Rabbi Englander's Sermons

Kol Nidre 5780

Kol Nidre 5780
Rabbi David Englander

G’mar Chatimah Tovah to you and to all of our families. I saw a t-shirt recently that had the slogan on it “Done Adulting For Today.” Do you know what adulting is? It is a tongue in cheek way of complaining about how hard life can be with responsibilities and it is almost always used in terms of “I don’t want to do this adulting thing anymore.” Of how being a grown up is not all you had dreamed it would be when you were a kid. Not, as the saying goes, all it cracked up to be. Some examples from internet memes: Welcome to adulthood. You have a favorite spatula now. Or: I have been putting a lot of thought into it and I just don’t think being an adult is gonna work for me. Or on waking up: I have pinched myself multiple times but it turns out this is not a bad dream. It is called “morning” and “being an adult”. At least there’s coffee. And: How’s adulting going today you ask? I turned on the wrong burner and have been cooking nothing for about 20 minutes. And: Becoming an adult is a lot like when you are trying to get one ice cube from the cup into your mouth and like 500 fall on your face.

In other words: when did it happen that I have to make decisions, accept responsibility, not do
all the things I want to do when I want to do them, look after other people, and at times be
tired and annoyed while doing so?
But there is a flipside and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us of what it is, and it is surely a much
more Jewish view. I don’t remember it exactly but it is close to what he taught, and I have
thought about it in my own life quite often since coming across it: Our main job is to model
adulthood in a way that makes it something toward which our children will aspire. In other
words there is responsibility and obligation and it is not always fun and joyful, but it is the
content of a meaningful life to take responsibility, live with integrity, show that the burdens of
life can be borne in a way that allows us still to help others, live as healthfully as we can, and be
there for those who rely on us. Easy? No. Meaningful? Hopefully. Fulfilling? Not every
moment, but as a sum total of our efforts, absolutely.
The drive to adulthood, to the necessity however challenging it can be sometimes, the
requirement “to do adulting” is represented in our Torah, in our faith, and in our families. I
want to share a brief example of how.
I learned recently that the Pentateuch may once have been a Hexateuch. If you are not
sleeping yet, a word of explanation. The Pentateuch is our Chumash, the five books of Moses,
from Genesis to Deuteronomy. It begins with the creation of the world and ends more or less
with the death of Moses and the people still outside the land. The Hexateuch is a presumed six
book Bible, which starts in Genesis, but ends with Joshua, after the people have entered into
and begun to conquer and organize Israel.
What makes it a compelling possibility? Toward the beginning of Genesis, after the mystical
Creation narrative and the flood story that almost every religion shares some version of,
Abraham is promised that in the future his descendants would inherit and inhabit the land that
he is now being shown. You know what makes a good ending to a book that starts with the
promise of a land for your descendants? Your descendants entering into that land! And our
Torah stops short of that, hence the possibility that at one point, most likely when land was
fully central to people’s understanding of what Judaism was about, maybe the six books of the
Torah was an even better-known phrase than the five books.
It is a theory – we don’t know for sure if it was ever the case. There is something compelling
too about our five book Torah – in fact I hope you would agree there is a whole lot that is
compelling about it. In addition to many other reasons it is compelling because it ends with a
call to adulting. Moses says look I’m not going to be with you to guide you and you are going to
have to figure some things out for yourselves. I’ll always be with you through the teachings I’m
leaving you. I hope you think it will be important to live up to them in a way that will be
meaningful and fulfilling, but you are going to have to make that choice as will all future
How about adulting as it relates to faith? Recently speech writer and author Sarah Hurwitz
wrote a book on her faith journey, and in the title you get a sense of what it is about: “Here all
Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality and a Deeper Connection to Life – In Judaism (After Finally
Choosing to Look There). Like many of us she had been taught a Judaism that seemed
incapable of addressing her real-life, adult concerns. Rosh Hashanah stopped at apples and
honey, Yom Kippur was for rabbis and cantors, and Passover was about matzah, brisket, and
the family not getting along. No history, no depth, no complexity, and little meaning.
After a life crisis she began exploring the tradition more seriously and found, well, she found
what she had been missing. As she wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal article: Many of us
