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Once Upon A Time
Yom Kippur Day, 5770/2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

A story that begins, as all fairy tales begin, once upon a time.

Once upon a time in a far-away land, an orchard bloomed. There were fruit trees of many kinds that bore a yearly harvest of produce. Mostly the fruit was sweet and delicious, and occasionally there was a bad apple or pear. The people who lived near the orchard tended it with loving care, and they offered thanks regularly to God for the bounty it produced. The orchard had been present for as long as anyone could remember, and the sturdy trees and their regular output seemed as if they would continue forever.

The people who were sustained by the orchard found that they were nourished both physically and spiritually by it. The children played there, lovers courted there, couples married there. The men would take long walks through it discussing the matters of the day. The women would sit together in the shade of a favorite tree and explore the questions in their hearts.

When a tree began to fail and needed to be removed, another tree would be planted in its place. The wood from the felled tree would often be used to make the coffins in which the felled members of the community were laid to rest. The orchard was as close to paradise as anyone could imagine.

That is not to say it was without its problems. Sometimes a drought would come and the blossoms would not yield the finest fruit. Perhaps a strong storm would blow through and snap off large branches. On occasion, a troubled child or a hostile passer-by would deface a tree or pull off its bark. And, of course, the other creatures who lived near the orchard, from the tiniest bugs to the biggest bears, felt just as entitled to its bounty as the people. But for all those challenges, everyone got along.

Until. Until one day a great noise was heard from afar. The people gathered at the edge of the orchard just in time to see a caravan of earth-moving equipment coming toward them, with truckloads of workers just behind. When the first bulldozer reached the crowd, the driver climbed out and said to the people, "This orchard now belongs to us. We need the land for our own purposes. Get out of our way."

The people were stunned. They shouted back at the driver that they would not yield to the machines. Some even stood protectively in front of individual trees.

"Have it your way," said the driver. He signaled the other vehicles to advance on the orchard. By the end of the day, the trees were gone and so were all the people.

A child wandered back to the orchard in the next morning's earliest light. Among the stumps and the crushed leaves and the broken bones she found, miraculously, a single plum. She took the plum to the stream and washed away the dirt and dust. She stared at it for a long time. And then, because she was hungry, she bit into it. The taste reminded her of the whole of the orchard every fruit she had eaten, every game she had played, every tree she had climbed. It reminded her that this was the place she learned that there is happiness in the world. She savored every bit of pulp as her tears washed into the juice on her chin. She sucked on the pit until there was nothing left to draw from it.

And then, for reasons she could not explain, she placed the pit in her pocket, turned away from the empty field that once held her orchard and walked away from her home and from the machines that were sure to return as the sun cleared the rooftops of the empty houses.

Fairy tales are supposed to conclude with "and they lived happily ever after." The cynical ones sometimes just conclude with "the end." But this story is not yet over.

Some years ago, Charlene and Ed Schiff walked into my office with a framed picture of the town square of the Polish town of Horochow. It was taken around this time of year, perhaps a few weeks later. I can tell because in the foreground the market is taking place. There are baskets of apples or potatoes and other kinds of food. The wagons are loaded with bales of hay, perhaps to feed the horses that are in the pen. And the people are dressed in heavy coats and hats.

Towering behind this tableau is the real centerpiece of the photograph the wooden synagogue that was the center of Jewish life in the town. Wooden synagogues were very common in Eastern Europe before the Second World War. Today, a handful still exists, mostly as museums. The Horochow synagogue is not among them. Like many of the others, it was burned. The rest of the details are not for this moment.

Seventy years ago last night, for pretty close to the last time, those Jews in the photo of the marketplace gathered as we did last night to sit in their synagogue and ask God to forgive their sins. Some of them, I am sure, were there for the seventh night in seven nights a claim they could make any week of the year. Some of them, I am sure, were there for the first night in seven nights a claim that may have been an exaggeration at any other time of year.

But as they entered the liturgy, as the sounds of Kol Nidrei washed over them, to a person they could look around the room at the orchard of souls representing most of the 5000 Jews of Horochow. They had fresh memories of the children who played there, running among the seats. They knew the lovers who courted there, introduced by a matchmaker or attracted by their own hearts. Perhaps they were among the couples who married there. The men on the main floor would meet in the synagogue to hear a lesson in Torah or to speak of the matters of the day. The women would sit together on the upper level and explore the questions in their hearts with words of prayer or with their sisters and friends.

You know that there is not much left of the Jews of Horochow outside of this room and the picture Ed and Charlene brought to me. It hangs in my office, next to the door, at eye level. I cannot enter the world beyond the door to my office without looking at that photograph, at the people in it and at the synagogue that formed the central destination of their lives.

In fact, it strikes me as somehow appropriate that the roof of that synagogue bears a resemblance to the roof of this sanctuary. What I see when I look at that photograph is what you see when you look at pictures of your grandparents. It is where we came from. It is how we got here. It is there we learned to do what we do.

