Rabbi Hillel Skolnik
Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5776
Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation
Once upon a time there was a very smart young boy who lived in a small village. By the time he had his Bar Mitzvah he was asking questions about finding God that no one in his village could answer. So his parents decided to send him on a journey to a nearby city where he could ask these important questions of a learned rabbi. The boy packed his bags, kissed his parents and went off to the city. When he got there he went right to the rabbi and immediately started asking all of his questions. When he finally stopped, the rabbi looked at him and said, “Where are you staying? Have you found a place to live while you’re here?” “No”, replied the boy. “Then go make a home for yourself and then come back and we’ll talk.”
The boy went to the lumber yard, took what little money he had and bought the materials to build himself a home. He brought the wood, nails and everything else he had purchased to a plot of land shown to him by the rabbi’s assistant and got to work. The only problem was that as it turned out he didn’t know anything about building a house. Each time he used the wood he had bought to build the walls, they fell back down. Finally, after days of trying he got the first two walls to stand up and eventually had four walls all around what was to be his home. Next came the roof and once again, every time he tried to get the roof to stay up it would fall back down, sometimes taking one of the walls with it. Eventually, after weeks of trying, thinking and working tirelessly, the walls stood, the roof stayed and the rain stayed out. The boy put a m’zuzah on his front door and looked at his home. It was small and modest, but a place where he could live and about which he could tell the rabbi.
The very next day he went to see the rabbi and proudly told him about the home he had built for himself. Then the boy repeated all the questions he had asked of the rabbi some months ago. The rabbi looked at the now young man and said to him, “What will you do for work while you’re here?” “How do you mean?” asked the young man. “Have you found yourself a job? Where will you work?” “No I haven’t found a job here,” answered the young man. “Then go and find yourself a job, learn it well, and then come back and we’ll talk.” The boy went straight to the market to see if anyone was looking for an apprentice. He found a position with the local silversmith who took the young man under his wing and taught him everything he knew. After several years the silversmith looked at his apprentice and announced his retirement. “I’ve taught you all there is to know” he said. “You will do me very proud.”
Our once young boy, turned young man who was by now an adult, went back to see the rabbi. As he walked in he asked all his questions. The rabbi looked back at him and said, “Do you have a family?” The adult smiled and knowing exactly what to do left the rabbi’s office. It was not long after, that he noticed a young woman at kiddush whom he thought was looking at him as well. They began to talk and eventually began seeing each other and realized that they truly loved each other. They were married and she moved into the home he had built. An appropriate amount of time later she gave birth to their first child who was followed by three more.
When the now father of four silversmith walked into the rabbi’s office, the rabbi held up his and said, I know your questions, but you know the answers. So answer them for me. The silversmith looked at the rabbi and said “God is inside me and with me in each and every action I take. God is with me in the home that I’ve built, in the work that I do, and in the family that I have.” The rabbi smiled and nodded.
It has almost become cliché to say that life is a spiritual journey except that it is absolutely true. Just as this young boy who became an adult went on his journey looking for answers, we too spend our lives looking around trying to find inspiration in this world, things that will help us in the sometimes difficult, yet important task of building and maintaining a relationship with God and finding a community that will support that journey by being there for us in moments of great faith as well as in times of spiritual crisis. None of us has had the same experiences, none of us believes in exactly the same form of God – and that creates no theological problem because God is Godly enough to be what each of us needs. But what we all have in common is that God is inside of each of us in everything that we do and at least for this Yom Kippur, we have found the same community in which God most definitely resides.
Not surprisingly, there are many blessings that come with being the rabbi of such a community. Of course one of them is the warmth displayed toward my family, which was on full display once again this past year as Sharon and I were overwhelmed by the love showered upon our newest addition, Hadar, and for which we are forever grateful. Another is having the chance to work with such dedicated leadership, both lay and professional, who give of their time, energy and expertise in ways I can scarcely comprehend and who do so not for recognition’s sake but for the good of the community. But another blessing is that on a regular basis I get to witness people in their real lives, and it is my job to see those moments and be inspired by them. Tonight, as we talk about our synagogue and the support it needs from our membership, I’d like to share with you three short vignettes from the past year, some of which I was simply witness to, and some I was a part of, but all of which continue to inspire me and I hope inspire you as well.
