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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Yom Kippur Eve 5768: Dancing in Two Weddings

Here's what I presented on Kol Nidrei Evening at USC Hillel. Let me know what you think!
Dancing in Two Weddings: Being a Jew in a Non-Jewish World
Rabbi Jonathan D. Klein
I’ve always loved situational irony, the idea that what you think will be the outcome in a story ends up being quite contrary to the actual results. I used to be a Twilight Zone junkie, and perhaps my all-time favorite episode was titled “Time enough at last,” starring Burgess Meredith. In this story, Henry Bemis, a misanthropic bookworm of a man, works at a bank. The only thing he wants to do is read, with his nerdy, thick spectacles. The bank president and his wife pick on him with his disheveled, unkempt appearance , so one day he decides to take his lunch break inside the bank vault to read without any pesky people getting in the way. As he’s reading the paper, tremendous explosions can be heard outside and the vault shakes, temporarily knocking him out. Mr. Bemis regains consciousness and opens the vault, to discover that the entire world has been destroyed by the hydrogen bomb. He is the only living person on the planet. Depressed, even suicidal, he strolls about aimlessly. Then a coincidental discovery offers him a sudden change of heart: He happens upon a library. Book after book of reading pleasure await him! The viewer assumes that he has found his paradise amid the ashes of an annihilated planet.

He sorts through them, stacking them up by the months he’ll read them, but then, opening up his first book, he stumbles. His thick glasses go crashing to the ground. A million shards are all that are left. He wimpers, "That's–that's not fair. That's not fair at all. There was time now. There was, was all the time I needed... ! It's not fair! The camera fades out with Rod Serling’s famous Twilight Zone narration: “The best laid plans of mice and men and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time.” A memorable cinematic moment of situational irony.

Now here’s a real life example of it. An old friend, Susan, grew up Orthodox. However, she had ambitions to act and moved to New York City to pursue this dream. To act means to make sacrifices in order to get the parts, so when an audition opened up in the village downtown one Saturday afternoon, Susan decided that she would follow only the strict letter of the law and try out. Acting didn’t involve doing any m’chalel Shabbat, desecration of the Sabbath, did it? Sure, if she had to drive there it would, but boldly, Susan chose to walk from the upper west side down to the village, roughly a five- mile stroll. When she arrived, surrounded by lots of ambitious actors and actresses, you might be able to guess what happened; a casting crew member said to her, “Welcome! Please sign in here” and handed her a clipboard with a pen attached.

A simple story, but with a torrent of complexity. Navigating between two worlds, Susan had to make a supreme compromise if she were to advance her personal goals. A life of strict adherence to an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, challenged by necessity. Which would win out? Tradition? Or personal ambition?

She had to sign in, didn’t she? No choice but to break the Sabbath. Sure, it’s the fifth of G’s illustrious ten commandments, carrying a penalty of death in the bible but today, thousands of years later, isn’t it simply a remnant of old world thinking?

For that matter, perhaps so is fasting? Maybe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, known as Shabbat haShabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, is just like any other day? One might say, “I like that Judaism has all these rituals, like fasting on Yom Kippur, and as long as I’m not TOOO hungry, or as long as Yom Kippur doesn’t become an inconvenience because I have a discussion section that conflicts with services, I’ll observe it. Or perhaps you could say, since my parents aren’t making me go and it just isn’t the same as my home services, I’ll stay home.

Or maybe go to a football game tomorrow afternoon. Isn’t going to football a lot like breaking the fast? I mean, both of them are parties, aren’t they?

