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Rabbi Jessica K. Barolsky - Kol Nidre - 2012/5773


Our Words, Our Traditions, Our Promises

There was a boy, and his parents didn’t want him to attend Yom Kippur services. The boy’s parents were embarrassed that the boy didn’t know the prayers.  They didn’t want their friends and neighbors, their customers and enemies to know that their son just hadn’t been interested in studying and learning Hebrew, in learning the right words to use when addressing God.   Nonetheless, the boy really wanted to attend services this year.  He wanted to see what the fuss was all about, he wanted to see everyone all dressed up, he wanted to hear the special tunes he knew the congregation would be singing on the High Holy Days, and of course, he wanted to hear the shofar.  He bugged and bugged and bugged his parents until they relented, making the boy promise that he would sit quietly in the service, not go wander through the halls and make a mess or draw attention to himself.  The boy was excited, and even agreed to focus, a little bit, on his studies in the days leading up to Yom Kippur. 

Finally, Kol Nidre arrived, and the boy and his parents headed to synagogue.  As promised, the boy sat quietly, his eyes wide, taking it all in: the fancy clothes, the giant pots of flowers, and the hordes of people.  But despite the beautiful music of the organ and the voice of the cantor, the boy did not understand the solemn words he was hearing—and yet he was pretty sure they were really serious.  He squirmed in his seat, becoming more and more frustrated that he didn’t know the words as the service went on and on.  His parents, seeing him fidgeting and sensing his discomfort, began to worry that they had made the wrong decision in bringing him along.  There was a quiet break for a moment in the service, and they realized, to their horror, that he was singing softly to himself, just quietly enough that they couldn’t quite catch the words.  He kept singing louder and louder, until his parents realized, embarrassed, what the boy was singing: alef, bet, vet . . . gimel, dalet, hay . . .  They tried to quiet him down, and in tears, he explained that he wanted to join in the praying, he knew he needed to ask for forgiveness for so many things, but he didn’t know the words, he didn’t know the Hebrew, he just knew the letters.  He was sure God would put them in the right order.

Tonight is Erev Yom Kippur, and as the boy observed, our Kol Nidre liturgy is hard.  Asking for forgiveness is hard, because it forces us to take responsibility for our actions.  We ask to be forgiven in two ways each Yom Kippur.  We ask in our own words, personally, spelling out our own faults and appealing to our loved ones and friends to forgive us where we have fallen short.  And we turn to our liturgy, using the ancient words of tradition to connect us to Jews across geography and time, and to help us find the words to use when our own don’t come so easily.  We struggle between forgiveness from others and forgiveness from God.  We struggle between words we compose and feel, and words we read and recite.  Our liturgy, and especially the Kol Nidre prayer, echo that struggle, helping us, forcing us to struggle, especially when we cannot find our own words, to understand ourselves and how we can seek forgiveness.

In the realm of prayer, not just on these High Holy Days but throughout the year, we differentiate between keva, the fixed words of our prayers, and kavanah, the feeling behind our prayers, our own words, and the attitude with which we approach prayer.  The Talmud tells us (Brachot 28a), “Rabbi Eliezer said: if a person prays only according to the exact fixed prayer and adds nothing from his own mind, his prayer is not considered prayer.”  In prayer, balancing the keva and the kavanah is not always so easy.  Mishkan Tefilah, our Reform prayer book that we use the rest of the year, aimed to restore the balance between keva and kavanah with alternative readings and poetry intended to help us think about prayer outside of the traditional words.  Balancing keva and kavanah is the reason we always pause for silent prayer during services, ensuring a space for our own personal prayers in the midst of the formal words of tradition.

Asking for forgiveness requires a similar balance between keva and kavanah, the words on the page and the words in our hearts.  In a perfect world, we all enter the sanctuary this Yom Kippur having talked to our loved ones personally, asking for specific forgiveness, having figured out what we want to do differently in the coming year.  We would then turn to our liturgy, our machzor, and be inspired by the words we find there, connecting with our prayers and asking God to forgive us where our loved ones already have.  I suspect that’s not the case for many of us, though.  The extent of our apologies may have been on facebook, a blanket “I’m sorry” with no way to actually change in the future, because there’s no recognition of what we’ve done wrong, no renewed connection with the people who click “like” below our status of “have an easy fast!”  That’s not good enough!  Then, half-hearted apologies completed, we arrive here, and we don’t all connect with every prayer on every page of the machzor.  But perhaps the words on the page tonight and tomorrow can at least be a beginning to our repentance, reminding us, even inspiring us, to seek out those we’ve hurt and make it right.  When our keva, our fixed liturgy, and our kavanah, what we feel ourselves, can work together and help us ask for forgiveness this Yom Kippur, we are moving toward a better year ahead.

