Sign In Forgot Password
. Click here to watch any of our services and programs that are streaming online

Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Kol Nidre - 2010/5771

Kol Nidre-5771

The headline back in May caught my eye as I skimmed the sports pages of The New York Times.   “Red Sox Nation Grumbles Like an Entitled Empire” read the words and, like the Cubs fan I am, I felt a certain schadenfreude at the many Boston fans’ predicament.  Nu, they had won two more World Series since beating the Cubs back in 1918 while this will mark the 102nd year without a World Series title for the Cubs.  Even four months ago, it was clear to many that the Red Sox might not make the playoffs this season.  Wrote David Margolick in that article, “creeping Yankeeosis has spread to Red Sox Nation.  There is the same petulance, the same arrogance, the same intolerance for imperfection, the same obnoxious impatience.”  In the meantime, I, as a Cubs fan with hope and modesty, with a sense of all of life’s imperfections, could simply say, “Next year…”

But I must admit, as these days approached, I also began to ponder what we might do or say if the Messiah appeared here on the bimah tonight.  Now, I understand that we would have enough trouble recognizing the Messiah; we Jews cannot even seem to agree among ourselves upon who is a Jew.  Yet, for the purposes of this exercise, let us imagine that, by the power of (pardon the sexist language) his presence, we recognize the Messiah as he announces himself.  Then, as Leibl Fein would tell the story, some of us would burst into tears, so overwhelmed; others of us would burst into applause, so thrilled to meet the Messiah.  But then, in a few short moments, some of us would get impatient, maybe even angry.  Someone might call out, “For God’s sake, where have you been?  Why did you not come when we really needed you to be here and save all those who perished in the Shoah?”  And the Messiah has no answer.  Where indeed was the Messiah during the Shoah, during the tragedies, during all the annihilations?  Ashamed, the Messiah departs.  (in Yearnings by Irwin Kula)

So consider how odd and dangerous the entire concept of Messiah is.  Imagine, in part as Rabbi Larry Kushner has described it-that a human being would come along and resolve all pain and suffering, superimpose human values on nature-giving us non-violent wolves and vegetarian lions, reconcile every dispute and disagreement by turning the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents and by convincing all soldiers and warriors to beat their swords (or their equivalent) into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and by bringing Democrats and Republicans and Tea Partiers together to civilly govern, and give every person his or her just reward or punishment.  In the meantime, while doing all this, the Messiah would also restore the throne of David, resurrect the dead, make the Jews the masters of the Universe, and get everyone to make aliyah.

The Messiah is to come and take this world that God made and make it into the world God wants-a world without hunger or poverty and with peace, a world in which, because we are all created in the image of God, each of us has infinite value and uniqueness, where all of us are equal, perhaps even a world where the Cubs and the Brewers each win a World Series.  Yet for all the intensity of Jewish interest in the Messiah, we find a coolness of Jewish tradition for the appearance of the Messiah.  Yes, Elijah, the herald of the Messiah, appears at every brit in case that child grows up to be the Messiah.  Similarly, Elijah also comes to every Pesach seder, connecting that previous redemption from the house of bondage to the future redemption that the Messiah will bring.  Yet that deep longing for redemption-to which we also refer in every prayer service in the tefillah and in aleinu-is, in Leon Wieseltier’s words, almost never unaccompanied by a reluctance to be redeemed.  Taught Yochanan ben Zakkai back in the first century of the common era:  “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out to greet the Messiah.”

For we Jews also know how dangerous messianism can be.  There are always those in search of new messiahs, seeking ones to illumine dark paths and provide meaning for darkened lives, bearing our burdens and easing our pains.  In so many ways, the history of Jewish messianism has been the history of false messiahs.  From Bar Kochba in the second century of the common era to Shabbtai Tzvi of the 17th century and Jacob Frank of the 18th century, false messiahs have   led not to life but, rather, to death.  And we Jews remain skeptical of current messianic claims, whether coming from some parts of Lubavitch Habad particularly following the death of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 16 years ago, or informing some parts of modern Zionism following the Six-Day War where land was settled to bring the Messiah.   Whenever Jews have thought the Messiah’s arrival to be at hand, the results have been disastrous.

