Putting Off What Needs to be Done

A sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

Kol Nidre 5782

Congregation Shirat HaYam, Nantucket

I am almost always behind the eight ball. Behind the eight ball means placed in a difficult situation from which one is unlikely to escape. The idiom behind the eight ball was first printed in American newspaper stories in the 1920s and was derived from the game of pool. The game of Eight Ball is played, in which the numbered balls must be pocketed in numerical order except for the eight ball. If the cue ball accidentally hits the eight ball, then the turn is forfeited. If the eight ball is pocketed, the game is lost. So, I find myself often with a cleared table and just the eight ball to sink.  It is almost always in an impossible shot to make. 

I am the proud owner of a Brooklyn Brownstone originally built in the early 1880’s.  For the past 34 years of ownership, I have not only been the owner, but the general contractor, and I have done 90% of the renovations with my own two hands (often assisted with the hands of various voluntary and involuntary helpers dragged in from the ranks of family members, neighbors, and paid assistants).  I am always behind the eight ball.  Something I planned to do, becomes necessary as I have put off for too the long the work I knew would need to be done, but there were other things in the way.  Let’s see: the roof leak that began over our bed one evening at 3 am, because I was sure that I would get through the winter before needing to redo the roof flashing. Or, the time that our dryer stopped drying and I discovered that the vent, which needed to be regularly cleaned, had become so clogged, that the dryer was venting into the wall space and caused a massive issue requiring the demolition of our entire laundry room and the rebuilding of same from ground up.  Or, the recent leak under our deck into the mud room, that was just a trickle for the past few months which morphed into a major league flood during the most recent storm.  Hmmm, I sense a pattern here.

It is one thing to be self-critical and laugh at the consequences of one’s inactions, but on larger scale, we in this country are in the midst of a crisis.  On Thursday, June 24, 2021, at approximately 1:25 a.m., Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium in the Miami suburb of Surfside, Florida, partially collapsed. A total of 98 people were confirmed dead. Four people were rescued from the rubble. But the story of Champlain Towers goes back to the beginning.  According to the NYTimes (Aug 26) from the very beginning of the permit process, which was pushed through, to the town’s part-time building inspector, who was so busy, he had the project’s own engineers sign off on the project.  From that point on, there were a series of structural problems, with obvious need of remediation, which was postponed, put off, ignored.  Three years before the collapse, a consultant found evidence of major structural damage to the concrete slab below the pool deck and cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams and walls of the parking garage.

Congress is poised to pass a long-debated and long-awaited infrastructure bill.  While the bill is currently for 550 billion dollars in upgrades to our deteriorating infrastructure, it is woefully inadequate to repair what we have neglected for too long.  While 110 billion for roads and bridges seems like a lot of money, the new Mario Cuomo Bridge cost over 4 billion dollars, and that is just one of many hundreds of bridges in need of repair or replacement. Airports around the country are in horrific shape.  17 billion has been allocated for airport repairs.  It sounds like a lot of money until one realizes that Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport will cost 4 billion when it is finally finished being renovated.  Even with a massive infrastructure bill, the cost of repairing what we have neglected is astronomical.

Our inaction and neglect of essential structures is like digging a hole and waiting for tragedy to strike. In fact, our rabbis worried about similar issues. In the Book of Exodus (21:33-34) When a person opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution; they shall pay the price to the owner, but shall keep the dead animal.  Commenting on this text from Torah, Moses Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah (Damages to Property 13:2) wrote: The pit is one of the primary causes of injury, and its derivatives are like it…. Anyone who interposes an obstacle deemed derivative of a pit, and if a person or an animal has been injured by it, the one who interposed the obstacle must pay full indemnity. 

On a more personal level, we are all guilty of putting off obligations and necessities, more often than not, until it is too late.  But that is what this day is all about.  For the most grievous action we make is putting off the obligation to heal a hurt we caused – or to make right what we have wronged.  This eve of Yom HaKippurim is focused on turning our hearts inward to do the necessary introspection so that we might remember what we forgot to do or ignored – before it is too late.  Hurts unresolved do not lessen, they grow.  Wrongs uncorrected do not fade away, they become more glaring.  The lesson of this day is that we should not need it – if we address our errors when they are made. 

The earliest synagogue service, Seder Rav Amram, contained a daily Viddui – a prayer for forgiveness as part of the Tachanun, a section of prayers recited after the Amidah. In traditional shuls on most days that are not special days, Tachanun is recited.  It is an almost daily reminder that we need to seek forgiveness.  The month leading up to the High Holy Day Season is Elul – it is meant to be a month of self-reflection – to develop the discipline we need to address our failings when they happen, and not after they festered.  Yet, it is human nature to try to hide from our sins, our failings – from the very first person.  Adam ran when he realized that he had make a mistake.  God called out: “Ayeka Adam” (Where are you, Adam?).  God did not need to know where Adam was – God knew exactly where Adam was – but the question God asked is more profound: “Adam, do you know where you are?”  We run from our sins – and it is this day that serves as a last chance to get things right from the year that is just departing.  But if we follow Jewish tradition, in our daily prayers and in the preparatory month leading to these High Holy Days, we should confront our failings – and deal with them as soon as possible. 

If I only learned the lesson when trying to keep up an old house.  If Sunnyside had its problems addressed as soon as they were revealed.  If our country immediately addressed failing roads and bridges and changed lead pipes for drinking water as soon as we knew how dangerous they were.  If we healed the wounds we inflicted as soon as we understood the consequences of our action or inaction.  Rabbi Benjamin Franklin once taught: “Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today.”  Those rabbis really know their stuff – and we ought to take heed.

Tzom Kal – may you have an easy fast.

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