Rabbi Cohen’s Sermon – Kol Nidre 5774 – Be Who You Are and May You Be Blessed

In the movie “Defending Your Life,” Daniel Miller is killed in a car accident and sent to Judgment City where, like everyone else, he sits in a courtroom and must defend his life. Some images for Daniel are easier to watch while others are disturbing to him and some of his past actions are embarrassing.

Imagine if we could sit in a room and watch our lives pass before us on film. As Jews, this is that moment, the day each year that we sit in judgment and examine our past 12 months like a film – powerful and scary all at the same time. It is a film during which we reflect on our actions, the decisions made and consider our own mortality.

Tonight, we begin a close examination of our lives and lay ourselves out, vulnerable and exposed. Too often we might try to hide our true selves from others and even from ourselves, but there is no hiding who we are from God. We all recognize that our lives are complicated, messy even. From juggling lives of work, family, friends, community – being on a journey from denial to self-awareness, to experiencing emotions balanced between anger and healing, hard heartedness to broken-heartedness, self-hatred to self-forgiving, it is all before us to examine and consider and then ask, what will I do with that which I learn about myself?

A story is told about a young new rabbi who comes to serve a small town in Eastern Europe. He is given a tour of the entire town and eventually ends up at the cemetery. As he wanders through the grounds reading the headstones of his predecessors who served the community before him, the young rabbi starts to notice something strange and disturbing – the ages on the stones. The life of one rabbi was 34 years, another 28, and yet another was only 23 years! From what he saw, there was not one person who survived past 40 years!

The new rabbi started to get very concerned and wondered about this community that seemed to be killing off its rabbis. His guide, sensing the growing panic within the rabbi and seeing that he was about to run said, “Let me explain and then you can decide if you still want to leave. These dates are not the number of years of these people’s lives, they are the number of years that they truly lived their lives.

“You see, we have a custom in our community that each person keeps a diary and at the end of the day they write down how much of their time was spent serving God – not just through prayer or study, but the number of hours spent living a life of gratitude and not regret – the number of hours living closest to their highest self – living according to the important and not trivial things. And then at the end of a person’s life we add all of the hours in the notebook and that is the number we put on their headstone. He lived to be 94 not the 38 years engraved there.” And pointing to another stone, he said, “And this rabbi was on this earth for 83 years not 34.”

How many years have you lived? How much time is spent on the mundane tasks taking us away from the moments where we want to be? Moments during which we are present for our family, for our children? Moments during which we are there for ourselves and caring for others? It’s not to say that there are not important times at our work or school, but how do we divide our time so that we don’t lose the precious time of living?

When we wake up in the morning, we are taught that we are given the world anew. Morning is the reenactment of creation during which God reminds us that we are partners with God in creation. So we wonder, what gets us up in the morning? What will get us out of bed and ready to act and do? And then, in the evening, as we go to sleep, the gift of the world in our hands is returned to God. And as God receives this world once again, God asks us, what did you do with My creation today? Did you add to the world or did you diminish it?

So often we think about what we contribute to the world on a large scale. We want to fix the world. We want to find that one thing that will make the difference in hundreds of lives. What we forget is that we can change the world one person at a time, starting with ourselves.

Kol Nidrei is this opportunity to focus on ourselves, but we have to be careful, this is not about beating ourselves up over the would-of, could-of, should-ofs, because we can’t change the decisions we’ve made in the past. Instead, we can look at the choices we made in the past and then ask ourselves, what WILL I do in the future.

Sometimes we get so caught up in everything else going on around us and life’s faster paced race that we don’t take them time to focus on the most important person of all, ourselves.

The daughter caring for her parent in the hospital; being her father’s advocate; making sure that meds are delivered on time; ensuring that her father is comfortable and pain free; she goes through documents to ensure nothing is overlooked; but forgetting that she needs to eat and drink herself, that she herself ends up in the ER needing fluids and nourishment.  She forgot, to care for dad, she has to care for herself.

The man who works long hours every day. Leaving home early in the morning, many times before the kids wake up and coming home long after they are in bed. There are games, school plays, parent teacher conferences that he misses because work is so demanding and deadlines are looming that cannot be ignored. And when he turns in the project for which he sacrificed time away from home and his children, he gets a “thanks” and it is put on the pile with everything else. He doesn’t hear a word about it for weeks and is given another assignment without any reflection on the work he’s already completed.

The student who feels like she’s never fit in. Others have called her names, teased her, commented on her body shape, all of the things we would call bullying. She desperately wants to fit in as she starts a new school, wants to have friends and will do whatever she needs to so that others will like her. She buys clothes from the stores everyone else does, spends hours on hair and make-up, and then, when she gets to school, walks into the lunch area hoping to find a seat and talk to anyone, but she is ignored or even shunned. Some whisper and make faces at her and leave her standing alone. Nothing has changed.

The daughter, the father, the student, they are reflections of each of us. We want to take care of everyone else, but we forget that to help in the healing of others, we ourselves must be healthy. We want to achieve every possible goal and meet every deadline and be recognized for the hours and hours of hard work we invest in our tasks. We want to be liked. We want friends who will love us and just invite us to sit with them and share in our lives. Our health and our self esteem are tested every day and while we try to care for everyone else, we forget about the most important person of all – us.