We know that there are limits to our liturgy.  We just read, “for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another” (GOR p. 251).  So we know that this prayer, this formula that we are about to recite, to sing three times, Kol Nidre, does not take care of wrongdoings between people.  It doesn’t take care of the things we could have done ourselves, the things we wanted to do, promised to do, intended to do—and then just didn’t follow through on.  That’s hard!  If our prayers won’t fix it, it means we have to do the work, the atonement, ourselves.

Even though we have liturgy to help us stand before God and symbolically begin the year afresh, those words don’t make things right with the humans in our lives.  There is no magic formula, there are no words we can recite, in any language, for God to wave some magic wand or some divine quill pen and make those awful words we spoke just go away.  We have to do that work ourselves.  That’s our kavanah this Yom Kippur.  That’s the spirit, the ad-lib, the intention that we have to bring.  That’s our responsibility.  It’s our responsibility to recognize our many faults and shortcomings, to think back over the past year and recall our too-hasty words, our unfulfilled promises to loved ones, our too-short tempers.  It is our responsibility to remember all the times we decided to let someone else do the hard work of making our community stronger, to let someone else shoulder the burden of helping a friend or neighbor in need.  It is our responsibility to remember all of the instances in which we disappointed our loved ones, our friends, our acquaintances . . . ourselves.

I cannot stand up here and lead this congregation in prayer and have my transgressions simply absolved, any more than anyone in this room is off the hook just by showing up.  As easy as it would be to listen to the cantor chant Kol Nidre, close our eyes and focus for those few minutes, and then open them, recite some prayers, and go on our way cleansed for another year, that’s not how it works. It’s too easy, and it takes the responsibility off of our shoulders where, for our own individual transgressions, it certainly belongs.  Instead of reciting a magic formula written centuries ago, I have to look at my husband and apologize for not doing enough around the house sometimes, for sometimes speaking too much and not listening enough, for not telling him often enough how lucky I am to share my life with him.  There is no prayer to replace a phone call to my parents to apologize for being brusque sometimes on the phone, for not visiting often enough.  No chanting by the cantor and choir will wipe out that I have to call my sisters and apologize for sometimes making jokes at their expense, even after they’ve asked me not to, for not picking up the phone just for fun, just to catch up, a little more often.  No ancient sage wrote out the words for me to speak when I to turn to those with whom I work in this building, every single day, and apologize for sometimes losing my temper, for not having enough patience, for sometimes speaking less kindly than I should.  And there are not enough repetitions of Kol Nidre to prevent my need to look myself in the mirror and apologize to myself—and even harder, to forgive myself, for all the times I have disappointed nobody but myself.  I have to think about all those unfulfilled intentions, those great ideas I had that I just didn’t make the time to pursue, and I have to atone for not following through on them.  None of those words are written down in any prayer book.  None of those words are passed down from generation to generation.  We cannot teach those words in religious school or read them responsively here tonight. 

Those words of heartfelt, personal apology are one of the reasons, though, that sometimes our formal prayers don’t come so easily.  Sometimes it has nothing to do with understanding or reading Hebrew, or the idea of an omnipotent God with a giant Book of Life, pen poised for signing and sealing this Yom Kippur.  We struggle with our prayers on Yom Kippur, because the formal words remind us, force us, to take responsibility.  That struggle is part of our prayers.  That struggle is our prayers—just not always the ones in the book.

We might ask, then, what’s the point of it?  Why do we say all these words of prayer, why are we here for hours and hours—when the biggest categories of things we have done wrong: things we have said and done to other people, goals we haven’t pursued, aren’t even covered by this giant prayer so important that we name our service after it?! We are not perfect.  We have made mistakes individually and as a community.  Sitting here together and praying the same words together reminds us of what we still have to do.  Even the Vidui, the communal confession of wrongdoing, may remind us of what we’ve done wrong, but until we’ve approached people on an individual level, reciting every confession in this machzor does not mean our work is done.  Yom Kippur liturgy does not have to be the culmination of forgiveness, but a step along the way, even a starting point.  

The Kol Nidre was almost cut out of our liturgy a couple of generations ago, because of what some thought it said about our commitments and promises as a Jewish people: that we are not trustworthy, that we are easily excused from things to which we commit ourselves.  But this prayer was never meant that way.  Instead, it was meant to inspire much higher commitments, and to encourage us to be honest with ourselves, with others, and with God, about promises we make and vows we aim to keep.  Kol Nidre wakes us up to the difference between noble intentions and truly being noble.  Neither empty intentions nor ill-thought out actions are particularly Jewish—and neither one is covered or forgiven by our Kol Nidre prayer. 

