December 4, 2023 -
This sermon, Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow, was shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Kol Nidre, September 24, 2023, as part of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple’s worship held at Severance Music Center in Cleveland.
It was 35 years back. I don’t remember why. But one weekend in October, 1988, I drove to my parents’ home from college. Like most every night of my childhood, after his long pharmacy shift, I was sitting by my dad who’d just finished dinner on one of our stacking TV tables. It was almost midnight. But Michael Nosanchuk was accessing his best channel for national and world news: the Johnny Carson monologue.
Carson talked politics, took a couple of jabs at President Reagan, then something about Queen Elizabeth. Then he switched to sports. The Tonight Show was filmed on the West Coast, and a night earlier was Game 5 of the series between the A’s and Dodgers. I hadn’t seen it. But there’d been speculation all day over the Dodger dugout, where viewers saw cameras linger on the visage of quirky Dodgers pitcher Orel “Bulldog” Hershiser, fiercely pacing the dugout stairs, clearly speaking out loud. But no one could figure out what Hershiser was saying and to whom. Johnny completed his riff on the game, sat down behind his famous desk, and introduced the Dodgers pitcher Hershiser as his first guest. The two exchanged requisite pleasantries, before Carson said: “Last night in the dugout you were saying something. What was it?”
Bulldog denied he was speaking, but then admitted he had been singing. Singing! Carson prodded his studio crowd to cheer and urged the pitcher to sing to them right then and there. With likely millions more eyes on him than the night before, America grew silent. Hershiser trusted his gut, opening his spirit to Johnny. In a gentle, earnest voice, the toughest pitcher in baseball began to sing what turns out to be famous lyrics. Written in the late 17th century, the words to Hershiser’s song are similar to what we shared tonight. He sang: “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow: and then “Praise God all creatures here below.” This is the Doxology, a Christian prayer interpreting the Book of Luke 2:14. It’s hymn #20. Hershiser wasn’t speaking or singing. He was praying. (My personal recollection of this story is enhanced by its retelling in Out of the Blue by Orel Hershiser, (New York: Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers, 1989)
This story holds a certain vintage of the time when Carson was a true cultural icon. But I’m sure you know Johnny wasn’t hunting for a spiritual insight. Neither was Bulldog evangelizing! What we saw was something we long for as Yom Kippur draws closer: authenticity. You couldn’t have scripted such a conversation between two people remembering a high-stakes inning in October baseball. If it had been scripted, it was a true longshot to guess that Bulldog was supplicating himself before the Eternal?
Opening your heart authentically carries risks. This is true under normal circumstances, let alone sharing one’s prayers with the one and only Carson about The One God From Whom You Seek All Blessings to Flow. Although Hershiser had been praying, he wasn’t praying to win the game or for the umpire to call the next pitch a ball or a strike. He was praying as a habit of his heart. He was praying because he had a prayer life. Now one night later he was praying again. But I’m not talking about his singing the Doxology. I believe Hershiser began to pray at the moment he turned to another human soul to confide in them what yearnings were contained in his soul.
Those of you who are praying remotely and live-streaming Kol Nidre to your living room or your back porch are doing the same thing with us. You and I, we are exchanging yearnings, But 35 years back, I’d never seen someone express themselves in this way outside of cathedrals, mosques, synagogues or natural settings like the summer camp I attended. But that night in October, 1988, as I was sitting with my dad watching Carson. we were ahead of our time, live-streaming into World-Series-level worship finding there an authenticity any rabbi dreams to create.
I was only 18 years old, so I wouldn’t have realized then how rare are such moments. I know better now. I realize now that prayer is not what many of us were taught. Prayer is not a discreet category of communication between people and their higher power. In Hebrew prayer is Tefilah, a term derived from the reflexive Hebrew verb l’hitpalel which connotes one’s judging themselves. So prayer is only on the surface about speaking, singing or communicating. Deeper inside us is prayer as an authentic path to gain personal accountability and stop us from acting on base impulses. I try to focus on this when praying. Because like many of you, I have a hard time accepting that God would want to be so involved in listening to what pours out of me. On the High Holy Days, prayer is 1 of 3 things God wants us to do.
We are also implored to perform teshuvah, a term meaning “return.” In this case, we return to our most pure intentions.
This starts with our willingness, if it is safe, to be proximate to those with whom we hold conflict. The sages felt proximity encouraged the possibility of reconciliation and taking responsibility for past hurts. Another core responsibility is no less important. We are to generously give tzedakah, gifts of substance and time to help others. At temple we are so grateful for your tzedakah to support our temple. You help us as a community shine because of the tzedakah you offer to us. We are also proud of the numerous other organizations you generously support here in Cleveland, across the United States, and in Israel. But in our culture, tzedakah is not about extending personal benevolence. No. The context of tzedekah is fulfilling our responsibility to touch the world with tzedek, righteousness and justice for all.
