Kol Nidrei – 5774
September 13, 2013
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
The story is told of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, who once asked an illiterate tailor what he did on Yom Kippur. Since he could not read the prescribed prayers, the tailor reluctantly and somewhat embarrassed, replied: “Well, I spoke to God and said that the sins for which I am expected to repent are really minor ones. I said to God: ‘Master of the Universe, my sins are small and of little consequence. I may have occasionally kept for myself some leftover cloth, or perhaps forgotten to recite some prayer now and then. But You, God, You have committed really grave sins. You have removed mothers from their children and children from their mothers. So let’s reach an agreement. If You’ll forgive me, then I’ll forgive You.’”
At this, the Rabbi became angry and rebuked the tailor: “You foolish man. You were too lenient with God. You should have insisted that God make good on the promise to bring redemption to the whole world.”
Tonight, on the even of Yom Kippur, the holiest night on the Jewish calendar, we recite Kol Nidrei. It is perhaps the most famous of all our liturgies. Ironically, it is not really a prayer at all, but rather a statement — a statement that deals with promises, vows and other sorts of verbal commitments commonly made in the course of the year. Our tradition places strict demands on keeping one’s word, and not fulfilling a vow is considered a serious misdeed.
Kol Nidrei, which means “all vows”, nullifies the binding nature of promises made in haste or under duress or with feigned commitment. We all have made such promises. But we also make commitments that we intend to fulfill. We intend to, but somehow life gets in our way, or perhaps we don’t think those commitments are worth honoring — and soon enough we break those promises. Those failings, Kol Nidrei does not absolve. We must recommit ourselves to fulfill those obligations.
Let me share with you a news story that took place a few months ago in Winston-Salem, North Carolina — a story about understanding the meaning of commitment.
Julie and Bob Clark were stunned to receive a letter from their church in July asking them to “participate in the life of the church” — or worship elsewhere.
The Faith Community of Winston-Salem has asked “non-participating members” to stop attending.
“No more Mr. Nice Church,” says the executive pastor…. “Bigger is not always better. Providing … services indefinitely to complacent Christians is not our mission.”
“When your bottom line is saving souls, you get impatient with people who interfere with that goal,” he says.
Faith Community [Church] sent polite but firm letters to families who … never volunteer, never [contribute in any way] and do not belong to a small group or other [committee].…
“Before now, we made people feel comfortable and welcome, and tried to coax them to give a little something in return,” says a staff member. “That’s changed. We’re done being the community nanny.”
Surprisingly, the move to dis-invite people has drawn positive response from men in the community who like the in-your-face approach.
“I thought, ‘[They] don’t allow wussies — that rocks,’” says Bob Clark, who admires Faith Community more since they told him to get lost.
He and Julie are now tithing and volunteering. “We’ve taken our place in [religious] life,” he says [ – fulfilling our commitment to our community.]
The Hebrew word Brit (covenant) is invoked at the ceremony of circumcision when a Jewish boy is eight days old and enters into the commitments and promises of Jewish life. That same Brit, that same covenant, our tradition teaches, is why God redeemed us from Egypt. It’s a two-sided commitment: we do our part to maintain our community, and God sustains us.
This notion of being part of a life-long covenant challenges most of us today. So many of us daily assert our personal and ideological freedom and independence from any idea that fails to instantly resonate with us or we manage to fill our schedules so there is no room left for strengthening ourselves with real connection. Many of us do not wish to be tethered to something we only marginally understand or to people we have not yet gotten to know. And so our sense of obligation, our sense of commitment to that Brit – that eternal covenant with Jewish life, is weakened.
Author and educator Ron Wolfson, speaks of this challenge. “American individualism,” Wolfson says, “is a terrific thing, it really is; I wouldn’t trade it for a socialist system. But there’s a downside to it, and the downside is I could be holed up in my house with my guns in my closet, ready to protect myself from the terrible things out there, or I can embrace the idea that we’re not alone. And if we seek out relationships with community, with family, with friends, with God, something beyond ourselves, my belief is it can lead you to a life that’s filled with meaning.
“And meaning,’ he says, “is what it’s all about at the end of the day. A sense of purpose: ‘What did God put me on this earth to do?’ And if you don’t believe in God, fine, then [ask], ‘What am I supposed to do with my talents and gifts?’ ”
Ron Wolfson’s “Relational Judaism” is not a new idea, but it is, perhaps, one that so many of us – too many of us – need to be reminded of – particularly on this night of Kol Nidrei when we consider the commitments we wish to make in the year ahead.
Or Chadash is a community within which we celebrate the passage of time, the seasons of life, with its joys and sorrows. It is a congregation of learners and doers, and caregivers and those in search of support. Being present and giving of ourselves – showing up, as our president, Caryn Tomljanovich, said on Rosh Hashanah – is a huge part of fulfilling our commitments to one another.
We need to have social lives, not just “social networks,” to engage with our fellow Jews as an investment in the survival of Judaism, as a fulfillment of our promise, our Brit, our eternal covenant with the Jewish people.
Yes, you say, you are connected. You are in daily contact with members of Or Chadash on Facebook, and you e-mail and text one another constantly. But that is not enough.
Brian Williams, in his commencement address at Elon University this past spring reminded his listeners:
“We call our online world a community, but that’s just to make us feel better,” Williams said. “It’s not — this is. People to your right and left with hopes and dreams and fears.” And he couldn’t be more right about that.
Robert Putnam is a political scientist and professor of public policy at Harvard University. In his book, Bowling Alone, he shares his extensive research on the benefits of being involved in a real community. “The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.” (p. 332.) He goes on to say, “[O]nce we could fall back on …families, [religious institutions], friends…[but now] we are paying a significant price for a quarter century’s disengagement from one another.” (p.335) There is scientific evidence to prove that we are damaging our health through a lack of relationships and personal contact with others. He goes on to show that religiously committed and involved individuals – from every faith community and from any nation – are the ones who boast the greatest happiness and are best equipped to manage the challenges of contemporary life.
This Yom Kippur, as you sit with family and friends and intone the words and melodies of our tradition, you are already participating in one of the foundational principles of Judaism: community. We cannot live our lives in isolation; we need to share our lives with one another, with family, with friends, with the Jewish world, the larger world, and ultimately, with our idea of God.
There is a story, told of a Hassid who complains to his rabbi that he is suffering, and that he is depressed. There has been illness in his family, business setbacks, he is afraid that God does not care about him. The Hassid and the rabbi are sitting in front of the fireplace, talking late into the evening and the fire is about to go out. There are only scattered embers glowing. The rebbe takes the poker and stokes the embers into a heap. Suddenly there is a burst of flame and new warmth from the fire.
“You see,” said the rebbe to the Hassid, “Do you see what happened when I gathered the embers closer? The fire came back to life. When the coals are separated from each other, there is little heat. But when they are close to each other, they get warmth from each other and the fire is renewed.
“It is the same with people. When we are alone and separated or disconnected from each other, our spirit is in danger of dying out. But when we huddle together, we get warmth and comfort from one another, and hope is renewed.”
On this night of Yom Kippur, we are each glowing embers. We need one another for warmth and comfort. We each have promised to provide that for one another. Huddled together in our sanctuary on this Kol Nidrei night, may we each fulfill that vow and give one other strength and hope for our future – together.