As we often do on Yom Kippur, I begin with an apology. I am sorry to be here, in the middle of Kol Nidre, perhaps for many of us the most important, mysterious, and meaningful day of the Jewish calendar, yet again asking for money. I find it distasteful, even sacrilegious to interrupt our spiritual experience, our immersion in the service, for this. But here I am. And I am not here unwillingly, dragged to the bimah. I gave one of the Yom Kippur drashot last year, and I immediately knew I wanted to do the Yom Kippur appeal this year. I offered to do it, and when I didn’t hear back right away I nudged, then I begged, and finally I virtually demanded to do it. Why?
Last year I tried to think about what it means for us, as Jews, to plead with God to inscribe us, seal us in the Book of Life. I concluded that it isn’t just about our aspiration to live, to have our individual physical selves survive for another year. We are asking to have our collective life preserved, to have what sustained us, what we have created, survive into the future. As was true for Moses, to have a Promised Land is to have a future we ourselves will not be able to enter–we ourselves sooner or later will die–but a future that connects us to what has been most deeply resonant in our own lives and that of our community–our causes, our families, our sense of the larger human project, our commitment to the future of life on earth.
We live, however, increasingly in a world that diminishes that sense of a collective future. We find that the institutional life that connects us in broader communities–from educational institutions like schools and universities, to economic institutions like businesses and firms, to governmental institutions, to international institutions–are being depleted, hollowed out, or in our more recent experience, sometimes just smashed and left in rubble.
Institutions are human creations, sometimes inherited from a very ancient past, like the millennia of accumulated Jewish tradition that we draw on today for nurture, identity, inspiration, meaning; or a distant but more recent past like the institutional framework of the US government with its laws and its apparently sturdy separation of powers, its constitutional safeguards; or like Congregation Netivot Shalom, our own institutional home that we created, or if we didn’t ourselves create it, we still know those who founded it and contributed their many gifts to make it a reality. But all institutions, we are coming to realize more an more, have to be sustained. They have been endowed with generations of effort, meaning, cultural depth, and material heft by the many generations that come before us: the rabbis, scholars, and scribes, but also those who cooked Sabbath meals, lit candles, prayed in their small synagogues, tried to understand the way ancient texts could speak to us, adding an ever thickening layers of meaning, in the Talmud, in the commentaries by generations of rabbis and scholars, and now by our own rabbis and teachers who add new layers of meaning. A tradition, an institution, that isn’t continually renewed, withers and dies.
In our era, the balance between “endowment” and “depletion” of our cultural and institutional resources, the structures of collective life that sustain and guide our individual lives, has been sharply tilted toward depletion. If I exploit the norms of politeness to take advantage of my neighbor, knocking on her door to demand that she contribute to my favorite cause or that she drive me wherever I need to go, I erode those norms. Eventually her door will stay closed, to me, and to everyone. If our laws and regulations encourage leveraged buyouts of firms, so that whatever accumulated goodwill of customers, loyalty and commitment of workers, the “extra” land, or research divisions, that aren’t immediately earning a profit for the next quarter are jettisoned and the enterprise burdened with crushing debt, eventually the whole enterprise goes under. Institutional depletion works the same way in our governance institutions if people exploit them for short-term gain for an individual or a faction, rather than sustaining or repairing the wider institutional fabric on which we all depend. I think we all have been made powerfully aware how fragile institutions can be and how much work goes into sustaining them.
In our current reality there is a cavalier willingness to undermine the institutions upon which our collective life depends. These are the institutions that allow us to understand and act upon our profound collective interdependence. So there is a choice between depleting or sustaining the institutional infrastructure upon which we all depend, and Netivot Shalom, but not just Netivot Shalom, but rather Jewish tradition as a whole can’t be sustained if we don’t sustain it. Netivot Shalom is an experiment in a vibrant form of Jewish life that can renew and re-endow our tradition.
So that is why, even–or especially–on Kol Nidre, I’ve come to ask you to sustain, to build, to re-endow Netivot Shalom, one of the institutions upon which our collective life depends Netivot Shalom certainly depends on our participation, in leading services, teaching our children, volunteering behind the scenes, and making the whole process run smoothly. Without a Eugene Berg who undertakes the thankless task of making sure that chairs are set up and put away, and all those who volunteer to help, you literally wouldn’t be sitting here–because you would have nothing to sit on! The same goes for building our sukkah, reading Torah, and all the multitude of tasks required to run a vibrant community’s collective life. But this enterprise also requires money, more money that we can ask in dues. Every year, without a successful Yom Kippur appeal, Netivot cannot balance its books. We have to sustain it with out own commitment, and for those of us who have the capacity, with our generosity.