Kol Nidre is about vows we have made but have not kept. It’s not about vows we never intended to keep.  It’s about the ones that we didn’t just intend to keep, but really, really tried for.  The promises we made where we can stand here, before God and our congregation, and we can say honestly that we gave it our all.  We tried.  We did everything we could think of to match the good intention with noble action, and still, despite all those efforts, we fell short.  Kol Nidre is not an easy out.  It’s a high standard that we set for ourselves.  I pray that when Kol Nidre comes around next year, I don’t need it at all.  But when I do, I hope that I can truly say that I have had not only the best intentions, but also that I have put forth the most honest effort that I could have, and that in spite of all that, I couldn’t make it happen.  It is these efforts, when I know I made a promise, I gave it everything I could, for which I say the words of Kol Nidre.  It is not for things for which I could have worked a little harder, slept a little less, done a little more, but for those things for which I couldn’t have done any more than I did.  Those are the vows, the intentions, the promises, for which I ask God to release me.  I need the formal words, because these promises that fell short are between me and God, and as I follow so many generations of Jews who have put in honest effort and fallen short, I use the words of tradition and join myself with them. 

The angels were busy on Erev Yom Kippur, because it was their job to visit Jews all around the world to hear their prayers.  One angel was especially excited about her assignment, because she was headed to a beautiful synagogue in a big city.  How wonderful she thought it would be to hear heartfelt prayers, see the white robes of the rabbis and cantor, and witness the beauty of the songs mixed with tears of real repentance.  The angel knew she could count on this one night of perfect beauty. 

The angel slipped into the sanctuary just as Kol Nidre began.  As she expected, she heard real hope combined with real sorrow sung in a beautiful voice.  But as she closed her eyes to focus, she heard a different sound.  Perhaps it was a prayer, but maybe a song, or a thought?  She wasn’t quite sure what it was—or where it was coming from—but it was the most beautiful sound she had ever heard.  She rushed around the room, listening to each person, but it wasn’t coming from inside the sanctuary.  She knew that God would want to know about this sound, so she had to go find it.  She followed the sound outside, scanning the forest at the edge of the city.  In the distance, she could just make out some lights from a little house tucked in between the trees. 

The angel followed that beautiful sound to the door of the house, and she leaned in to hear better.  Now she could hear the sound quite clearly.  It was the voice of a young girl singing.  She heard: “Sh-maaaaaaaa.”  There was a pause.  Then, “Yis-ra-ellllllll.”  A different, lower voice said, “Good!  Just right!  Now you say, ‘Adonai Eloheinu.’”  There was a much longer pause.  Finally, the little voice said, “Grandpa, those words are too hard and too long.  Why can’t I just talk to God the way I want?”  “Because, sweetheart, you have to know the right words.  And the Shema is only the beginning!  There are lots more prayers to learn after you get this one just right!”  “But I don’t WANT to say it just right.  I want to say it my way.”  “Oh really?” said the deeper voice.  “And what IS your way?”  “I don’t know.  I’d probably say: ‘Listen, God.  Thanks.  Thanks for everything.  Thanks for my house, and mom and daddy and grandpa.  And I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry…that my grandpa is so stubborn!  Just as stubborn as Mom, and she’s almost as stubborn as me, and…”  The angel leaned forward again, but she couldn’t quite hear the next words.  All she heard was both voices laughing, and the laughter echoing against every tree in the forest.  She straightened up.  She had found what she was searching for, so she flew off to give her report. 

There was a long line, but the angel waited patiently.  Finally, it was her turn.  God asked, “So, was it nice?  Which synagogue did you visit this year?”  The angel thought of the child’s prayer and her laughter.  “Yes,” she said, “It was beautiful.  It wasn’t…exactly…a synagogue though.  But there was definitely prayer.  And it was just beautiful.” (From A Year of Jewish Stories, p. 7).

The little girl with the house in the woods and the angel understood, but so did Grandpa.  We need our own words.  We need to apologize in our own way to those we have hurt and wronged; we need to struggle with the words to try to forgive ourselves.  But as Grandpa knew, we also need the formal words.  Of course God understands us in any language, with any words, and even the individual letters of the alphabet—any alphabet.  But the formal words connect us to each other, to Jews across the world, to Jews across time, and the formal words help us bring closure to—or get started with—our own personal words and acts of forgiveness.

And so this year, we ask our loved ones, our friends and coworkers to forgive us our transgressions—in whatever words we can struggle through.  We come together tonight, though, to pray for God to release us from all those promises, vows, kol nidre, on which we failed despite not only our best intentions, but also our honest efforts.  We’ll do better next year.  Perhaps we’ll look a little more realistically at our calendars, our lives, our loved ones, and we will understand ourselves a little better.   May we find our own words to ask for forgiveness from our loved ones and friends, from coworkers and even enemies.  May we look to our liturgy for comfort and togetherness, for closure and for inspiration.  May we understand Kol Nidre as a noble declaration that we have done our best and will do our best, and may we bring our honest efforts in line with that understanding.  May we do better in the coming year.  May this be the year we truly put in honest effort.  May this be the year we truly seek forgiveness, and that we put forth the effort to change.  We pray that this year, we will do better, because this year, we must do better.

Sat, February 24 2024 15 Adar I 5784