The synagogue in Horochow was far from the only shul that is an antecedent of this one. Most of you who grew up as Jews outside of Northern Virginia or who moved here from another community have a synagogue that played an important role in your life. Whether you came from a family that visited the synagogue seven times every seven days, or a family that suffered through a couple of hours each year, or a family that defiantly refused to set foot in the synagogue, your presence here is a result of your presence there.

This past summer we added to the decorated pillars in the sanctuary. The pillar you see as you walk into the Cohen Sanctuary celebrates the synagogue. The papercut that was created by Tamar Fishman for this purpose is reproduced on the back of the reflections booklet at your seat. The pictures you see on it include synagogues from Worms, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Moscow, Newport, Paris, London, Toledo and Jerusalem. Just above center right you will see the wooden synagogue of Horochow. In the lower right-hand corner is our own contribution the ark that sits before you in this room.

We were able to do so because of contributions from the Schiffs and from Dene and Mel Garbow, who are themselves deeply rooted in synagogue life. In fact, Mel's mother was a Jewish educator who taught young Jews like your children in synagogues in the Jerusalem of the Midwest, Chicago, IL. The memories Dene and Mel have of their family involvements in their home synagogues throughout the years have made them devoted to Agudas Achim or, as Mel would like to call it in honor of his Hebrew-teaching mother, Agudat Achim. Our deepest thanks go to both families.

Some of the synagogues on that pillar still stand and some are long destroyed. Even where I stand right now was outside the front wall of the sanctuary fifteen years ago. The buildings that we consecrate to worship and learning and fellowship to God, Torah and Israel are important because of what they inspire us to do. When we leave one behind, we take the best of it and transport it to the one at which we arrive. We take the Torah scrolls and read them again. We take the melodies and we sing them again. We take the memorial plaques and we remember them again. We create communities that are in the image of our experiences and our dreams, and we give them a local address.

The first time I moved to Washington was in August of 1974. I shared a house in Shepherd Park with three friends. We attended the last High Holy Day services conducted at B'nai Israel Congregation's long-time sanctuary on Sixteenth Street NW. Twenty years later, I sat in that same sanctuary on a Sunday morning as a friend of mine auditioned to become the pastor of the Baptist church that meets there.

Thank God B'nai Israel still thrives in Rockville. But like the synagogues of Mel's and Dene's youth, like the synagogues in which each of my parents was raised, like the previous addresses of Agudas Achim congregation, those buildings are Jewish only in memory. The forest of memories any person might have encountered within have no home beside the individual soul.

We preserve what was lost here, in this place. We welcome you in, and we welcome the congregations you bring with you the friends, the family, the rabbis and cantors, the teachers. We welcome the guy with the embroidered yarmulke and the one who smelled like herring even before Kiddush and the one who carried hard candies in his pockets for the children. We welcome the woman with the fancy hats and the one who pinched your cheek and the perpetual Sisterhood president. We welcome the ones who loved to learn and the ones who loved to davven. We welcome the ones who were quietly generous and the ones who were loudly generous and the ones who complained that others weren't generous enough. We welcome the children who played there, the lovers who courted there, the couples who married there. We welcome the men who talked and the women who talked and the usher who shushed them all. We welcome the ones who came very late in the service we seem to welcome a lot of them and we even welcome the lady with the big purse who filled it with cakes and fruit from the Kiddush or oneg Shabbat.

Every one of those characters had a name and a face for you. The place you encountered them and the place you remember them may be gone fallen, destroyed, remodeled or repurposed but the lives they lived and the place they lived it are vital and thriving in this place, in this building, in this room at this very moment.

Every prayer you utter, every greeting you offer, every yawn you stifle gives them life. Do we mourn their loss? Of course. Do we remember their passing? Of course. But most of all, we live their lives anew. Most of all, we show them what we valued about them by gathering at these moments and renewing the intensity of their Jewish lives.

I mentioned what I see at eye-level when I leave my office. Let me mention what you see at eye-level when you enter this sanctuary. A long time ago, near the beginning of our saga as liberated slaves, a man took his place above our encampments with the intent of calling a curse down upon our heads and preparing our enemies to attack us. He could not. The words of disparagement could not pass his lips. Instead, he spoke six words that have become the inspiration of every Jew who enters a synagogue. The pagan prophet Bilaam wrote our liturgy: mah tovu ohalekha ya'akov, mishk'notekha yisrael, "how good are your tents, O Jacob, your sanctuaries, O Israel."

Those are the words that greet you when you enter. Not "who is like You among the god-pretenders, Adonai," not "justice, justice shall your pursue," not even "remember what Amalek did to you." When you enter the synagogue, you are to remember that the goodness you find here connects you to Wolfe Street, to Chicago, to Horochow, to Toledo, to Jerusalem, to the wilderness of Sinai. It is life we preserve in these precincts. It is prayer, learning and fellowship. It is God, Torah and Israel.

