Kol Nidre 2015: Martin Buber Comes To Night Vale

Death is the end only if you assume the story is about you. —@NightValeRadio

I am certain that very few, if any, Kol Nidre messages are centered upon ‘tweets’.  

Fewer still on content drawn from a cult-followed podcast called “Welcome To Night Vale.” If you are unfamiliar, Welcome to Night Vale is a series that takes the form of a broadcast from a community radio station.  The series is introduced to the listener this way:

“Night Vale: A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.”

It’s funny, bizarre, amusing and nightmarish all at once.  This is a place where the people that run for mayor include Hiram McDaniels, who is, literally, a five-headed dragon.  Yes, it’s strange, but also beautiful, and sometimes even profound.  The world of Night Vale is, like our real world, pretty complicated and difficult to explain.  

So let’s keep it simple.  

First, Yom Kippur is about stripping away those things that distract us from simple truths.  We try to forget all the human drives that compete for our attention and effort.  

Judaism is filled with simple truths and complicated and deep ways of empowering those truths in the messy work of life. 

Love your neighbor as yourself. 

Do not do that which seems hateful to you to another.

To this I would add a ‘proverb’ from Night Vale. 

Death is the end only if you assume the story is about you. 

In each encounter, two worlds collide.  Everything that is in, or about one person, one consciousness,  encounter another ‘everything’.   Each person is an entire world filled with people and experiences and hopes and regrets and emotional baggage, and triggers, and habits and personality traits.  And each of us is completely and understandably wrapped up in our own world.  When you see a stranger, they are just a passing character in your story.  An extra.  

A counselor I know once told me of a client he had who came into his office one day and said, “I was in the supermarket, and I realized that all those people each had, like, their own thoughts, and a whole life, just like I do. They were other People.”  We laughed at that level of narcissism, but it was a good point about being in your own head. It’s something I struggle with, as I think some of you may.  We’re so wrapped up in our own story that we miss opportunities to help repair the cracks in the world we are called to repair. 

There is fear and anxiety when we consider what it means to die, or rather what what happens to us.   That basic insecurity is largely used this day as motivation to consider our actions and attitudes over the past year.  Whether or not we believe in the specific theology or images of our liturgy, the fact remains, some Kol Nidre we won’t be here. 

But many of our friends and family, we pray will.  When our own story ends, and it will, maybe by fire, maybe by water, maybe by food poisoning, we will cease to be the main character of a story.  And we will continue on as a figure in other people’s stories.  That is the legacy we can be concerned with and rightly should be concerned with.  

The gift of living is not merely the opportunity to experience the joy and suffering of life, and there is good measure of both, but also the chance to be part of how many other stories both individual and group. 

Who are we in other people’s stories.  What role do you play and what is your part in the ongoing stories that you have been a part of.   How do we enter and exit the lives of those we love?  How and why do we exit and reappear in each other’s lives? And when we ask or demand or want something from another person to further our agenda in our own lives and our own situations, do we ever, let alone always, stop to consider the story from the other person’s point of view?

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is reasonable when checking out from Kroger.  Believe me, it’s perfectly fine to play the part of random customer 9,245.  But there are other opportunities, no less random where you can play a significant part.  Usually by simply stepping out of your own story and into someone elses.  

It’s really hard to do, especially when to do so is to look at yourself and say, “hey, look, in my story, I’m just trying to do my job, and manage my responsibilities and have some fun myself and focused on that, but in this person’s story I’m cranky and put upon and making them feel bad for wanting my attention.”   

Think of people who have impacted your life.  Your best teachers, coaches, rabbis, friends, colleagues, students.   Your families.  Chances are, their finest moments came when they were consciously or unconsciously supporting your story, not their own.  The obligation, I would suggest, is to pay it forward.  Catch yourself in a situation and consciously decide what you are going to be in another person’s story, and how you would want to be remembered.  If you are ever in doubt, may I suggest kindness.  Even when you are annoyed. 

This isn’t a new idea by any stretch.  Hillel taught “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place”.  It’s a similar approach to this concept.  

At this point, I may need to remind us that we need to be concerned with our own story and we have the right and responsibility to be concerned with our own happiness, but does anyone here really have a problem with not being selfish enough?  

 In that case, remember if you don’t take care of yourself to the best of your ability, you won’t be much use as a character in anyone elses story either.  That’s why we believe in supporting and loving and helping and forgiving each other our failings.  We are ultimately part of a larger story.  We are responsible to and for one another so that all our stories contribute and support larger stories. 

The story of CJCN, our congregation.  How do you relate to this place and community.  How are we part of each other’s stories as individuals and as a community?  

The story of the Jewish People as Americans.  How will this community evolve  or vanish as part of the larger narrative of this amazing chapter in our 4000 year history.  We need to confront our history and our future and decide; if we will not make the necessary contributions to ensure the future of this congregation, now, then when?

The story of God.  What part do we play if humanity is, as I believe, the pinnacle of creation on Earth and a way in which the universe can experience itself.   What small part we play!  Yet how great an impact an individual can have on the greater story for good or ill!

This relationship between our small stories and the larger stories that will include our stories is, I believe, the underpinings of Jewish life.  The worldview, ethics, practices and disciplines that Judaism teaches helps us keep our stories in concert with the largest story; history.  One word.  And more so, His story, two words.  

I know I have failed you and therefore God in ways known to me and ways unknown. I have let my own insecurities, impulses and childish impatience motivate me. I have been tripped by envy, blinded by ego and mistaken my story for history. Or His story. Or yours. So, I ask your forgiveness as we stand on the eve of the day that will renew us all and reunite us with our highest selves. Have an easy fast.  Remember that death is the end only if you assume the story is about you.  And hey, Hatima Tovah.