Kol Nidre, all vows, is about language and its ultimate importance. Kol Nidre forces us to examine our relationship with God and with one another. We know that we have not always carefully chosen our words; nor have we examined our hearts throughout the year. But tonight and throughout the day, we will do תשובה – where we will turn towards God and seek forgiveness.
I can neither define nor speak with any degree of certainty about God or God’s nature. I can sing, with all my heart, and with all my soul, that God is full of compassion, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness. However, I cannot say with any level of confidence what God is or how God functions. What I personally have found helpful, when I am in that moment of heartfelt uncertainty, words from a Rav, who once taught that when it comes to prayer, “We leave our rationality at the entrance to the House of Worship and instead allow the realization that life is fragile and precious to penetrate.”
There are two stories that our told on these Yamim Hanoraim- Days of Awe. On Rosh Hashanah, one is Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. Abraham hears the voice of God who promises that his children will one day be as numerous as the stars in the heavens, as the sands of the sea, and that they will be given a land. Abraham makes a covenant with God for himself and for his children to obey God.
What happens thereafter is enough to make anyone doubt the existence of God, let alone God’s promise. Abraham must leave the very land that is promised to him because there is famine. Arriving in the Kingdom of Avimelech, he feels compelled to represent his wife as his sister, for he fears for his life. There is strife immediately after the birth of Isaac, between Isaac and Ishmael that still exists to this day. Abraham and Isaac suffer through the trauma of the binding of Isaac, such that the Torah never tells us of another conversation between these two. Sarah, we are told in a Midrash, became so distraught when hearing what her husband was doing to her child that her soul departed from her and she died.
Tomorrow’s Torah reading begins by informing us of the death of Aaron’s two sons when a fire broken out during their offerings in the Tabernacle. God commanded Moses to tell Aaron the priestly ritual of atonement in order to purify the people. Aaron, despite witnessing the death of his two sons, who were to inherit the priesthood from their father, learned this ritual and did so in order that the Children of Israel would be cleansed of its sin on Yom Kippur.
Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac and Aaron form the bookends of the עשרת ימי תשובה – these ten days of repentance.
The Meaning of Faith
We are a people most challenged to retain our faith in light of the moral narrative, the moral journey that forms the basis of our religion and of our peoplehood. From the story of Abraham through Aaron to now, despite all that has happened, we accept the moral responsibility for the difficulties that we encounter, both as a Jewish people, and as part of the human condition. Often, throughout history, we have been tormented in unimaginable ways. Yet each year on Yom Kippur, we accept the moral responsibility that comes with whole-hearted repentance to improve the world
It is because of this dynamic that the Jewish soul remains intact. A colleague of mine at another university was lamenting that hardly any students were attending services on Rosh Hashanah. I asked, “Where were they” to which she replied, “They are in class, so we decided to set-up tables with apples and honey in the College dining area to help them welcome in the New Year.” I know many of you may disagree with this statement, but I don’t find anything wrong with that because these students took the time to take the apple and the honey and in their own way, they prayed. In that moment, they understood that it is a special time for our people. Abraham and Sarah and Aaron were alive within them.
It is true that many of our young people at Dartmouth likewise did not attend services on Rosh Hashanah. Those that did not, I believe, were engaged in important matters; work that they had committed much of their childhood and teen-age years to achieving. They feel compelled to work and as such they need our support, even if only to put out apples and honey.
I believe with all my heart and soul that their Jewish N’shama, their Jewish soul, remains intact, pure, and striving in many instances to give of themselves and ultimately to others in order to better the world. I believe in the fundamental goodness and promise of each and every one of you that, come what may, you are committed to living a Jewish life.
I believe in our children who attend our religious school and their parents. I have said this many times after having been to the emptiness of Eastern Europe where our Dartmouth students, many of them not hear, the unsung heroes who restore and repair the past. The task of both parents and children to live Jewishly in the United States may be far more difficult than our ancestors who kept Torah and our people alive for generations because there was no other way in which to live. But you, all of you, could live differently. Yet, here you are tonight, on Kol Nidre in prayer.
Many of you, the parents, did not have the good fortune that I had to attend Hebrew school four days a week (2 hours per day), Sunday School for 2 hours, and then weekly Shabbat morning services for 3.5 hours. True, only in retrospect do I see the truth of this. But I also had the privilege of being a Baal Koreh, a chanter of the Torah for 22 years and a teacher of a confirmation program for 15, before attending Hebrew Union College for 9 years where I received the finest education imaginable. It is easy for me. I have had a lifetime benefit of a Jewish education and experiences. I am giving back but a fraction of what was given to me.
Your journeys, I assure you, were and are every bit as Jewish as mine. And to those of you who are here who are not Jewish, but are here with your children, or your husband, wife, or partner – in any case – the one that you most love and cherish in this world, or just here to pray, you are the new bookends of our Torah that continues to be written. You are tonight in the tradition of Abraham and Sarah and Aaron. This is why Rabbi Akivah, who sacrificed his life in order to teach Torah in public, held that the day itself, without anything else, atones. He knew his audience. He knew the purity of the Jewish soul.
