Sermon for Kol Nidre Night 5779

September 18, 2018

I guess it’s not strange that, as a member of the clergy, I am often intrigued and absorbed by artistic portrayals of clergy.  So when the film “First Reformed” came out earlier this year I was primed to see it.  I did so on a Saturday night in June when I was in Milwaukee as the installation speaker for my friend and colleague Rabbi Michal Woll at her new congregation.  The film “First Reformed” had premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival and features the amazingly talented actor Ethan Hawke.  A brief synopsis on the film’s official website describes the plot as follows:

Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a solitary parish priest at a small church in upstate New York, which is on the cusp of celebrating its 250th anniversary. Now more of a tourist attraction catering to a dwindling congregation, it has long been eclipsed by its nearby parent church, Abundant Life, with its state-of-the-art facilities. When a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist, Toller is plunged into his own tormented past and finds himself questioning his own future and where redemption might lie. With the pressure on him beginning to grow, he must do everything he can to stop events spiraling out of control.[1]

Ethan Hawke’s character in “First Reformed” is basically destroying himself physically and emotionally. He is in a state of existential despair over the fate of the world and of his ability to do anything about it.  And as the film progresses, his actions become more and more extreme and ethically problematic.

“First Reformed” is a somber and disturbing film.  As I wrote afterwards to my Reconstructionist rabbi colleagues on our listserve RRANET:

[…] [B]oy was that an intense piece of cinema!  I found the film very gripping and I came out of there thinking – wow – Ethan Hawke’s character certainly needed some better pastoral supervision and support!  But, without giving too much of the plot away in terms of spoilers, I’d say that the film powerfully reminds us clergy-folk that we are not God, we are not saviors and we cannot single-handedly cure the world’s ills.  And to forget that lesson can lead to tragedy for ourselves and for others whom we would purport to serve.

Then in July, Liam and I were in Chicago on vacation and we saw a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s theater piece entitled “Mass.”   A big part of that piece also involved a clergyperson, identified in the program notes only as “the Celebrant.”  And like Ethan Hawke’s character of Reverend Toller in “First Reformed,” the Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” is also having an emotional and spiritual breakdown over the state of the world and of his ability to do anything about it.

And recently I watched the third and final season of the British television series “Broadchurch” on Netflix.  “Broadchurch” takes place in a fictional small seaside town which over the course of the program’s three seasons has had to deal with communal crises involving murder and rape.  The first role to have been cast when the series was in its initial phases of production was the role of the town’s Anglican priest, Reverend Paul Coates.  It’s played by Arthur Darvill, whom the Doctor Who fans in the house will remember played the character of Rory on that series. 

Although Reverend Coates is a minor character in “Broadchurch” let it be said that whenever his character is on screen he too appears downtrodden, frustrated, pessimistic and anguished.

As we gather together on this most awesome of these Days of Awe, I want to assure all of you -- and I am happy to report -- that that is not how I feel.  I am neither downtrodden, nor frustrated, nor pessimistic nor anguished.  Thank God. 

And I sincerely hope that none of you are feeling downtrodden, frustrated, pessimistic or anguished.

Yes, there is plenty going on in any of our personal lives and in the world at large that could, as my late mother would say, give us conniption fits.  And far be it for any of us to deny that opportunities exist for tikkun ha-olam (the repair of the world) and tikkun ha-nefesh (the repair of our souls.). 

Each of those fictional clergypersons I’ve mentioned   ----  Reverend Ernst Toller in “First Reformed,” the Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” and Reverend Paul Coates in “Broadchurch” could be described as being “tightly wound” and ready to explode. 

I am thankful and feel blessed that, at least at this particular moment in my life, I do not personally feel tightly wound and ready to explode.  Rather, I am grateful for the love in my life, grateful for the adventures I have had thus far in my life, and grateful for the privilege of doing the work I do in this wonderful community.

But I have certainly had times in my life when I DID feel that way.  And I might in the future.  And I am sure that all of you as well have in the past been, or right now are, or might in the future be feeling downtrodden, or frustrated, or pessimistic, or anguished, or tightly wound and ready to explode.

The word “Ya’aleh” means “Let it rise”. 

