear about Sadie’s friends and her teachers and what she is learning in class even thought she can’t really follow the answers.

At a pause in the conversation, Mom leaned in and whispered to me, (with a very slight smile on her face) "I have to ask you, who is that strange man sitting there?" I looked at my father and then I looked at my mother. I took a very deep breath before I asked, "Are you joking with me?" And she laughed saying, "Yes, but I had you didn't I?"

We all laughed and you could see how proud she was that she pulled off her spoof. I reminded her that she would probably remember dad

the longest as well as Sadie and me, so she was kind of stuck with us, and she said, "Well that's ok with me. I love you," as she kissed Sadie's head and squeezed my hand.

That is the most important thing.