The first took place this past February when we had the incredible opportunity to welcome Staff Sergeant Doni Fogel of the Israeli Defense Forces who spoke openly and passionately about his experience fighting in Gaza last summer. Doni is an old friend of mine from our time together in Israel on the Nativ Leadership Program run through United Synagogue Youth, or USY. At some point after Nativ, Doni made aliyah and went to serve in the tank corps of the IDF. It was, by all accounts, a breathtaking presentation and I know everyone there that evening was mesmerized by the words he shared… but this story is not actually about him. It’s about a then 7th grader who was sitting in the front of this very sanctuary listening to Doni talk. It’s not every day that we have an Israeli soldier come to speak and so naturally we invited some of our religious school students to attend. Doni started talking at 6:30 with the idea that he would speak for about forty minutes and leave some time for questions before Religious School is over at 7:30. Perhaps not surprisingly, 7:30 came and there were still many hands raised and Doni was happy to answer questions. But there were some parents who understandably needed to take their kids home. Quietly we started pulling those children from the room, but one 7th grader wasn’t budging. Eventually his mother walked quietly into the room, tapped him on the shoulder and whispered to him that it was time to leave. He turned around, looked at her, and gave a head shake that only a child can give to their parent. It wasn’t defiant, it wasn’t angry, it was simply (do the head shake) trying to say silently to her, “mom, I don’t want to leave!! This is interesting and I’m learning!! I don’t want to leave!!”
I was sitting, watching this exchange smiling to myself both as a parent who understands that sometimes you still need to leave even when something is interesting and worth staying for and also as a rabbi, incredibly proud that we had a 7th grader who was defying their parent because they wanted to stay longer at our synagogue to listen to an Israeli soldier discuss what it meant to serve in Gaza and to fight for the State of in Israel.
Story number 2 – For the past couple of years, each March we’ve organized an NCAA Men’s basketball tournament brackets pick ‘em challenge. For those of you whose eyes just glazed over when I mentioned a basketball tournament, suffice it to say, the challenge is to pick the correct winners of the 63 games in this big tournament and whoever does the best wins a cash prize. It’s a way of raising a little money for the synagogue and having fun in a way that really does not require any expertise and the way you know that it doesn’t require any real expertise is that there have been times when my wife, Rabbi Sharon, whose deep passion and knowledge for men’s college basketball is known round the world, has picked more correctly than I have. Of course there was also the time in Rabbinical School when she came in dead last and as a prize won the book “Basketball for Dummies” but we’ll leave that for another time.
This past year our challenge was won by a then 2nd grader. With his parent’s help and blessing, he managed to choose more winning teams than anyone else, including his parents and including me. Came time to collect his prize and I met up with him and his father in the hallway of the synagogue right before Religious School one morning. I handed the winnings to his father and the first words out of the young man’s mouth were “Dad, can I have a few dollars to give to tzedakah?” As blown away as I was in that moment I was even more inspired a moment later when the father looked at me and said, “His mother and I talked with him that we thought it was great that he won and he can use it to buy himself something, but that the right thing to do is to first give some money to tzedakah.”
Story number 3 – This past March, we lost a relatively new member of our congregation, a wonderful woman named Susan Kay, who had recently moved to the area from South Florida, mostly to be closer to her niece. In the short amount of time she was here, she was already known as a regular at Shabbat morning services, always looking extremely well put together even when she felt awful and always wearing her beautiful tallit. And whenever she was given an aliyah, she came up to the bimah and handed over her piece of paper with her Hebrew name printed on it that she carried in her tallit bag. We were lucky to have Susan be a part of our congregation, even for so short a time, and to know Susan was to know that she felt lucky to have us as her congregational family. You see, while Susan lived very close to her niece, she was a divorcee who didn’t have any children, whose parents had passed away and whose brother had died many years earlier. We were much more than her congregational family – we were her family. On the Shabbat morning after she died, as I announced her passing, I mentioned that she left behind no relatives to sit shiva for her and no one to say kaddish in her memory. Since we were her family I encouraged those of us at services to consider the idea of saying kaddish for Susan that Shabbat. As I finished and invited those in mourning and observing yahrtzeit to rise and recite together the mourner’s kaddish, almost everyone stood up. There may have been some dry eyes in that moment, but they certainly didn’t include mine. And for weeks afterward, people continued to honor her memory by being her family and elevating her soul with the recitation of kaddish.
When we stop to think about it, it is not hard to realize that we are all that boy. Perhaps we didn’t leave home trying to find answers to our questions about God but we did leave home and when you look around the room you’d be lucky to find more than a few people over college age who were actually born in Orlando. And what did we do when we got here? We did what that young boy did – found a place to live, went looking for work and worked on creating a family which led us to discover that God is inside each and every one of us. What we have had the chance to realize once again this year is that while yes God is in us, God is inside our community as well – one that loves and cherishes the State of Israel, that values tzedakah and performs acts of loving kindness on a daily basis. It is not something that needs to be built because it already exists, but it needs to nurtured and supported so that we can continue to have such a place to come to for inspiration. I ask you all to be as generous as you can with this evening’s the Yom Kippur appeal so that we can make sure that 5776 is once again a year when we all get to see these inspiring moments here in our communal home and continue to be a part of creating new ones.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.