Good evening and gut yontiff. There is a great short vignette of a teacher who put ten statements up the board in front of the class. One of those statements contained an obvious error, causing the class to laugh. When asked to comment on the statements, the class overwhelmingly focused on the one statement that was incorrect. After a few minutes of hearing the students’ critical remarks, the teacher responded to the class.
“This is actually a lesson on life. When you get into the world, especially the working world, you will find that there are a lot of people who will focus on the 10% that is wrong, instead of celebrating the 90% that is right. It is up to you to determine which group you will join; you can be part of the overwhelming masses that will seize on a mistake—even one that is rare, insignificant, and in the small minority of experiences—and let it consume all your energy, focusing on it with negativity. Or, you can be a person who looks at a larger perspective, sees the mistake in its larger context, and decide to celebrate the overwhelming success and positivity. The choice is up to you.” To translate this lesson into modern American Yiddish, “Why kvetch when you can kvell?” Embracing our future and celebrating our successes is a decision that we make as individuals, and as a community. Tonight, I wish to focus more on a communal application of this message.
Last year during Rosh HaShanah I shared with you my “rabbinic agenda” such as it is: that we as a community have a shared responsibility for the success of our congregation. Here’s the key quote from those remarks: I am not here to create revolutionary change. I AM here to guide the evolutionary changes that the congregation feels best meet the community’s needs.
There have been two significant ritual policy decisions this past year that reflect this value. The first was to authorize non-Jewish family members to accompany their family at the Torah for an aliyah. That particular concern was already addressed by Rosh HaShanah. It was a relatively easy solution to a need that was expressed to me in my initial screening interview with the search committee. It was the right move for this community without question or reservation.
The second policy decision has taken a lot more time to process. Accordingly, in the absence of ongoing public discussion from the ritual committee about its work, some interesting—and completely inaccurate—reports about this policy discussion have been generated. I feel it is extremely important to share with you that “what and the why’s” of one of the directions our congregation is going regarding its Shabbat morning services, and in particular the Torah reading.
First, let’s take a minute to appreciate the back story. It was a Shabbat morning in August last year when Joan Desantis, then the president of the congregation, suggested we explore a new approach to our Torah reading. She shared that when she had been at Middlebury College for an intensive Hebrew immersion program, there were a fair number of Jews on campus. In coming together to celebrate Shabbat, they realized they did not have a person who could read an entire section of the modified Triennial Torah reading, which is the practice in most USCJ congregations and many others as well. They decided to read the required bare-bones minimum for a kosher Shabbat morning Torah reading: the 7 standard aliyot would consist only of three verses apiece. Their goal was that with the easier assignments, more people would be willing to come forward and try their hand at Torah reading. The approach proved successful for the ad hoc Jewish community at Middlebury, and Joan wondered if that would be a good idea for CSS as well. The question came to the ritual committee for process. Eventually, our ritual committee determined to adopt a modified practice. The aliyot divisions are shortened from the standard triennial, and are guided by the values iterated by traditional halachah regarding the Torah readings.
The larger decision to modify our practice is motivated by the following values and goals:
To increase the amount of lay participation in the service in general
To increase the amount of congregants trained to be Torah readers in particular, and able to assist in the Torah readings
To increase the possible honors that b’nei mitzvah families can offer to their extended family and friends.
As this was discussion was ongoing, we started adapting some of the weekly Torah readings on non-bnei mitzvah Shabbatot, field testing the approach to see what tweaks would be needed. We realized that we would need to have an absolutely accurate spreadsheet with the breakdowns clearly listed. We realized that we would need to offer “Learn to Read Torah” classes. (Reference the adult ed calendar and poster!) We realized the need to insure that the decision and its mechanics were clearly communicated to the congregation. Finally, we appreciated that we can track metrics for participation using the spreadsheet listing the breakdowns, and at the end of the spring we will need to evaluate how the practice has worked for us. Going back to my key quote from last year, I felt pretty good. I did not introduce the question, nor did I superimpose a solution. Finally, after all the different aspects of the discussion were exhausted, having been each broached numerous times over months of ritual committee meetings, I affirmed the proposal suggested by the ritual committee.
You will hopefully appreciate my surprise, then, when I received a call during these deliberations from a member of the congregation not on the ritual committee asking to meet regarding the Shabbat morning Torah service. When we met, the first words directed to me with some clear anxiety and even a little disapproval were “Rabbi, I understand you are looking to change the Torah service and I want to share my feedback.” The congregant went on to share the concerns this change inspired. You can imagine the congregant’s surprise at learning I had not generated the question, but that the congregation’s President had. When the congregant heard further the values that guided the decision, and the goals that motivated it, an extremely different response emerged. While the person might not love the idea of slightly shorter readings, there was absolute appreciation for the goals of including more members in the service, and training more Torah readers within the congregation. The comment made to me at the end of the conversation was essentially “I don’t necessarily like it any better, but I am a lot happier about it now than I was when I came in to see you, in large part because I feel that I’ve been heard.”
