Kol Nidrei Sermon – 5783/2022

Rabbi Heidi Cohen

Recently, we’ve been wrestling with the state of our world, our country, our community? Why is it people are behaving the way they do? Over the past few years we saw the best in people as they supported each other at the beginning of Covid. And we saw a deterioration of character as people reached boiling points and took advantage of others, such as that of business closures. In Northern California, a group of stores were ransacked over an 8 hour period of time. The store owners watched the security video as a large group of people swarmed into the store and stripped it down to nothing save a few large items. Where were the police? Unfortunately, they had to make a choice; the group was so large that trying to go into the stores would have put their lives at risk; they chose between materials and their lives. This act of standing back, of being bystanders, excused the behavior, giving permission to those who ransacked the stores. 

Over the past year and half, we have seen the actions of our country’s leaders that are becoming more the norm than not. Their words, actions, and deeds are calling into question the direction of our country and those who are shaping the laws and future. And here we are on the cusp of midterm elections that can affect our lives and the future of our democracy. As we prepare to vote, which each of us must do, we must ask, what is integrity? This question has been at the forefront of the January 6th committee hearings over the past few months. 

As we’ve watched the hearings, the presentations by the committee members have been well thought out and presented in order to make it accessible and understandable to all. Each member of the committee has spent an extraordinary amount of time becoming well versed in the details of the events leading up to and including those of January 6th. And every statement made by the committee members, including the questions they pose to the witnesses, are meant to get to the truth about what took place in our nation’s capital. Each committee member understands the scrutiny they are under, but none so much as the two Republican members of the committee, Congresswoman Liz Cheney and Congressman Adam Kinzinger. Both of them made a very conscious choice to put their integrity before career knowing that their work on the January 6th committee puts not only their current positions into jeopardy, but also their personal safety and the safety of their families. 

Congresswoman Liz Cheney and I may not share the same political positions, but I am impressed and grateful with her honesty, integrity, and determination to do what is right. Congresswoman Cheney understood that taking on the work of co-chairing the January 6th committee and bringing truth to the country would have a negative impact on her career. And as predicted, on Tuesday, August 16th, Congresswoman Cheney lost the primary in Wyoming. However, her concession speech continued to showcase her integrity and willingness to do what was right.

She spoke about a note she received from a Gold Star father that said, “Standing up for truth honors all who gave all,” and she has thought of those words every day. These words are a reminder of how we are to conduct ourselves. We share this value of kol yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. But it is not limited to just one people, one group, it is a value that each and every person should hold – we are all responsible to stand up for one another and give honor to one another. Yet, this value is not held by all. Liz Cheney knew that if she continued the line of lies and behavior of many in her party, she could easily have re-taken her congressional seat. However, this was a path she was not willing to take. She said, “No House seat, no office in this land is more important than the principles that we are all sworn to protect, and I well understood the potential political consequences of abiding by my duty.”

Liz Cheney’s integrity was more important to her. She knows that having integrity and acting on that integrity is not easy, but one of the most important things one can do. 

What does it mean for a person to have integrity? It is beyond honesty, it is what one does, even when no one is paying attention. Brene Brown offers this definition of integrity: “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; it’s choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy; and it’s practicing your values, not just professing them.”

It is easy for anyone to say, ‘this is what I believe in,’ or ‘this is what I would do.’ It is a whole other thing when we take action and show the courage to stand up for what is right even when it may not be the most popular choice.

When we think of someone who we say has integrity, we picture someone who is honest, upright, and honorable. But what does this mean? It is multi-faceted. It means that we work toward fulfilling the promises and commitments that we make. As Rabbi Shammai, the great Talmudic sage, puts it: “Say little and do much (Pirkei Avot 1:15). And the Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) continues with saying little and doing much is in fact the defining quality of a truly righteous person — and that someone who promises much and doesn’t deliver on those promises is the very opposite of a righteous person.

Say little and do much. Yes, one can say they are going to do many things but it is a person of integrity who will actually do them; who fulfills their promises. Starting in Torah, with Abraham, we learn that he was a man of integrity. When three men came to his tent he greeted them and offered them shelter, food and drink. But it was not just with bread and water and a floor to sleep on. Abraham put together a feast fit for a king, with his best fruits, meats, and wine overflowing their cups. Abraham went beyond the minimum.

And again later, when Sarah died and Abraham needed a place to bury her, he went to the Hittites and asked to purchase a piece of land to bury her. At first, the Hittites offered Abraham any piece of land he wanted as a gift. But Abraham insisted on paying for the land and buying the cave at Machpeleh from the landowner, Ephron. In front of everyone, Ephron told Abraham that he can have the cave for free, and once again, Abraham insisted that he should pay full price for the land. Ephpron replied, “what is 400 shekels of silver between us, what is that between you and me?” And so Abraham paid the 400 shekels which the rabbis suggest was an over-inflated price for the land but Abraham did not argue. The rabbis suggest that Ephron said much and delivered little for his intention was not to deal honestly with Abraham.  Ephron behaved as if he was doing Abraham a favor but in the end he took advantage of him with an exorbitant price for the cave. 