That’s not the first time I’ve stressed tzedekah on Yom Kippur. In fact, I’ve been leading Jewish communities on Yom Kippur for nearly three decades. Every year, many of you wince when you read your part in our liturgy which states that Teshuvah, Tzedekah and also Tefillah all avert the severity of the judgements upon us. I recently looked over my online files and teachings at Fairmount Temple. What I found is that most every year I lift up Teshuvah or Tzedekah. But I don’t remember the last time we as rabbi and community had a heart-to-heart about Tefillah. Why do you think that is?
During this holiday, the majority of what we do is pray. So why don’t I ask aloud: exactly what are we doing here? Perhaps I doubt that you’ve seen prayer as a relevant path to self-understanding. I don’t even know when you pray and why. Do you ever pray when awakening? Do you pray when grappling with a critical decision such as a relationship break up or a health crisis? Have you prayed before seeking a raise from your employer? Do you pray when you complete a hike early in the morning to see the sunrise from a new vantage point? Have you prayed when the flight you are traveling on hits turbulence? I do. At least I think I’m praying. Finally, did you pray, on a particular evening of June, 2016, with 53 seconds on the clock and Cavs guard Kyrie Irving leaping up to shoot a legendary three-pointer over Steph Curry? Come on: when Kyrie aimed for a three-pointer, honestly, didn’t you pray?
There’s a reason for my litany of questions. On the evening of Yom Kippur we hold an intensive examination of every commitment or promise we make. Kol Nidre acknowledges we may fail to deliver on those commitments. But all our promises, large or small or in-between are important. The stakes of our commitment are always Game 7 with less than a minute left on the clock, and the ball in our court.
So what are you praying for tonight? Our aspirations and dreams are on the line. What will you do? I say; carefully see what is ahead of you. Watch the clock, and then make you move. Look for your lane. Aim to get as close as you can. Then take the best shot you can. Your prayer life is one of the ways to find your lane. Set yourself while praying in a setting of strong alignment of head and heart. But then make your move, and don’t throw away your shot. What I’m describing is basically seeing prayer not as just one move, but an entire game-plan of responsibility. Our prayer books are not intended to contain all our moves. To the contrary, they are our point of departure. But where should we go? What move should we make? What fruit will be born of our contemplation? We choose! Will we focus on prizes that enrich our personal fortune but that also demonstrate how vapid or shallow are our dreams? And…if we do hold hostility for someone, shall we pray for something to hurt or demean them? We also decide! If we choose to pray for something we authentically desire, we don’t have to feel like failures on Yom Kippur when we openly admit that deceit, guile, ego, and indifference have been enmeshed in our decisions. We can decide that every time we fall, we’ll get back up, make our move, find our lane and shoot for the stars.
My favorite “shooter for the stars” is my youngest child, Hope, who spent the past summer under starry evening skies in a place where they’ve long fulfilled profound yearnings, our Reform Jewish movement’s summer camp in Indiana. Each year of the last decade since they first started investing themselves in making camp the most authentic time of their year, I see how the Jewish values at URJ Goldman Union Camp positively affect growth. There are numerous favorite activities and people in this sacred place.
One night last week, at almost midnight in our Berger/Nosanchuk family room in Shaker Heights, my child Hope was with their dad. I decided to choose a lane and make a move. I asked Hope’s opinion about what prayer was like at camp. Do they feel they are genuinely praying at camp? I asked because of respect for their point of view. Honestly, I also asked because I had to finish this sermon for Kol Nidre.
Hope answered my question. They said that it’s honestly difficult to know about authenticity in prayer. It is hard for them say that they’ve ever had an experience in any setting profound enough to see as genuine true prayer. Hope basically was saying: “I’m not sure I’ve ever prayed” after which a moment passed.
