The Next Right Thing: Kol Nidre 2021
My message this evening is, “do the next right thing.” I have known for months that this would be a critical teaching for this holiday season. We will encounter this lesson through the lens of liturgy, and with a little help from Disney magic. And when your friends and family ask you, after the holiday, “what did your rabbi preach on Yom Kippur,” you will be able to say, “do the next right thing,” and elucidate this proverb with your own examples…your own context…your own story.
Let me explain.
We began our service this evening with the annual recitation of “Kol Nidre.” This rabbinic formulation voices our fear that we will not live up to our promises and potential in the year ahead. The ancient rabbis were concerned with binding vows—so much so that they created this exercise to ensure that humanity was not excessively bound by unrealized or unachievable intentions. An exploration of the text allows us to see that it contains the recognition that our goals and vows must be partnered with the realization that our plans change, and some of our promises will not come to fruition.
In this time of lingering unknowns and blurry paths forward, promises are difficult to make, and even harder to keep. Overwhelmed by the complexity and gravity of our era, how do we decide what vows to take…what causes to adopt…what challenges most need our energy?
On a global scale we face climate change, the unwavering reality that humankind has damaged the earth and its atmosphere beyond repair. The waters are warming and rising. Severe weather events have become commonplace, we must not become complacent.
On the national stage we are simultaneously fighting systemic racism and growing White-national extremism. There is a war being waged against women, making the law of the land, Roe v. Wade, seem tenuous at best.
These are just a few of the pressing collective challenges that we face. So many crises of equal, or even greater importance, plague of society.
As our individual lives contain distinct details and realities, we each add to the already cluttered landscape our personal obligations, struggles and losses.
And all of this amid an enduring, crushing pandemic.
So what do we do? How do we encounter a world of brokenness and pain? How do we offer ourselves, our hearts, our energy, our skills—when the need for help and healing is far beyond our capacity?
We “do the next right thing.”
Sometimes, the next right thing is “Take a breath”. Try it now. Inhale, and hold for a few seconds, and then exhale. Can you do that four times…can you take four calming, intentional breaths?
Intentional breathing is a simple strategy for regaining focus and perspective—empowering us to contribute positively to our mental and physical well-being. Breathing meditations give space for pause, reminding us that, even in busy, ever-connected contemporary society, we need time and space to breath. We’ll take a few more seconds, allowing our breath to return to its routine pace, shifting our attention from our sacred breath to our present gathering.
I feel a bit better. I hope that you do as well. Sometimes, though simple, breathing, just breathing, is “the next right thing.”
The looming pressures of the world do not disappear when we focus on our breath. Rather, we gather the focus, perspective or clarity and “do the next right thing.”
Sometimes the next right is “Take a step.”
How did you get here tonight? Whether you drove to Bet Chaverim or clicked the link to arrive, virtually, in the sanctuary, you are here…and our gathering is enhanced by your presence. Think about the small steps you took in advance…you registered to attend or pinned the link, maybe you came to the building to borrow a mahzor…perhaps you chose a certain outfit or planned a pre-fast meal. A step brings us closer to our destination. Sometimes we take steps without yet knowing our destination. Perhaps that is faith.
When you sign a petition supporting the efforts of Planned Parenthood…it is a step. When you pick up a piece of litter from the ground…it is a step.
When you get out of bed, eighteen months into a pandemic…it is a step.
Sometimes, the next right thing is “Make a choice.” A choice can be mundane but is often more significant and complex than a breath or a step. It can be substantial… a potentially life-altering decision, because our decisions, our choices, have consequences.
My husband and I recently made the choice to drive electric vehicles. Recognizing that we are in a place of financial privilege to be able to afford these cars, I feel a bit uncomfortable trumpeting this choice. It was not an easy decision…it involved research, financial planning, and too many hours in dealerships. We know that our reduced carbon footprint does little to erase generations of abuse of the earth. We also know that mass adoption of these technologies to replace fossil fuel is critical for the survival of our planet. We haven’t solved climate change. We are trying to “do the next right thing.”
Returning to the core of our Kol Nidre text…our promises will not all be fulfilled. Our plans will change. The ancient rabbis knew this, as do we, as it is a fundamental truth of human existence. This year did not go as planned. These high holidays are not being observed “as promised.” And yet…here we are. We faced a year of twists and curves. We reached out. We looked inward. Our year is the summation of our breaths…our steps…our choices.
On Yom Kippur, we reflect on the year that has ended. We imagine the choices—the opportunities and challenges–that await us in the newly unfolding future, one that most certainly contains twists and turns, joys and sorrows.
Take a Breath. Take a Step. Make a Choice.
Now here is the “Disney magic.” If you are a parent or grandparent of young children, perhaps you recognize my simple instruction, “do the next right thing,” as the title of a song from Frozen II. In the late fall of 2019, a friend and I took our daughters to see the film. The girls proudly displayed an array of princess clothes and crowns. After the movie we had pizza. It was a “normal” Sunday afternoon in the before times—before covid, before lockdowns, before isolation. It was my last time in a movie theater.
Over the next few weeks, my children played the soundtrack pretty much nonstop. In the car, in the house, in my sleep, I heard the voices of Ana, Elsa, Christof and Olaf. By the time we entered the Covid quarantine, I was fluent in the liturgy of Frozen II, and in those early days of darkness, I relied upon this song to light my path. I’ve lost track of the context of the song in the film. To my mind, though impossible, it was written for this moment in time.
I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath
This next step
This next choice is one that I can make…
So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing
And with the dawn, what comes then
When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again?
Then I’ll make the choice
To hear that voice
And do the next right thing.