5771 Kol Nidrei Day Sermon by Rabbi Julie Greenberg
Long ago in a small eastern European shtetl there lived a Jew named Yankel. Month after month he eked out a meager living, earning barely enough to keep his family alive. Frustrated by his poverty, Yankel began to dream of a richer, fuller life.
So he started asking friends for suggestions on how he could find a decent occupation that would fulfill his dreams. Soon a consensus developed. Mead is not only a fine drink, claimed his friends, but a great way to make a living. After all, isn't mead served at every bar mitzvah, wedding and festive event? With such a market for spirits, who could go wrong?
So Yankel began to learn all he could about mead. He inquired of the local innkeepers, he read what he could and day after day he practiced the distilling arts. Finally he was ready to try his mead recipe on his friends.
He gathered them around, poured them each a glass and invited them to drink to his success. But to his dismay, looking around the room all he saw were strained faces showing distaste with the brew. He lifted his own mug and realized that it tasted flat, almost bitter.
Dejected, but not defeated, Yankel tried week after week to make a pleasing brew but every week he met with his friends' polite distaste. Yankel knew that in the big city of Kiev there was a great brew master whose reputation was known far and wide. Yankel decided to make the journey to the great city for a consultation.
Over the course of several days Yankel reviewed the ingredients and procedures with the brewer.
Finally the brewer said, "Well, I'm not sure what the problem is."
"Do you mean I came all this way for nothing?" Yankel cried.
"I'm sorry, " said the brewer and gave Yankel a parting gift of a small jar of honey. "You probably have this at home, but I give it to you anyway for your mead."
Immediately, Yankel realized why he had been led to Kiev. He thanked the brew master, packed his belongings and headed home. No sooner did he arrive than he began to root through his own pantry. There on a low shelf, overlooked, was a small jar of honey. Yankel scooped up the jar and rushed off to make a fresh batch of mead.
When the spirits were ready, Yankel again summoned his friends. This time smiles and approval came forth as Yankel and company drained their mugs. From that day forward Yankel's mead delighted his customers far and wide and became the livelihood for himself and his family.
(Based on Brewing Spirits: A Hassidic Tale in Show Me Your Ways, Rabbi Howard Addison)
When first hearing this Hassidic tale you might be struck by the simplicity of the message: in the midst of our need, the ingredients for fulfillment are right at hand. Sweetness is no further away than our own pantry.
But it's interesting that Yankel had to go on a journey of discovery to find that missing ingredient. The honey was always sitting on his shelf, but Yankel had no idea of its significance until he engaged with others who helped him come full circle back home, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
Spiritual yearning brings us into community where we find the treasures that have always been ours. What is the missing ingredient, the sweet honey, that will pull it all together?
At the end of many services here, we rise for the Aleynu prayer and I ask "What kind of world are you taking a stand for today? It is a world of ____________" and almost invariably the first word shouted out to finish that sentence is PEACE. Many of you have been with me for this prayer and you can testify, right, that the longing for peace is a primal response.
But we are missing some ingredient for peace and it's hard to know where to look, both internally for peace of mind, and out in the world, for peace in all the troubled spots of the world. We all want to be Rodef Shalom, or Rodfay Shalom, Seekers of Peace, but getting the exact right recipe is the challenge of a lifetime.
Last week President Obama held a conference call with Rabbis from all the denominations, from all across the United States. I joined this call to see what the President had to say. He wanted to talk with us about the Peace Talks that are underway between President Netanyahu and Prime Minister Abbas.
The first meetings had just taken place with a constructive tone and a serious commitment to re-launching negotiations. The leaders are establishing a positive one-on-one relationship and teams of thoughtful peacemakers are providing deep back up on all sides with the United States leading the way.
Their goal, Obama said, is to create a framework for agreement and then to move through each and every issue until there is a peace agreement. They intend to meet every two weeks for a year to accomplish this. Despite past disappointments, low expectations and huge challenges, he felt that the leaders hold a shared goal: that there be two states living side by side in peace and security. The United States is committed to playing an active and sustaining role in this.
There are hazards at every step of the way that will test the resolve of these leaders to stay focused on that goal.
Obama made it clear that he thinks there is the possibility of success and there is also the possibility of failure. He wanted the Rabbis to know that both leaders, Abbas and Netanyahu, have huge political pressures at home and that both will say some unfortunate things for political consumption at home. We can't allow every stupid statement or incident to defeat the process. By keeping our eyes on the prize, the goal of peace, we need to ride up over the tough spots on the way that could pull us into doubt, despair and defeat and stay aligned at all times with the vision we're working towards.
What Obama was really doing in this phone conversation was calling on the Rabbis of the land to build a climate of support for these peace negotiations.. He wants us to continue to speak in favor of peace, knowing that because the United States will never abandon Israel's security needs, Israel is coming from a position of strength. Obama urged us to give these talks a chance. He said, "Please do not look for reasons they should fail."
That made me think of how essential the value of Right Speech is in Judaism. It is considered one of the most important Jewish practices. The way we talk about peace in the middle east matters: do we bring a tone of suspicion and a viewpoint that looks to all the hurts and disasters of the past? Or do we emphasize glimmers of possibility, creative problem solving, small steps towards success?
It is up to us to manifest the truth of these Holy Days, that there is reason for optimism, there is hope for new beginnings. What is the point of these religious days if we can't infuse their message into our actual lives?
So I call on you in the coming months, as the peace negotiations soar or lurch or muddle forward, to speak of them with your best selves, bringing to bear the true message of this season, change is possible, hope is worthwhile. Without hope, why would we ever try? The outcome is uncertain which is why we need faith.
There is a window of opportunity, now, for peace. We are the ones creating the climate in this country to support this opportunity. Just as with any relationship, the process of engaging to move towards peace, will test our ability to manage disappointment, to handle compromise, to listen to the Other and to truly keep the vision of peace, with all that it entails, before us.
Each one of us has a part to play in the success of these peace talks. No, we are not at the negotiating table. We are not diplomats, most of us are not Jewish Israelis or Palestinians and we don't set their agenda. Yet, each one of us is an essential missing ingredient. Each one of us has a choice to build or detract from the momentum of these talks. Jewish voices matter a lot in United Sates politics. Be a Jewish voice for peace. Be the elusive, hidden honey that Yankel needed for his mead.
Obama ended his conversation with the Rabbis by noting that the call of the Shofar is "urgent, timeless, familiar, distinctive." He inspired us to respond to the call of the shofar by being partners in making peace, by building support for the peace talks. Will you heed the call?
Shalom, May the Year 5771 be a year of peace for each of you and for all who dwell on earth.