Kol Nidrei 5775 2014
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
Or Chadash

Shana Tova, again. Happy New Year.

As we gather on this sacred night, I am especially mindful of the purpose our tradition ascribes to this holy day.

There is no doubt in my mind that joining together as a Kehilla Kedosha, as a sacred community is in itself a worthy endeavor. That we do so on this special night has, of course, added meaning.

Yom Kippurim, the book of Leviticus calls it. It is there, in Chapter 23, that we first encounter the name we now ascribe to our holy day. The Biblical account describes a day dedicated to two activities: atonement and abstinence. It says: On the 10th day of the month of Tishrei…”you should do no work throughout that day. For it is on Yom Kippurim that atonement is made on your behalf before Adonai your God. Any person who does not practice self-denial throughout that day shall be cut off from his people…”

The Biblical writers were saying to their community: since today you are forgiven, you should refrain from any self-absorbed activity, and – as we still do today – focus on matters beyond the self. While we no longer sit in sack-cloth and ashes, we are asked to refrain from fulfilling our physical needs.

Centuries later, in Rabbinic literature such as the Mishna, Yom Kippur had evolved. It was given an additional name: Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment – when, as our tradition says: even the hosts of heaven are judged. Now Yom Kippur was no longer just a day for instant forgiveness and introspection, but had become a day on which we emphasized that God would judge the deeds of our past. Forgiveness, for us, was no longer a given.

Yom Kippur also came to be known as: Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of all Sabbaths, and is considered the holiest day in the year. In fact, the Talmud, the Jewish book of law and legend, calls this THE DAY — In Hebrew, Yoma. It is this very day that can be for us a day like no other, a day on which we set our course for the entire year ahead.

The meaning and purpose of Yom Kippur has certainly changed over the centuries. The liturgy, the music, the rites and rituals we have inherited from generations past have and will continue to change. But what has remained constant throughout history is the theme of forgiveness. Not only forgiveness from God, but also forgiveness from those people whom we have wronged and, perhaps most difficult, our forgiving those who have wronged us.

The Talmud reminds us that “…the day of Yom Kippur atones for sins against God. But for sins of one human being against another, Yom Kippur does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” In order for us to acquire a clean slate, we must do the work of repairing our relationships and mending the hurt that we have caused. But we must also forgive those who have shown true repentance.

Therein lies a great challenge. One which I will return to a bit later.
Last night, Or Chadash welcomed Maud Dahme to share her remarkable story as a hidden child in the Netherlands during World War II.

Growing up in the generation following the Holocaust, I was taught of the horrors of that era in Jewish history. In religious school, I watched the movie Night and Fog, filled with Nazi film footage. Learning about man’s capacity to do evil was a life-lesson that did not need repeating.

The wounds of the Holocaust remained decades after the war was over.
In my house when I was young, we never had German products; we did not purchase items from Italy, and my parents struggled for a long time before buying a Japanese car.

Years later, as an adult, I had no desire to ever set foot in the places where the Nazi’s carried out their final solution. A few years ago, however, I travelled to central Europe with a group of rabbis. I purposefully decided to return home early from the trip before they group went on to Poland. I had now been to Terezin. I did not need to see Auschwitz. I did not want to.

Then, last year, I was asked to visit Germany with the same group.
I hastened to reply: Never.
But watching a video from the Israeli born animator Hanan Harchol encouraged me to reconsider. In his ‘Jewish Food for Thought’ series, Hanan created a short animated film on repentance. Its theme was clearing space in your head by allowing yourself to forgive — certainly food for thought.

At the time, nearly everything I was reading and hearing suggested that a renewal of Jewish life in Germany was taking place. I asked myself: How long could I go on carrying the burden of every emotion that one might feel in response to the Holocaust when Jews living in Germany were inviting me to visit them and witness their rebirth?

And so, this past November I and nearly 40 other Reform rabbis spent a week in Berlin. Some of us — like the head of our group — were descendants of Jewish refugees from Germany and other parts of Europe. All of us had read and heard the stories that record the dark history of the destruction of European Jewry at the hands of those who ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945. But more, we personally knew survivors of the death camps and the Nazi terror. And so, we went for many reasons:

We went to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the November pogroms of 1938, Kristallnacht, which marked the beginning of the end for German Jewry. 1000s of people of all faiths joined in that commemoration.

We went to visit significant sites in the history of our people – from the tombs of Jewish soldiers who fought for Germany in WWI to the places their descendants hid as they tried to escape the Holocaust.

We went to see our past, but mostly we went to learn about Jewish renewal in Berlin and Germany. We went for healing and for hope.
In our few days there, we visited cemeteries and museums, memorials and monuments. The soles of our shoes polished the cobblestone sized Stolpersteine, small brass plaques embedded in the sidewalks in front of homes where Jews once lived. They are all over Europe, with more than 5000 in Berlin alone.

We stopped at Jewish schools filled with singing and laughter, and at synagogues protected by guards outside, but warm and inviting inside. We saw children at play and students engrossed in Jewish learning at the new Rabbinical School and at the University in Potsdam. We witnessed a rebirth of creativity by rabbis and lay leaders and volunteers who, despite tremendous obstacles, are rebuilding Jewish life in this scarred and wounded land and society.

In the words of Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and who was the leader our group: “[The Jews of Germany] have taken up the challenge of the phoenix rising from the ashes of a destroyed community, and what they create will be something new and different, but we hope and pray, something worthwhile and a solid successor of the glorious history of German Jewish life.”

And amidst the wonder of seeing all of this rebirth, intertwined with painful moments of reflection on the past, it remained tremendously moving for me to see the extent to which Germans have taken responsibility for what had taken place across Europe three-quarters of a century ago.

The new generation of leadership there has devoted themselves to educating their fellow Germans of the dangers of repeating history.
In meetings with the government (which outlaws anti-semitism) and in gatherings with leaders at the military academy (which teaches that each soldier is ultimately responsible for their actions), at every encounter I found contrition. And more: tangible signs of real change.

The words on the monuments and memorials — dozens upon dozens in Berlin alone — speak of an increasing acknowledgement of the horrors committed. They each stand as a physical embodiment of remorse, recognizing the sins of the past. They tell painful stories and serve as witnesses to future generations, clearly of the human potential for evil, and equally so, of the human potential for atonement and acts of goodness.

And so we return to our dilemma of forgiveness…for therein lies the challenge. How does one forgive when the offence is so great? How does one make peace with a past that consumed the innocent in fire? But more…We ask, especially tonight when we are to forgive those who have wronged us and who have made true atonement:
When is the time for us to forgive?
When do we acknowledge that it is time to move forward?

Sonja Keren Pilz, a rabbinical student at Abraham Geiger College, the Jewish Seminary in Berlin, shared these words with us at services one morning.

“May we be honest enough to not seek easy answers to complicated questions, may we be strong enough to listen to the still, small voice, may we be patient enough to seek beauty in the midst of historical turmoil, and may we be authentic enough to bear the ambivalences between pure good and pure evil.
May we never lose the hope and the energy to continue to create the future of German Jewry. [And] May we always find words of prayer.”

In Ecclesiastes we read that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. Is now a time to forgive the sins of terror and genocide? Only the victims of those years of darkness can offer that forgiveness. The challenge that confronts us on this night of Yom Kippur, the matters for which we need to find forgiveness and for which we need to forgive certainly pale in contrast.

But now is a time to move forward.
May we be “bold enough” to do so in our own lives.