I want to end with a passage from the liturgy we will read tomorrow, one of my favorite passages in the whole YK service, the Haftarah from YK morning, the passage from Isaiah 57 where he says God doesn’t want your self-flagellation, but that if you do the things God really wants, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, house the homeless, you will be blessed:
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
and your healing spring up quickly
You shall be like a well watered garden,
like a spring whose waters do not fail.
Some from your midst shall rebuild ancient ruins,
you shall restore foundations laid long ago.
And you shall be called
“Repairer of fallen walls
Restorer of lanes for habitation.”
Those somewhat mysterious lines,
“you shall be called
“Repairer of fallen walls
Restorer of lanes for habitation.”
may refer to the rebuilding of the Temple after its destruction. But I think it is also a message to us, on this, our day of contemplation and prayer, that we ourselves need to be “rebuilders” of the institutions on which our collective life depends.
So the greatest blessing we can have is to be a restorer of foundations, a repairer of fallen walls. We have to be those who build up the endowment, restore the foundations of the institutions that maintain our collective life. Not only we as individuals, but our fragile, stressed collective institutions need to be inscribed in the book of life…. And for this, in addition to your time and commitment, your voices, Netivot Shalom needs money. Both money to get us through the next year, and “endowments” in the form of legacy gifts, are fundamental to our capacity to do that.
Now I need to guide you–us–through what I hope will be a new ritual. First, take off your nametag and notice the beautiful design, worked out through many hours of meetings and back and forth conversations by our Administrator, Vered Cohen, our President, Lynne Yellenberg, our Rabbi, Chai Levy, and Laura Callen, who has worked constantly behind the scenes to bring all this together. Why did it take more people than a Bet Din, more effort and love to produce this wonderful little name tag? Because we are not a wealthy enough congregation to keep doing the Yom Kippur appeal the way we have in the past. The tiny office staff simply cannot keep doing what they have done in the past–printing tickets and cutting little tabs for you to fold down with your pledges, entering all your pledges into Netivot Shalom’s books, writing to you to remind you to pay the pledge, hounding you if you forget, entering each pledge correctly as it comes in, and then making the agonizing decision about what to do–whether to write off–any unpaid pledges. We deplete our endowment of staff energy and time, already stressed to the limit. [If we were a wealthy shul, where a few big machers took care of everything, we wouldn’t be in this situation. But that is not who we are. Look around you. This is a shul where everyone matters; where everyone has to contribute the resources and talents they have to make the whole enterprise work.] This year, we have to grow up. We have to start taking responsibility for not only making, but for paying our pledges.
So this year, we hope, is the beginning of a fundamental change. If you can get your fingers inside your name tag, and pull out the card and envelope inside, you will discover inside the nametag another card and a small piece of paper with two stickers in the form of Jewish stars. One sticker is to place over the amount of your pledge–and I urge to to reach deep or aim high–and the other, really important, is your decision about how you will pay your pledge. This year we are expecting you, yes you yourself, to take responsibility for paying your pledge. You can send in a check as soon as Yom Kippur is over, but we are pleading with anyone who isn’t utterly technologically impaired, to choose the other option, to pay your pledge on line with a credit card, or through your shulcloud account if you have one.
To perform this great mitzvah, this great miracle– nes gadol –isn’t hard. I know, because I made Claude, my husband, figure out how to do it for me this morning. You go on the web and write in “netivotshalom.org” (no capitalization or spaces). Up pops the web site, and right along the top there is a tab, “donate.” Click on Donate, and then you are offered several options, the second of which says “cash via online payment.” If you can, choose that one. If you have a shulcloud account you can use that, or create one, but if you don’t–or you aren’t a member of Netivot Shalom–there is a tab for visitor or guest, and you can directly pay your pledge there.
Right after the holiday Netivot will send out a reminder to everyone. And if, as I fear, many of us have our power cut off for a day or more, we will send another reminder. But we are asking you to pledge and pledge generously, and then to make the heroic effort to follow through on that pledge. This is how we defend those institutions we have–institutions that will become even more important in a society full of new dangers–we rebuild ancient walls, we endow depleted institutions, we sustain the social relationship that sustain us in the present and that wind forward into an unknowable future.
I wish you all Gmar chatima tovah and a year and a future filled with blessings.