Kol Nidre 5780
Rabbi Matthew D. Cohen
How are you settling into Galveston? That’s the question many of you have been asking me throughout this past year. As we all know, Galveston is a small place. I’d say my transition to the Island was quite fast - I had no choice. I learned my way around the Island within a couple of weeks and in a short period of time I started to run into CBI members at the grocery store and at restaurants. Between my participation in communal programs such the Galveston Ministerial Alliance, the Rotary Club of Galveston, speaking at the Ball High Baccalaureate ceremony, and appearing multiple times in the Galveston Daily News, I am now recognized in most public places - even in my day-off gym clothes and even with a beard. However, I have yet to avoid driving from the east side of town to the west end and we still cross the causeway at least once a week. That said, it’s only been a year - we have time to adapt to the true Galveston ways of life.
While the transition was fast, it was not always easy and I’d say still a work in progress. I vividly remember leading my first Shabbat service on the lower part of this bima. I recall the lost feeling I had when I looked out to the congregation while strumming my first chord. I remember thinking, what am I doing here? Where am I? Why are these people calling me their Rabbi? I don’t know them – will I ever learn their names? I don’t know the customs, traditions, or history of this place. I don’t even know the melodies of the prayers that have always been sung here. I was no more than an artist-in-residence. Just someone passing through.
But at some point, I can’t pinpoint when, I started to feel like your rabbi. We began getting to know each other, and now we are a part of each other’s lives. But as we know, transitions for rabbis and congregations are tricky and complicated and they go far beyond melodies and customs of a congregation. Transitions in this world is about relationships. Transition is emotional. It involves trust, faith, and love. It takes time and energy. And now, I stand in awe that we got so far in what seems like such a short time. We are blessed.
But with the ups and downs of the congregational world, it would be wrong for me to stand up here and talk about our beginnings without talking about an ending. I have come to recognize that you, the members of the congregation, lost your rabbi over a year ago. Even though our community was blessed that Rabbi Klaven left on good terms, many of you were hurt and affected by this loss. Rabbi Klaven was a part of the CBI family. At some point in your transition, you placed your faith and trust in him. You let him into your lives in a most intimate and personal way. You loved him the way rabbis hope to be loved and he loved you the way congregations hope to be loved by their rabbi. Therefore, I felt resistance from some of you during your transition that mirrored my own resistance during my transition.
While I was introducing you to new melodies to prayers some of you did not want to let go of the ones that connected you to your past. While I led worship services and taught Torah in my style, some of you disconnected because it wasn’t the way things have been done in the past with Rabbi Klaven and his predecessors. When I locked the doors and placed security guards outside our building in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, some of you were angry that I interfered with the open and welcoming culture of the congregation. Honestly, it was hard not to take this personally because I was facing the challenge of transitions in my own professional and personal life. Then I came across an essay that opened my eyes to the reality we were all facing.
I’d like to read an excerpt from an essay written by author and Global peace activist, Danaan Parry, entitled, “The Parable of the Trapeze. Turning the Fear of Transformation into the Transformation of Fear”:
“Sometimes, I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments, I’m hurdling across space between the trapeze bars.
Mostly, I spend my time hanging on for dear life to the trapeze bar of the moment. It carries me along a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control. I know most of the right questions, and even some of the right answers. But once in a while, as I’m merrily, or not so merrily, swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance, and what do I see?
I see another trapeze bar looking at me. It’s empty. And I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart of hearts, I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on the present well-known bar to move to the new one.
Each time it happens, I hope—no, I pray—that I won’t have to grab the new one. But in my knowing place, I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moments in time I must hurtle across space before I can grab the new bar. Each time I do this I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurdles I have always made it.
Each time I am afraid I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless basin between the bars. But I do it anyway. I must. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call faith. No guarantees, no net, no insurance, but we do it anyway because hanging on to that old bar is no longer an option. And so, for what seems to be an eternity but actually lasts a microsecond. I soar across the dark void called “the past is over; the future is not yet here.” It’s called a transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing, and the bars are the illusions we dream up to not notice the void. Yes, with all the fear that can accompany transitions, they are still the most vibrant, growth-filled, passionate moments in our lives. And so transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang out” in the transition zone — between the trapeze bars — allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens.
It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening. Hurdling through the void, we just may learn to fly.”
