Kol Nidrei 5774
September 13, 2013
This is the story of Peggy and Joe and their son, Andrew. Peggy and Joe live in Vienna, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. Years ago, they decided to adopt a child from Guatemala. They chose Guatemala because they liked the culture, it was relatively close to the United States so they could visit often, and, most importantly, Guatemala allowed prospective parents to start a relationship with the child while the adoption process was pending.
Peggy and Joe met the child they named Andrew in December 2007 when he was four months old. They fell in love with him immediately and visited him numerous times, but then the most unexpected thing happened: Guatemala shut down international adoptions on January 1, 2008 amid allegations of fraud, kidnapping, and other crimes! They shut down all adoptions at that point. Andrew’s case got caught in the red tape and he couldn’t come to this country, but Peggy and Joe kept fighting for the right to bring their son home. As Peggy noted, “Once we started [the adoption process], he was our son. So you do anything you can for your family.”
Peggy moved to Guatemala in August 2008, shortly before Andrew’s first birthday, to take custody of him during her maternity leave. They had been told that Andrew’s adoption would take place in a few months. Well, Peggy’s maternity leave ended without the adoption being finalized. In July 2009 Joe moved to Guatemala using a six-month leave from his job. His six-month leave came and went and still Peggy and Joe couldn’t bring their son home to Vienna. Joe left his job to live with Andrew in Guatemala, with Peggy visiting monthly and the family Skype-ing regularly to keep in touch. Andrew’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles visited him as well.
In August 2012 Andrew was taken away from his home with Joe, the only home he knew, and put in an orphanage. The rationale behind putting Andrew in the orphanage? Guatemalan law stated that the only way the adoption process could continue was if the child did not live with the adoptive parents. Now here’s the really fascinating part: The Guatemalan government did a psychological report on Andrew and noted that taking him away from Peggy and Joe would be harmful to him, and yet he was placed in the orphanage anyway! When Peggy and Joe tried to visit him at the orphanage, they were turned away, being told that Andrew needed to get used to not seeing them. The Guatemalan judge also threatened to put Peggy and Joe in jail, claiming that they had violated international adoption law.
Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, the founding co-chair and Board President of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption and co-chair of the Congressional Foster Care Caucus, became involved. With the help of her and others, Andrew was back home in six days. Six days may not seem like a lot of time, but for a young boy removed from his home, it was an eternity and Andrew was traumatized by his time away. For quite a while after his return from the orphanage, Andrew always had to be in the same room as Joe since he was afraid that he was going to be taken away again.
In April of this year – yes, 2013 — Peggy, Joe, and Andrew finally boarded a plane in Guatemala and arrived home safely in the United States. They were greeted at the airport by Senator Landrieu, Andrew’s grandparents, and other family members. All told, Peggy and Joe lived apart for 1,698 days – that’s over 4 ½ years! That’s half of their married life!
I’m pleased to tell you that Andrew has adapted quickly to his new home in Virginia and is leading a normal six-year-old life. A few weeks ago, just prior to Andrew’s sixth birthday, his mom posted the following on her Facebook page: “Everyday Andrew tells [Joe] and I that ‘this is the greatest day ever.’ Andrew is clearly wiser than his almost 6 years and I need to follow his philosophy on life.” [Monday, August 5, 2013]
Out of the mouths of babes, huh? This young boy, who lived apart from at least one of his parents for most of his life, who was taken away from the only family he knew and placed in an orphanage, who had so much happen in his young life, has a great attitude, that not only his mom should follow, as she noted in her Facebook post, but that we all should follow. Today is the greatest day ever! And not just because this particular day is Yom Ha-Kippurim — Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement –, but because every day is, or has the potential to be, the greatest day.
As we gather here tonight, on this Kol Nidrei evening, this holiest evening of the year, we would do well to remember Andrew’s teaching: “This is the greatest day ever.” And tomorrow is the greatest day ever. And the day after that and the day after that and the day after… Every day is the greatest day ever.
In our liturgy, we find prayers that, directly or indirectly, remind us of that. In the evening we pray the Hashkiveinu prayer which begins with the words: “Hashkiveinu, Adonai Eloheinu, l’shalom, v’ha’amideinu, Malkeinu, l’chayim – Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace, and raise us up, O Sovereign, to life renewed.” We ask God to allow us a good night’s sleep and to give us a new day tomorrow. In the morning we are to say: “Modeh ani l’fanekha, Melekh chai v’kayam, she’he’chezarta bi nishmati b’khemlah, rabbah emunatekha – I offer thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, that You have restored my soul to me in mercy: how great is Your trust.”
These prayers say, in effect, “this is the greatest day ever – and thank You, God, for letting me have yet another day, and thank You, God, for helping me to know what a great gift this is.” Each of us has our share of difficulties, but we are blessed to wake up each day. Thank You, God, for this gift.
I don’t think Andrew is a Talmudic scholar yet, but his comment to his mom reminds me of what the Talmud teaches about living our lives to the fullest: “R. Chizkiyah said in the name of Rav: You will one day give reckoning for everything your eyes saw which, although permissible, you did not enjoy.” [Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:12] In other words, be grateful for and take advantage of all of the wonderful gifts you have been given.
Rabbi David Wolpe, in his book Why Be Jewish?, writes about this idea to, as he translates the text, “indulge yourself in all things permitted to you.” He notes that pleasure or enjoyment is permitted, even promoted, but that “Judaism also asks that it be disciplined and sanctified… Our impulses cannot be indiscriminate. We have to channel their expression.” [p. 22] Whether we are talking about our sexual impulses, our eating habits, or other human impulses, “the calm, slow wisdom of moderation is the Jewish path,” Rabbi Wolpe writes. “The Jewish path means living richly and yet being one’s own master. Judaism allows us to rejoice in this world, to sample its pleasures, without losing our spiritual center.” [p. 23]
In other words, “today is the greatest day ever.” It has the potential to be so, if we just set our minds to it. We can – and must – rejoice in this world and sample the good in it. As this day of repentance, this day of prayer and fasting, comes to an end tomorrow evening, please remember Andrew’s lesson tomorrow — and the day after that and the day after that — to make this day, each day, the best we can, to enjoy the gifts that have been given to us.
I’m looking forward to meeting Andrew soon. I will give him a big hug and thank him for reminding me of this important lesson. I’ll also give his parents, Joe and my cousin Peggy, big hugs, too! May they be inscribed for a good year and may you and your loved ones also be inscribed for a good year.
G’mar chatimah tovah!