Rabbi Joel Abraham

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rabbi Joel Abraham

Kol Nidre 5762
Temple Sholom – 26 September 2001

This Kol Nidre evening, as we continue to examine ourselves, let us take a moment to return to our theme these High HolyDays of kesher, of connection. As we ponder what we have done over the past year, we wonder how we go about this task. We look at the words of the Mishnah that tells us that for sins between humanity and God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins between one human being and another, the Day of Atonement does not atone, until that person has first received forgiveness from the other. That should have been our work over the past few weeks, especially in the last ten days – seeking forgiveness from those we might have wronged.

We might understand two reasons to seek forgiveness from another human being. The first is to clear our conscience, to make right what we have done wrong. For some of us that reason is compelling in itself. For those who judge their actions by the standard of what God expects of them, seeking forgiveness is part of the process of atonement. At this time of year, we must seek to cleanse ourselves of sin, to become pure once again.

However, for others of us, this once-a-year process may not be enough motivation in itself. We can understand the benefit of a once-yearly “soul check”, but perhaps see that more as an internal process than external. What is important is realizing what we have done wrong, and resolving to do better in the future. There is no need to go to others to ask for forgiveness – after all, they probably do not remember what we might have done, so why bring it up and cause more trouble anyway? Even if the process is one of personal reflection; even if we do not imagine God actually sitting down in front of a giant book filled with our good and bad deeds; even if we do not expect to be wiped clean of sin – there is still wisdom for us in the words of the Mishnah. The Day of Atonement does not atone for sins between one human being and another, until we have sought forgiveness from that other human being. After all, it is a bit selfish for us to think that we can know ourselves what wrong we have done someone else, before we have spoken to them about it, or asked what we need to do to make it right.

Two years ago, at the High HolyDays, we examined the truism that it never hurts to say that you are sorry. Because I had the audacity to suggest that to the congregation, I have kept those words in mind ever since, and tried to live by them. Even when we think that we are not at fault, there is no harm in saying that you are sorry. This idea seems to fly in the face of our first reason to seek forgiveness – that there is a scorecard keeping track of our sins. After all, if we were right, then the other person has the burden of the sin, and we are blameless. For us to still ask for forgiveness, there must be another reason, something else compelling us to seek forgiveness, to repair the breach in our relationship.

That compulsion is the desire that we have for kesher, for connection with other human beings. When we are arguing with a friend and, perhaps, not speaking, we miss their companionship, their point of view, their input on our own lives. The most common complaint that I hear from grown children regarding their deceased parents is that they never had a chance to reconcile, or to tell them how much they meant or how much they loved them. Sometimes, it can be very difficult to strengthen a kesher, when the other partner is no longer around. Now, in the aftermath of sudden, national tragedy, we have been reminded how such opportunities can be cut short before we have the chance to mend, to heal.

This evening, let us take the opportunity to look at three major connections, keshers, in our life. Let us use this Yom Kippur to resolve to strengthen those bonds with others in the coming year. First, we will look at our connection with our family; second, our connection with our neighbors, and finally, our connection with our friends.

Family may seem to be the most obvious of keshers. After all, in many cases, we live with our spouses or partners, and live or have lived with our children or parents or siblings. These are people that we need to interact with every day – whether it is to share the bathroom, pick what to watch on TV, pass the salt, or celebrate birthdays and anniversaries together. Not surprisingly, with such intense and intimate interaction, these are the people with whom we get the most frustrated, the most furious, and flare up at on the smallest pretense. In mitigation, we can say that we only get so mad because we love them, but in the instant of fury or snub, that subtle explanation is easily lost. A door slams. Words are exchanged. People storm off. These little wounds may heal quickly, but they still leave scars.

The answer to such difficulty is not so melodramatic as we may have been thinking in the past few weeks – our lives our sacred and may soon be cut short, so spend more time loving and less time reproving. Judaism insists that part of a loving relationship is letting others know when they have done or are about to do wrong. Parents have the responsibility of teaching their children what is right and wrong, but they are not alone. Children can educate parents, can keep an eye on brothers and sisters – as we said last week – kol yisrael aravin zeh b’zeh – all Israel is responsible one for the other.