But as I got up to leave the room, Hope told me something that a child in one of the younger units at camp this summer explained during their speaking role in a camp-hosted Shabbat service in July. Hope was struck by what this approximately 9-year-old fellow camper offered. They said that at their home synagogue, a rabbi had explained three baseline forms to prayer. The forms were: “oops, gimme and wow.” Let me say that again: “oops, gimme and wow.” Hope explained further:
Writer Anne Lamott has a book of a similar title. It is called Help, Thanks. Wow. Lamott places “Help” where “Gimme” used to be and she also replaces “Oops” with “Thanks.” She writes that in life “someone has a baby, or pulls a trigger, or snatches the money, or picks up the drink or doesn’t, or makes it to the shore, where it all sorts out, or it all falls apart, and through it all, through it all, we pray. Help. Help. Help. Thank Thank You. Wow. Amen.” (Help. Thanks. Wow., Anne Lamott: NY: Penguin Books, 2012, p. 91)
I think you may realize by now that Yom Kippur is not very much about “Gimme.” We ask God to help us today: but mostly to improve the quality of our human efforts. “Gimme” the path to make my repentance complete or “gimme” a chance to see my loved one relieved from distress. That’s all the “gimme” we’ve got on Yom Kippur. Most of our Yom Kippur prayers are in the “oops” formulation. Oops. I’ve been a hypocrite. Oops. I’ve shown disrespect to people who deserved better. Oops. I could have done some good. But I wasted the opportunity.
I wish that on Yom Kippur, we wouldn’t wait for the last blow of the Shofar to say: wow! For all the things we sense from one Yom Kippur to the next that make you say “wow,” you’ve got to first and foremost, show up. “Wow” requires us to be present enough to take notice of what you see before you. To get to wow you have to beat back your impulses, the same ones I have, to obsessively check for the next text or email or post sent to grab your attention. An authentic wow in prayer comes from something worth your attaining in the present moment!.
We fool ourselves thinking that to get to a wow in our prayer life, we need Olympic level athletic prayer practice. We don’t. Sometimes our most authentic wow is found by mistake, such as when a Dodgers pitcher caught the attention of millions of viewers trying to figure out what he was saying. I need only add that billions more viewers than those who watch any World Series game are still in awe of what a humble shepherd noticed, in a small bush that caught the shepherd’s eye.
That awe comes from an awareness that the next steps we take in tending to your daily chores, can occur on sacred ground, if we’ll see them that way. We can walk away from our encounters on sacred ground as a person whose life is altered, Why? Because we are willing to take notice of a bush aflame, with sparks emanating from it, yet without consuming the bush? After we take notice of what is before us, we can encounter the power of nearness to Adonai Hashomea Tefillah, the One God in the universe who listens to our most prayerful utterances. In this New Year, I beg of you: walk toward such moments and not be repelled from them, Allow the New Year to be one where you got out of the dugout and into the game of capturing wonder and amazement and wow.
If you think it couldn’t be you, just consider the amazed and stupefied reaction of wow offered by Moses. Instead of saying “send me” to the force commissioning him to lead the cause of redemptive freedom, Moses denied that he was someone in whom God should believe. Instead of saying “send me,” he asks, “Why me?” and “Why now?”
But Moses doesn’t realize that God believes in him not because of who he is already…but because of who he will become when he is ready. That process of becoming is the essence of God. We are becoming as is God, so Jewish life then becomes about growing to be the persons we yearn to be.
And this takes a lot of effort! Growing, searching, yearning, pitching, running, resting, shooting, failing, rebounding, repeating, strengthening, trying, attempting, and winning. In the case of Orel “Bulldog” Hershiser in the 1988 World Series, he added: pacing, muttering, mumbling, singing, and praying. That is a lot to do to find your wow, seek out your gimme, and basing on honesty your every oops.
Thirty-five Octobers ago in my childhood family room, we were so captivated by Hershiser’s authenticity that no one asked, “Were his prayers realized?” Did the Bulldog’s supplication before God enable all blessings to flow? When I told this part of the story to Cantor Lapin. He responded in song. He began to sing a melody based on a commentary called Netivot Shalom, by late Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky.
The words are: Yitkhazek v’yashuv livnot et atzmo
Yitkhazek v’yashuv livnot et atzmo These words help express my wow to share with community tonight. These promises inspire me. I want to shape the year ahead out of genuine raw material and rock-solid strength and will to build and rebuild and rebuild. We can’t be certain how long it will take into the new year to fulfill the vision for which we year. But that’s the point. On Kol Nidre night especially, we know that certain commitments we make are ones that we won’t live to fulfill. But Yitchazek V’yashuv, livno et atzmo. Let us strengthen ourselves. Let us rebuild. We should admit when we messed up and not only so as to acquire something else we desire, We also admit this because it helps us to feel more authentic when all we want to offer is wow.
I’m just going to say it then: Wow! I am alive. Wow! I am alert, Wow! In this moment all I will do and all I’ll ever want to do is to “Praise the One from Whom All Blessings Flow.”
Robert A. Nosanchuk, Senior Rabbi, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple