Am I All In? (Kol Nidre Sermon – October 7, 2011)

Gut Yontif – G’mar Chatimah Tovah – Shabbat Shalom. A second spiritual moment this summer came for me not at a rock concert on a cool Jerusalem evening, but in a spot familiar to many of you. It was a Saturday night in mid-August when I was invited to join friends at Tanglewood. I hate to let a summer in the Berkshires and at Eisner Camp go by without at least one visit to Tanglewood, so I jumped at the chance. It was all the more enticing as the featured artist that night was cellist Yo Yo Ma. I knew it would be a beautiful evening with good friends and wonderful music.

Unlike the Kobi Oz concert in Jerusalem in July, this time I thought I knew what to expect. The opening piece was great, setting the stage for the evening’s program. Following a brief interval, the side door to the stage opened and Yo Yo Ma emerged to thunderous applause. What followed turned out to be more than just a moving musical event. As Ma and the orchestra began Schumann’s 
Cello Concerto in A minor, I found myself lost in the music in a way I did not expect. At intermission I began to schmooze with my friends and realized I was not alone. I have seen Ma perform several times, but this time I noted something that did not strike me during past performances (No doubt aided by the excellent seats my friends hold!) As I watched Yo Yo Ma and the BSO, I was struck by how Ma literally inhabited the piece. He is a powerful musician to watch, but that night, I noticed he was not only totally absorbed in what he was doing while playing. He was equally a part of the Concerto while he was sitting quietly during the orchestral parts. It was powerful and has had me thinking.

Let me put this differently. You may have seen commercials during some broadcasts of Red Sox games this summer which featured various players, Terry Francona, and other members of the gantze Red Sox family stating, “I’m all in!” Watching Yo Yo Ma perform, I found myself connecting those dots. Watching him on the stage, I came to realize that for Ma, to perform a piece of music is to be “all in.” I realized that this is true even when he is not, at least in a musical sense, center stage.

Throughout this holiest day on our Jewish calendar, we examine our lives. We reflect on our words and deeds of the year gone by. We look ahead to how we might best embrace the gift of the New Year, which begins in earnest with the Tekiyah Gedolah tomorrow night at the end of Neilah. I hope you’ll be here with us for that shofar blast. It’s one of the most powerful moments of the entire Jewish year! On Kol Nidre night I usually share with you questions I am asking myself. This year my question is framed by that August night at Tanglewood (and those commercials.) On this night of heshbon ha-nefesh, when we turn inward and seek to be most honest with ourselves, I believe we should ask ourselves: Am I all in? Am I all in: in my relationships with those closest and most dear to me? Am I all in – in the tasks I have chosen – in my work and my responsibilities for making this world a better place? Am I all in: In my connection with and commitment to the Jewish community, and this congregation?

We live in a hectic, fast-paced, and increasingly electronically connected world. I spoke about this last Yom Kippur when I discussed John Freeman’s book, The Tyranny of E-mail. In the year since, I have watched more of us get even more electronically connected, myself included. Now it’s not only my smartphone that accompanies me nearly everywhere I go, but also other electronic gadgets. I love that I am playing Words With Friends with nearly every member of my family. Sometimes I step outside of myself, and wonder why we’re doing it from across the room, or at the same restaurant table. Technology was meant to help us multi-task. But how much of our multi-tasking removes the real intimacy of human interaction? How can I be all in, when technology is substituting for real relationship?

In Exodus 24:12, God calls Moses up to the summit of Mt. Sinai to receive the tablets containing Aseret HaDibbrot, saying, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there . . .” One of the great Rabbis of 18th century Poland, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught: “If God told Moses to come up on the mountain, then why did God also say be there? Where else could he be?” According to the Kotzker, God did not simply want Moses to be up on the mountain. God wanted Moses to be fully present, to be “all in.”

This year I want to work harder at being all in, and not just in person. How many of us multi-task? We’re on the phone, seemingly engaged in conversation with another person, but in truth, we’re on our computers, playing a game, surfing the web, checking our email or Facebook page. We are “on the phone” but not really there. This year I will be asking myself, in person, on the phone, and at meetings, “Am I fully present? Am I all in?”

In this chaotic, fractured world, a world of distractions, at work, in our communities, even while behind the wheels of our cars, we are multi-tasking. We are torn by too many tasks and too many obligations. We are caught between competing interests and by a feeling that there’s so much to do that something has to give; shortcuts need to be taken. For many of us, the age-old Jewish commitment to tzedakah and g’milut hasadim, now takes the form of simply writing checks to do our part. We’re too busy for more than that. Actually stepping up, or out, whether it’s getting out of our box and joining our hearts and hands with those around us simply does not fit into our already over-crowded schedules. In our work, many of us are cutting corners, working at all hours of the day and night because our 24/7 world has, as Thomas Friedman put it, been flattened. We face demands for constant availability and attention. Our tradition offers an antidote. It says take a day, once a week, and on that day, don’t be “all in” – with that which consumes us the rest of the time. Be “all in” with your family, your loved ones, your heritage and its values, with Torah and with your community. Moses Maimonides taught that if we but embrace the concept of Shabbat, then at least 1/7 of our lives passes in a calmer, less stressful state. Even I need to re-evaluate my Shabbat habits. One day a week, when I leave this sacred place, I need to detach, and be “all in” in a different space – emotionally, physically and spiritually.

