Kol Nidrei night
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah I concluded my lesson with a short prayer we may utter on the day of Judgement: We are the ones you created with the Spark of the Divine - we are humanity. With all our failings, deficiencies, imperfections, inadequacies and weaknesses, God, have pity on us! God, save us for the sake of Your glory. Grant us a year of peace. Amen. This evening we come back to the synagogue after seven days of awe and search, wishing to mitigate the measure of our shortcoming with the character of Gods famous forbearance and forgiving nature. As twilight gives way to darkness and Gods nature settles in to rest in the dark of night, we stand in synagogue, bedecked in white, to turn away the night. We fast, to deny our very nature that insists on sustenance to keep our physical being going. We rise to the level of our spirituality and assume a life of the spirit. We ascend from mere living to the life of the soul, a celebration of the spark of the divine, the image of God in which we have been created.
Our sages taught us that there are three books before God. The Book of the Good, of the tzadikim, is a short and precious book that God cherishes. He opens it often, caressing the pages containing the names of the righteous of all the ages. He takes pride in them, for they are truly His children. Then there is the book of the bad. It is a much thicker book not because it contains many more names than the first, but because its pages damp from the tears God sheds when he looks through it, which he only does once a year, on Rosh Hashanah. The names in this book are written in indelible ink, and only Gods tears can erase a name, if only the one who bears it changes his ways. God takes special pleasure to see a name come off this book. Then there is the third book, a huge, thick book. It is the Book of the Potential. The names inscribed in it could be good, or they could be bad. Every day God opens it, and awaits the names to come out, by strength of our deeds, to migrate to the Book of Good, or God forbid, to move into the other book...
Just before we chanted the Kol Nidrei, we said a short prayer, Biyshiva shel maala uviyshiva shel mata... By authority from above and by the authority here below, Al daat hamakom veal daat hakahal... In front of God and in front of the congregation, Anu matirin lehitpalel im haabaryanim, we permit the guilty to pray with the innocent. We wish to see the sinners return to God, to allow His tears to wash their names from the Book of the Bad, to become a little better, on their way to being good. Goodness, like the common cold, is highly infectious. May we all catch it, and may God in His grace love us all and forgive our sins. May our transgressions be forgotten, and may the next year see our names emblazoned in His favorite book. And let the pleasantness of the Lord our God be upon us; and establish the work of our hands upon us; O prosper it, the work of our hands. [Psalms 90:17]
Look around you to your right and to your left, in front of you and behind you. Just look at us, and contemplate the fact that in the United States of America, in the midst of the greatest prosperity in the history of civilization, in the Tournament Players Club, not exactly your typical soup kitchen establishment to help the destitute there are tens of hungry people, who have gone without breakfast or lunch, whose heads are abuzz with slight dehydration and hunger. Seems hard to believe, and yet it is precisely what is taking place. We are here to afflict our souls, to atone for our sins.
We live in a world unlike any that ever existed. We are the heirs of the people who stood at Sinai, and our heritage is respected and even revered by most of Western civilization. However, we live in the age of the individual, when civilization is fractioned and society is undergoing many changes that may mean a total refashioning of how people behave and interact. We have gone from being hoards of people, teeming masses of humanity, to being one by himself/herself truly a most lonely crowd. We live behind tall walls and great gates and tick doors and locked windows. We dont even let the fresh air come in. Many now conduct their business from their homes, study for college degrees from home, and home-school their children to avoid exposure to dreaded diseases and even more dreaded ideals and precepts that we do not understand, agree with or wish to subscribe to.
Our every action is directed and controlled by the laws of the land and the codes of the international community. We subscribe naturally to the universal declaration of human rights, we own up to the Civil Rights laws of the last half of this century, the rights of women and minorities, of gays and lesbians, laws protecting children from abuse, real and/or perceived, and even laws of fair and humane treatment of animals. We cannot show favor to our own kin or our most favored people in the work-place, and we must be constantly on guard from acting in a manner that might be perceived as sexual harassment. We cant even go to the aid of a person in distress without considering that we may (1) be sued for doing harm, or (2) be sued for not allowing nature to take its course, which is the same as allowing harm to happen.
And yet... And yet we come to synagogue, and our neighbors go to church and we all want to be on Gods right side. We want to have a relationship with our creator that will not involve sin. What is sin, we ask, in this age of permissiveness. Surely, a God of creation does not judge us by the food we eat, or by the day we spend at the ball park rather than at His house. What kind of a God will ask us to give up some of the rewards of our hard labor supporting an institution, bricks and mortar, and functionaries. Who needs that? As long as we have love for Him in our hearts... What more can God ask of us?
Well, let me tell you. The church of our neighbors and the synagogue for the Jews are necessary for us, mortal, not for God. The building gives us a focus on our need to connect with Him, the One and only creator, and the experience of thousands of years has shown that where there is no such dedicated place we do not commune, and we do not communicate. As for sin, it is very real, and it waits for us at the door to our innermost being. God warned the first hothead, Cain, Why are you angry? and why is your countenance fallen? If you do well, shall you not be accepted? and if you do not well, sin lies at the door. And to you shall be his desire, and yet you may rule over him. [Gen. 4:6,7] We know well, within our heart, what is right and what is wrong. We also know that there is no short cut to doing something right. If we wish to be rewarded, we need to put in the value of what we do. If we cut short the chance is that we shall come up short, and we shall have no one to blame but ourselves.
Sin is that which we do, short of what needs to be done. We cheat ourselves, and we get angry when everyone notices our failing. We try hard to pretend that facts are not what they seem to be, that what is SO is not so, that WE have done nothing wrong. The whole world conspired against us, and we, we have been victimized... Well, not today. Today we fast slowly. Today we feel black while wearing white. Today we raise our voice to be silent before the accuser, knowing that there are no secrets before the Master of the universe. He knows that which we have done willingly and spitefully, and he even knows that which we have done carelessly and without realizing that we have done maybe it is even a case of NOT DOING that which we should have done. All is inscribed before Him, and we are passing His inspection. As the text of our liturgy says, kebakarat roeh edro, as a shepherd inspects his flock so, even so God brings us before Him. We are at the roundup, standing in line, each with his total lifes experience marking us as the wool of the sheep tells the story of the animal within. The well animals have a thick and luxurious coat, and the sickly sheep have a drab and dingy, unkempt and mangy looking coat. kebakarat roeh edro, as a shepherd inspects his flock God knows, and yes, we know too. So we come to the synagogue and we ask for His forgiveness. We need to lower our eyes, to accept the yoke of His authority, to relearn how to be children in His house, to be His children in the world at large. We must rediscover our strength to admit that we have gotten lost on the path to doing His will, and we got stuck in the futility of doing our own petty will. We need to regain His love, and our own self respect. We need to know that we are on His side, and that He is on ours. Dear God, allow us to return to you, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old. Hashivenu adonay elekha venashuva, khadesh yamenu kekedem. [Eikha 4:21] Ata adonay leolam teshev kisakha ledor vador. [Eikha 4:19] For You, Lord, shall rule forever, Your sovereignty is for all generations. Amen
Yom Kippur 5764
is a unique and different kind of a human experience than any offered by a religion
to its adherents. One of the main reasons is that Judaism teaches us the concept
of personal responsibility for all creation. Nothing is without guilt, without
blame. Even the angels in their heavenly abode are not free of transgression
- and neither are they free of standing before the Judgement Seat on this most
amazing of days.
Possibly the issue is that people don't truly understand the Jewish concept of God's relation to man - and man's relation to God. We see God as Master of the Universe, as king and ruler, as father and creator. We do not think of Him as an oppressive potentate - but rather as a liberating and forgiving "owner." This is evident in many of the prayers that we recite on Yom Kippur, such as "ki hine kakhomer be'yad ha'yotzer" - we are as clay in the hands of the potter, and he can make us large or small. Dear Lord, we implore, observe the covenant and do not allow yourself to be tempted to follow your sense of balance between actions and their direct and immediate reward or punishment.
Possibly, our problem with standing before God for judgement is related to a sense of pride for being the highest form in creation. We take too seriously the words of the Declaration of Independence, feeling that we have been endowed with "rights" and not necessarily with correlating duties or responsibilities. We proudly pledge allegiance to the flag of our country, and demand all the benefits of citizenship in these great and mighty United States. We do not wish, though, to pay the price of keeping that banner flying high and proud. We do not wish to be entangled in military actions in defense of our concept of democracy, and we don't feel that paying taxes is necessarily the way to keep Old Glory waving over the ramparts.
Yesterday, during the reading of the Torah, we learned of the passage of leadership from Moshe Rabenu to his assistant and long time student Joshua Bin Noon. I found it interesting that his very name, Yehoshua, is spelled differently in the text we read, "And Moses came and spoke all the words of this poem in the ears of the people, he, and Hoshea the son of Nun." [Deu. 32:44] Rashi explains that this rendering of Joshua's name is a sign of humility. Who does not know that his name is Yehoshu'a? After all, he is one of only two "spies" who remained alive since the exodus. He is the one who stood by Moshe and served him during "the long march" in the desert from Egypt to the edge of the Jordan river. Yet, this day, upon his elevation to the position of leader of the people Israel, we call him not by his accepted and recognized name, as a sign of his own humanity and humility.
We balk at the concept of standing before God in judgement because we see ourselves in the roles we assume through time and experience, and "by right." We fail to understand that this "right" has a flip side obligation. Man is born with rights, indeed but what of his obligations? That is why we have Yom Kippur. We come before God to ask forgiveness but first we must obtain the forgiveness of our circumstances: the world we live in our neighbors, our family, our friends, and yes, even our enemies and detractors. We need to be humble and recognize that our "right" is transected by all other "rights" in existence. We are interconnected, dependent upon one another.
