Inspirational

Rabbi Steven Leder Kol Nidrei 5777

Rabbi Steven Leder
Founded in 1862 as Congregation B’nai B’rith, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is one of the most highly respected Reform congregations in the U.S. and the oldest congregation in Los Angeles. The Temple building, built in 1929 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981... Read More

Kol Nidre 5777 Rabbi Steven Z. Leder

My mom tried her best to say it casually, but it was still such a painful sentence: “Steven honey, now that dad is in the nursing home and the town house is sold, before I give everything away you should go downstairs in the basement and take whatever you want.”

My dad was not a materialistic guy. He worried about money his entire life—to the point that even after he made it in business, he still reused his dental floss—after all, why throw away a perfectly good piece? And don’t get me started on the used tea bags wrapped in paper napkins he pulled out of his shirt pocket while asking the waitress for “just a little hot water.”

So what was left in the basement from a guy who wanted nothing? There was his tackle box, still filled with the lures, the sinkers and leaders, the hooks and bobbers from when I was a little boy and he rowed the boat across the lake on those rare Sundays he took me and my little brother Greg fishing for blue gills. He was tan, and young, and rowed like the strongest man in the world. Did I want his tackle box—what would I do with it? There aren’t any blue gills in LA.

There on the shelf, the grey, quilted long underwear he wore when he worked outside in the Minnesota cold at Leder Brothers’ Scrap Iron and Metal. Memories of dad at the junk yard washed over me. The noise, the dirt, the heat, the cold. Coming home with frost bitten fingers and toes after days in subzero weather making bails of aluminum and copper. I remember him lying in the bath tub before dinner just trying to thaw out—to soak off the grease and get warm again.

My barely high school educated parents married at 17 and 18, both fleeing their abusive fathers. With no idea that children like to be tucked in and read to at bed time, or should have toys, or be asked about school, they nevertheless had the five of us before they were thirty.

My Dad often made me cry. Rules were military strict, punishment was swift and the worst thing you could be was a ligner--Yiddish for liar. But his toughness and that junk yard put five kids through college and supported the eight family members he brought over from Chile when they had to flee the

communists. Four of them moved in with the seven of us in our three bedroom home. Four moved in two houses down the block with Uncle Mort and his family of four in their three bedroom house.

Somehow, no matter how dirty, how cold, how hard-- Dad made things work. And not just mechanical things. He was a blue collar guy who lived in the world of shvartze jokes and fag jokes who turned his entire world view around to walk my gay brother down the aisle at his wedding. He was so strong. But what would I do with his stack of long underwear in LA?

Then, I saw it. The chest of drawers in the back--the one with the broken handles. And there they were—used, rusted, oily, older than my earliest childhood memories—my dad’s tools. Another rush of memories. Weekends and summers working with dad while he fixed things at the handful of buildings he bought over the years with cash from the junk yard. One look at that chest and I was riding again in his dirty gray Oldsmobile with that trunk full of old tools and a plunger.

I rode shotgun as we drove around Minneapolis on our way to fix things. Of course, first there were pancakes in the morning at the Town Talk Diner before we attacked the leaky faucet, the stuck door, or the clogged drain. And of course, there was mostaccioli and meat balls at Café D’Napoli afterward for lunch. I was his scrub nurse: “Hand me those pliers. Give me that hammer. Hold the measuring tape right there.”

He wasn’t good at it and neither was I, but somehow or another, things usually got patched together enough to keep going. I learned some tricks along the way too, like scraping the threads of a screw along a Shabbat candle before screwing it into a piece of wood. The wax made things go easier with less damage to the wood and my wrist. My dad didn’t throw things away and if he could fix something himself, he did, and if he could do it without anyone getting hurt--so much the better.

I took these three tools from the chest of drawers to carry back with me to my life here in LA. “That’s all?” my mom asked when I ascended the basement stairs after wiping my tears. “Yeah. That’s all.”

These tools called out to me from decades long past. His measuring tape and his chalk line—physical metaphors, teaching me as a kid and reminding me as an adult about being a straight forward guy who measured things as they were— “no mishegas, no schticklach”—as my dad would put it. And then this pipe wrench with the name Aaron engraved on it. A reminder of how my son Aaron and my dad played hardware store together on the kitchen floor.

First, dad laid a towel on the linoleum floor, then he and Aaron set up shop, removing each tool from the chest and displaying it on the towel. My dad was the potential customer—Aaron the salesman.

“What’s this called and what’s it for?” he’d ask his little, freckled, five-year- old grandson.

“That’s a hammer. It hits nails into wood Papa.” “How much is it to buy this hammer?”

“Five dollars Papa.”

“Oh, that’s too much money.”

 

Eventually, the price was negotiated down, the deal for the hammer was done and it was on to the screw driver.

One day, Dad pretended to buy this wrench from Aaron and then told Aaron he was giving it back to him as a gift for all time. The deal was sealed when my dad took out his engraver and helped his amazed grandson etch his name—A- A-R-O-N--right here.

My dad’s memory and body are nearly gone—he sits and stares silently in his nursing home wheel chair, asleep in a diaper and a bib; he does not know my name. The work of his hands is done and now, these, his tools--are mine, and Aaron’s too.

Most people don’t fix much of anything anymore. The toaster, the blender, the folding chair—they break, we shrug, we throw them away and buy a new one on Amazon delivered right to our door. We see the despair on the news, in the papers and on the off ramp. We stop, we look, we shrug, we move on. Someone hurts our feelings. We stop calling, we stop caring, we shrug, we move on.

