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10/02/2017 09:30:30 AM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Removing Our Walls
Yom Kippur 5778

Every year I stand before you on Kol Nidrei night and tell you a funny story about my car.  But this year I have no funny story about a car for you.  This year instead I want to talk about a very sad, car story.  

I am talking about a car that at 1:45 pm on Saturday, August 12 intentionally plowed into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, and murdered Heather Heyer.  

One of the most jarring moments of the whole year was this image of Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville on a Friday night in August with intimidating weapons chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”

These images got my attention.  I was familiar with some of the leaders of this march.  When this same group had threatened to march in Montana I went out to Montana with a group of rabbis to be a counter voice to these Nazis.  Our group met with members of the Jewish community and government and police leadership.  Although the Nazis did not end up marching in Montana they did succeed in intimidating many members of the Jewish community.  They published the home addresses and phone numbers of the members of the Jewish community and made horrific cyber attacks on their families.

In Charlottesville we all know now that the threat wasn’t just words and intimidation but actual physical violence.  

After the rally in Charlottesville, the President of the Charlottesville synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, posted a chilling message describing the day.  He said that his entire congregation was frightened by men who appeared to be with the Nazis and stood in a menacing fashion with semi-automatic weapons across from the synagogue staring at people as they walked in.

The President of the congregation wrote that people were told to exit through the back because it was not safe to leave through the front and that an afternoon service was cancelled.

When I heard about Heather Heyer being murdered and when I read this message from their President, I knew that I wanted to go to Charlottesville to be a counter voice.  In response to that murderous car I intentionally drove our car, the Matzah Mobile, to Charlottesville. I travelled there with my colleagues, Rabbis Avi Weiss, Etan Mintz, and Uri Topolosky.  We parked my car in the very spot that the intimidating men had stood across from the synagogue.

It was primarily a healing mission and solidarity mission.  We visited the hospital in Charlottesville and gathered with the chaplains of all faiths and colors who had been on the front lines of ministering to the wounded.  We locked arms in prayer and song and we prayed together. 

We also visited the rabbi of the Charlottesville congregation, Rabbi Tom Gutherz.  

As we sat in Rabbi Gutherz’s office he explained to us that on that Saturday morning as they were holding services the Nazis were marching one block away with their weapons.  We asked him what did you speak about that Shabbat as the Nazis were marching past your congregation.  What was your message to your community?

 I don’t think I will ever forget what he said to us.

Rabbi Gutherz told us that as the Nazis were marching outside he turned to his congregation and said, “Yes, these Nazis are terrible.  They represent something really bad.  But what really bothers me is that they are trying to divide all the rest of us.  They are trying to turn our country into a country of “us against them.”  

I understood him to mean that this group of Nazis was trying to put up walls between different communities.  They were, so to speak, trying to get all of us to make more vows of excommunications.  They were trying to divide all of us even more.

That was his point and it hit home for me.  If we are an “us against them” world, an “us against them country,” and an “us against them community,” then we are all in big trouble.  

That message of Rabbi Gutherz is exactly the message of Yom Kippur that I want to focus on with our community tonight.  

Kol Nidrei night is our holiest and most awesome night of the year.  More people come to this service than any other service.  The highlight of this service is the haunting Kol Nidrei prayer.  The words Kol Nidrei literally mean “all vows.”  If we just look at the words of the prayer we wonder: what is so special about this prayer?  The text of the prayer is just about annulling our vows.  It doesn’t even mention God.  Why is this the prayer we select to begin our service on the holiest night of the year?

To address this question there is one story from the Talmud that I especially want to study with you because to me this story represents what Kol Nidrei is all about.  I warn you that it is a very, very sad story and it does not have a happy ending, nevertheless the underlying message of the story is powerful and hopefully after we study it we will all become inspired to be better.

The background to this story is that in a different place in the Talmud there was a rabbi named Rabbi Elazar who got into a fight with the other rabbis over the ritual status of a specific oven known as the oven of Achnai.  All the rabbis and Rabbi Elazar argued.  The way the Talmud tells the story, Rabbi Elazar’s argument was technically correct and he even brought God into the argument in order to prove he was correct.  However, the community of rabbis were not convinced even by God Himself and indeed they took great offense by R. Elazar’s stubbornness and debating tactics and so they excommunicated Rabbi Elazar (Bava Metzia, 59b).

Our story picks up many years later when the still excommunicated, Rabbi Elazar is on his deathbed.  The rabbis led by Rabbi Akiva come to visit R. Elazar one last time before he dies.  The Talmud understands that before R. Elazar was excommunicated, R. Akiva was his prize student.

The Talmud sets the stage: Rabbi Elazar was reclining on his bed but these rabbis stayed in the hallway at a distance of four cubits because one was not allowed to sit next to an excommunicated person.

It was a Friday afternoon and the sun was setting.  

R. Elazar said to them: “Why have you come?”

They said: “We have come to study Torah.”

He responded: “Why did you not come until now?”

They answered: “Lo hayah lanu panai.  We had no time.”

He said, “I expect that all of you will die a death from unnatural causes.”

Rabbi Akiva said: “What about me?”

He responded: “Shelkhah kasheh mi-shelhen, your death will be harsher than theirs.”
Rashi explains that this is because Rabbi Akiva’s mind was greater than the other students and if he had only served R. Elazar he would have learned even more than anyone else.

R. Elazar then took his two arms and placed them on his chest.  He cried out: “Woe is to you.  For my two arms contain so much knowledge that they are like a Torah scroll and you have lost out on the opportunity to study from them.”

He lamented: “I know 300 laws about the laws of afflictions (the most esoteric and difficult of topics) and no one ever asked me.”