My dear sacred family tonight is about us. We have been learning to fly together. We have been on parallel paths, but just when it seemed like we were getting into some sort of transitional rhythm, we were hurdled into the void of contractors, city inspectors, construction set-backs, and timelines that defined the essence of “Island time.” I felt as if the longer we would be wandering through this wilderness the further away we would fall from any transitional progress that was made from the outset. Yet, here we are. We carried each other through a year of uncertainty, instability and change. Indeed, we were also blessed by our friends at Congregation Beth Jacob, Moody Methodist Church, and Tiki Island Chapel but we were even more blessed to have each other. We faced new challenges and worked together to keep our congregation moving forward and growing in a positive direction.
Now we are back in our newly renovated home and we have an incredible opportunity to be renewed. It is time for us to hold hands and take that next leap of faith together - one that will set the tone for the future of our congregation - one that will determine our seat in the tent on top of that great mountain as Psalm 15 taught us on Erev Rosh Hashanah.
The intention of my Rosh Hashanah sermons was for self-reflection and evaluation, both personally and collectively as a community. We discussed the basic Jewish value of Derech Eretz, treating each other with dignity and respect, and especially down to the simple intention behind how we greet and respond to one another. We reflected on the ways to be Heneini, authentically present for each other in a way that gives us opportunities for deeper and more sacred connections. I concluded our Rosh Hashanah service with words of hope and action that the Heneini we show one another in our newly remodeled building will soon find its way out into the world.
Several months ago, our CBI board unanimously voted to sign the Religious Action Center Brit Olam - the covenant with the world. Congregation B’nai Israel is now proudly listed with hundreds of other congregations in the country who have made a commitment to social justice and change. It’s a commitment we made together. That Heneini is the next trapeze bar. It is the Heneini of justice. So – now, as one family with a joined heart for justice – what are we going to do?
On Rosh Hashanah we reflected on the meaning and essence of Abraham’s Heneini. We were inspired by his willingness to be unconditionally present in a most authentic and vulnerable way. Our rabbis teach us about the extent and impact of Abraham’s Heneini. According to a midrash, Abraham is judged to be greater than Job because while Job "opened his doors to the road" (Job 31:32), Abraham left his tent to seek guests among the passers-by (Genesis 18:1-8). Furthermore, our rabbis teach us that Abraham "got busy and built spacious mansions along the highways, and stocked them with food and drink, so that whoever entered ate, drank, and blessed Heaven" (Avot 1:5; Avot d'Rabbi Natan 7). We could say that Abaraham’s Heneini to reach out those in need of food and shelter inspired the commanding words of Deuteronomy 16:20, “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Abraham’s Heneini of justice has been passed down to us through an unbroken chain of tradition.
God blessed the Jewish people, with the sacred task to be l’or goyim, a light unto the nations. We have been given the responsibility to do this work, even in places where other people avoid it. In that spirit, we too will emulate Abraham’s Heneini and reach out to the people in our own front yard, the citizens of Galveston who struggle to provide food, clothing, and shelter for themselves. As we will see tomorrow morning, this is our obligation not just as Jews, but as members of Congregation B’nai Israel and as relevant citizens of Galveston.
We cannot solve the issue of homelessness and poverty on our own, and our tradition teaches us, “You are not obligated to finish the task, nor are you free to desist from it.” It is time we take that first step. I want to ask us to take on this cause of homelessness and poverty over the coming years. I know that we are blessed not to know a lot about the nuts and bolts of the causes and solutions – but I want to start growing our understanding and our empathy. We need to reach for that next trapeze bar. Starting tomorrow we explore the realities so many people face in our own community and some of the ways we can begin to understand and learn to meet the needs of our fellow Galvestonians.
Kol Nidre reminds us of the vows we will take from this Yom Kippur until the next one - as individuals and as a community, including the one we are taking tonight. Our community took that vow when we signed the Brit Olam last year. We take that vow every time we gather together to pray as a community. We take that vow every time we study and engage in the words of Torah together. We take that vow every time we stop and recognize the blessings and miracles in our lives.
On this most sacred evening, let us renew that vow and commit ourselves to it this year. Me we have the strength and fortitude to take that leap of faith together. May we shine the light of our collective Heneini into the darker places of our community. May this year be one of continued transition and growth for our congregational family. And may we go from strength to strength as we join hands, hearts and souls with one another and with the members of our extended family, right here in our own front yard.