We Reform Jews, now participants in the modern western world, also became quite uncomfortable with the notion of a personal messiah.  No longer seeking a return to Zion or a rebuilding of the Davidic throne, the words of classical Reform reverberated through the planks of the Pittsburgh Platform as the 19th century came to an end.  Wrote those early Reform rabbis, “We recognize in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect the approach of the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all….”  No personal Messiah would bring, to use those older words, the brotherhood of man.   And I remember the sense of hope in my own childhood-the Peace Corps, VISTA, the civil rights movement.  Hand in hand, we would overcome.  Perhaps, even in my lifetime, I would be able to help usher in the Messianic Age.

But that hope was also a false messiah, if you will.  Gene Borowitz, perhaps Reform Judaism’s leading theologian, described it thusly:

We believed in the goodness of people and trusted that education and culture would guide them properly, while psychotherapy remedied their flaws.  We counted on politics to bring the [Messianic Age], with an assist from social science.  We followed the commandments of self-realization and looked forward to perfecting humankind.  Sitting in our homes, walking on the way, lying down and rising up, we spoke of human progress and put our faith in new projects.

We discovered that better education did not automatically make better, unprejudiced people; a bigot could still be a bigot even with a PhD.

So think now of the words with which we will conclude Yom Kippur tomorrow evening here in our sanctuary.  At the end of Ne’ilah, as the gates have closed, we will say “La-shana ha-ba’ah b’yerushalyim-Next year in Jerusalem.”  Redemption will come-but it will come next year.  It is never this year; it is always next year.  Or, for that matter, consider the words with which we will conclude our service tonight.  They are the words of Yigdal, put to music by Daniel ben Yehudah in 14th century Rome.  A poetic summary of Maimonides 13 principles of faith, the English on page 287 of our Mahzors taken from the old Union Hymnal does not properly reflect the crucial 12th principle.  But you do know Maimonides’s original words-“Ani ma-amin be-emuna sheleima b’vi-at ha-mashiach; I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah (And even if he be delayed, I will await him).”

In the words of the 20th century German Jewish philosopher Herman Cohen, “We believe in the coming of the Messiah, not the arrival.”  It is not belief in the Messiah which constitutes Maimonides’ 12th principle of faith; it is rather the belief in the coming of the Messiah.  In other words, to channel Walter Benjamin through Larry Kushner, one cannot appreciate the charm of a café unless one has a passion for waiting.  So if we are to believe in the coming of the Messiah, we will be waiting a very long time.  In fact, one could say that the Messiah is always on the way that, further, the Messiah always, eternally, has to be on the way.  If the Messiah were here on the bimah with me tonight, the Messiah would no longer be coming.  Thus, it is always next year.

So a story.  Once upon a time, in a small shtetl somewhere in Russia, the elders decide to hire a poor Jew for a ruble a week to sit at the shetl’s entrance to greet the Messiah.  On his first day on the job, the poor Jew’s brother comes by to talk.  “Why,” he wonders, “did you take such a low-paying job?”  “Nu,” responds the Messiah greeter, “the pay may be low but the work, it’s steady.”  He had, of course, lifetime job security.

And for us-well, if the Messiah is always on the way, our task is to keep making this world ready for the Messiah.  So another story, this one told by so many people that I am not sure of its authorship.  The earliest version I have been able to find puts it in a Catholic context written by one Francis Dorff of the Norbertine Community in Albuquerque published in the New Catholic World in l979.  Called “The Rabbi’s Gift,” it is of a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, only five monks were left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age.  Clearly it was a dying order.

Now, in the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little cabin that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used to come to and study with a couple of his disciples.  Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was there.  “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again,” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one time to visit the rabbi and ask, if by some possible chance, he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

As always, the rabbi welcomed the abbot at his cabin. But when the abbot explained the purpose of this visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “Yes, I know how it is,” he exclaimed.  So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. When the time came for the abbot to leave, they embraced one another. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should talk after all these years,” the abbot said. “But I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded, “I have no advice to give you.  The only thing I can tell you is that one of you is the messiah.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him and asked, “Well, what did the rabbi say?”

“He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving–it was something cryptic–he said that one of us was the Messiah!  Maybe it’s something from Jewish mysticism.  I don’t know what he meant.”