Tonight we stop our busy lives to listen to the haunting melody of Kol Nidre. We listen to the rabbi, we look inside ourselves, we know our flaws, our weaknesses, our secret sins of excess and immorality—and then what? Do we merely shrug and move on? We the children, the grandchildren and the great grandchildren of people who would not throw away a perfectly good piece of used dental floss—often throw away so much and fix so little.

Can we do more with the tools bequeathed to us by our parents, our grandparents, our prophets, psalmists and sages? Can we do more with the tools given to us and used by Jews to survive for 30 centuries—the tools of Torah, the tools of teshuva, t’filah and tzedakah—repentance, prayer and charity--that the High Holy Day prayer book tells us may save our very lives and without a doubt our souls?

To be a Jew and stand before the King of Kings on Kol Nidre is a promise to fix what is broken in us and in the world—no mishegas, no schticklach. A straight and true and measured and deeply held promise to strive to be better, not just better off. To be a Jew standing before the King of Kings on Kol Nidre is to reach down into the muck of our hurtful, broken family, our broken city, our broken country, and our broken selves where we hide so much, and to promise that we will blister our hands in the heat and the cold and fix something—not throw him, or her, or it away, shrug and move on.

Kol Nidrei--its haunting, beautiful melody marks, for many of us, the very essence of Yom Kippur. The melody is so beautiful we sometimes lose the meaning of the words themselves. It might surprise you that in 1844 a conference of the Reform movement in Germany recommended that Kol Nidrei be expunged from the prayer book and it wasn’t until 1961 that the Reform movement put the complete Aramaic text back in the prayer book.

Why? Because anti-Semites often cited Kol Nidrei as proof that Jews could not be trusted to keep their word. After all, if Jews could recite a formula on Yom Kippur that absolved them of having to keep their vows in the coming year, how could they ever be trusted as witnesses in a court of law or business or anything else for that matter? Never mind that the Talmud put severe limits on what Kol Nidrei actually absolves us of, still, it appeared to outsiders as if it was an unlimited license to make promises we had no intention of keeping.

If you are here tonight to make a promise you do not intend to keep; if you are prepared to stand before the King of Kings and merely pretend you are committed to fixing what is broken…then you are a ligner and should be somewhere else tonight.

Even if the idea of God as King is something you cannot abide, consider the power of living “as if.” As if there is a God who watches and who rules and who expects us to keep our Yom Kippur promises; as if there is a God who has bequeathed the tools of teshuva to us, the blessings of our freedom, our wealth, our time, our hearts and souls to fix something that is broken. Whether you believe in God or the idea makes you uncomfortable, we are better when we humbly live as if there is a power far greater than we and that expects much of us. That power’s plea to us on Kol Nidre is to fix something. And don’t wait.

Consider James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s Broken Windows theory of crime. The theory was based on their observations about the broken windows of an abandoned hospital building in Northampton, Massachusetts. The building had just a few broken windows at first. But because those first few broken windows went unrepaired vandals decided to break a few more windows.

Eventually, the vandals broke into the building, and because it was unoccupied the vandals became squatters and the squatters lit fires inside and the building was ruined beyond repair. If, on the other hand, you are quick to repair something at the first signs of damage, you prevent a lot of pain and loss. You avoid the point of no return.

This is not only true for windows. Hear me brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and coworkers—if you are quick to repair something at the first signs of damage, you prevent a lot of pain and loss. You can avoid the point of no return.

Oh I know--I know not everything that is broken can be fixed. I know that some families are so dysfunctional for so long that nothing can save them. Some friendships can never be rescued, some betrayals cannot be overcome, some social problems are so deeply embedded they can never be uprooted.

But I have also seen so many repair so much. The despondent daughter whose mother deprived her of love becomes a loving mother herself whose children feel none of the pain she felt in her own childhood. The son of the

tyrannical father who did tucks his children in at night and who lives as a man of peace in his home and his heart. The troubled child who makes it because that one, special teacher would not allow her to fail.

The addict who has walked those twelve steps, taking a fearless inventory, bravely fixing what was once so terribly broken, who keeps his word and counts the days of sobriety with faith in his capacity to stop, to confess, to change, to heal, to live and to love with integrity, and who knows, and respects and bows in deference and obligation to a Higher Power, a King of Kings whose strength is so much greater than our own.

The writer Anne Lamott puts it this way: "I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up, I found that God handed you these rusty, bent, old tools--friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty--and said, 'Do the best you can with these, they will have to do.' And mostly, against all odds, they're enough."

They are ancient and from a land far away, but the tools of Torahteshuva, tefilah, tzedakah are enough to fix what is broken in our souls and in the world.

These tools too were old when I was young and they are even older now. They are dirty, worn, imperfect. But they are etched with the memory of a Dad I miss so much who worked so hard to fix what could be fixed. A man who measured straight and true, then acted—no mishegas, no shticklach--never throwing a child, a family, or a used tea bag carelessly away.

Tonight we are called by the King of Kings to measure our deeds and to act. We know what we ought to do--pick up the phone, walk those twelve steps, reach out in apology and love.

Tonight we promise, we promise to fix what is broken in our lives and our world with the imperfect tools we have been given. To fix and not discard, to care and not to shrug, to believe that what is fractured can be whole once more in our family, our friendships and our hearts if we but use these tools of ancient make and wisdom and then, hand them lovingly to our sons and daughters and they to theirs, as each New Year begins.