Kol Nidre Sermon
Rabbi Aviva Bass
I would like to begin my sermon this evening by sharing with you a story I found inspiring. It is about another congregation in a different time and place. According to what I read, the spiritual leader asked everyone in the congregation to bring in whatever materials or objects moved them to enhance the beauty of their sanctuary. He made it clear that this was optional and just if the spirit moved the congregants that they should do so. When the congregants returned at the appointed time for their next meeting, they found, to their surprise, people gave so much to the sanctuary that the leader of the congregation told them to stop bringing in their offerings because there was too much for the community to handle.
The story I have just related is from the Book of Exodus (chapters 35 and 36), relating to the construction of the Mishkan or Tabernacle. At that time, our ancestors did not use currency to purchase what they needed or desired. They only had materials that they brought with them from Egypt to take with them into the land of their wanderings as free men and women. And they used them to donate to their sanctuary, in such great amounts that they were told they had to stop giving!
In our day, we are hard-pressed to imagine such a scene. Can you imagine a synagogue receiving so much in donations that they tell their congregants, “No more! We have too much! Sorry, we can’t take any more!”? When congregants are asked to donate to their synagogue, as I will be doing here tonight, it is difficult to encourage the generosity of spirit necessary to reach our financial goals. But why? What has changed? Why is money such a difficult topic for us to discuss? And why, if you have paid dues, should you donate above and beyond that amount, to help Temple Sinai?
Before I delve into those topics, I want to back up and to explain what I am going to be talking about here tonight and why. Yes, I am going to ask you tonight for contributions to our temple. And, frankly, this is a first for me as a rabbi. Throughout the 18 years of my rabbinate and the 24 years I have been leading High Holy Day services, someone else from the Board, usually the president of the congregation, has given the Kol Nidre pledge speech, during which time many of the congregants would get up and leave. (I am hoping that, since I am the one speaking now, you will not get up and leave tonight!) And, for many years, frankly, I felt the same way. This is the holiest night of the year, the night on which we traditionally wear white to emulate the angels and our own clean slate, the ONLY night on which the entire congregation is invited to wear a tallit, a prayer shawl, and a night to discuss spiritual matters. How could something as crass, as profane, as money be brought up at a time like this? Money goes with materialism, commercialism, and greed: obviously not topics of consideration on Yom Kippur.
And yet, in and of itself, money is actually value-neutral. Last week on Rosh Hashanah I mentioned the Hasidic concept of avodah b’gashmiyut. This is the idea that one can elevate anything in the material world to that of the spiritual. We can “raise the sparks,” if you will, find the holiness inherent in anything in our ordinary world. As for money, we know that it can be used for good or for evil. We all know how money can be a corruptive force and that its gain or loss causes much of the greed, pain, and loss in our world. Yet, spent correctly, money can be raised up in this fashion: it can be used to buy life-saving medical research and supplies, provide food and water for the malnourished, and end suffering to those who cannot afford what they so desperately need. Money can be used for mitzvot, mitzvahs: and by that not only do I mean good deeds, but also the original Hebrew meaning of the word mitzvah: commandments or sacred obligations.
“Wait a minute, rabbi,” you may be thinking—“We are Reform Jews! What’s all this mitzvah stuff about sacred obligations or commandments?” Despite what you may think you know about the Reform movement, it is not actually “do whatever you want Judaism.” As Reform Jews, like Jews of all the denominations of Judaism, we believe in mitzvot, sacred obligations, commandments—whether given by G-d or by rabbinic tradition. It is how we live as Jews.
Now mitzvot, commandments, are organized into two categories: Bein Adam L’Makom, those that exist between a person and G-d, and Bein Adam L’Haveiro, those that exist between people. Reform Jews may differ as to how we perform those mitzvot between a person and G-d, such as how we observe Shabbat or kashrut, but we believe that we should all follow those commitments that are Bein Adam L’Haveiro, between people. And one of these mitzvot or commandments is that we should each contribute to our shared congregational community, both through gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness, such as the energy we put into helping one another and volunteerism, as well as through tzedekah, righteous giving, to enable our congregation to survive and to thrive.
