Yom Kippur 5781
September 28, 2020
Remembering in All Direction
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first—’

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘—but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.[1]

Alice’s conversation with the White Queen is indeed confusing and confounding; that’s to be expected in the nonsensical world that author Lewis Carroll created. But as befuddled as the White Queen may appear to Alice, she may perhaps have a point: we are well served if we not only consider our past, but also have the imagination to look ahead to the future and envision the opportunities that lie in store.

Throughout the nascency of our people, there was a tendency to cling to and revere the past. The Torah urges us to recount the story of the Exodus to our children, and to always remember the evil behavior of the tribe of Amalek.[2] In the rabbinic period, sages debated over precisely which historical remembrance was to be emphasized as more pivotal to our understanding of our place in the world: ma’aseh v’reishit, the work of creation, or y’tziat Mitzrayim. In the end, they decided to focus on each equally, leading to the passage in the Shabbat Kiddush that names both events as central.[3] And from the early days of a formalized Jewish liturgy, a central part of the service has been a focus on zchut avot, the merits of our ancestors, asking God to remember the deeds of our famous patriarchs (and, more contemporarily, our matriarchs), if we ourselves are not found worthy of blessing.[4]

The 20th century theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We are a people in whom the past endures, in whom the present is inconceivable without moments gone by…What happened once upon a time happens all the time.”[5] Rabbi Heschel recognized how pivotal the past has been in shaping our identity as modern Jews. Certainly, our expression of Judaism has continued to evolve throughout the ages—so much so that there are aspects of our modern practice that would be unrecognizable to Moses or the rabbis of the Talmud or perhaps even to Rabbi Heschel himself. Yet we nonetheless chart that evolution as occurring within the bounds of shalshelet ha-kabbalah, the unbroken chain of transmission that, generations later, continues to tie us to that initial moment of revelation at Sinai.

If you have a student in Sinai Temple Religious School, you’ve hopefully seen Rabbi Jody’s wonderful video explaining our plans for our school in the coming year. In it, she tells the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai.

According to legend, Rabbi Yochanan witnessed the destruction of the Temple and its environs by the Romans in the year 70 of the common era. As Jerusalem was being besieged, and some of Judaism’s greatest leaders and teachers were being arrested and tortured, Rabbi Yochanan and his students hatched a plan. They placed Rabbi Yochanan in a coffin and carried him out of the city’s gates as though they were preparing to bury him. The Romans allowed this procession, which appeared to be a funeral, to proceed unmolested.

Once outside of the confines of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yochanan emerged from the coffin. He went to Vespasian, the leader of the local Roman legions. As he approached, Rabbi Yochanan hailed Vespasian as king. Vespasian was annoyed, as he thought that the rabbi was mocking him. But as they spoke, messengers arrived from Rome to inform Vespasian that the emperor had died and that he, Vespasian, had been appointed as the new ruler.

Pleasantly surprised by this turn of events, Vespasian turned to Rabbi Yochanan and said, “Because you have foretold truthfully, I will grant you a request.” Yochanan replied, “Give me Yavneh and its sages.”[6]

Rabbi Yochanan did not only look to the traditions of the past. He recognized that there was a need for revolution in Jewish teaching and practice if there was to be any hope of a future for Jewish life. His innovation—temporarily relocating the center of Jewish learning from Jerusalem to Yavneh—enabled Judaism to pivot and to survive.

Arguably, Rabbi Yochanan was able to answer the White Queen’s challenge: he was able to live in both directions simultaneously. The academy that he and his disciples established at Yavneh paid homage to those Jewish practices that had been central to Jewish religious expression in the days when the Temple stood. Yet they worked to introduce new forms of study and prayer that could move beyond the practice of animal sacrifice in order to allow Jews to commune with God in other ways. This forward-thinking enterprise paved the way for diaspora Jewry to grow and thrive.

So, we look to the future. We plant and develop and innovate for the sake of our children and their children after them. Mindful of the wonderful foundation that our forbears bequeathed to us, we seek to continue to strengthen and enrich it for future generations. The V’ahavta teaches use: V’shinantam l’vanecha v’dibarta bam: You must diligently teach your children to embrace and adhere to the beauty and breadth of Jewish practice.

At our Kever Avot cemetery memorial service prior to Rosh Hashanah, I took a moment to wander through Sinai Temple’s section at Mount Hope and take note of all of the pillars of our community from past generations who are lovingly remembered there. Some of these names continue to be carried forward by younger generations who continue to call our community their home; others have only us as their spiritual descendants to build upon the legacies that they established in the past. We are grateful to those trailblazing Jews who first organized a congregation, meeting informally through the 1890s and then incorporating as Sinai Temple in 1904. We owe a tremendous debt to those who undertook the establishment of the congregation’s first permanent home at State and Clark streets, and to those who had the vision to purchase farmland in southwest Champaign to rebuild following the fire at that building in the 1970s. In the late 1990s, yet another set of visionary leaders oversaw the expansion of our Temple home, undertaking a renovation that added important spaces at Temple such as the Davis Chapel and a new wing of classrooms.