There is a beautiful story about a man who is invited to visit God's "world to come" the place where all of us go after our mortal time is done. He goes and sees a banquet hall, laden with the most amazing delicacies. Some people are well fed, and others are on the verge of death by starvation. The man looks perplexed, and asks God what is this sight. Is this heaven or is it hell. Why are some so well fed and others so deprived. God explains that there is no heaven nor hell. All sit at the table together. The food is only reachable by the very large cutlery at the table, such that one cannot scoop food and feed oneself. The well fed are the ones who are willing to feed the ones sitting across the table from them; the deprived are those who cannot find a way to feed their own selves.
We are all familiar with the term "crime" the Hebrew "pesha" and we know for a fact that we are no criminals, we have not broken "the law of the land." But what of the Hebrew word "khet" which is best translated as "transgression" we don't admit to having transgressed, and we claim not to know, really, what it means... But, I hope and pray that by this point in my lesson you are all much more close to realizing what it is... We have, all of us, transgressed! We have entered the "rights" of our fellow beings, and we have trampled on them. We have done it without even realizing it, and certainly without evil intention but we HAVE done it. We have overstepped our bounds, and we have been presumptuous, claiming our rights, "above all" as it were.
Judaism teaches us a concept of human rights that transcends and goes beyond what our constitution guarantees. "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God he made man." [Gen. 9:6] Our law says that one cannot commit murder, because it is a felony crime. Judaism goes on to say, "For in the image of God he made man." There is a divine law that comes from the Creator, and it must not be broken, because it insults our Maker. The difference between breaking the law of the land and breaking the moral law of God is that the latter brings about the pollution of the soul. Just as the pollution of our lakes, rivers and streams diminishes the number and variety of fish one can find in them, so also the pollution of our soul diminishes the image of God that one needs have in order to remain human.
Let us search our souls this Yom Kippur, and remove the pollution. Let us return to God with a full heart and open ourselves to our fellow congregants, to our neighbors and friends, even to the plight and suffering of our enemies. Let us rededicate ourselves to the task of Tikun Olam repair of our world. If we fail, we shall surely seal ourselves and all coming generations to perpetuating the spiritual famine that is rampant in the land, in the world.
The theme of our
learning this High holiday season has been the ladder of mitzvot by which we
can ascend and come nearer to our Creator. This ladder is manifest in the Aseret-Devarim
– the ten statements by means of which the Holy One, blessed be He, gave
the Torah to Israel. On Rosh Hashanah we spoke of the first two, and this evening,
with the Kol Nidrei still echoing in our ears, we come, most appropriately,
to the third statement and beyond.
We are assembled here this evening at the beginning of a fast that is to last twenty five hours - plus. How much “plus” depends on just when it was that you finished the “closing meal.” However, in our time it is no big thing to skip food for a day - we are so well fed, in our country and in the West, that we can hardly feel the missing meals. Many people actually go on short fasts a number of times every year - with little suffering and with no ill effects. So, what’s the point?
We are not fasting to suffer. It is important for us to realize that thee fast is not the atonement! We fast to facilitate the “suffering of the soul” that our Torah text requires us to do: “And this shall be a statute forever to you; that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger who sojourns among you; For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It shall be a sabbath of rest to you, and you shall afflict your souls, by a statute forever.” [Lev. 16:29-31]
We are fasting to clear our mind and our body of all our physical routines. We make ourselves like the angels who serve God. By doing this, our spirit is agitated and elevated, and if we have proper discipline, we overcome the whole fasting issue and begin to think of Teshuvah - return to God, answer by Him. The third Statement is so simple that it is often misunderstood. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” [Ex. 20:7] So what do people do? They say “Gall darn” instead of the more severe and “blasphemous” damnation. They say “elokim” in stead of the Hebrew Elohim. They even write Gee dash dee to avoid writing the reference word to the deity. How preposterous - and how silly.
Actually, our Father and King, at Sinai, taught us that when we are risen far enough above our base beginning, having gone through the first two stages – those of accepting God as our miracle making liberator and creator, and recognizing the unique and exclusive nature of God who is complete and singular, we must arrive at the realization that there is no way that we can manipulate Him to do our petty little human self serving needs for us.
In accepting the first two rungs on our ladder, we become aware of the grandeur and awesome nature of our creator/protector. We recognize that He is Lord of all existence, supreme Master of all that was, is - and is yet to come. This recognition and realization makes us aware that we cannot manipulate God as superstitious people used to do with what they believed to be their Gods. “By the power of Grey skull,” my son used to shout, imitating a favorite TV show hero – and I did not stop him. What we are not allowed to do is to invoke the name of the Lord our God, and by His Holy Name wish for our own petty and banal little wishes and private peccadilloes.
We come to synagogue to commune with God, in the company of our fellow Jews. We need each other’s spirituality to combine with ours, to lift us above our arrogance and our pride, our insecurity and fears. Anyone who came here to see and be seen has missed the mark. Anyone who thinks that he will sit comfortably and be made “whole” – is bound to be disappointed. This evening we are here to bear the burden, to invoke our own strength, to unite with our fellow congregants, and with Jews throughout the world, to create a mighty spirit, a spirit of learning and devotion, a spirit of love and acceptance. We come before God humbly, not as wizards and magicians who can put Him to work for our cause, but as children willing to put our every muscle and sinew to help carry their father’s burden.