YK Kol Nidrei
Yom Kippur Sermon – Kol Nidrei – 5778
Rabbi Michael Mishkin
Temple Beth Israel
Shabbat Shalom & Good Yantif.
I’d like to tell you part of my life story. Ok, maybe a little bit more than a PART of the story– let’s pick up at . . . when I finished preschool.
When I was getting ready to start kindergarten, my parents decided to send me to Jewish Day School.
For the most part, I’m happy that my parents made this decision. I learned a lot about the Torah and Judaism from a very young age. However, the Day School was Orthodox, because – at the time – St. Louis did not have a Solomon Schechter, which is the Day School for Conservative Judaism.
As I got older and older, the Orthodox theology became more and more challenging for me and my family. So, after 7th grade, my parents and I decided that I would go to public school.
Overall that was a good plan. The problem was switching to public school in 8th grade—that transition was not so easy.
Quickly, I made a few friends and we would play sports every afternoon after school, but I wanted to connect with more kids, and found it very difficult. Some of my social limitations were on me, and some of it was on the other kids, who were not being very welcoming. In addition, the school did not do anything to help me integrate socially.
9th Grade was similar to 8th grade for me. Then in 10th grade, in my math class, I met a guy named Mark Sneider. At first, I didn’t think we would be friends. I remembered, the year before, that I heard Mark arguing with one of his friends, saying that Heavy Metal music was better than the Beatles. . . That did not go over too well with me.
However, once Mark and I got to know each other, we became good friends in class. Then, unlike many of my other classmates that I had befriended in different classes, Mark started inviting me to go out with him and his friends on the weekends. Mark was one of the more popular kids in the class, and the barriers which had kept me from making more friends, quickly disappeared.
3 years later, I was off to college. I went to Penn and that transition was difficult too. I went to Hillel, knew a few people there, but no one actively invited me in. Fortunately, one of my closest friends from Camp Ramah was on campus with me, and that made the difficult journey of freshman year, a lot easier. Where did I connect? With the sports staff at the Daily Pennsylvanian. When I went to an orientation meeting, I hung out in the sports office, and the editors and writers were friendly and reached out to me. We weren’t supposed to get a writing assignment at that first meeting, but by the end of the night, I was offered a major assignment—covering the women’s cross country team. I took it, and it was a wonderful experience.
Coincidently, or maybe it was not coincidently, Mark Sneider came to visit me my freshman year. He was at a school which we looked down on—he was at Harvard. While visiting, Mark introduced me to a guy named Jim, who was another good friend of his. I didn’t know Jim, because he was from Chicago and he was one of Mark’s camp friends. Once we met, Jim and I became friends and I introduced him to some of my other friends. And then during our Jr. and Sr. years, he lived with me and bunch of other guys in an apartment off campus.
Several years later, Jim told me that he had been very lonely at school. But after he met me and connected with my friends, it totally changed his college experience. I had not known any of this when we were in college. And I didn’t think that I had done anything out of the ordinary for him—however, the small gestures of friendship, spending time with Jim and getting to know him, and connecting him with some of my other friends—made all of the difference in the world.
In Judaism, these actions are part of an important mitzvah called Hachnasat Orchim—Welcoming Guests. Not only is Hachnasat Orchim a mitzvah, it’s also considered a great act of chesed—a great act of lovingkindness.
Reflecting on my life experiences, a teaching by Rabbi Elazar in the Talmud (Sukkah 49b) rings true: “whoever does deeds of charity, justice, and kindness is considered as having filled the world with chesed—with lovingkindness.”
A true act of hachnasat orchim can take someone whose world is lonely—whose world is one where they feel they are disconnected from other people—and can transform that world into a world of connections, friendships, and great happiness.
Translating hachnasat orchim as “welcoming guests,” is a little bit inaccurate. These words literally mean “bringing in guests, [and they imply] that we should actively recruit guests, and look for opportunities to invite people into our homes [and/or into our lives],” (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2, p. 44).