The Talmud discusses synagogue buildings in Tractate Megillah. Amidst a host of other conversations, we learn that once a synagogue is consecrated, once it is used for prayer, learning and fellowship, it has permanently sacred status. It is not to be used as a shortcut; we are obligated to walk around it. Should it be destroyed, the best response is to rebuild it, but if it is not rebuilt, we are to let the ruins lie fallow as it would be too heartbreaking to pull the grasses and weeds and re-expose the ruins. A synagogue may be sold, but not turned into a bathhouse or a public toilet. We may not use it to shelter animals from the sun or the rain. And in spite of the fact that an unused synagogue provides the widest enclosed space in town, we may not use it for tanning or as a banquet hall or as a location for frivolous entertainment.

What the building represents, even when it is empty, even when it is collapsed, even when it is burned to the ground, is what we do in here tonight, and on Shabbat and holidays and other times. It represents a yearning for God the solemn confessions of Yom Kippur, the spirited melodies of Shabbat, the raucous delight in the completion of the reading of the Torah. It represents the deepening of our Torah-learning sermons, discussions and lectures, dreadfully serious remarks from the Rabbi on this holy day and sacred silliness on Purim. It represents the community of Israel our concerns for others of our people, near and far, our devotion to Israel, our pursuit of justice for all and perhaps especially the opportunity to visit with each other and catch up with those playful children, those courting lovers, those married couples and everyone else. We bring those things in and we take them with us when we leave. They spill onto Valley Drive just as they spilled into the town market in Horochow.

The synagogue is the edifice that represents life.

It is not the only building in the Jewish establishment. It is not the only institution, though I would argue that even in this age of Internet and independent minyanim and heavily-endowed fraternal, defense and service organizations, it remains the most important.

When you enter this building you do so to live Jewish life. Whether you come for services or for a meeting or for classes for you or your kids, whether you come for a seniors' luncheon or a barbecue or a Purim carnival, you gather here to live Jewish life.

In different times, in different ways, and in different local languages, that's what the people did who entered all of those buildings depicted on that pillar. They gathered to live Jewish lives.

The essence of who those people were, in Moscow, in Berlin, in Prague, in Toledo lives on in this room and lives on in your lives. We read the same words, we observe the same rituals, we learn the same Torah in our own idiom, in our own context, but we are who they were. Our lives are their lives.

The essence of who those people are in the photograph in my office, the essence of the thousands who filled the wooden synagogue of Horochow, lives on in this room and lives on in your lives. We are who they were. They were not victims. They were our family. Our lives are their lives. And while we cannot bring them back, while we cannot restore what they lost, while we cannot recapture their innocence about what human beings are capable of doing in this world, we can make a choice to thrive in their memory and to raise up another generation that will do the same.

We cannot forget what was done to them. But we can refuse to be defined by what was done to them. We can choose instead to create the place where the children played, the lovers courted and the couples married. We can choose instead to be the men who take long walks discussing the matters of the day, the women who sit and explore the questions in their hearts. We can choose to be the people who will be remembered for who we are and what we do, rather than what happened around us. We can choose to do that for them.

Here is the rest of the fairy tale.

The child wandered for many years until she was really no longer a child. Everywhere she went, she found orchards destroyed, farmland plowed under, houses emptied of their residents. But she held onto that dried plum pit as if it were a diamond ring, in her pocket when she had one, in her clenched fist when she didn't have a pocket.

Eventually, she found her way to another land. She found a life there, a family, new adventures as ordinary and extraordinary as the people around her. Many days, in the morning's earliest light, she would take a dry and shriveled plum pit from the back of her dresser drawer and look at its moonscape surface, searching for traces of the orchard and the people she remembered.

Until one day, lost in thought, she was discovered by an early riser in her home. "What is that?" she was asked.

"It is my most prized possession," she said. "In fact, to be honest, it is my only real possession."

"A plum pit?" came the surprised reply. "What is so special about a plum pit?"

"Deep inside this plum pit are my parents and my friends. Inside are the games we played and the songs we sang. Inside are the cool shade of summer and colorful leaves of autumn. Inside are the blanket of snow and the blossoms of spring. Inside is how I learned that there was happiness in this world. Whenever I stare at this little stone of a plum, for a brief moment, I can taste its sweetness and feel its juices rolling down my chin."

After a few moments of silence came the last thing she ever expected to hear. "I can get them out."

They dressed and ate and climbed into the car and drove a short distance outside the town in which they lived. There was an orchard. They walked up to a plum tree. "Taste," she was told.

She picked a piece of low-hanging fruit. She smelled it; she felt it. She took a bite.

"It is good," she said, "but it is not the same."

"Not yet," was the answer, "not yet. But give me the pit that holds your memories. Trust me with it."

She handed it over and watched quietly as a hole was dug in the orchard, as the pit was nestled in the earth, as the blanket of dirt covered it and as water was gently sprinkled on top.

"This could take a long time," she said. "Maybe more time than I have."

And here is what she heard: "I promise that this tree will grow and bear fruit, and another generation of children will come to eat its plums, and when they do, they will learn that there is happiness in this world."

Is the last line in this fairy tale, "and they lived happily ever after" or is it simply "the end?"

My friends, that's up to you.


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