Kol Nidre 5778 “Things that Go Bump in the Night”

“Daddy, there’s an alligator under my bed.”

“Mommy, there’s a giant spider on my ceiling.”

“Help, there’s a monster in my closet.”

Those words are familiar to anyone who has ever had children, been around children, baby-sat for children or who have been children themselves. There — that should cover everybody! What do we do when we hear these calls?  We go into the child’s room and we comfort them. In order to reassure them we may look under the bed, examine the closet and check the ceiling.  We explain in a soothing voice that there are no alligators, spiders, or monsters in the room, that our child has nothing to fear, that we are there to protect them.

Have you ever wondered – Whose description of the world is closer to the way things really are? A child who is afraid that there are alligators under their bed, or an adult who reassures the child that everything is safe and that there is nothing to fear? …………..

No matter how much we may need to comfort our children, we know that the world is indeed full of dangers, both natural and created by man. On this day of judgement, Yom Kippur, we confront the scary realities which govern our lives, and the scary monsters that actually do lurk around the corners – the hurricanes, the earthquakes, and the weapons of mass destruction, to name a few, which have been so much in the news these days. On these high holidays we ask — Who shall live, and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water? Who in the fullness of years and who before? Who by famine and who by thirst? Who shall be afflicted, and who shall be at ease? It has even been said that Yom Kippur is a rehearsal for death. As most of you know, in our tradition the dead wear white shrouds, called kittels, with no pockets. This symbolizes that when we die we must leave everything material behind. We cannot take anything beyond the grave with us, so what is the use of pockets? On Yom Kippur we do not eat, we do not drink for in death there is no eating or drinking. On Yom Kippur we remind ourselves that we are here today and gone tomorrow.

In a few moments we will recite the prayer, “Shma Kolenu , where we implore G-d to hear our voice. It is in this prayer that we say these words:

“Do not cast us away from your presence; do not take your Holy Spirit from us; Do not cast us off in old age, when our strength fails, do no forsake us; Do not forsake us, Eternal G-d, do not distance yourself from  us.”

These plaintive lines of prayer are taken from the Book of Psalms.  The Talmud explains that they were written by Kind David when his son, Absalom, led a rebellion against him in order to usurp the crown. According to the sages, King David said to G-d, “When I was young and strong, I led the Children of Israel into battle and defeated her enemies. Now that I am old, do not cast me off. Now that my strength is diminished, do not forsake me.” To which G-d responds, “Even to your old age and grey hairs, I will sustain you; I will carry you and rescue you.”

“G-d, please don’t abandon us!” we plea. We pray, “G-d, be with us in our old age,” just as King David did. But the comforting response that G-d gives to King David – don’t worry, I will sustain you, I will carry you, I will rescue you — is not there in our Machzor. We are left hanging. G-d doesn’t respond! We hear the dread, the fear, the anxiety, but not the reassurance!  Old age is a monster waiting for us, G-d! It’s like an alligator waiting to swallow us! – but G-d, doesn’t come through with the comforting remarks.

Our prayer starkly highlights a real fear in old age – abandonment.  I will always remember the wisdom of a long ago former congregant struggling with cancer. She was getting on in years, confronting a serious illness, yet her adult children were distant, aloof, uninvolved. She expressed her feelings of abandonment in these words. “It is amazing,” she said to me one day, “how one mother can take care of five children but five children cannot take care of one mother.”

Maybe you have heard that in an effort to help people to cope with loneliness in old age, scientists are in the process of developing “social robots”. These robots are programmed to give the appearance of caring about the elderly. When no one is there to listen, care givers of the not too distant future will send in a robot that at least seems to be listening! Shirley Turkle, who is Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls this quote: “designing technology that gives the illusion of companionship without friendship. But the robot can’t empathize, does not understand life, and can only fake feelings.”

I recently read about a woman named Agnes who was very lonely in her nursing home. She wrote to an elementary school which hosted a luncheon for Senior citizens. During her visit she won the door prize of a new radio. She wrote a thank you letter to the school:

Dear Class,                                                                                                                                                 “G-d bless you for the beautiful radio I won at your recent senior citizens luncheon. I am 84 years old and live at the Springer Home for the Aged. My roommate is 95 and has always had her own radio but she would never let me listen to hers. The other day her radio fell off the night stand and broke into smithereens. . It was awful and she was in tears. Her distress over the broken radio touched me and I knew this was G-d’s way of answering my prayers. She asked if she could listen to mine, and I told her – ‘Go Fish!’ Thank you for the opportunity to get my revenge!  Sincerely, Agnes.”