In the months that followed, the old monks pondered the rabbi’s words.  The Messiah is one of us?  Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery?  If that’s the case, who is it?  Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, he has been our teacher for more than a generation.  On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas.  Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.  Certainly he couldn’t have meant Brother Jonathan!  Jonathan gets crotchety at times.  But, come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, he is virtually always right.  Surely not Brother Philip.  Philip is so passive, a real nobody.  But then, Phillip has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him.  He just magically appears by your side.  Of course, the rabbi didn’t mean me.  He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person.  Yet suppose he did?  Suppose I am the Messiah?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them might actually be the Messiah.  And on the off, off chance that each monk might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the monastery was situated in a beautiful forest, it so happened that people occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate.  And as they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive about it.  Hardly knowing why, people began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray.  They began to bring their friends to show them this special place.  And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks.  In fact, a few of them even asked if they could join the monastery.  And it happened that, within a few years, the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirit.

If the Messiah is always coming, then our task is, like the monks, to make this world more messianic.  Think of opening the door for Elijah at the Pesach seder; if we do not open the door, there is no way for Elijah to come.  If we do not make this world more messianic, there is no way for the Messiah to come.    “The Messiah will come,” noted Franz Kafka, “not on the last day, but on the very last.”  In other words, the Messiah will come when there is no need for the Messiah to come.

In the Talmud, in Sanhedrin 98a, we read of Rabbi Joshua meeting Elijah at the entrance to

Shimon bar Yochai’s burial cave and asking, “When will the Messiah come?”

Responded Elijah, “Go and ask him yourself?”

“Ask him myself?  Where is he sitting?” asked Joshua.

“At the entrance, in front of the gate.”

“How will I recognize him?”

‘He sits among the lepers.  They tie and untie the bandages all at once.  He unties and reties them one at a time.”  So Joshua left to find the Messiah at the gate.  Seeing him, he exclaimed, “Shalom aleichem, Master and Teacher.”

“Aleichem shalom, O son of Levi,” he replied.

‘When will you come Master?’ asked Joshua.

“Today,” came the Messiah’s reply.

With great excitement, Joshua ran back to Elijah to tell him the tale.  “But he lied to me,” insisted Joshua,” for he told me that the Messiah would come today, yet he has not come.”

Elijah answered, “This is what he meant.  He will come today if you hearken to his voice.”

Centuries later-and we still yearn for the coming of the Messiah.  So where is the Messiah-tending to the sick one by one.  The same Messiah who is going to end bring an end to hunger and poverty, the one who will usher in peace for all humankind, that is the Messiah who is near to us binding the wounds of each and every individual.  And that is the Messianic work we still have to do.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, head of the rabbinical school at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, writes of seeing a film clip at the Kennedy Library of a moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  It began with President Kennedy calling then Senate Majority Leader, Hubert Humphrey, and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson.  These men were important and powerful, and their President needed to meet with them in the midst of a national emergency.  Arriving in their chauffeur-driven limo at the White House, guards open the door to make sure that their security is protected.  Both men emerge from the car and stride purposefully into the White House.  But then Artson notes that as Senator Humphrey exits, he catches himself, turns to the guard who opened the door, and says “thank you.”

Artson uses the clip to describe the messianic work we still have to do, making peace while offering personal compassion at the same time.  For there is no justice indifferent to particular people.  Notes Artson, “if we live in such a way that we take the wounds of other people to be our own to heal, if we live in such a way that one hungry person is an affront to our conscience, if we cannot sleep so long as there is one homeless person and cannot sleep because we were rude or cruel to someone,” we are making the world more messianic, ever preparing for the coming of the Messiah.  Or understand it as Rabbi Irwin Kula does–as we work to make this world as the garden of Eden, we still have to do the very messy work of bringing Eden into our own gardens.

In writing his fascinating account of the messianic ideal in Judaism, Rabbi Robert Levine entitled it There Is No Messiah..and You’re It.  The book may be excellent but his title is all wrong.  The title should be “There Is a Messiah…and You’re It.”  So, this day, as we all stand in judgment before God, what are you doing?  The Messiah is here tonight!  Ayekah?  Where are you?  You have everything you need and you are where you need to be.

The Jewish poet and tzedakah guide, Danny Siegel, wrote:

If you always assume
the person sitting next to you
is the Messiah
waiting for some simple human kindness —
You will soon come to weigh your words and watch
your hands.
And if he (or she) so chooses not to reveal him (or her)self in
your time
It will not matter.

Next year…

– Rabbi Marc E. Berkson


Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784