Finally, am I all in, when it comes to my connection with and commitment to with the Jewish community, and with this community? During last year’s House Meeting Listening campaign, so ably conducted by the members of our Ani v’Atah core team, led by Ellen Carno and Jonathan Adams, we heard from nearly 300 members of this congregation about a wide variety of subjects that concern us as a community. With so many voices, one can easily imagine that according to Jewish math we heard over 2000 different ideas and/or opinions. Well, not exactly. But we did hear about many subjects. After listening for the common threads, our core team brought its sense of what had been heard most often to the congregation in early June and collectively we decided to pursue several different themes during this New Year. One theme suggested a strong desire for us to look at the ways in which we worship as a community. Shortly after these holy days we will commence a self-study on worship and worship renewal. If you’d like to be a part of this, let me know. There were concerns about teen stress, civil discourse, economic justice and more. These, too, will become action-oriented themes as we move into the New Year. Atop the list of our concerns was the question: How can we become a more welcoming community and how can we better reach out and engage one another? Over the course of the summer over 40 members of our community have been reading, talking and exploring this theme. Some of us attended a two-day Global Leadership Conference, and while the theme of the conference did not directly address this question, the ways in which we were made to feel welcome, and included were inspiring and led us to thinking and re-thinking about our own community here at Temple Shalom. The answer to the question, how can we become stronger as a community, lies not only in how the staff and lay leadership create an atmosphere that is welcoming. One of the takeaways from the conference was that each and every member of the community has to play a role. We need to be “all in” — together. That does not mean we need to all be in, in the same way.

Temple Shalom adopted its Values and Vision statement before I became a part of this community. In the past dozen years, we have worked hard to bring the words of that statement to life in our activities and relationships. For some, Torah Lishmah, Lifelong Learning is their gateway; for others Kedushah, Spirituality, whether through worship, discussion groups or study is their passion. Some come for Kehillah, to feel connected to a community of meaning and meaningful relationships. For yet others, it’s Tikkun Olam: working to repair our fractured world, whether it’s rebuilding a house in New Orleans, sorting the truck which I hope is filling up to overflowing outside on Temple Street, or working on one of the dozens of mitzvah projects and activities through the year. We each enter this holy place through a different doorway. It’s the aggregate of our presence, energy, passion and that makes Temple Shalom a dynamic and life-affirming community. Just like the members of an orchestra, we each bring our own interests and gifts to the collective. In doing so, we contribute to that final value, Brit Olam — sustaining Jewish continuity – here at Temple Shalom, in our broader community and in the world at large.

Rabbi Marc Angel, leader of New York City’s Shearith Israel Sephardic Congregation asks the following question: Suppose that two people were walking by a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah just at the time when the shofar was being sounded. The windows were open, so that both people outside heard the shofar. The first one thought: I wish to be included among those who are fulfilling the mitzvah of hearing the shofar. The second one simply kept walking, having heard the shofar but without paying any particular attention to the sounds.” Rabbi Angel asks, “Did either, both, or neither of them fulfill the mitzvah of shofar?” His answer: “In fact, both of them heard the exact same sounds. The only difference was in their intention. But intention is exactly what determines that the first person fulfilled the mitzvah, while the second one did not. Both “heard” the shofar; but only one “listened.” I believe Rabbi Angel is talking about “being all in.” “Being all in” is not about what we actually achieve. Rather it is about our intention as we approach a situation. We have come together on this holiest night of our entire Jewish year. Are we a community that has gathered here? For many of us, the answer is an unqualified, “yes.” We are “all in” though that plays out differently for each of us. Some of you are here with us as guests – you have traveled to be here for this holiday with your family, or friends, or you are here for the first time as visitors. You left your community to come be with us – and your presence makes our gathering all the better.

But now I come to a delicate application of Rabbi Angel’s teaching – some are here tonight because they have found this a convenient way to attend High Holy Day services. Some in fact come and join us for these Holy Days each and every year. It may be that at one point you were all in. But now you join us, without joining us. We are grateful you wish to be in our midst. But I must ask, can’t you find your way to being “all in” without slipping in the backdoor? Judaism and the Jewish community will only survive if we are all prepared to say, “I am all in.” Like Yo Yo Ma we may sit back when the orchestra is playing its parts, but we need to be present, intentionally present, and in our own way, involved, even when our own instrument is quiet.

In our families, in our tasks, in our world, and in this congregation, which is not an entity unto itself we are a community made up of those who stand up to be counted as in. Tonight is the beginning of our long day of reflection. Let us examine our lives. Let us examine our words, deeds, and commitments. Let us ask ourselves – in regard to each of these realms – “Am I all in?” Or have I just come to hear the music and leave the heavy lifting to others?

G’mar chatimah tovah!


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