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On Dreams and Craters

There are three types of craters in this world.

The first, with which we are probably most-familiar, is when an object impacts the ground with such speed, power or force that it leaves a hole in its wake. A meteor zooms through space, ultimately entering our atmosphere, smashing the earth and creating an impact point as small as a few centimeters or as large as a thousand miles across. A volcano erupts and lava pours out, pulling down the soil above it.

The second type of crater is formed – and here’s where we get technical and scientific – it is formed when water erosion tears at the soil of a particular location, while, simultaneously, plate tectonics raise the land surrounding that erosion. There are five craters of this type named in the world, all of them in Israel. They are called a makhtesh. And the largest makhtesh is Makhtesh Ramon, about 51 miles south of Be’ersheva, where, in the middle of the Negev desert, the land opens up into a giant chasm 500 feet deep surrounded by a ring of rock 24 miles long.

The third type of crater is the impact left in the wake of transformative human behavior, when individuals so thoroughly challenge the status quo, revolt against ingrained assumptions or speak truth to power such that life as we know it, in that space, that situation or that entity is changed entirely, possibly forever.

And I want to speak with you tonight about this third type of crater, which is forming, as we speak, on the slopes of the second.

On the edge of Makhtesh Ramon in the Negev is the small boutique winery Rujum. Two weeks ago, when Rujum harvested its grapes, a woman by the name of Shoshana Dann stood by to ensure that no non-kosher foods were brought near the newly pressed juice. A few months from now Shoshana – the winery’s mashgichah, or kashrut overseer – will return to Rujum, as the wine is moved from large vats to wooden barrels for fermentation into wine, to certify that the mitzvot of ma’aser and trumah – the commandments regarding tithing – are properly observed. And, in the intervening months, Shoshana will poke her head in to this small winery every so often to make sure that no work is being done on Shabbat.

So, what is so special about this small winery in the middle of a vast desert?

As you may be aware, religion in Israel is monopolized by a state-funded Orthodox rabbinate. And so according to Israeli law Rujum’s wine is not kosher. It will be illegal for Rujum to label its wine as kosher, despite meticulous rabbinic supervision, for two reasons: one – because Shoshana is an employee of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international body of Conservative rabbis, and two – because she is a woman.

Let us be clear: nothing tangible has changed on the ground from her work. It is very possible that, at the end of the day this story will end with this year’s harvest. Yet the very bedrock of Makhtesh Ramon – that giant crater in the middle of the Negev – trembles from the potential impact of Shoshana’s work.

Through the conviction of her dedication, because she decided that the law is unjust and un-right and that her heart’s conviction demands that she act, Shoshanah, this one woman living in the middle of the Negev desert, a sea of dirt and rock, may manage to fundamentally challenge the status quo of religious authority in the State of Israel. Shoshana’s supervision of these grapes from Rujum has the potential to light the spark that ultimately revolutionizes the very nature of state-supported Judaism in Israel entirely.

One woman, and her grapes. That’s all it takes to change the world.

Her story pushes us to realize that each and every human being has the capacity to revolutionize society, to shape our lives and the lives of our community, limited only by our self-imposed fear of creativity and guile. I am fascinated by Shoshana’s work, by her imagination, and by the potential impact of her crater to ignite systemic change across a country, because this audacity to imagine and to transform is something engrained deeply in our tradition. And that’s what makes her work so Jewish.

Judaism’s great gift to the world is its insistence that anything, anything is possible, that vision is all we need in order to challenge what is and re-mold it into what may be.

That is how a tiny nation, surrounded by pagans – by Jebusites and Hitites, Moabites and Canaanites – could declare that there is only One God, Creator of Heaven and Earth.

That is how a desert tribe enslaved to the greatest nation on earth could bear witness to a sea parting in two and stand at the base of a mountain to experience God’s revelation.

That is how a people who wandered for 2,000 years could rise from the ashes of the Shoah, come back to their home, revive an ancient language lost to the millennia, and rebuild a state in the land of their ancestors.

Shoshana Dann sees a need, she sees an injustice, and has taken it upon herself to uproot that which is normal and routine and accepted and replace it with saplings of possibility.