In Prague, there still stands a large clock tower that used to chime the hour to the inhabitants of that city.
The Jewish shtetl where Jews lived was located behind the clock tower, and so they looked only upon the back of the large clock, watching the hands ticking backwards through the glass.
The residents of the shtetl painted Hebrew numbers on the back of the clock, Hebrew which is written from right to left, so that they could tell time backwards.......
Sometimes as Jews, it is as if we really are seeing time backwards, as if we are living on the wrong side of the clock tower, that three is nine and eleven is one.
An old Yiddish phrase says it is impossible to dance at two weddings at the same time. Well, Jewish history has shown that Jews are quite apt at accomplishing the impossible.
Dancing at two weddings is what we do every day, our legs shuffling in a large circle to Hava Nagila while our upper bodies arch backwards to shimmy under the limbo bar, a beer in one hand and latkes in the other.
And sometimes just when we feel we have this whole thing under control, everything is in sync, suddenly it all collides.
We look around like a squirrel in the middle of the road, and wonder, which way do I go. The wheels of confusion are fast coming your way, do you dodge them? Do you pray? Do you tuck your head down and try to disappear?
And tomorrow, at the end of Yom Kippur, at Ne’ilah services right before we break the fast, Neilah literally meaning the Closing or Locking of the Gates of Repentance, when we hope to be not just inscribed but SEALED into the book of life, where will you be? When your fate for the year is being finalized, will you be there?
Or does the tailgate call you? Does your sorority beckon to you not only to stay here for this weekend instead of going home for Yom Kippur, but also to choose football over repentance? Does your social network reprioritize your “Jew weekend,” suggesting that as a consolation prize for your saddened parents, who want you home because you’ve been with them every Yom Kippur for twenty years and they miss you, as a consolation you have chosen to come to Hillel for services, tempted to take a picture of you holding a prayerbook or lighting a yahrzeit candle just to prove to them your undying religious commitment? Do you think that breaking the fast is fun but tailgating is better? Chanting Avinu Malkeinu Chatanu L’fanecha,Our Father Our King, we have sinned against you sounds interesting, but chanting S-O-U-T-H-E-R-N C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A with friends is what life is all about?
Are you saying to yourself, I’ll get myself sealed in the book of life next year, and if not next year, well whenever Yom Kippur doesn’t conflict with Trojan Football and it is more convenient.? As a side note, a few years ago, the only game that USC lost was the weekender which conflicted with Rosh HaShanah.
Anyway, I’m still gonna fast. Sure, it might be hard to concentrate, and I might get a little dizzy during the game, but I’ll do it. And then maybe a bunch of us will break the fast at the frat. Everyone knows that Sandy Koufax, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, didn’t play on Yom Kippur during the World Series. But Orthodox rumor has it he didn’t go to synagogue either; he fasted in the dugout. Conventional wisdom is that he was at shul. Everyone agrees he played baseball on Shabbat. Only John Goodman in the Big Lebowski doesn’t BOWL on Shabbes.
Maybe the Yiddish proverb is right; we really can’t dance at two weddings at the same time. We have to choose the wedding we will attend. Perhaps in this supreme effort not to fall behind socially, that is precisely what we are doing. Falling behind.
You see, when the school year began nearly a month ago, our journey began, our journey into new discoveries, new accomplishments, and the High Holidays come some time near the beginning of that journey, sometime in the beginning in order for us to take a step back and survey what we are about to do, survey where we are about to go.
For the older students, too, who have done the drill many times of packing the car for school, there’s still tremendous excitement each year to start off anew, fresh, to reconnect with now-old college friends, with a chaotic clock moving both forward and backward simultaneously, dancing at two weddings, one with mom and dad, the other with Mister or Misses Right.
Each of us have packed up our cars, we have filled our tanks, checked our oil, pulled into the highway of experience, surrounded ourselves with so much noise; rush, auditions, football, and when there is no noise, there is still white noise, the humming of the tires, the whirring of the fans, the thoughts in our head, the landscape whisks by us in our great rush to get this journey underway.
And then we see a sign on the side of the road. It says “Roadside View.” Yom Kippur.
So we pull over, take out our camera, frame the picture, and slowly we lower the camera from our eyes as we realize that we are witnessing, tonight, the most beautiful sunset we have ever seen.

