Kol Nidre 5775

Forgiving our Worst Selves

Had I been a rabbi in the Middle Ages, charged with the task of choosing a prayer that would open the services of the holiest day of the Jewish year for the next thousand years, I might not have chosen the Kol Nidre.  The Kol Nidre is not even a prayer – it is a statement, a declaration! The Kol Nidre has little connection to the themes of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur focuses on atonement for our sins, of return to G-d, of confession, of reflection, of introspection. The Kol Nidre? – it focuses on renouncing the promises that we make to G-d!  What, I ask you, does THAT have to do with the Day of Atonement? I am certainly not the first rabbi to raise objections to this pronouncement that notifies G-d that we hereby repudiate our vows made to Him.  This prayer was opposed by many of the greatest rabbis throughout the generations. Rabbi Hai Gaon, the pre-eminent scholar of the 8th century, called it a “minhag shut” – a stupid custom.  The Reform movement excised it from their prayer books for many years before re-instating it in recent times. As a matter of fact, our sages of old discouraged people from taking vows in the first place. According to the Shulchan Arukh, the most important Code of Law in Jewish life, even pledges for charitable purposes are not desirable. “If one has the money, let him give it straightway without a vow; and if not, let him defer the vow until he has it.” Yet people continued to take vows, sometimes quite rash ones which they later regretted. Because of this, the rabbis developed a way to annul vows made to G-d. This consisted of coming before a Bet Din, a Court of Law comprised of three Rabbis.  After careful investigation by the Bet Din, the vow could be annulled. I say “could be” –not all vows would be annulled. For example, if a person took a vow to better himself there was little chance the Bet Din would annul the vow.  I want to illustrate this point with a humorous story that I found buried deep within the Talmud. Yes, the Talmud has its humorous stories! Rabbi Chiyya related a story that Rabbi Asi told him that his teacher Rabbi Yehoshua passed down from Rabbi Mordechai (and some say it was Rabbi Shlomo) his grand-father( and some say it was his great-uncle):  One afternoon in the month of Cheshvan a young man named Shimon was watching the Chicago Bears game at Soldier Field.  Jay Cutler had the Bears on the Packers fifteen yard line.  Shimon prayed, “Ribono shel Olam, it is well known and revealed in Your Celestial Court that I have not been exactly punctilious in keeping Kosher. If the Bears score a touchdown, I vow to give up ham and cheese sandwiches for the rest of the year”. Shimon’s prayer came before the Throne of Glory, and lo, a miracle occurred, the Bears scored a touchdown.  That turned around the game, and the season, and the Bears went on to win the Super Bowl. (Around here we call that “Fantasy Football”)   Then Shimon began to regret his vow. He began to yearn for that ham and cheese sandwich. So, he came before the Bet Din.  Shimon said, “I plea before this Bet Din to annul my vow, since I made it rashly, in a moment of desperation.” Rabbi Yochanan on behalf of the bet din refused to annul the vow. What was their reasoning? Some say since they deemed that it was an improvement that Shimon would forgo ham and cheese sandwiches for the year. Others say that they feared if they annulled the vow, the Bears would have a losing season the following year. [Come to think of it, I’m not sure WHERE I got that story] Hopefully, now you understand how the process works for an individual who seeks to annul a vow!  But how did it come to be that an entire congregation stands together to annul vows without any type of investigation at all? There are various conjectures as to how the Kol Nidre service came to be. Some trace it to Jewish persecutions by West Goths when they conquered Spain in the seventh century. Entire Jewish communities were doomed to extinction if they did not, by the most horrible oaths and vows, promise to give up their Judaism and convert to the religion of the conquerors. Let us put ourselves in their place for a moment! They had before them a stark choice to make – leave Judaism or die. They had learned that the heroes of old had given up their lives rather than give up their G-d. They knew of the story of Hannah’s seven sons, who were commanded to prove their allegiance to a pagan king by eating the flesh of swine. Encouraged by their mother, one by one they refused to eat of it, and one by one they were put to death. They also knew the story of the ten martyrs, put to death by the Romans because they refused to give up on Judaism. Yet, filled with shame and self-loathing, members of these unfortunate communities, one by one, gave up their Judaism rather than give up their lives. They were not able to live up to the ideal of martyrdom that our tradition held out for them.  Some of them went on to live double lives, practicing Judaism in private while professing the faith of their oppressors in public. Some left Judaism altogether, embracing whole-heartedly their new faith in order to curry favor with their overlords. When the bad times passed, when the oppression abated, the remnants of this community sought a way to openly return to Judaism. But how could they, having demonstrated their disloyalty to G-d? How could they, having sworn an oath before G-d to forgo Judaism forever?  How could they, no longer feeling even worthy of calling themselves Jews? It was out of this desire to return that the Kol Nidre prayer was written. “All vows, all oaths, all promises, all declarations that we have made are hereby annulled” they cried out, thereby releasing themselves from the disgrace, the loss of dignity, the profound humiliation and shame that they experienced in leaving their faith of their ancestors. Although we live in far different times, the underlying motives for the Kol Nidre remain. We, too, long for a clear conscience, a release from feelings of guilt. We, too, desire to be forgiven when we have not lived up to our ideals. Many of us here tonight feel that we have not been successful, as parents, as children, as friends, as members of the Jewish community.  Many of us here tonight struggle with feelings of embarrassment and dishonor over our shortcomings in life.  