They responded by saying, “Rebbe, teach us.”  And so, as he lay dying, they asked several challenging and highly technical questions.  With his last breaths he answered their most difficult questions.  Finally, the last question they asked was about a shoe that was still being made and was resting on its shoe press.  They asked if it was considered a finished product, and in which case it could become tamei, ritually impure; or if it was considered unfinished, and therefore, pure—tahor.  Rabbi Elazar said, “tahor—it is pure.”  

That was last word he ever said, and the Talmud says, “veyatza nishmato betaharah, his soul departed in peace.”

As soon as he died, R. Yehoshua stood up and cried out, “Hutar haneder, hutar haneder, let the vow be annulled, let the vow be annulled.”  On Saturday night after Shabbat ended, R. Akiva carried R. Elazar’s body to Lud and cried out and struck his own flesh till his own blood poured out from his body (Sanhedrin, 68a).

This story is so tragic!

Rabbi Akiva gave up on his teacher.  He never visited him until it was too late and as a result he lost so much knowledge.  For this reason Rabbi Akiva was punished so severely by Hashem and we actually read the story of his punishment on Yom Kippur day during the story of the Ten Martyrs.  But more than how Rabbi Akiva was punished by God, look at how we were all punished via this self-inflicted wound.  Look at how much light and wisdom our world lost because R. Elazar was excommunicated over a dispute about an oven.  An oven, for crying out loud!

There is something profoundly sad about R. Elazar’s students annulling the vow of excommunication immediately after he died.  What about when he was alive?  Why couldn’t they annul the vow before he died?

When I first read these words, hutar haneder, hutar haneder, I said to myself that’s why we chant the Kol Nidrei prayer on Yom Kippur night.

How many of us have made vows or decisions that have prevented us from coming closer to God!  How many of us have made life choices that we deeply regret!  How many of us have given up on people!  How many of us have put up walls in our life!

When we annul our vows on Kol Nidrei night it is not a formal annulment of our vows as much as it is an opportunity to expunge the artificial barriers that we have set up in our lives.  It is not a formal renunciation of an excommunication as much as it is an opportunity to reengage with people we have given up on.

That’s the core message of Yom Kippur.  We are reminding ourselves to break down the walls that we have put up; to not give up on people; to reengage with each other; not to wait until its too late; not to remove the excommunication after a death but rather, while we can still learn from each other. 

The vision of Yom Kippur is one of hutar haneder, hutar haneder.  On Yom Kippur we annul our vows.  We break down the walls that we put up between our selves and our neighbors.  We say hutar haneder, hutar haneder.  We say that “yes, we can move our chairs within four cubits of our neighbors.  We will NOT wait until after death to try and learn from someone.  We will annul the vows while we still live.”

That’s the challenge for all of us in this room for the coming year.  We need to make this a year of hutar haneder -- a year of breaking down walls.

Each of us should be dedicating our year to making it a year of using our own actions to break down the walls that we see around us—a year of hutar haneder.

When I think of the most powerful and inspirational moments of our congregation over the past year, over and over again the moments that moved me the most were these hutar haneder moments.  Whether it was walking through the streets of Selma and being guided by a woman named Joanne Woodward, a true soldier of the Civil Rights movement; or when we all chipped in and bought amazing gifts and made Christmas for the family of a veteran who was still dealing with the horrible effects of his battle injuries; or when our shul gathered together and stood in the basement of a church that especially serves the immigrant community.  This Spanish speaking church community had been verbally attacked with the most horrific language written on their church.  In response we visited them with our ice cream bike for good, Paulines.  After their service, we linked arms and sang songs and handed out ice cream.  We were two separate faiths, but we stood there arm in arm, with no walls. That was a hutar haneder moment for our congregation.  

These were hutar haneder moments.   They were moments of breaking down walls and releasing our selves from the strict boundaries we impose upon each other.
We need to do more of that this coming year.  

On Kol Nidrei night we should all be asking this fundamental question: what can we do to break down walls – walls that we have put up with our family, with our friends, with our neighbors, with our fellow countrymen, and with people of other faiths.

We might be thinking there is so much pain and divisiveness in the world, what can each of us do to make any difference.

The answer is a lot!  

Several weeks ago a woman from our neighborhood named Sheryll Cashin wrote an article in the Washington Post about how Shephered Park is an amazing place to live.  She is an African-American woman and she wrote about how our community gets along and embraces each other.

When I read this article I immediately knew that I wanted to meet this woman so we invited her to a Shabbat dinner at our home.  I told her that for me the moment that crystallized how special our Shepherd Park community was a Shabbat afternoon several years ago.  A child from our community made a wrong turn and was missing and we were walking up and down the streets looking for her.  But when I turned around I noticed that many neighbors of different faiths had immediately jumped in their cars and were driving around searching for our child.  That to me said that we are all in this together.  So I asked Sheryll, what was the moment that did it for her? And she told me that it was one neighbor who always reached out and expressed her warmth and friendship.  That one neighbor shaped her entire perspective.

This year each of us must be that one neighbor!  We should all strive to be the one neighbor that inspires people to change their entire perspective on the world.

I believe that this is the best way to respond to those Nazis marching in Charlottesville.  Ultimately these Nazis will not be defeated with hate, but by making them irrelevant.  We can defeat them by responding to their acts of hatred against “the other” with overwhelming acts of love for our neighbors.

Let us not give up on each other and on the world.  We have the ability, the will, and the resources to lead the way and transform our world and make our entire world a world of hutar haneder.

May this be a year where we don’t waste our time excommunicating people over an oven! Instead, let us all vow to release our vows; let us all dream of breaking out of an us vs. them society and leading the way for others to follow.

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780