Kol Nidrei Sermon Delivered at Oheb Shalom Congregation on October 3, 2014
Tsav Shemona: A Call to Action
This summer, I learned a Hebrew phrase from some of the Israelis who work at the Ramah Day Camp in Nyack that I had never heard before. I knew at the moment I heard it that I had to find the right time to share it with you and tonight, on this very special night, I’d like to tell you why it caught my attention. The phrase is Tsav Shemona—loosely translated it means “command number eight”—though it’s likely that, at the moment, that doesn’t mean much of anything to most of you. The phrase is important for Israelis, especially to those who have completed the mandatory 3-year period of active military service but are still in the reserves. Israel’s army, as I’m sure you know, is a true people’s army that relies heavily on mandatory reserve duty, especially at times of war. Men between the ages of 21-45 must leave their jobs and the activities of their regular, daily lives and report for duty one month each year. Most of the time, reservists spend their days guarding checkpoints, training and reviewing skills, repairing and maintaining equipment, and checking inventory on supplies. At times of war, reservists are summoned to join their units and head to the frontlines for battle. That is part of the agony of war—men and women going off to fight, not knowing if they will return to their homes whole or even return at all, leaving behind spouses, children, parents and friends who can only hope and pray that the war will be short and that it won’t exact its painful toll on those they love.
There are times that a call up notice for miluim—what Israelis call their military obligation in Hebrew—can be deferred and reserve duty can be rescheduled. If a reservist is out of the country, on vacation, is in the midst of a difficult family situation or even has an important business commitment scheduled for a particular month, reserve duty can potentially be postponed. But what about times of national crisis and emergency? What happens when the army can’t afford to give its reserve soldiers the luxury of postponing their service? What happens in times of war when the army needs a large number of Israel’s citizen-soldiers to answer a call to arms? In such cases, the army often issues an order to the most urgently needed reservists called Tsav Shemona—“tsav” from the Hebrew word “to command” and “shemona” (Hebrew for eight) referring to the highest and most urgent level of reserve orders. When a reservist receives a Tsav Shemona notice, he knows that he has to drop everything and answer the call within a maximum of 24 hours. It doesn’t matter what else he has to do or whether or not he wants to make the transformation from ordinary citizen to a soldier in the IDF, he has to report for duty. Throughout Israel this summer, many Israelis received a call up notice marked Tsav Shemona. Counselors serving in camps and staff members working with groups of American teenagers spending the summer in Israel abruptly changed their plans, left their work with their kids, put on uniforms and went off to fight in Gaza. Tsav Shemona—when an Israeli receives the ultimate call up notice from the army, he answers the call immediately.
A summons to action from a higher authority—such an idea actually sounds familiar. We know of it, of course, from the Bible, from the stories about Jonah, about Moses and about Abraham. Each of these three Biblical characters received a Tsav Shemona call up notice of sorts, not from a military commander but from God, and each responded in a different way. We can learn something from the way each of these men responded to their Divine call up notice. From their stories, we can begin to determine how we should respond when we receive our own Tsav Shemona.
The story of the prophet Jonah is neatly woven into our experience of Yom Kippur. We read all four chapters of the book as the Haftarah at the Mincha service during the late afternoon, near the end of our marathon of fasting and of prayer, when we are weary yet hopeful that this day can be a meaningful turning point in our lives. The story tells of Jonah son of Amitai, who was a prophet dispatched by God to the city of Nineveh, a city filled with sinners and slated for Divine destruction. Jonah receives a summons from on high- a Tsav Shemona from God, a call up notice stamped in red and virtually hand delivered—summoning him to go to Nineveh and deliver God’s message that repentance would work to change alter the Divine decree. Jonah, who appears to us throughout the story as cynical, punitive, close-minded and cold-hearted person, refuses to go to Nineveh and instead runs away to Tarshish.
Jonah does not get very far, of course, for one cannot really escape the presence of God. God finds Jonah hiding on the boat he has boarded and again summons him to service. Jonah finally delivers God’s message to the people of Tarshish, who apparently appreciate it and repent, but he seems to do so only half-heartedly. The last passages of the book are devoted to God’s attempt to cleanse Jonah’s spirit and teach him that all human beings matter in the eyes of God.
A divine Tsav Shemona delivered to Jonah. We can plainly see Jonah’s response: to evade his responsibility to his fellow human beings and to God.
The story of Moses occupies most of the Torah. He is the dominant figure in our people’s tale of redemption from Egyptian slavery and their 40-year trek through the desert as they seek to forge their common experience of slavery and yearning for freedom into a covenant with God that will lead them to blessings and fulfillment in life as individuals and a nation. Moses, too, receives a Divine summons: a Tsav Shemona to report for duty immediately. Raised in the Pharaoh’s palace and pampered as a child, shielded from the brutality of slavery even though he was born to Israelite parents, Moses nonetheless possesses the gift of a sensitive soul and a yearning to help others. He is a shining example in the Bible of an activist for social justice. He sees a taskmaster assaulting an Israelite slave and takes it upon himself to balance the scales of justice by killing him. He is outwardly a prince but inwardly his heart is with the downtrodden and destitute. He stands by the side of the oppressed; he is one with his people.
God summons Moses at the bush engulfed by Divine fire—intense and brilliant, but it does not consume or destroy what is around it—in the sweltering heat of the desert. He calls on Moses to go to Pharaoh, together with his brother Aaron, to begin the process of liberation of the Israelite slaves. He is commanded to go before Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler on earth, and demand in the name of God that the oppressed slaves be set free. This is his Tsav Shemona, his urgent call to action, for the Israelite slaves are desperate for relief. Moses cannot delay, for the hour of deliverance and freedom is near.