I’m not suggesting that we become narcissistic and conceded individuals. What I am suggesting is that, if we want to truly reflect on the world around us, we need to take a closer look as to who we are and ask ourselves, am I proud of who I am? Am I being true to myself and hence true to everyone else? Or am I hiding behind my work, my commitments, my clothes, so my true self is not revealed?

I share the following story with our youth and some of you might already know it. I’ve always wanted to be a rabbi. Since I was in third grade, I wanted to be a rabbi. When it finally came time to apply to the Hebrew Union College and prepare for the in-person interview I thought, ‘what are they looking for in a rabbi?’ And then I dressed the part. I wore a suit, something I’ve never worn before, I took out all the extra earrings and only left two small studs, only wore a a couple of rings, and the biggest of all, I had a “tail”, a long piece of hair that I wore to the side of my short cropped hair cut, so I pinned it up. One thing you should know is that I had already been to HUC in Cincinnati for a number of college programs, so I had already met Rabbi Gary Zola, the Dean of Admissions. After the interview, I walked out of the room with Rabbi Zola, and in his distinct voice that still plays in my head to this day, he asked, “Heidi, where’s the tail?” I replied, “Oh, it’s up doing the business thing.” “Oh good,” he said, “I thought Peter Pan flew away!”

Two weeks later, I got the letter that would devastate me at that time, it was a rejection letter! I couldn’t believe it – they were crushing my dream I’d had since I was 9! Fortunately, it was the rejection letter that said, ‘contact us, we would like to talk to you about the things we would like to see you work on so that you might reapply in the future.’ With that, I handed my letter to my Rabbi and asked what I was supposed to do. He helped me make that phone call to Rabbi Zola and along with wanting to see me get a year of graduate work under my belt since I was so young, Rabbi Zola said, “Heidi came in being what she thought we wanted her to be. She forgot who she was and we want to see her.”

Over the next year, I worked hard in graduate school, raised my GRE scores, and prepared for the next in-person interview. This time, I wore the clothing that was professional, but represented who I am, wore all my rings, my earrings, and the tail was freshly braided with a beautiful bead on the end. I sat down in the chair in the interview room and said, “ok, so let’s talk!” It was an amazing hour interview in which I didn’t overthink who I was trying to be, rather, I was just me and I shared my vision as to how I hoped to serve the Jewish people and the congregation who would love me and I would love in return.

Sure, I was devastated that I didn’t get in the first time, but rather than looking back and obsessing over what I did wrong, I moved forward and found the blessings of that year – the first was, I met Matt and we’ve been married for 17 years with two amazing kids. The second was, timing being what it is, I met you all and I’ve been here for 15 years and look forward to the many years ahead.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, a great modern Jewish philosopher, challenges us to take these High Holy Days and ask ourselves, ‘how do we perceive ourselves?’ It is not about worrying how others perceive us, but rather, we must first look closely at who we are and how we feel about ourselves. Do we see ourselves as holy, as children of God? He suggests that if we do, then maybe we would behave differently.

Too often we allow others or situations in our lives to destroy our own self esteem and then we are paralyzed and unable to do anything. Rav Kook suggests we need to return to our inner self and realize that this is our holy self. We know the words, ‘we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, but do we believe them? Do we believe that who we are is truly holy and the greatest blessing we can give the world is the blessing of being true to ourselves, caring for ourselves because then we can truly care for others and change the world.

This is the year of talking about our relationships. The most important relationship we must begin with is the relationship we have with ourselves. This Kol Nidrei and the next 24 hours, is an opportunity for each of us to open our hearts and souls and ask, who am I? Am I proud of who I am and my actions? Knowing that I can’t change the past, what will I do in the future? There are always things we can do to improve ourselves. And if the feedback is given in a constructive and loving way, we are more open to hearing it, exploring ourselves, and growing. This process has to start with our being open to laying our souls before us so that we can grow. But at the same time, we can’t beat ourselves up over past mistakes. We seek teshuvah, to return to our true self so that we can renew ourselves and start a new year. And when we do so, when we are true to ourselves, then our lives are lengthened.

Over these next 24 hours what do you want to learn about yourself? If someone was to ask you how many years have you truly lived, what will you say? And how can you add to those years?

Yes, life is complicated and we are left to juggle so many things at once, but when it all comes down to it, we should ask, how have we lived and how do we hope to live? Don’t hold regrets, they can only weigh us down.

May you always remember:

Be who you are and may you be blessed in all that you are.

Y’verech’cha ADONAI v’yeesh’m’recha – May God bless you and protect you.

Ya’eir ADONAI panav Ele’cha vee’hu’ne’kah – May God’s light shine on you, in you and through you, and may that light be a comingled with the light within your own heart and soul and may it be truly beautiful.

Yee’sa ADONAI panav eilecha, v’ya’seim l’chah shalom – May God’s face shine down upon every part of who you are and from all that you are, may you always find peace, fulfillment and wholeness in being truly who you are and knowing that you are a blessing.



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