Why do we raise this possibility on Kol Nidre night that G-d might cast us away in old age?  I think that perhaps it is there to motivate us to work harder to seek G-d — not only during the course of this service but also and during the course of our lives so that we can be confident that we will feel G-d’s presence at the end of our lives. I think it is a call to examine, to reflect upon and to repair our relationships. For how does G-d manifest His presence other than through our relationships? When our time comes we will sense the presence of G-d in the friends and family and caregivers who will be there with us as our strength fades and we approach the end of our lives — Because we surely will not sense the presence of G-d with a robot in attendance.

I recently read a description of the human condition by Alan Watts. Watts was a British philosopher, writer and lecturer who was best known in the 1960’s as an interpreter of Eastern thought to Western audiences. Watts asks us to “Imagine the idea that the moment you were born you were kicked off the edge of a precipice, and you are falling. As you fell, a great lump of rock came with you, and it’s traveling alongside you. And you’re clinging to it for dear life! And thinking, ‘Gee, I’ve gotta hold onto this.’” But that is futile, because grabbing on to something that’s falling with you doesn’t stop you from falling! “So, you grab on to other things. But the thing is, everything you grab on to is falling as well.”

It is a sobering image. From the moment we are born we are moving toward old age and death. In order to cope with the terror we experience, we grab on to things – money, status, success, prestige, sex, power…. – material things that we hope will give us a sense of security, a sense that we are in control of our lives. But everything we grab on to, everything we grasp at, is falling along with us. We may not recognize it, we may think we have found safety in things, but we do not.

A lot of us, for example, believe that we have purchased security when we buy a home in which we can raise our families. We are told that it is a solid investment that will also increase in value over the years. And when we finally achieve the American dream, and what happens? Some bankers, in their greed, begin gambling with bank funds, and, through no fault of our own, our homes are now worth less than we paid for them. And we may be one of the millions who are thrown out of work, again, through no fault of our own, because of the financial mismanagement and greed in New York, London or Zurich.

Yom Kippur reminds us that it is an illusion to believe that grabbing on to things – the same things that are falling along with us — can stay our anxiety and bring us the security that we all desire. Yom Kippur reminds us that each year things could happen that are beyond our control and beyond our imagination. Yom Kippur is there to force us to think about what we want to avoid thinking about the other days of the year – that we are mortal beings and that we are all destined to die.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, puts it this way: “It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes easy to postpone the things you must do…. In contrast, when you fully understand that each day you awaken could be the last you have; you take the time to grow, you take the steps that will help you to fulfill your potential, you make the effort to reach out to other human beings.”

The liturgy of Yom Kippur, the fasting, the special clothing — the scary prayers – and yes, the Rabbi’s somber sermons — are all meant to put us in that frame of mind. They are meant to shake us out of our complacency, to get us to confront our denial of death and to spur us to examine our priorities in life.

Rabbi Baruch Leff writes about an extraordinary Shabbat dinner with his father, Marvin, shortly after his father had been diagnosed with a rare cancer. With his children and grandchildren gathered around the table, the elder Mr. Leff shared his thoughts:

“I was lying in the hospital this week coming to terms with what the doctors were saying. What does one think about while lying in a hospital bed under these circumstances?

“One thinks about his life, the past, things that I could have done better, mistakes that I made. I have begun ………….. to accept the reality that I am totally dependent on others for all of my needs……….. Now, I cannot help myself ……….. and the words “Master of the World” have great new meaning to me. Hashem, God, is the Master of my life.

“Of course, He always was, but when you are healthy and independent, you more or less feel as if you control your life. We give lip service to God …………. Now I see as clearly as I possibly can that it is only He who controls everything, now, as He did throughout my life.

“So, I am trying to work on my faith. I am trying to accept the fact that if God sees fit to end my life soon, then this is for the best, even if I don’t understand it. One day we will perhaps understand why the pain and suffering in our lives had to occur ………. we don’t know G-d’s ways in this world. But I am working on accepting His will……..”


We need not wait until we are lying in a hospital bed facing the end of life to reflect on these matters. We can contemplate them now on this, Yom Kippur.  For this moment we are in a dress rehearsal for death. G-d willing, tomorrow we can begin life anew. And when we do, may we all be sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year.