Moses’s response is surprisingly uncharacteristic, given what we already know about him. He tells God that he’s not sure he’s the right person for the job. “I think you’ve made a mistake choosing me, God,” we hear him say. “I cannot speak clearly, for words do not come easily to me.” Perhaps Moses means that he has a speech impediment, and perhaps he means that he cannot stand before the Pharaoh and speak with the passion and fiery anger that are required to be God’s prophet. Either way, he questions the appropriateness of God’s summons. In the end, it doesn’t matter what Moses tells God. “Don’t tell me you’re not ready and don’t tell me you’re not up for this task, Moses. I created you and I know your potential. I need you now and you will indeed represent me to the Pharaoh.” And so it is that Moses reports for duty, answer the Divine summons to bring freedom to the Israelite slaves.
Abraham, too, was called to service by God. “Lech lecha mei-atzecha umi-moladetcha mi-beit avicha el ha-aretz asher areka… Leave your native land, your home town, the place where you were born, your parents’ home, and all that is familiar to you and go to the Land that I will show you. There I will make of you and your descendants a great nation that will change the course of history.” That is Abraham’s Tsav Shemona, his call to action. God summons him to be a moral force in the world, to stand for goodness and for sanctifying life. Abraham is summoned to bring God’s message to his family and to those around him, to demonstrate his convictions that there is great virtue in living a moral life. Abraham is summoned to show the world that God asks of us only one thing: to live lives of decency and goodness, that the God of Israel is interested neither in meaningless rituals nor in empty prayers, but in elevating the sanctity of every living thing in this world.
How does Abraham respond? Hineni…here I am, Lord. I am ready and willing to be a person who brings God’s presence into the midst of our world. I am ready to respond to Your call to action, for I believe that the world is waiting for your message. At times, Abraham needs to be reassured that God is with him. He has periodic doubts. But mostly, Abraham believes that he is living in the presence of God. He eagerly answers the Divine call. With his Tsav Shemona in hand, he heads for a new Land, a place that will one day be called Israel and where his descendants will flourish.
My friends, on this night of sacred gathering, we need to confront a reality, a truth that cannot and should not be avoided. The truth is that we’ve all be handed a Tsav Shemona notice. We have all been summoned, by the words and spirit of the prayers we recite on these High Holidays, by the messages of the Torah, by the sound of the shofar. We’ve all been summoned to act, and to act urgently, for the sake of our spiritual homeland and for the sake of our people. We’ve been summoned by the reality of the times in which we live, by the headlines in the newspaper and the lead stories on the news, to act and to act urgently, for the sake of our world and all the people who live in it. We’ve all been given a Tsav Shemona, the ultimate call up notice, a message that the reserves are needed to do important work, a message that none of us can entitle ourselves to the luxury of letting someone else serve on the frontlines.
You don’t need me to tell you that there is work to be done all around us—you know it already. There is a plague of poverty that seems to increase before our very eyes. There is oppression everywhere in our world. There are needy people and sick people and victims of abuse and neglect. There are people who need help to make their way in life, to get an education and make for themselves a beginning to a new and productive chapter in their lives. There are the ever-present needs of our people who live in the Land of Israel, who this year are recovering and healing from a brutal summer of war, many of whom were handed a Tsav Shemona from the army and left their families to go to war. We have plenty of ways for you to answer your call up notice and countless suggestions for how you can advocate for and support Medinat Yisrael. And we have plenty of ways for how you can fulfill the mitzvah of tikun olam.
One of those ways is the sacred work of our Social Action Committee. This committee is part of the culture and fabric of our Congregation. As I suggested on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the work of Tikun Olam, undertaken by our Social Action Committee, may be the most important, the holiest endeavor that we can do here or in any synagogue.
The Social Action Committee has a number of events planned for the coming year, one or more of which should draw each of you. And I know firsthand from the chairs of this committee, Miriam Nelson, Michele Hilzenrath and Louise Finkelman, that there is a need for additional committee members, especially those who have school-age children, and those who would like to help to lead an event. Planned activities include opportunities to volunteer on Thanksgiving, working at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, an Environmental Sustainability Project, an event to advocate against Human Trafficking, and a chance to help build affordable housing through Habitat for Humanity. In the past few years we have decided not to hold an ethical appeal on Kol Nidrei night, so let these words be our appeal. Please step forward to help our congregation fulfill the mitzvah of Tikun Olam.
My friends, the most pressing question to ask yourself tonight is not whether you are needed to respond to the Divine call to heal the world. And the question is not whether the needs around us can wait for a convenient moment to be satisfied, for they cannot. The most pressing question, the one I put before you tonight, is how will you respond to the Tsav Shemona you’ve been handed.
Will you be like Jonah, who, gripped by indifference and judgmental rage against others, ignored the summons he’d been given and tried to flee? We know the moral of that story: a person can try to run away, but the one who runs will stumble in the search for peace of mind or contentment in life. We cannot find contentment by running away from our duty to heal the world.
Will you instead respond to your Tsav Shemona like Moses, who, while believing in principles of social justice, thought someone else was better equipped to take on the task? We know the moral of that story too: if we assume someone else will do the important work needed to be done, it’s likely that no one will do it.
Or will you instead respond like Abraham, who, while he had some quiet reservations and probably could have thought of other things to do with his time that would have made his own life better, answered his Tsav Shemona with the immortal words Hineni…here I am, Lord, here I am, ready to make this world more worthy of Your blessing.
This Holy Night, the eve of Yom Kippur, is the moment of decision, the moment to answer the Tsav Shemona we’ve been handed. As we pray on this sacred night, let us each summon the strength, the determination and the courage to respond Hineni, here I am.