Now we are poised to undertake another renovation. The Sanctuary Renovation Committee has been working diligently with our architectural firm, Landau|Zinder, and plans to beautify and improve accessibility to our sacred spaces are key components of the design. When completed, the space will honor the historic past of our congregation, while also ensuring that our facility is well-poised to address the needs of the future. The name of the campaign, Yesod leAtid, “a foundation for the future,” speaks to this two-pronged approach. We are building so that our children and grandchildren can continue to enjoy a vibrant Jewish life here in east central Illinois.

Many congregant families have already contributed generously toward the project. If you’ve not yet had the opportunity to make a pledge, I encourage you to do so following the holiday. Any amount that you are able to contribute will go a long way toward creating a bright future for the next generations who will make their spiritual home at Sinai Temple. If you have found your way to our service today and are not already affiliated with the Sinai Temple community, we welcome you warmly, and ask you to consider making a supporting contribution as well.

I urge you to take a moment to “remember the future,” as the White Queen encouraged Alice. See in your mind’s eye some of the young people who currently populate our congregation taking their places as adult members of Sinai Temple. They have celebrated B’nai Mitzvah, confirmations, and perhaps even some weddings in the space that was so beautifully and lovingly refreshed during their childhood. Some have welcomed their own children into the covenant within these walls. They have dined and socialized together in the pods or on the Sudman patio in the Cohen garden. They have schmoozed and texted their friends on their new-fangled iPhone 47s from the Levin Lounge. They have proudly shown off their spiritual home to non-Jewish friends and neighbors with whom they have sought fellowship, and they have turned to the Temple as a place of refuge when life has taken a sad turn or the world has become frightening.

If we allow ourselves to “remember” such a future we may recognize that the dreams we have for those who come after us look remarkably similar to the dreams others once imagined for us. For a fully realized remembrance of the future is one that imagines opportunity and the full realization of each individual’s potential. “Remembering a future” of possibility for all people, regardless of the color of their skin, their gender identity, the religion they practice, or whom they love means, in the words of Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, that even if you happen “to be born into a world that does not see you, that does not believe in your potential…[that] despite this, [you are able] to see beyond the world you are in [and] to imagine that something can be different.”[7] It dares to envision that we will achieve all our hearts’ desires. It has the audacity to hope.

Now, some would say that there is no use in becoming mired in the past, and that projecting into the future is futile and fruitless daydreaming. They would urge us to focus on the present moment.

There is certainly some satisfaction that can be found in focusing chiefly on the moment at hand. For several summers while I was in college, and continuing until I entered rabbinical school, I worked at the URJ’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, a sister camp to OSRUI. The founding director, Macy B. Hart, would end every staff orientation, every opening day for campers, and virtually every program in which he had an opportunity to speak with his catchphrase, “Don’t waste a minute!” It was the camp mantra, and as with any oft-repeated phrase, many of us began to laugh about it or brush it off when we heard it.

But there is indeed truth to the statement: time is precious, and every moment is fleeting. There will never be another chance to claim this second right here. Or right here. Or right here…well, you get the picture…

The musical La Cage Aux Folles put it another way: “So hold this moment fast/ and live and love as hard as you know how/ and make this moment last/ because the best of times is now.”[8] As we stand here on the threshold of a new year, it is certainly significant to remember and build upon—and hopefully, even grow from—the lessons of our past. It is important to have hope and forethought to look to a brighter future. But it is also essential that we expend most of our energy living in the current moment, nurturing relationships, learning skills and information, standing for just causes. As Rabbi Hillel says, “Do not say, ‘I will study when I find the time,’ lest you never find the time.’”[9] The same could be said for nearly every task for which we might procrastinate—reaching out to a friend, taking control of our health, accomplishing a desired goal. It’s easy to put these things off until tomorrow. But that tomorrow may not arrive.

In this new year, and always, let us continue to have reverence for the past. Let us strive to “remember the future” and dream of a bright tomorrow. But let us also be certain to make the most of the moment in which we live. Limnot yameinu kein hoda, v’navi l’vav chochma. Teach us, God, to make each and every day count, so that we may continue to grow wise in heart.[10]

[1] Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking Glass. Chapter 5. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/12/12-h/12-h.htm , September 11, 2020

[2] Cf. Exouds 12:26, Deuteronomy 25:17-19

[3] See the Shabbat evening Kiddush, which explains the importance of the Sabbath as both a remembrance of the work of creation and a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.

[4] See the Avot (V’Imahot) prayer in each Jewish service.

[5] Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Israel: An Echo of Eternity. (New York: MacMillan, 1987) p. 128

[6] Recounted in Avot deRabbi Natan 4:5

[7] From words delivered by Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt at a memorial for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Reported by the Washington Post at https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2020/09/23/ginsburg-memorial-rabbi-jewish/ Retrieved Sepember 25, 2020.

[8] “The Best of Times,” from La Cage Aux Folles, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman.

[9] Mishnah Avot 2:5

[10] Psalm 90