In the poem “Ya’aleh” that we read a little while ago, I love how the poet Ruth Brin transforms for us the idea of being “tightly wound.” Rather than exploding destructively when we are tightly wound she encourages us to think of Yom Kippur as an opportunity to release our pent-up energies in a positive direction.  She writes:

The day, Yom Kippur, is like a person’s life:

It begins in darkness and ends in darkness:

It has a time to prepare, a time to labor,

And a time to reflect before the closing of the gates.

The years follow one another

Alike as the coils of a tightly wound spring

But on Yom Kippur we think of our power

To release that spring: to soar upward.

I pray that each one of us, despite whatever challenges and crises we have faced in the past or are facing today, or might face in the future is able to find comfort and strength in the support of family, in the support of friends, in the support of one another here in our congregation --- and in the support of the spiritual resources at our disposal, and, in particular, in the gift of this day of Yom Kippur. 

The climax of the piyyut Unetaneh Tokef says that repentance, prayer and charity can ease the harshness of whatever ills may befall us.  Not that they can eliminate them.  For God does not prevent bad things from happening to good people.  But rather, God is with us in both the good and the bad.

As for me on this Yom Kippur 5779, as I said --- I am generally happy and healthy and content. 

However, I always knew that someday it was likely to happen:  Someday, the words of Psalm 27, which we traditionally recite throughout the month of Elul and on through the fall holiday season, would come true for me.  As it says in Psalm 27 verse 10:

כִּֽי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי  וַֽה'  יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

(Ki avi ve’imi azavuni, vadonai ya’asfeyni)

Though my father and mother abandon me, Adonai will gather me in.[2]

With the death of my father, Arvin Steinberg, last December, I have now lost both of my parents.  My mother, Beverly Steinberg, had died a year and a half before that, in June 2016.     

As some of you may know, in Hebrew the word “Torah,” and the word for teacher (moreh or morah), and the word for parents (horim) all are derived from the same Hebrew verbal root yod-resh-hey.  So, I find it striking that the very next verse of Psalm 27 begins with the plea to God -- “Horeni Adonai Darkekha”[3] / “Teach me, Adonai, your ways”.  But in light of that grammatical connection  --- with only the most infinitesimal of poetic license --- we could translate “Horeni” Adonai”  not just as as “Teach me, Adonai” but also as “Parent me, Adonai”

When I profess that I look to God to teach me, guide me, PARENT me --- what I mean to say is that I look to my faith in God to provide a sense of safety and security, and I look for a sense of guidance, clarity and comfort.

As it says in the hymn Adon Olam,

בְּיָדוֹ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי,
בְּעֵת אִישַׁן וְאָעִירָה.
וְעִם רוּחִי גְּוִיָּתִי,
יְיָ לִי וְלֹא אִירָא.

B'yado afkid ruchi f
b'et ishan v'airah.

V'im ruchi g'viati
Adonai li v'lo irah.  

Into [God’s] hand I commend my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake;
And with my spirit, my body also: the Lord is with me, and I will not fear.

As I continue to observe the year of mourning for my father, and as I continue to remember my mother   --- indeed, as I continue to do so every single day --- it is a comfort to me that we now have plaques in their memory here on one of our memorial boards, and that their names are in print in the “Roll of Remembrance” that we will distribute at the yizkor service tomorrow afternoon.

It is a comfort to me that a photo of my parents renewing their vows on their 50th wedding anniversary in 2010 is on my desk in my office, and that other photos of them are displayed in my home.

It is a comfort to me that, whatever actually happens to us after we die (and I’m personally agnostic on the details of the afterlife), my parents remain with me in my memories, in my values, and in my outlook on life.

It is a comfort to me that I have received such heartfelt support from many of you in the wake of these losses that I have experienced.

And it is a comfort to me that Judaism provides a framework for life that existed before my parents were born and continues to exist after their deaths and will continue to exist beyond the lifetimes of every one of us gathered here this Kol Nidre night.

But enough of about me.  What about you?

Whatever state you find yourself in on this Kol Nidre night, may you be comforted in your sorrows, may you rejoice in your blessings and may we be forgiving of others as God is forgiving of us.

Gmar chatimah tovah ve-tzom kal/ May we be sealed for a good year and may those who are doing so have an easy fast.


© Rabbi David Steinberg (2018/5779)


[2] Psalm 27: 10

[3] Psalm 27:11

Posted on September 20, 2018 .