The secret to a good relationship, it has been often said, is communication. In our hectic and busy lives, we find it difficult enough to coordinate schedules with our spouses and partners, let alone sit down and talk to our children, or to call our parents and relatives. But, and here’s the plug, Judaism realizes this difficulty and works to make time in our lives for those more relaxed interactions. Unfortunately, we view Judaism more often as an intrusion into our personal lives or our family times, then as an aid to finding more such opportunities. Shabbat, for example, exists outside of time. We should be jealous of the Orthodox who shut out the outside world completely for 26 hours and only spend time with their family and loved ones. We can do that as well – if not for 26 hours, perhaps we can decide that the whole family needs to be home for Friday evening dinner, or for Saturday afternoon at the movies, or even a leisurely breakfast. Right now, we are in the midst of all the new beginnings of the Fall – new schools, new jobs, the High HolyDays, the new TV schedule. Judaism again comes to us and forces us to take time out to celebrate. Enjoy the two hours that you are stuck together this evening, sitting next to each other in uncomfortable seats. If you haven’t been able to this year, resolve to do whatever it takes to have your extended family together for Rosh haShanah dinner, or Break the Fast, or Passover Seder. As Judaism has opened the door for you, use this time of year as an opportunity to talk to your family members – to ask for forgiveness, to try and heal old wounds, to strengthen the kesher between you.

Judaism also gives us insight into how to treat others. We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. As we consider how the we view the world, so we should also assume that our neighbors have the same thoughts and feelings – that they are human beings in the same way that we are. That just as much as we are “I” to ourselves, so are they to themselves, and we are the “they”. Much has been made in the past two weeks about how Americans have come together – how we reach across lines of race and ethnicity and are Americans together. However, other than possibly standing next to someone of color at a rally, how many of us have actually reached out to someone and had a conversation? Created a new kesher? Because of this tragedy, I have met other members of our Plainfield community that I might not have met sitting in this building. As a congregation, we will be reaching out to the Muslim community and hopefully sharing some events with them in the coming year. We will also be creating opportunities for our youth to get to know the youth of Plainfield, through contacts that I have made with local ministers.
However, the Temple can only go so far, without the membership working to make such efforts a success. For the past three years, we have worked actively with the Interfaith Council for the Homeless in Union County to sponsor local commemoration of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Children’s Sabbath. Some members of our religious school have participated, but despite the event having been held in our sanctuary last year, few congregants attended. If we invite the Muslim or local communities to join us here for worship, will you be here as well? If we go to their places of worship, will enough of us make the effort to find a strange place to create a new connection? Imagine how we might feel if we asked the local community to participate with us in a rally against anti-Semitism and no one came. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we must imagine how we might feel in their shoes.

We have relationships formed by blood and marriage, and relationships formed by where we live or where we may be located. Different from relationships of circumstance are the relationships that we choose to cultivate, that we call friendship. We can make friends at work, in school, through leisure or social action activities, or by chance. These are the relationships that support us in dark times. Friends are the ones that we turn to when we need to laugh, when we need someone to share with, when we want to just have fun. The kesher of a friendship is only as strong as the work that we put into that relationship, the care that we give that is reflected back to us.

Pirke Avot tells us that we should find ourselves a friend. Sometimes we do that without thinking. We meet someone, we interact, and before we know it, they are a close friend. Other times it takes more work – making time to meet, to talk, making the effort to connect. In this room, we have collected a group of like-minded people who have gathered together for some of the same purposes. People who are looking to form a community, not just of fellow congregants, but of friends as well. Some of us may find it difficult to make time to find friends; here at the Temple we have a timesaver. Come to an event at the Temple and fulfill your Jewish purpose; meet someone here and find a friend to fulfill your social needs. Any event at the Temple has a social side – whether it is the bagels put out an hour before the Sunday morning lectures, or the oneg on Friday night. The secret of a thriving congregation is congregants who are willing to create a strong kesher amongst themselves – people who can call each other friend as well as fellow congregant and Jew.

We are defined by our personal connections. We are sometimes judged, fairly or not, by the behavior of those around us – whether it is parents who are judged by what their children do, or children who are judged by the appearance of their friends. We ask those whom we trust to recommend others – whether for plumbers and electricians or babysitters and psychologists. We rely on our personal connections to connect to the wider world. We trust those whom we know, and so trust those whom our friends and family know. Just as all of us were connected in some way to someone who was lost or miraculously escaped the events of September 11, so we are also connected to the good things that happen in life and the world around us.

In this New Year, as we look back on the things that we have done to others that we need to ask forgiveness for, let us also look for new opportunities for things to be thankful for. Let us rededicate ourselves to the keshers in our lives – to family, to our neighbors, and to our new and old friends. Let us choose, through strong and far-reaching connections, to anchor ourselves in this world, to weave a web of kesher after kesher, connecting and interconnecting until we can scarce follow the lines ourselves. Next year, let us have so much more work to do seeking forgiveness, because we have so many more people that we care about asking for forgiveness from. Then truly, the Day of Atonement will atone for us and send us out once again renewed and reborn.

L’shanah tovah u’m’tukah - a good and sweet new year.

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