The word tzedekah comes from the root word tzedek, or justice. In Deuteronomy, we are commanded, “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20) One of the means by which we may pursue justice is through the use of our finances in giving tzedekah.
In our day, there are many worthy organizations competing for our tzedekah funds. However, the first recipient of our tzedekah dollars should be our own community. This obligation to give to the place of our worship originated in Biblical times with maintaining the Tent of Meeting, the Ohel Moed in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and then later for the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Throughout Jewish history, the maintenance of our synagogues and other Jewish institutions has become even more of a financial struggle, as these have served so many and various functions.
According to Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit in his book Offerings of the Heart: Money and Values in Faith Communities, the modern synagogue serves functions that were not the sole responsibility of the synagogue of old. Nowadays, the synagogue is not only a Beit Tefillah (a house of prayer); it also functions as a Beit Midrash (a house of learning for adults and children) and a Beit Knesset (a house of assembly and social gatherings). This may include anything from meetings and clubs to rabbinic counseling and celebratory events.
The congregation exists so that, in this big, wide world, Temple Sinai is your community. If a loved one dies, people come to your home for shiva. If a baby is born in your family, she is named on this bimah. We laugh together at Casino Nights when we collect tzedekah for other charities. We hear wonderful thought-provoking lectures from guest speakers. We teach our children to be proud of their Jewish heritage. Our youth group is one of the strongest in the region, and it connects the youth of today to their faith of tomorrow. We offer financial assistance to children in our synagogue to go to Jewish summer camps. We help lead interfaith understanding in our community and join together in social action projects. None of this would be possible if we did not ask for your support tonight at Kol Nidre. You might think that the person sitting next to you will take care of this, but I am talking to YOU—whether you are here as a current member, a prospective future member, or as a guest. We need YOU to make this happen.
The cost of infrastructure to provide all of these offerings is substantial, including the salaries of employees, the cost of programming and just making sure the air conditioning is working and the roof will not leak! There is a saying in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers of the Mishnah, Ein kemach, ein Torah; ein Torah, ein Kemach, “Without flour (meaning sustenance), there can be no Torah; and, conversely, without Torah there can be no sustenance.” (Pirke Avot 3:21) Again, I stress that there is a spirituality to the use of money for purposes of higher intent. As much as we would like for our worship centers to run on our prayer energy alone, they cannot do so. Even during Torah times, when we had the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and G-d was said to actually dwell among us, we still had to use our own resources to maintain our sanctuary.
“But what about our dues?” you may ask. Dues and the income from the High Holy Days only cover so much of the expenses necessary to run a Temple and all of its offerings. Temple Sinai is generous in that we do not turn away members for inability to pay dues, and so we have a number of members on significantly reduced membership rates. Additionally, the synagogue offered a new option that many of you took this year, which was a one-year gift membership for new members when paying for participation in our high holy day worship plus a nominal fee for the URJ, the Reform movement, of which we are a member synagogue. The Temple offered these because we want as much participation in our synagogue as possible, and we never want finances to stand in anyone’s way of being part of our community. But we need much more to keep this House of Worship, Study, and Gathering running. And if you do some research, you will find that even our highest dues are considerably less than surrounding synagogues in our area. This is not because our expenses are so much lower, however.
These topics are difficult for us to discuss, but they are necessary for the functioning of our congregation. Let us not think of money as a “necessary evil,” but rather as “necessary for the continuity of the good.” As Rabbi Zevit states in his book I referenced earlier, congregations “are neither for-profit ‘businesses’ in the marketplace, nor classic nonprofit organizations. We have dimensions of both, with the added ingredient of a spiritual and culturally-based mission.” He further states that he likes to “ think of faith-based communities as ‘for prophet [p-r-o-p-h-e-t] enterprises,’ sharing the ultimate goals of manifesting the sacred values, laws, and cultural traditions we have come to hold dear.”
