Thank God for the blessing of the second chance. Without it, I would not be here tonight. In August 1992 I moved my entire family to Los Angeles. I had been invited to serve as Director of the largest Jewish Elementary School in North America. Though there were many questions about this decision, it had come time for a change. Eighteen years in Toronto without a Stanley Cup, 15 years without a world series, and a city that had grown too large for comfortable living made even Los Angeles look inviting. When we told Micah we were leaving Toronto he was not a happy camper until I reminded him that even Wayne Gretsky now made home in Los Angeles. I was sure I said that he was a member of the Temple we were going to serve.
Well things did not work out as planned. After a few months it became obvious that this Temple and I were not made for each other. The denouement was when I did not cancel school so that the grades K-6 could stay home and watch the inauguration of Bill Clinton as president of the United States of America.
I had never faced unemployment before. I had never faced this kind of adversity before. What had I done to deserve this humiliation? The questions were myriad, did we return with our tails between our legs to Toronto and give back all the farewell presents. Did we stay and hope for the best? I was fortunate enough to have friends who still trusted my professional skills and they offered me the opportunity to move to Dallas or Washington DC and continue my career as a Temple Educator.
What was best for the family and what was best for my career. Into this morass of emotions and confusion rode my savior, Rabbi Harvey Fields. Harvey and I had known each other since my University days. I taught religious school for his Temple in New Jersey, I had served as Director of Education at Holy Blossom when he was the Rabbi and now he called me and offered me a second chance. Over lunch, it was LA after all; he said it’s time to move on. It is time to assess your life and your Rabbinate and see what comes next. He offered me the position of third Rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I would be earning less than half of what I made in my previous positions. I would be last in the pecking order and not the boss. I would in fact have to keep my opinions to myself because in his Temple only the Senior Rabbi had an opinion. Oh and I would have to interview for the job competing against three newly ordained Rabbis. In spite of how enticing he made this sound I did not jump at the opportunity. However after consideration I decided that maybe it was time to try something new. Two and half years later Temple Israel came calling.
Thank God for the blessing of the second chance. As we are human, we desperately need second chances. Because we are flawed, because we have a dark side and we have done or not done things, said things or left things unsaid, acted out in crazy, self-defeating, self-destructive ways, remained silent and passive when action was called for. We’ve hurt people, let them down. We’ve blown it, and not just once. We’ve been emotionally lost, down on our luck. We’ve stared into the darkness, unable to sleep, wondering what might happen next. And if we were really lucky, someone gave us a second chance. Thank God for the blessing of the second chance, because we all need second chances.
We get or don’t get second chances from so many different sources. From those closest to us: our spouses and our children, our siblings and our parents. From associates and colleagues and peers and bankers and police officers and meter readers and judges and coaches and ticket takers and flight attendants.
No one can deny it. At different points in our lives some critical, some less so, someone gave us another shot; someone changed the order and the flow of things to let us try again.
Let me share with you the story of Chris Guillebeau. He is not a famous athlete caught cheating, or movie star embarrassed by a drug arrest, or even the CEO of a large corporation arrested and convicted of embezzlement. He’s a small time crook from a small own in Montana. His story is not unusual, nor is it unique. However listen to how he describes second chances.
“The first time I was busted as a juvenile delinquent, I wasn’t actually arrested—apparently I was too young. My non crime was burning down an abandoned house. After a number of attempts to light the mattresses in this shack I succeeded. When you light a mattress on fire and walk away the whole house burns down.
As you can imagine inevitably I was caught and received the usual lectures. I was sentenced to a number of hours of community service. My supervisor for this punishment was a guy about 20 years old. He was pretty impressive to an 11 year old. He took me to the town fire hall and watched as I slothfully swept the floors and polished the engines. He was not overly harsh as I was allowed smoke breaks. After a few hours he drove me home, never to summon me back again.”
This story is not very exciting but Chris does offer the following insight about second chances. Listen to his words.“The thing about second chances is that no one deserves them but we all receive them—usually more than once. Since we are all given chances we may not deserve, I think that we should be grateful for all those times when it could have gone another way but didn’t. I also think we should consider how we can offer second chances to others. The best second chances are not required or expected, which is why they are so nice. Maybe you should make the choice to forgive someone, even if they don’t deserve it.”
Here we are, on Kol Nidre, considering how we’ve done over this past year. We have made bad mistakes, errors in judgment, selfish, ignorant, self-indulgent choices. We have messed up relationships with the most important people in our lives. We have even done stupid things. The truth is that there have been times when we did not feel deserving of a second chance. But someone gave us the gift of a second chance. How can we not open our hearts and pay that blessing forward by offering others a second chance. Is that not what our prayers tonight entice us, cajole us to do? Each time we respond to Barbara’s moving rendition of the Ashamnu, we collectively acknowledge our sins. In that moment of collective guilt we are reminded that we are no better than anyone else in this congregation. If we are all sinners then we are all looking for a second chance.
Most of us remember the story of Oscar Schindler. A fairly ordinary man, maybe a bit of a gonuf ,swindler and scheister, who rose to the highest level of humanity, walked through the bloody mud of the Holocaust without soiling his soul, his compassion, his respect for human life and gave 1200 Jews a second chance at life. He was able to accomplish this miracle using the very same talents that made him a war profiteer. Why were Shindlers’ Jews granted a second chance? Why were they singled out from millions of men and woman to be given one more opportunity to live?
Who deserves a second chance? What are the criteria for second chances? To the best of my knowledge there is no rule book that indicates when someone is desperate enough to deserve a second chance, rich enough or poor enough, remorseful enough, pathetic enough, and vulnerable enough.
As you and I think about the past year and our good deeds and our sins, the way we’ve treated family and friends and the strangers in our midst, the question remains; do we deserve a second chance? Can you sit here this evening with a clear conscience and say without hesitation that you deserve a second chance. Once I was sure that life had dealt me an unfair hand and I so deserved a second chance. But the truth was for me and all of us that whether or not we believe we are deserving of a second chance is irrelevant. It’s all in the heart and minds of those around us to grant us a second chance. It is all about God’s grace and the open heartedness of the people in our lives.
Giving someone a second chance can be a risky business. We’ve all been burned, taken advantage of by people who were weak or unscrupulous, people who let us down, betrayed our trust. It is likely that most if not all of us have given someone or some ones several second chances. And sometimes we regret our open heartedness. Yet the blessing of a second chance reverberates with both the recipient and the giver.
Listen to Ann Tucker of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation discuss second chances. Hers is a programme that gives state prisoners’ in Virginia and retired racehorses a second chance at life. It is a group which attempts to retrain horses for new lives, while the inmates learn job skills for their life after release. During the six month programme the men learn all about horses, their behavior, their health and how to care for them. At the same time they learn a great deal about themselves. Ann Tucker writes:” Prisoners learn from the horses that false bravado is a no go. Horses don’t put up with that kind of useless behavior. The horses teach the prisoners about how to be in harmony with another creature which inhabits the same space as they do.” She continues; “Will came into the programme a very insecure young man from a troubled background. He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He is now a confident young man. And Happy his horse will be going to live a long life as partner to many young riders.” Will says “I don’t ever want to go back to prison or to being the person that I was before I met Happy.”
We do not have to lose a job, be sentenced to prison or lose a loved one to disease to need a second chance. We only need to hear the words of our Machzor to recognize that we have all missed the mark this year and Yom Kippur is our reminder that a second chance is accessible to all of us if we just turn, turn around and make Teshuvah.