Because of who you are and what you do, each and every day of your life, mistakes, regrets, self-consciousness and all, you are good, you are pure, and you continue to live Jewishly in the finest and most complete way possible. The Jewish N’shamah that I see in all of you is pure and strives to righteousness and goodness. We may miss the mark, but like Abraham, faith remains.
The Roth Center for Jewish Life
Tonight, on this Kol Nidre, we say אשמנו – we are guilty for the problems that plague humanity, even though we may have not been the direct cause of them. We say גזלנו – we have stolen, not because we went out and robbed a bank, but because we live in a world where thievery exist. We say קשינו ערף – we have acted in a stiff-necked way because at times our world has been cruel and insensitive to suffering. The Jewish N’shamah – soul understands – what it must do.
I am privileged, so very privileged, to work with great young men and women who care passionately about their people and about their faith, their people hood, and one another. I am blessed to have a wonderful staff of Claudia Palmer, Anat Gimburg our Hillel Director of Programming and Development, Carol Clark, the community coordinator of the Upper Valley Jewish Community, and Maggie Duford, who is our Educational Director.
We have put together a new organizing principle and it is grounded in a messianic vision found in an ancient work entitled פסיקטא דרב כהנה – the expositions of Rav Kahana. He writes of a where the future Temple will be the same physical space, but that every Jew who is brought from the four corners of the earth and from times past, will have 3 cubits of space in order to pray. The literature asks, “How can this be, since in the messianic era, God will bring to life each and every Jew in all the previous generations and bring them to the Temple, and yet the physical space will remain the same?” The response, and I am paraphrasing, is that in the Messianic Era the laws of time and space will be suspended so that each and every Jewish person can worship.”
We have taken this great teaching as metaphor and have adopted it as our working philosophy, יש מקום לכל אחד פה – there is a place here for everyone. Our responsibility is to make sacred room for everyone who wishes to be part of our Jewish peoplehood in our community here at Hanover and beyond. We know that we will miss the mark, but you are the Jews of today and of tomorrow.
I will tell you a simple story of why I do not worry about the Jewish people and of the soul and heart of all of you. This week, I received a telephone call from a local hospital social worker who informed me that a patient had died and that the family, from out of town, was requesting to see a Rabbi. Of course, one makes time. The husband, whose mother had passed away, was present along with his wife, and the deceased’s sister. There would be no burial as their plan, consistent with his mother’s wishes, was for cremation.
We talked and I tried to give them words of comfort on behalf of our community. The wife said to me, “Is there any prayer that you could say.” The husband/son said expressed deep issues of doubt regarding God, faith and Judaism. I responded, “I do know that you are here seeking solace/comfort from our tradition.” I suggested that we might read some prayers that are from a funeral service and they agreed. We recited Psalm 23, the Lord is my Shephard, Ecclesiastes “For everything there is a season” and “A Woman of Valor” from the Book of Proverbs.
We recited the El Maleh Rachamim, God who is full of compassion, to take the soul of this person under God’s protective wings and bring it to its final resting place of peace. They then recited the Kaddish, tears streaming down this devoted husband and father, for his mother.
This individual may have doubt, uncertainty of faith, and extraordinary questions about God. But then why was he crying as he recited the Kaddish, a prayer that is a simple praise of God? Why was the family relying on tradition that they may have known so little for comfort? My answer is a simple one. They were Jewish and their souls – the נשמה, their hearts – knew exactly what to do. Their Jewish soul was intact.
I did not do this. It was all of you because that is what this community, the entire community Hillel and the UVJC – אחד unique and one in belief – in striving to do goodness and that includes comforting the bereaved, to give joy to those who celebrate, to be there to help in a Jewish way. You would have expected nothing less of your Rabbi.
I have the finest position in the world. I am able to have these enriching experiences as you do not have as much time as I do. However, you are the ones who comforted the unknown who came to the Roth Center bereaved and you gave them that service. I have seen it time and time again in different settings where you all, yes Dartmouth Hillel students as well, will come to the aid of the grief-stricken, the down-trodden – those who simply are in need. I know this year will be no different than those of before in doing these acts of loving kindness on which the world stands.
I understand that we live in very uncertain times. There are difficult, though not insurmountable, problems in our country and in the world. I am here to tell you that all of you are living in the spirit of our ancestors. I believe, though I have no proof, that if there is a heaven, each and every one of the eyes of those who are there are tonight affixed at all of you, smiling, knowing that the collective Jewish נשמה here this evening is one filled with purity, richness, and love.
בפי ישראים תתהלל
ובדברי צדיקים תתברך
ובלשון חסידים תתרומם
ובקרב קדושים תתקדש
In the mouths of the upright, You God shall be praised
In the words of the righteous, you shall be blessed
In the language of piety, you shall be exalted
And amongst the holy shall You be sanctified.
My prayer is that may God find your תשובה – your repentance to be whole-hearted and pure. My God find you to be living in the spirit of our ancestors and thus be forever sealed in the Book of life for this year 5772 and for all the years of your lives. And let us say Amen