Hachnasat Orchim is a very appropriate name for this mitzvah, because there is an urgency to it. If people DO this mitzvah, it can have an enormous positive impact on others, and if people PASS on doing this mitzvah, it can have an enormous negative impact on others. Therefore, we should be on the lookout to be proactive when it comes to this mitzvah, and we should do it with great enthusiasm.
This is, of course, how the greatest exemplars of this mitzvah, acted when they had the opportunity to welcome people. Who are these great exemplars? Abraham and Sarah.
In one of the most famous stories in the Torah about hachnasat orchim, we read:
God appeared to Abraham by the [trees] of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men coming near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do no go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.” Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate. (Genesis 18:1-8)
The only way you can describe Abraham in this story is zealous to perform the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim. These 8 verses contain an unusually large number of verbs. Abraham “ran,” “he bowed,” “fetched,” “hastened,” “he ran again,” “rushed,” “set out food,” and “waited on his guests.”
What was Abraham doing before the travelers showed up? He was recovering from his circumcision, which took place in the previous chapter. And yet, when the three strangers come into view, Abraham overcomes his pain and rushes to greet them.
Our Sages pick up on another point, which is remarkable. Listen again to the first four words of this story: “God appeared to Abraham.” God was making God’s presence known to Abraham—and it was in that moment with Abraham connecting to God—that the travelers showed up. And so, when Abraham ran out to greet the travelers, he left God’s presence to do it. Our sages say, this teaches us that “Hachnasat Orchim is even greater than receiving the divine presence,” (Shabbat 127a).
This is something I love about Judaism—the best way for us to show that we love God, is by taking care of other people.
Abraham and Sarah’s approach to bringing in guests is not something we should merely be impressed by, rather, we should aspire to adopt as our own. When it comes to welcoming guests, to bringing in guests – if we wait, if we are less than enthusiastic – then we may miss our opportunity to bring them in, and give them a positive experience.
I remember at my last congregation, there was a Shabbat dinner for young families. As we got ready to say the blessings, a family came in late and sat down at a table by themselves. I noticed it, and figured that after we said the blessings, we would create a space for them at another table, with other families. But before the blessings were over, they felt hurt being isolated, and they walked out of the room. From that moment on, I developed a policy, which I follow to this day – at all synagogue Shabbat dinners, before starting the blessings – I make sure that every family or individual is sitting with at least one other family.
These things didn’t just happen at my previous congregation. Here at TBI, I have seen incredible acts of welcoming—very much in the mode of Abraham and Sarah; however, I have also seen guests walk into a service or walk into our social hall—and watch, as no one goes up to them.
In our Preschool and Religious School –most of the time, I hear wonderful stories about people connecting, and new friendships blossoming. However, there are times I hear from families, who tell me that they have been unable to connect with other families—even after they have been here for a number of years. Sometimes, these people will tell me that the fact that haven’t connected with others is partly of their own doing—they have been too shy or reluctant to proactively make friends—and there is probably some truth to that. However, from the synagogue’s point of view—I don’t think it should matter what the families’ actions or lack of actions have been. I believe it’s our obligation to be sensitive to this issue. If we all proactively look out for new people, or people who don’t seem to be connecting with others—then we will find opportunities to do this mitzvah, and to make a big impact in these people’s lives.
- We should do this because it’s the right thing to do.
- We should do this because it will transform the lives of the people we touch.
- We should do this because in addition to lifting up those we welcome, we too, by doing this mitzvah, will feel uplifted.
- We should do this because it will strengthen our community.
On this night of Kol Nidrei, when we reflect on the power of our words – when we remind ourselves of the importance of living up to our words – let us remember that our tag line is: “Be Enriched, Be Inspired, Belong.”
“Belong” should come first—(although it sounds better last) – because if people don’t feel that they belong, then they may not stay around to be enriched and be inspired. And even if they do stay on as members, if they don’t feel that they have connected to the community, it will limit their experiences at TBI.
All of that being said -- we ARE a welcoming community. It’s how we see ourselves, and in many ways it’s accurate. But it’s not entirely accurate. Some people slip through the cracks. Some people are looking for greater connections within this community, but find it challenging to make those connections.