Put the camera down. Turn off the engine. Lean against the car and take a look. From here you have the most extraordinary, picture perfect view of your self.
These are the Days of Awe. A Place in Time for Awe.
From here, from this mountain top we can see all of the hills and valleys of our daily life. We see the road of our years winding its way, now through the bright, clear stretches of our worthiness, now through the tangled jungle of our failures.
The air in this place is clean and fresh. The view ... spectacular. From here, from this Place of Awe, we can chart out the course we want to take on the map of our selves.
From here we can figure out where we want to go. From here we can reacquaint ourselves with the meaning of it all, we can reacquaint ourselves with Gd.
What a complicated dance we do at our two weddings! In the Talmud, the Rabbis were pretty talented dancers. Way back, almost two thousand years ago, the direct descendant of football culture, the bloodsport of gladiator fights, was a potent drug that surprising to most of us, many Jews felt intoxicated by. They wanted to participate; just as we love to go to OUR coliseum for football, Jews back in the day wanted to cheer in THEIR ancient Roman coliseum. One, we know, Rabbi Shimon B. Lakish (Raish Lakish), was even a gladiator[1]. The gladiator, literally sword carrier, would be showcased before the bout, and people had their favorite gladiator heroes. There were ticket scalpers who bought seats for the games in advance and then marked up the prices. In earlier years, Julius Caesar was said to have started a newspaper, Acta Diurna, or the Daily Acts, which reported the gladiator news. Moreover, gladiators attended gladiator schools. The famous gladiators, apparently, even did product endorsements for items that were sold at the arena, their names on billboard-like signs. There was music performed at the gladiator fights, with the tempo of the music fluctuating with the pace of the bout. There was a referee who presided over the match.
Does this sound like Trojan football? The Daily Trojan a substitute for the Daily Acts?
The rabbis hotly debated whether Jews should be allowed to attend the gladiator games. When a gladiator lost in his mortal combat with another gladiator, if the crowd decided that he would die, he would grab the thigh of the victor, who while holding the fallen gladiator’s helmet, would plunge his sword into his neck or cut his throat, depending on which weapon he was carrying. It often depended on the crowd to decide the fate of the loser. Some rabbis believed that under no circumstance should a Jew witness or involve oneself in a cruel, barbaric gladiator game. However, R. Nathan encouraged participation, believing that Jews held moral superiority and thus could help save the life of the fallen gladiator. “Release him!” they should shout.
At which wedding do we dance? Tonight, together, we are dancing thousands of years of tradition, formality, awe. Tonight, we take our words so seriously that we recite a special prayer, Kol Nidrei, with the solemnity of a courtroom, two Torahs flanking the cantor, for something as seemingly trivial as promises we might make, in the year to come. Tonight, we go to bed hungry, reminding ourselves that there are hundreds of people nearby in Skid Row who not only go to bed hungry, but don’t go to a bed. Tonight, we imitate the angels, dressed in white, the one time in the year when we recite the Sh’ma’s “Baruch Sheim Kavod malchuto L’olam va’ed” out loud, “Blessed is G’s glory, G’s sovereignty is forever and ever,” just as they do on high. Tonight, we are angels, figuratively and spiritually; pure, clean, excited at the opportunity to remove all our faults, our failings accumulated over the year, renewed in our struggle to be good when in so many ways we really want to be bad. Tonight, amid our imitation of the angels on the one hand and our pretending to be like the dead on the other, neither of which eat, drink, wear leather, put on perfume, experience sexual gratification, or bathe, we experience spiritual rebirth, a resuscitation from the death that permeates our daily grind, the insults we yell at crazy drivers on the road who cut us off, the fury we feel when we wait in lines at the bank with stupid people taking forever, or perhaps the hostility we express toward our parents who are overbearing, the ridiculous distancing we provoke for no legitimate reason with friends who somehow didn’t mean to offend us but because of our own insecurities we read as intentional affronts. Tonight we are honest with ourselves, perhaps for the first time in a year, confronting our own demons and personal baggage that weigh us down. Tonight we perform a Cheshbon haNefesh, an accounting of our souls, checking to see if we really are living our lives to our highest moral and spiritual potential and if not, confessing our failures. Tonight, when we pound on our hearts during the prayer for forgiveness, ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, it is as if we are knocking on the door of our heart saying, “Let me in! I want to know you. I want to be whole.” Tonight we realize that we can be reborn.
And tomorrow? Yom Kippur day? The day when we REALLY feel the effects of fasting? All of this gift of rebirth is available to us still. We in fact have an opportunity to discover our own sincerity regarding these prayers. Will we continue to fast? Will we take the promises of tonight and put them into action tomorrow? Make an extra effort starting tonight to apologize to those whom we have wronged?
And tomorrow, is it Game Day or Yom Kippur Day? Can we dance at both weddings, without jeopardizing our sincere commitment to both brides and grooms? As we read the words of Jonah, will you be recalling the ways you, like that ancient prophet, have hidden from G and shirked your responsibility to be a force for good? Or will those words not even enter your mind because you won’t hear them, choosing instead to dance at the other wedding, partying it up as USC fights to the death, like gladiators of old, against that most vile of enemies, Washington State University? Oh, the evil!
I’m asking YOU.
As the great musician Meatloaf’s song once asked, What’s it gonna be, boy?
What's it gonna be boy? Come on, I can wait all night. What's it gonna be boy, yes or no? What's it gonna be boy, yes... or... no?
And if your answer is Meatloaf’s, then it might go something like this:Let me sleep on itBaby, baby let me sleep on itLet me sleep on it
I'll give you an answer in the morning

Like Susan, we are confronting simple questions,
Complex answers. And these questions are no longer our parents’ to answer. They are ours. No one ever said adulthood is easy.
You obviously know where I stand, but in truth, it doesn’t matter where I stand regarding your life. The decisions are ours, to make for ourselves. I bless all of us with the strength and grace to live our lives according to the values and principles that we believe are meaningful for us. May we ask for m’chilah, forgiveness, from those we’ve wronged, and leave this evening with a deeper sense of our personal challenges, so that we can celebrate the love, the beauty, and the wisdom bottled up deep within us and let it shine forth like the shimmering rays of light over a beautiful ocean sunset, tonight, tomorrow, and forever after. Amen.


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