During the first High Holy Day services I spent with you as your rabbi, I stood here on Kol Nidre night and delivered a sermon in which I asked you to imagine that you entered a time machine and traveled forward 50 years in time to visit this spot. And I asked you to imagine that this sanctuary would become a museum of a Judaism once vibrant, but now dead, and that these walls and even the Torah were relics of what once had been Temple Sinai but was now a Bridge and Bingo Hall and a museum of the Delray Jewish community that once existed here. This vision, this nightmare, is one possible scenario. If we all choose to do nothing, to contribute nothing more than the minimum of your dues or cost to attend these High Holy Days, that is actually a likely scenario. As your rabbi, I cannot simply stand by and let that occur.
And so, now, I implore you to think about your priorities. Is Jewish continuity a priority for you, and if so, how will you ensure that it will continue? Many people complain to me that their children have chosen not to raise their grandchildren as Jews, and yet they themselves may choose not to contribute to the continuity of the synagogue through their time and finances. I ask you now to consider what you think you want to pledge tonight in terms of your financial contribution this year. And then I want you to think of what you are able to contribute. And then I want you to see how far you can stretch yourself and your budget to the place in which you fulfill your mitzvah of tzedekah. The traditional guide is at least 10% of your net income for all of your tzedekah this year. I understand that, for some of you, especially those on a fixed income, 10% is simply not feasible, due to medical expenses or other circumstances. I also understand that some of your tzedekah needs to go to other causes, but remember that your own community should be your first step in tzedekah giving. I, myself, wrote my first tzedekah check of this New Year out to Temple Sinai several days ago. If you are moved to give to Temple Sinai but for whatever circumstances cannot give as much financially now, please consider donating more of your time and energy resources volunteering for Temple Sinai. We are always looking for more volunteers from helping out at Bingo to making important phone calls to other members, to sitting on a committee such as Fundraising or Membership or the board of the Sisterhood—we could use your help! Please speak to me or to a member of the Board after Yom Kippur about how you would like to volunteer!
I would also like to draw your attention to the additional pledge card for Israel Bonds, to explain why it is also important, helps Israel and also helps Temple Sinai. You will see that included with your Kol Nidre pledge card, there is a “Plus $36” for Israel Bonds card. After you have made your maximum pledge for our synagogue, please add $36 so that Temple Sinai can once again buy an Israel Bond. Our Temple will own the bond, we will receive the semi-annual interest checks and upon maturity in 2 years, we can either cash it and use it to supplement our budget or we can choose to reinvest it.
Adding this contribution is a way to demonstrate your commitment to our homeland. Israel Bond proceeds have been used to build desalinization plants to overcome the area’s critical water shortage. Israel is now building an additional 2 plants to help overcome a record 5-year drought. Israel bonds are also an answer of support to fight against the BDS movement (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions), which aims to harm Israel’s economy.
We may not all agree with everything that Israel does, but we all can agree that we need a strong Israel, our homeland and still the refuge of Jews worldwide who seek to make Aliyah and to contribute to the Jewish state. A strong Israel Bonds program results in a strong Israel and a strong and supportive American Jewish community. This project is a win-win; it helps Israel, and also benefits Temple Sinai. Please choose to participate in this Israel Bonds $36 pledge in addition to whatever you pledge to Temple Sinai this year.
Tonight, may we all be moved to give as much as we can to our community. On this Holiest Night, Jewish tradition envisions G-d as the Judge weighing our mitzvot against our averot, our good deeds and fulfillment of sacred obligations against our misdeeds or sins. May we remember that the tipping point of the scales is up to us now: that teshuvah, repentance or return, AND Tefillah, the worship we are now engaged in here tonight are only the starting points to our successful entry into the Book of Life. Tzedekah, righteous giving, is also necessary to avert the evil decree: not only for us as individuals, but for Temple Sinai to continue to survive and to thrive here in the Jewish community of Delray Beach. Let us all be as generous as we can, and then some. And then, may we all be sealed in the Book of Life for good for the coming year.