Ron Wolfson, in a book called The Spirituality of Welcoming, writes,
“The single most important way [for a synagogue to create a welcoming ambience], is for the congregation members themselves to express their personal welcome, when they see a stranger [or an individual, or a family, who are off by themselves to the side],” (p. 52).
So now it should be clear to all of us – each one of us should engage in the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim – because each one of us has an important role to play, and each one of us can make a difference. While this evening, I’m focusing on the way we can do this mitzvah at TBI, of course, there are many other places in our lives, where we can and we should welcome people in – and make a big difference in their lives.
Thank God, here at TBI, we have many people who have – at different times in their lives – taken this mitzvah to heart, and serve as inspiring examples of how to welcome people warmly and sincerely.
There are too many people who engage in this mitzvah in this way, so I’m not going to name them. However, I do want to mention by name, someone who incorporated this mitzvah into the very fiber of his being, and did it with great energy and love—just like Abraham and Sarah.
This past year, we lost a giant at TBI, when we lost Bernie Hulkower. In terms of height, Bernie was on the tall end, but physically, he was no giant. However, he was a giant in the way that he opened his heart to connect with people. He was a giant in the way he opened his arms and embraced people. He was a giant in the way that he ran up to people—young and old alike—to let them know that they had a friend and a place at TBI. (For the newer members who didn’t get a chance to know him. I’m sorry. But his spirit lives on, as he left a very beautiful mark on this congregation.)
Bernie was involved in the synagogue leadership for a while, and served as president. But that’s not why he was beloved by so many members at TBI. He was beloved because he was the first person that welcomed so many people who walked through the doors of our synagogue. And when he welcomed someone, he did it with great intention and affection.
May Bernie Hulkower’s memory always be for a blessing, and may we all work to build on the legacy, that he and so many others have left us.
So what can each of us do?
If you are a person, or part of a family, who has had difficulty connecting with others, please reach out to me after the holidays. When we know about a specific person or family that would like to connect more, it’s easier to connect them.
However, having said that, I think most of the work of welcoming people, connecting them, and making them feel like they are part of the TBI family is on all of us—the entire congregation.
So, first and foremost, let us commit ourselves to going up to people we don’t know and introducing ourselves. Many newer members don’t know many of the more seasoned members, and vice versa.
If we introduce ourselves and the person says that they are visiting, or that they are new to TBI, take time to welcome them, and get to know them. If it’s a guest, please let me and/or the office know about them.
With a guest or a member, if it makes sense, stay in touch with them, invite them to join you at another program or service. In addition, we should try to connect the people we meet, with our friends and with other members.
Another important way of fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim—with a new person, with someone you know a little, or with someone you know well—is by inviting them to your home for a Shabbat or holiday meal. I hope in this New Year, we can all try to invite more people into our homes at these special times.
This spring, we are going to have a program called “Shabbat In A House.” We will be asking a group of members to host a Shabbat dinner on a particular night, and then we will encourage everyone else to sign up, so that we can assign you to one of these homes, where you will join the hosts and some other families for a Shabbat dinner experience. This program is similar to a progressive dinner, except that each group stays in one home, and Shabbat is one of the centerpieces of the program.
There are other programs and initiatives we are considering to better connect us to one another, and to present an even more welcoming face to people, as they enter TBI. If you are interested in being involved in helping us raise our game even more, regarding this mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, please contact me, or Matt Engel, or the Synagogue office to let us know.
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I’d like to close with a wonderful insight from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, regarding the great power that comes from person-to-person contact. He says:
“The psychologist Abraham Maslow suggests, that the need to be recognized is universal. We have physical needs for food, shelter, and security. Beyond these, we have psychological needs, the deepest of which is to be known and valued for what we uniquely are. . . [Giving another person our full attention] may be the most important thing we can give . . . [because] a sense of value and recognition can only be had from other people, and it matters. A sense of worth, affirmed by others, is a source of moral energy, perhaps the most potent there is,” (Celebrating Life, pp. 147-158).
In this New Year, let us all engage more in this mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim. By welcoming others and affirming their value, may we create new energy and deeper bonds of connection, helping TBI reach its full potential as a Sacred Community.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah – May we all be sealed in the book of life, health, happiness, and blessings.
And let us say: Amen.