I share this larger account with you for a few reasons. The first is to put an end any rumors that “the rabbi is doing this” or “the rabbi is doing that”. Sure, I accept I think in some fairly unconventional ways. Hopefully the emerging track record suggests that there is actually an internal cohesion to my thinking so that it at least makes sense in its intended framework, that it is grounded on appropriate scholarship for the topic, and that it generally reflects best practices. In conversation it seems that more and more of you feel that there is some discretion and maybe even a little wisdom applied as I do so. At the very least, I am reminded of the DC adage of “Trust but verify.” If you have a question about religious policy, current or proposed, you should feel comfortable to ask me. It will save you a lot of energy and potentially even angst. You can rest assured that when it comes to the religious and ritual considerations and decisions for the congregation, I am working with the lay leadership in a real partnership to respond to the congregation’s identified needs.
The second reason I share this account with you is because we all need to appreciate that my job and rabbinic responsibility is in fact to guide, and in some cases even to identify and lead, these processes. I will not shy away from that responsibility just because an occasional individual disagrees with my decision. I appreciate the individual concerns for particular preferences and interests. At the same time I have a responsibility to hear and respect the needs of the larger collective of competing interests. Remember the key quote from last Rosh Hashana: I am not here to create revolutionary change. I AM here to guide the evolutionary changes that the congregation feels best meet the community’s needs.
That leads me to the ultimate reasons I share these particular remarks with you tonight. We do have an incredible amount of success worth celebrating. At the same time we do need to direct our congregational culture into one that focuses on celebrating these successes.
Our diverse community here at CSS has literally come from everywhere around the country and even from different countries around the world. The religious background of our congregation spans from people who grew up with orthodox Jewish backgrounds to the children of Christian clergy. It is a point of pride to me personally that this diverse spiritual need-set is so well met in and beyond our sanctuary. I know that there are a lot of non-Jewish members of the community for whom I am not just “a” rabbi; it is my privilege to know that I am their rabbi. Congregants and guests regularly share how meaningful our Shabbat services are for them. Non-Jews regularly attend the adult education classes I offer. This High Holy Days we have seen a tremendous increase in the amount of teens and students participating in our services in the Sanctuary, and you will continue to see more of them tonight and tomorrow. In fact, a larger discussion is underway about establishing an even deeper, more systemic approach to teen engagement throughout the congregation, not just in the sanctuary. Clearly, when it comes to meeting the spiritual needs of the community, we are succeeding with increasing regularity and impact. Of course, it is impossible to be all things for all people and meet all the diverse needs all the time. Even so, we are clearly succeeding in making this a meaningful place for religious and spiritual life, even with all the diversity we have in the pews. Given all of this, I dare suggest we meet and exceed that 90% success rate the teacher mentioned in the story when it comes to the religious and ritual life of the congregation. Why then would we want to focus disproportionate energy on the less than 10% of the time when we might not be? The larger truth is that this is a conversation far beyond just the ritual life of the congregation. We will always have room to improve, and it is my sense the lay leadership and staff of the congregation embraces the possibility of being ever-better. When the feedback favors a focus on the infrequent failure than the overwhelming success, I wonder and again ask: why kvetch when we can kvell?
I return to the Kol Nidre passage that brings us all here tonight. For me, the power of Kol Nidre is that it releases us from the obligations to the failed commitments of the past year. This opens up our energy and resources for the opportunities and possibilities awaiting us in the year ahead. To borrow a phrase from Jimmy Buffett’s Coast of Carolina, do we really want to keep a commitment to a “broken promise held too long?” If even Buffett knows better, I would hope that we do as well.
Kol Nidre reminds us to release ourselves from the commitments that proved impossible to keep, and the negative dynamics that cost too much to preserve. It urges us to free ourselves from being held hostage to the past, and gives us the opportunity to move forward to embrace the potential awaiting us in the year ahead. Even though we’ve already said the words, we can claim a new intent to them even now. Let’s be inspired by Kol Nidre’s permission to move away from the negativity and focus on our successes, both communally as well as personally. It is my prayer that 5777 is the year we begin to focus on our success, our kvells, as we continue to transform our congregation into what we will become with those successes. I wish each and all of us fasting a meaningful fast, and G’mar v’hatimah tovah, a finish to Yom Kippur with the result of being sealed for good in the year ahead.