Many of us have failed ourselves, disappointed loved ones, turned a deaf ear to people in need. Many of us have strayed from the straight path, have betrayed our hopes and aspirations.  Many of us have something to hide, some secret that we dare not reveal. Many of us have troubled consciences from which we seek relief. You know what G-d says to all this? G-d says, “Nu? Tell Me something I don’t know!  G-d says, “You feel these things because you are human beings, just like everyone else around you.” G-d says, “You are sitting among a congregation made up of imperfect beings. Everybody around you feels like a failure one way or another.” That’s what G-d says. That’s why we recite at the beginning of the Kol Nidre, “Anu Matirim leHitpalel im Ha-Avaryanim – We have permission to worship among the sinners – because we are all sinners, there would be nobody here if we only invited perfect people to our services!  We all long for the welcome, the acceptance, the forgiveness from our family, our friends our community — from ourselves, and from G-d Many of us carry around heavy burdens which weigh us down. One very public example of that is Senator Bob Kerry. He had a distinguished career in public service, serving as a governor, a senator and a university president.  Yet, despite his accomplishments, Senator Kerry harbored a dark secret. As many of you may be aware, he served as a US Navy Seal Officer during the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism in combat. Kerry lost the lower part of his leg during the war, which put an end to his military career.  In 2001, Senator Kerry admitted that as a 25 year old lieutenant he had led a raid at Than Phang, a hamlet in Vietnam that resulted in a war atrocity — the deaths of 13 unarmed women and children. Reflecting on this horror, Kerry said, “It’s far more than guilt. It’s the shame. You can never, can never get away from it. It darkens your day. We are not the worst thing that we have ever done in our lives, and there is a tendency to think that we are.” The Torah highlights the fact that the Holy Ark that was constructed in the wilderness was gilded on the outside and gilded on the inside. We can understand why the Ark was gilded on the outside – it was gilded to make it appear beautiful. But why was the ark gilded on the inside? It teaches us a lesson: A person should strive to be same on the outside as they are on the inside. Ones behavior in public should match ones behavior in private. Yet, this is frequently not the case. Some of us here tonight are patient when we are in public, but we easily lose our tempers in the privacy of our homes. Some of us are patient and loving with our families, but tyrants with our subordinates at work. Many of us here tonight are generous with our time when it comes to our communities, but less generous with our time when it comes to our spouses and our children.   Senator Kerry is an American hero to us, but deep inside himself he has wrestled with a question that many of us do too. Who am I? What kind of person is capable of doing what I did? What would people think of me if they knew?  Some of us here this evening may feel like imposters, like frauds. Many wonder what people would think of us if they really knew us.  Our identities are split. What people see is merely a façade. We have a public self and a private self that do not match. We too have demons to fight. The creation of the Kol Nidre was the result of those same feelings of shame, the realization we are often estranged from ourselves. In their desire to return to the Jewish people our ancestors developed a ritual which dis-avowed the very actions that they had taken to leave the Jewish people. We have betrayed our ideal of ourselves, they said. We have lived a double life. Tonight, we declare our past behavior to be null and void, to be as if it never existed.  We hereby put it behind us, it shall not be held against us, neither by us, nor by others, nor by G-d. We leave it in the past. Yes, we have stumbled, yes, we have wandered, yes, we have strayed far from the path that we set out to travel — but this evening we declare – none of that matters any more. We are starting over. We have a fresh slate on which to write the rest of the story of our lives. We are giving ourselves, and others, a second chance. We are doing Teshuva. Let us all declare that the future begins this evening, a future which we will face with vision, with fortitude, and with hope!  And do you know what G-d says? “Salachti Kid-vah-rekha“ –I have forgiven according to your word!’ Begin again!” That’s what G-d says! Had I been a rabbi in the Middle Ages, charged with the task of choosing a prayer that would open the services of the holiest day of the Jewish year for the next thousand years, I might not have chosen the Kol Nidre. I am glad that some rabbis did.  Those rabbis understood that at its root the Kol Nidre is not about annulling vows made to G-d. At its core, the Kol Nidre is about starting over.  It is not easy to face others when we are ashamed of what we have done, when we fear that what we have done defines who we are. It is not easy to be with others when we feel different, when we feel singled out, when we feel judged.  On this night of Kol Nidre, on this night of cleansing of the soul, we ask for G-d’s help in putting behind us our petty jealousies and our deeper hatreds. On this night of Kol Nidre we ask for G-d’s help in burying our grudges and finding in our hearts a way to forgive the wrongs that others have done to us. On this night of Kol Nidre we ask G-d for help in recognizing the prejudices that keep us from judging others fairly. On this night of Kol Nidre we ask G-d for help in finding ways to forgive ourselves for our failure to live up to our ideals. On this night of Kol Nidre we ask G-d for help to remove the clouds that hover above us, to ease the burdens of fear and of loneliness that threaten to consume us. And so we pray on this evening, “Turn us, dear G-d, so that we may be at peace with ourselves, with our loved ones, with our fellow human beings. Cast away, Blessed Holy One, our wrongdoing and our transgressions and make us a new heart and a new spirit. Give us, O G-d, the strength and self-respect, the vision and the courage to grow to become better.”
And let us say, “AMEN”.