Author Stephen Covey makes the distinction between honesty and integrity. He writes, “Integrity includes but goes beyond honesty. Honesty is … conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words — in other words, keeping promises and fulfilling expectations. This requires an integrated character, a oneness, primarily with self but also with life.”

In Judaism, we learn of three fundamental principles that guide our lives; honesty, justice and peace.  In Pirkei Avot it says, on three things the world stands, honesty, justice and peace. 

I have heard from many about how distressing our world seems. There is fear in how fractured it is and wonder if there is any hope, any chance of our being able to regain trust in people coming together to work for the greater good for all people. There is a lack of trust in our country, trust in our leaders, trust even with our neighbors. We judge one another based on the news we watch and we are afraid to engage in conversations because we want to avoid confrontations or arguments. But then there is silence. There is a fear of speaking up or speaking out because we are afraid of the backlash or being discriminated against because of our beliefs and stances.

Along with Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger also stepped forward to be a part of the January 6th commission because he knew he could not continue the lies being shared by his party members and he couldn’t stand by silently and watch as our democracy is being challenged and dividing our country. Like Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger knew that by being a part of the January 6th committee, he was putting his career as a House Representative on the line and also putting himself and his family at risk. Over the past few months, Adam Kinzinger’s staff in Washington DC took messages left by people calling him all sorts of names that I definitely cannot repeat here, as well as threatening not just him but his wife and family. These callers tell him they know where he lives, they are coming after him and his family, they hope he dies, and what a weak person he is and that he has no right to be a member of congress.  

Congressman Kinzinger made the choice to not run for re-election, rather to find another way, a bi-partisan way, in which he could use his integrity and do the hard work of protecting democracy and our country. Adam Kinzinger started an organization called Country First. He states: “Country First believes key democracy reforms are needed to incentivize healthy dialogue, good leadership, and ultimately the results Americans deserve.  If we don’t act, the cycle of doom and dysfunction will only continue and politics will remain a “win at all costs” sport where we ALL ultimately lose. It wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t need to stay this way.”

Country First recognizes that in order for democracy to survive we all have to have the confidence to vote and know that every vote matters. All the voting and election laws must be carefully crafted in a bipartisan manner. Just as our own Reform Movements Religious Action Center, Country First states: “Americans deserve a democracy that values and holds sacred the freedom to vote. Generations of brave Americans have died protecting this, our most fundamental right.” 

The Religious Action Center has as its primary campaign, Every Voice, Every Vote. “Every Voice, Every Vote Campaign is a nonpartisan effort, grounded in our Jewish values and commitment to racial justice, to strengthen our democracy by encouraging and protecting voter participation. As Reform Jews, we believe democracy is strongest when the electorate reflects the population – and it suffers when citizens are shut out from the democratic process. Voting is how we determine our future. It is how we fulfill the Talmudic teaching that a ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted. It is our prayer. It is our voice.” 

Both the RAC and Country First understand the importance of ensuring the integrity of not only our system of justice and country, but also calling for our leaders and each of us to live with integrity in ensuring that we remain a country that is for the people and by the people. This work is not easy and right now it is more important than ever because our country is at risk. 

Integrity means having the courage to take risks and speak our values and truths. To be upstanders, not bystanders who watch as someone is wronged or bullied. As the upstander, we take on the responsibility of speaking out against intolerance, inequality, and violence. Having integrity is choosing to not remain in what seems comfortable, but having the courage to speak out on behalf of those in need, those whose voices are silenced, and for the very values that we hold as integral in our lives as Jews and as humans. 

Tonight, as we stand here together, examining our lives, our actions and setting a direction for our future, each of us ask the important question, how is our integrity measured and how can we be a part of not allowing the very fabric of our country to unravel? How can we summon the courage to not remain silent but rather to speak out even when it seems risky? 

There is the story of the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Zusya, when on his deathbed was surrounded by his students. They saw that he was in agony and they asked him if he was in pain. The pain was not physical, the pain was deeper. His students asked and tried to comfort him;  “Rabbi, why do you weep? You are almost as wise as Moses, you are almost as hospitable as Abraham, and surely heaven will judge you favorably.”

Zusya answered them: “It is true. When I get to heaven, I won’t worry so much if God asks me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Abraham?’ or ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’  I know I would be able to answer these questions.  After all, I was not given the righteousness of Abraham or the faith of Moses but I tried to be both hospitable and thoughtful.  But what will I say when God asks me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’

How are we measured? Are we able to say, I dealt faithfully, honestly and with integrity in order to strengthen our world? As we examine our past year and as we set our path for the year to come, may we remember to live by three important Jewish values; honesty, justice and peace. And then, hopefully someday our world will come back into an order in which we all can live together in peace, with respect and with integrity.