And that is what this holy day is all about.

We began tonight with the words of Kol Nidre. Have you ever looked at the meaning of this ritual, at the words we spoke only moments ago during the convening of a Beit Din, a rabbinic court? We sang, 3 times!:

All vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligation, pledges, and promises that we vow or promise to ourselves and to God from this Yom Kippur to the next we hereby retract. May they all be undone, repealed, cancelled, voided, annulled, and regarded as neither valid nor binding. Our vows shall not be considered vows; our renunciations shall not be considered renunciations; and our promises shall not be considered promises.

The key words here are “from this Yom Kippur to the next.” We made a declaration tonight changing the year to come before it has happened. We vowed that any vow made in the next year is actually not made at all. With the intention of preventing us from ever entering into behaviors that will de facto lead us to transgression, we have imagined and then stated that we will not, that we cannot do it for the next 365 days.

This a priori declaration undoes history before it is made. We renounce before announcing, repeal before appealing, undo before ever doing.

It should be no wonder, then, that Kol Nidre has had a turbulent history. Just as the text of this liturgy undoes legal pronouncements through its recitation, so too have Jewish communities time and time again tried to undo Kol Nidre entirely, striking it from their services, erasing it from their High Holy Day prayer books.

But Kol Nidre has lived on. The will of the people has demanded that this service remain intact. The power of this pronouncement captivates our attention with its ability to suggest and then manifest the unthinkable. To make real that which is not.

Kol Nidre embodies the very essence of Judaism’s imaginative spirit that has the power to undo what is and make manifest a better world. This is the night we stand up to God and say, “I know I am human. I know that I fail. But I, like you, like all of creation, can change. I can be better. I will try.”

And we will devote these next 25 hours, the final moments as the gates of teshuva are closing after these past ten Days of Awe to reflect on and atone for all the times that we have missed the mark this past year.

As we reflect, I invite us to also imagine. To realize that it is not enough to feel bad about or repent for having done wrong, that it is also necessary, more important even, to then dream about the ways in which we will change, improve and transform in the year ahead.

Those dreams, made real and brought into fruition, can change the world. They can be internal, or external. They can transform our lives, they can transform our society. Either way, their impact can strike craters into the heart of our reality. If only we dream big enough.

I’m tirzu ein zo agadah.” If you will it, it is no dream. The power of one is infinite, as expansive as is our imagination.

And these dreams can, if we think large enough and deeply enough, shake us to our core, change our very being and way of interacting with this world, or they can change our community and even our society when put into action.

The soft, sweet dreams that we imagine, can shape earth with their impact.

Just two weeks ago, we marked the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, when a young black preacher evoked his most-famous words about dreams, giving us a vision for what could, what still can be. Martin Luther King, himself inspired by the Hebrew Prophets’ obsession with transformative change, left us – those of us inspired by the power of dreams, the power of the imagination to rebuild the world into something new – he left us with a warning. Writing from behind the bars of a small Birmingham jail he said: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

Change is possible, but not a foregone conclusion. Change comes only if we combine the persistence of imagining what can be, the honesty of acknowledging what is, and the audacity of realizing that we have the power to enact that which we have dreamed.

This holy day, this Yom Kippur, is a day to feel empowered by our capacity to change, our God-given gift to realize our own control over history, our own autonomy, our ability to renew.

So let us act.

This Yom Kippur, let’s dream. Let’s imagine. Let us look deep inside ourselves, and deep inside our community for the ways in which our being is not right, the ways in which the world is not right, and then let us be inspired by our tradition’s insistence that anything can be changed, if only we commit ourselves to making it happen.

The beauty of makhtesh, is that it, unlike an impact crater, does not require significant power to form. In a makhtesh, water carves away at rock. Small drops – with enough consistency – can create one of the most majestic sites on earth.

We can change. And we can change the world. We can transform this earth on which we live with such great craters as to alter the landscape entirely.

If only we we have the audacity to dream. If only we have the courage to imagine.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

Erev Yom Kippur 5764

Rabbi David J. Singer

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