The following is a dvar torah I gave at Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago I believe in 2001. I think it has held up pretty well.
~ By Carl Josehart
contains roads that no longer exist
long since destroyed
he holds on tightly to it
somehow worshipping its secrets
checking it frequently
trying to measure his progress
making complicated calculations
forcing modern reality onto mythical antiquity
the edges of the known universe in the time of the map
fit into the palm of our world’s hand
yet he believes
all roads and direction emanate from its portrayal of the world
omnitient predetermination of essential paths
emanating from a map, “the map”
he is fighting for an organizing purpose
and is willing to lay down the burden of reality
to experience the rapture
of a benevolent map
My life didn’t turn out at all the way I had planned it. When I was eight years old I had a very clear idea about how things would end up. I would marry a woman named Samantha, who I would call Sam, we would live in the suburbs near my parents. We would have three children and a dog. I would be a judge and she would mostly stay at home to raise our children though she would be a talented artist who would paint pictures that would decorate our house and would be highly sought after items in local art galleries. We would belong to a Conservative shul. She would drive a station wagon and I would drive a Porsche.
Not too long after the time when I imagined all this my life veered off course. I became more interested in marrying Samuel than Samantha. I chose a different career. My parents died.
When things started to go awry I spent a lot of time feeling angry and cheated that life was not turning out as planned. I wasted a lot of time preoccupied with what I felt had been taken away from me. I spent a lot of time looking for the road I was travelling on a map that had never explored the terrain of my life. Not finding myself on the map invalidated what I was experiencing, made me question what I was feeling. Then it led to fear. I didn’t know if I was strong enough to be an explorer. To go into what seemed to me at the time uncharted territory. To find my way without a map or a guide.
I think this is what Kol Nidre is about. When we pray to be released from all vows – perhaps we are talking about, at least in part, releasing ourselves from the bonds of our expectations and beliefs about what life “should have been” and opening ourselves to the journey that we are on — or the one that is being offered to us. Perhaps Kol Nidre also teaches us that in order to be a leader and to accept our calling there are some things that we need to leave behind – safety, comfort, predictability.
One of the things that we are confronted with in the scriptural readings during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are unwilling leaders. Many of the biblical figures we meet were not open at first to the role God had planned for each of them. Abraham was perfectly content working in his father’s idol shop when he was called to a different path. Moses grew up in the home of Pharaoh and had to accept his identity as being a part of a slave people and rebel against the family that had taken him in and raised him as their own. And Jonah, whose story we will read tomorrow afternoon – fled from his call to be a prophet and tried to hide from his true calling until a crisis leads him to realize that he can’t hide from God and from his true nature.
Sometimes we find ourselves called to leadership by circumstances rather than by desire. Our brothers and sisters at Stonewall didn’t set out to cause a revolution but seized an opportunity to move our cause forward instead of accept discrimination and violence.
Kol Nidre comes and challenges us to rethink our own personal stereotypes of ourselves. Things like:
- I can’t speak up, no one will listen to me – I’m not a good public speaker
- I could never be a leader
Dorothy Hajdys-Holman, mother of Allen Schindler – who served in the navy and was brutally beaten to death at age 22 by 2 shipmates in Japan in October of 1992 because he was gay – could have said all of those things and kept quiet but she did not. Instead Dorothy Hajdys-Holman, a bookkeeper from Chicago Heights, Illinois was transformed into an unlikely gay rights activist. Six months after her son’s death she was delivering a heartfelt speech at the 1993 March on Washington:
“If you would have told me I would have been at the march on Washington standing before a million people and speaking and being seen on CNN and all over the world, I would have told you you were nuts.”
Since then, she has spoken at rallies, marched in parades and lobbied legislators.
Judy Shepard could have said all of those things too, but she didn’t. She and her husband, Dennis, established the Matthew Shepard Foundation which is dedicated to, “moving people beyond tolerance to embrace and rejoice in diversity.” In May, 1999 Judy Shepard testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Each of these stories of ordinary individuals who were called to higher purposes reminds us of the “power of one” – the power of each one of us to make a difference in the world. And the power we can discover when we can look beyond our own personal stereotypes of ourselves.
I am also reminded of how desperately I needed and wanted a role model. Someone to take me in hand and draw me a new map filled with all of the possibilities that were just opening up to me. Stumbling in to Or Chadash in May 1997 was that experience for me. It was like turning a page in the almanac and discovering a new state full of remarkable things to be explored.
Just yesterday, here at Or Chadash, we celebrated coming out Shabbat. One of our members was called to the Torah and given the honor of an Alyah to celebrate the progress she had made in the coming out process over the previous year. After her Alyah, the congregation spontaneously started singing Siman Tov u’ mazal tov – A good sign and good luck/congratulations. Where else but at Or Chadash would an occasion like this be recognized for what it is – a celebration of the journey towards wholeness and reconciliation that many of us are on.
Kol Nidre is a challenge to us. It tells us that we have a choice. The choice to continue to walk on all of the same paths we have traveled all of our lives or we have the choice to strike out in a new direction. To leave behind our preconceptions of ourselves and the world around us and try new things. Imagine the faith and courage of the great explorers – believing enough that the world was not flat to sail past what surely seemed like the edge of the earth to discover a new world. To imagine for the first time that the sun and the planets did not rotate around us but that we were a part of a larger universe in which we were not the center – and from that to open our minds to understand the heavens in a whole new way.
Or Chadash needs you to think beyond your pre-conceived notion of yourself and picture yourself a leader in our synagogue. We need you to put aside all of those stereotypes for a moment – things like “I am not religious enough to serve on the Board of Or Chadash”, “I have never been in a leadership position before – they wouldn’t want someone like me”, “I don’t have time.”
Well, let me tell you that we need individuals exactly like you. We need you to stand up and be counted. To be a role model and mentor for the next generation of people who stumble in the doors looking for an example of a way to live their life that they cannot yet even imagine. We need you to raise your voice and help us shape the next 25 years of this congregation.
Sometime in the next few months your phone is going to ring and someone from the leadership team of this congregation is going to ask for your participation –
perhaps it will be to plan our annual congregational dinner
perhaps it will be to help plan our congregational seder
it might be to serve on a committee or a task force
Right now I want you to resolve to have the courage to turn down the volume on all of the excuses that may pop into your head – turn down the volume on the nay saying voice and listen to the small voice inside that tells you that you can make a difference, that you have the ability and the drive to answer the call to leadership and together – you and I – we will draw a new map that will guide Or Chadash and the larger community around us into the future.
The Jewish people have been called by God to be a lamp unto the nations and here at Or Chadash we bring new light and new hope everyday through our very presence. Please come and add the strength of your light to ours.
Kay yhi ratzon- may it be God’s will and may we all be inscribed in the book of life for a year of good health, success and the courage to face the challenges that lie ahead.
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