have “rejected the kiddie stuff but never bothered to replace it with an adult version. And
that’s a real loss, because mature forms of religion don’t traffic in simplistic or implausible
answers, but push us to ask the right questions. Not just “what does it mean to be happy or
successful?” But “what does it mean to lead a truly ethical life? To be part of a community? To
serve something greater than oneself?” She found a religion expressing faith at its best which
“is a form of protest against the self-absorption, materialism, triviality and cruelty of modern
life”, with permission and encouragement given to say “I don’t know” in a culture where that
phrase is often frowned upon. So we can adult in faith and in our understanding of Judaism,
which is a road and journey I hope we can remain on together.
Lastly: Like many of you have or yet will our family recently experienced a transition that
marked a step from childhood if not to adulthood at least to some adulting. One of the biggest
leaps in that direction that many of our kids make, want to make, and some can’t wait to make
is packing up and moving out to college. And while some of that leads to parts of the adulting
that they had hoped for, inevitably some of it is the kind of adulting that even so-called adults
sometimes have second thoughts about. Time management, self-care, finding something to
eat, remembering to eat, eating somewhat healthy food sometimes, making new friends, rest,
exercise, academic work at a different pace and expectations than high school, and for some at
least a little bit of homesickness too are all part of the experience.
Just a month ago our oldest daughter Yaffa moved into her dorm at JTS to start a dual degree
program there and at Columbia. We adulted her as best we could. She’s ready in some ways
and will through trial and error figure it out for the ways she is not. She told me that most of
the time she just feels like she doesn’t know what she is doing. I reassured her that it may be
surprising to hear but most of the adults in her life often feel exactly the same way. Adulting is
tough but it is only when you can make a choice and deal with the aftermath – hopefully often
for the good your choice resulted in – that you can you really feel like you have fulfilled what is
expected of you, or at least tried to.
My Moses-like speeches had already been made, including the rules I’d like her to keep in mind
about staying healthy and safe as an 18 year old on her own, how she should not be
intimidated by anyone no matter what their title or how many books they have written, how
she should also live in the city and enjoy it while she is there because it is like no other in the
world, and yes how we have loved her and tried to be almost as good parents as she has been
as a good kid and person. Even Moses didn’t say that to the Israelites, I think he knew they
needed some tougher love based on their track record. If he had a few hundred thousand
Yaffa’s trekking through the desert with him he would not have needed to worry so much.
The day before she left I told her that the last time I felt this way was right after her bat mitzvah
– she loved her bat mitzvah. I said I felt then that I was so happy she got everything she wanted
out of it and I was sad that it was over. And now I felt the same way about her childhood. I felt
happy that she had gotten much – not all, there are always some regrets, things you would
change if you had the chance – she had gotten much of what she wanted out of growing up in
our home, and I felt sad – honestly very sad, that it was over.
Without overstating it I imagine that Moses felt a tinge of the same sadness – he had given
birth to this people, in a way raised them, and now they were moving on without him. Just like
his messages and lessons are always with us, so too is every parenting and adulting model we
have ever witnessed. Through speeches, but more so through personal example and his
expressed hopes in the people’s future – both short and extremely long term – Moses as parent
prepares to send his children off on their own. It is a feeling which I, and most of us, can
identify with very, very well.
Maybe that is why tonight we turn to God as Avinu Malekeinu, putting God as parent first. God
is with us no matter how far we have roamed, as we are with our children whether they are
distanced from us or nearby, whether they listen to our advice or not, whether they are in
touch with us as often as we would like – or not. Hopefully like our kids may have witnessed in
us sometimes, as a parent God has occasionally seen us at our best, maybe even better than
had been expected or anticipated, when responsibilities were fulfilled, kindnesses expressed,
challenges met with patience, focus, humility, and confidence in the future. We did and we will
continue to do our best to make adulthood seem like something that is worth aspiring to, and it
will be up to them to figure out much of the rest. May God give them, and us, strength as this
new year unfolds, full of possibility, for the child and the adult in each of us.
Shanah tovah.