The Council of Dads – Kol Nidrei/Yom Kippur Sermon for Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk

This blog post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, includes the remarks of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at the Kol Nidrei Congregational Service and Yom Kippur Morning Contemporary Worship service of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, September 13-14, 2013. We encourage you to respond below or to post or share these remarks so that others might continue to dialogue about these valuable teachings from Jewish tradition as they apply to our lives.

One day- in the town of Berditschev, the city in the Ukraine most famed by its most revered Hasidic teacher Rabbi Levi Yitzchak we are told that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak ordered the town crier to come to him. The famous rebbe said to him:  “I want you to go to every shop in the market place; tell them to close their businesses and to assemble in the town square, for I have an announcement to make to them.”

“But rabbi,” the town crier responded: “today is a market day. Everybody is occupied with selling and buying. This is the busiest time of the day. Could you not postpone your announcement to another day? Or if it must be today, could we do this at another hour?”

“No,” replied Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. “Tell them what I have said. Tell them I have an important announcement to make to them. It cannot wait a day or even an hour. They must close their shops, stop their trading, and come to the town square and listen.”

So the man left. He then went to every store and shop in the crowded market and told the people that Levi Yitzchak had summoned them to the town square, for an announcement. Trying to figure out what was so urgent, the people of Berditschev nevertheless followed the instruction. They closed their stores and gathered in the town square. Then Levi Yitzchak stepped up onto a box, signaled for silence, and began to speak. “I have asked you to close your shops and come here, even on this busy day and in this busy hour, because I have news of great importance for all of you, news which cannot be delayed another day or even another moment. And this is my announcement: ‘There is a God in the world!’”

“There is a God in the world!” That was all the rebbe wanted to say. It was this message for which he lived and taught and sought to be remembered by all who would one day survive him. Surely Levi Yitzchak couldn’t have imagined that centuries later on Yom Kippur I’d restate his message on this bimah. But in the context of that story, you have to understand that to his disciples, Levi Yitzchak was no ordinary teacher. This man was their father-figure, someone by whom they’d measure their highest values. Like children looking with reverence to a beloved father, the Jews of that age watched and listened and imitated their rabbis, not just as they studied or prayed, but as they slept, as they awakened, and as they walked through the paths of their village. When a student of Levi Yitzchak imagined a presence of comfort during a time of challenge, they imagined it speaking through the voice and offering the gentle guidance of their rebbe. He could inspire them to risk their lives and their livelihoods just to spend a few moments learning Torah from their teacher.

Although there remains much k’vod ha-rav, honor for teachers and rabbis in Jewish modernity, people no longer cling to the teachings of their rabbis for dear life.  But often this is still the way people speak about their fathers and father-figures, mothers and mother-figures in their lives.

It is our hope that even in a busy marketplace our kids will be reached by a parent, a teacher, a mentor whose core message is meaningful to their consideration of life’s possibilities and its limitations. As they face up to questions of honesty, envy, loneliness and regret, we want those who survive us to hear the message of a person they revere offering heartfelt wisdom.

Did anyone have that kind of a role in your life? Was it your father? Is it you? Our families are diverse- but all of us are born into some situation of parentage. Some are biologically related and others are adopted in love and tenderness. Many parents are single parents. Often today families include two mothers or two fathers. Jewish tradition has long presented to us a complex family picture, as it pertains to parenting and passing of ideals and values to children.

Remember, Moses himself was separated at a very tender age from his parents! His distance from them and his acculturation into the royal household of the Pharaoh fed his inclination to reconnect to his grassroots heritage, the faith of the Hebrews, the faith of parents. He ultimately came to crave the nearness of the God who heard his people’s cries and responded to their pain under Egyptian oppression. Yet all his history notwithstanding, when Moses himself became a parent, he did not appear to spend any time with his own children.

There are passages in the Book of Exodus that describe the births of his sons. But I bet you’d have a hard-time remembering their names. Why? – Because the Torah focuses on his  occupation as our freedom fighter. So his sons, Gershom and Eliezer might’ve hardly recognized their father, if he were to have summoned them from a busy market place to share his beliefs.  Their father was absent without leave and his God nothing to count on.

In a memoir I read last winter by Bruce Feiler, it was his own fear of absence, not due to work, but due to an aggressive cancer discovered when his twin daughters were just three years old, that caused this best-selling author to make a change. He realized he couldn’t simply turn back the dial to the births of his daughters and not take so many meetings for future work projects. The first thing he did upon learning of his diagnosis was what anyone of us would do. He wept! But then he decided to find a way to share an enduring and loving faith with his kids.

