Brief Talk by President on Kol Nidre, 5769 (2008)

It is the custom for the President of our Congregation to give a brief talk on Kol Nidre.

I want to share a story with you.  You may have heard it before, but it is worth retelling because it is especially applicable to Congregation Etz Chayim at this time.

A king was walking the boundaries of his kingdom, and he came upon two of his loyal subjects: his master craftsman and his right hand artisan.  The king said to them: "Would you please go to my palace.  There you will find the great hall that runs the width of the palace.  In that great hall is a huge front wall, and a huge rear wall.  Would you please on those two walls use all of your artistic skill and talent, and make that room the most splendid in the kingdom.  And I will return in a week's time, to see what you have accomplished."

The two set off for the palace, arrived there, and were permitted entry.  They went directly to the great hall.  On entering there, the master craftsman walked up to the huge front wall.  He thought for a few minutes, and then lifted up his hammer and chisel and began to carve out of the wall some of the king's precious articles, like the crown and scepter.  After working on that for some time, he picked up his paint set and began to paint one of the great battle scenes in the history of the kingdom.

The right hand artisan, meanwhile, walked up to the huge rear wall.  He stood for some time contemplating its vast expanse.  Then he took out his paint set, dipped the brush in paint and raised it to the wall, but then he put it down.  After some time he raised his chisel and poised the hammer to strike it, but then he put them down.  He just couldn't seem to get started.

Work proceeded in this manner for several days.  The front wall became filled with more and more images; the rear wall remained bare.

The right hand artisan suddenly realized that six days had passed, and it was the eve of the king's arrival.  In a flash of inspiration he jumped up and asked the palace servants for several gallons of glossy black paint.  It was promptly delivered, and he immediately applied it with a broad brush to the entire rear wall.  After it dried in the wee hours of the morning, he covered the rear wall with a huge curtain.

Dawn arrived, and soon thereafter, so did the king.  His trumpeters trumpeted to announce his arrival, the hoofbeats of his horses could be heard coming closer and closer, and then the king himself came striding into the palace, and came directly to the great hall.  On entering there, he walked up to the huge front wall where the master craftsman stood.  The king took some time

to examine the various images on the wall.  Then he turned to the master craftsman and said: "Surely, your work is most excellent.  Your use of color and light, your skill in drawing, the way you have composed the various images into a coherent and integrated whole - all of these attributes attest to a great work of art.  And as your work is great, so, too, shall be your reward."

Then the king turned to the huge rear wall where the right hand artisan stood, and who, trembling a bit, drew aside the curtain.  The king found himself staring into the glossy black surface, and saw an image of himself.

There are two endings to this story.  In the first ending, the king thinks for some time and then says to the right hand artisan: "Surely, your work is also most excellent.  For all of the glory depicted on the front wall is faithfully reflected on your rear wall.  Moreover, as people come and go within the room, as old furniture is exchanged for new, as the room evolves, so to speak, all of these changes will be accurately shown on the glossy black surface of your wall.  And as your work is also great, so, too, shall be your reward."

In the second ending the king turns to the right hand artisan and says: "Your work is only a dim reflection of the glorious conception and detail on the front wall.  It creates nothing new in itself, and is entirely dependent on the work of others and on whatever goes before it.  And as the merit of your work is small, so, too, shall be your reward."

The story was first told by Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav (1772-1810], perhaps the greatest storyteller in our glorious tradition of telling stories.

One interpretation of the story I like is that the King is God, the Master Craftsman is the earlier generations of Jews who created our glorious Tradition, and the Right-Hand Artisan is our current generation.  We can either imitate and reflect the work that has come before us, or innovate and create new pathways.  As with other Jewish either-or choices, the best answer is usually Yes - we can do both.

How does this story is apply to CEC?  The founders of this Congregation created something special four years ago in Chapel Hill.  Some of the founders remain, and some have relocated - like Joan Lenowitz, who has been a wonderful presence for us from inception.  So those remaining as well as the newer members now have the opportunity to decide what Etz Chayim will be. 

The nature of our congregation is that its leadership and fate is entirely up to the members.  We don't have a Rabbi or Executive Director or other staff.  We are grateful that experts in their field like Eitan, Susan and Sharon can step in on High Holidays - but for the most part, whether Etz Chayim succeeds depends on what the Members do.  We each have before us a section of a blank wall, and CEC will become the total of what we each decide to do with our blank space.

So I hope that each Member and Friend of CEC will use their particular talents to build the future of CEC.  Each one can reflect and reinforce some good things of our past, or create some new activities and traditions.  I hope no one allows their section of the wall to remain empty.


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