Raised in a Jewish household, Feiler knew the kind of forward-thinking approach our tradition takes to building a legacy in this world. We may not finish our life’s work or completely raise the next generation. But our faith insists we pursue it.  So he and his wife decided created a “council of dads” for their children. In addition to pursuing life-saving treatment at a Manhattan hospital, he also pursued a life-affirming treatment for his little girls. He named six men in his life to be a ‘council of dads,’ six men who could each carry a particular value forward in a world from which cancer might take him.

I was very moved by Feiler’s memoir, which so beautifully illustrated the idea of an ethical will, a concept born of Jewish tradition. I was touched to read about how he visited each of these men or invited them to come to him. He wrote letters to them at their homes all across the country. He spoke to them openly about his own doubts and heartbreaks- his feelings about his own father and grandfather. But ultimately he told each man that his daughters would “have plenty of resources in their lives. They’d have loving families. They’d have welcoming homes. They’d have each other.” He said. “But they may not have me. They may not have their dad. ‘Will you be their dad,’ he’d ask?” (Bruce Feiler, The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness and the Men Who Could Be Me, New York: William Morrow Publishing, 2010, p. 3)

It is important to distinguish that Feiler wasn’t looking for an executor for his will or a trustee of his assets. While still alive and fighting for his life, he also fought for a legacy by asking six men to help him survive by pledging to go to lunch with his girls, to watch their ballet moves, to give them cellphones against their better judgment, to give them advice, and mostly to hold their hands in a world he might no longer inhabit. His request to each man illustrated the power of a single life-affirming act. We are taught in our faith that even a single act we pledge today could be a difference maker in our tradition. This lesson looms large on Yom Kippur, a day we long for the comfort to know those who came before us would be proud.

On this Yom Kippur, I have a question: could you do what he did? On this day of dread and penitence, could you think of six people in your life who could be your council, carrying on your legacy to your loving partners in life, to your children and mine?  Do you know five or six men or women who could carry on your voice, or even one or two? I’m not sure I do.

Although Feiler and his wife came up a bunch of rules limiting his council, I see Jewish tradition as viewing such a “council” in a more open-ended way. It is not simply about being a parent. It is about being a person who holds enduring values. It is about the immortality of the spirit- and the way in which we share values and traits with everyone we encounter. These are the values that survive us- the ones remembered long after your physical life has diminished. We speak of these values not just to kids but to whoever will listen! Indeed a huge portion of the Torah is composed of Moses speaking such values to men he barely knew. Yet these were people whose great-grandchildren he was counting on to carry on our passionate faith in an almighty God.

Moses wanted us, the children of Israel, to remember, even in the midst of the marketplace- that there is a God in the world. He wanted us to listen for God’s message, to look for it not just in the thunder and smoke on a mountaintop but in the raindrops and dew that gently touch the earth every day. He wanted us to live with loyalty and to believe in redemption and freedom.

Bruce Feiler wanted something quite different. He wanted his kids to know how to beat the obstacles life would throw at them. He wanted them to remember to live adventurously and to pack their flip-flops for every trip. Feiler wanted them to be guided into maturity not by fear or regret, but by men who knew their father and who could help them chase away the monsters that spook us into fearing that we’ll never fall asleep because our worst dreams will come true.

As I read Feiler’s book, I had this recurring memory of Saturday nights when I was a kid and my parents would come home to relieve our baby sitter. Each of those nights I had a ritual. No matter what I was doing, whether looking through my baseball cards or talking on the phone with my friends, if I’d hear my parents come in the house, I’d turn off my light and close my eyes when they’d walk up the stairs. Why did I do that? It wasn’t conscious- but what I think what I wanted was to hear my dad talk quietly to my mom as he’d check on me. I was faking it, and he knew it. But I was hoping to know what he’d say when he didn’t realize I was listening.

That may just be my story or it may be a universal one, but it’s a strong image of my childhood: my earnest desire to know my dad-as a man, as a son, as a brother, and as a person raised in a particular era, with his own dad and mom and siblings.

Today and for some time now, my dad has been suffering with vascular dementia. It is a monster I can’t chase away. It is something that makes it impossible for him to remember the lessons he learned or the ones he’d impart. And he’ll never have chance to assemble the men in his life to tell them what to say. For he can no longer express his regrets or hopes or even the names of his sons.

But it doesn’t matter- because I remember his name. As I approached this Yom Kippur, the thing I realized was: it doesn’t matter what any of us say while we are standing over our kids while they pretend to be asleep. The most important thing is something we do.

My dad would lift up my blanket, so that I’d feel it near my cheek. That blanket, the one that he tucked over me, still warms me. It still protects me. So no matter how hard I’m working or how busy I get, no matter where I live or what adventures my kids take me on, my dad will always be whispering in my ear what he must have felt in those late evening moments decades ago.

It is a message that’s hard to decipher but it will always summon me from a busy marketplace. It is the same message Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had for his disciples, the message a child safely tucked under a blanket tells us all. It is this: there is a God in this world. There is.