Thursday, September 27, 2012

We, The Sinners – Kol Nidre, 5773

We, The Sinners
Kol Nidre 5773
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO
My Dear Friends,

In case you hadn't noticed, there's going to be an election in November. Our nation is split down the middle and the campaigning is fierce. One thing that all sides agree upon is that this is one of the most important elections in recent history: both candidates have radically different world views. Each side is convinced not only that theirs is the only path to the future, but also that the other side is a recipe for disaster.

Along with the myriad of economic, foreign and domestic policy issues that will confront the next administration, in all likelihood, our next president will be nominating new Justices to sit on the Supreme Court. This, more than almost any other action that a president can take will have an impact on our nation that will reverberate far beyond their tenure in the White House. Issues ranging from the separation of church and State, a Woman's right to choose, immigration, health care and many others will come before the court. The power of the president to nominate future justices will, without a doubt, determine the direction our nation will be headed.

Tonight is Kol Nidre. Tonight, I will not speak about the Supreme Court. But I do want to talk about another court - one, that, in a very real sense is even more powerful than that august Body of nine justices that meets in our nation's capital. The court of which I speak is a Beyt Din - a religious body that actually convened earlier this evening - here on our Bema. Cantor Heit was the spokesperson. She was flanked by our Rabbis, our president and leaders of the community. Each year, on Erev Yom Kippur, in every synagogue around the world, a similar beyt din is convened. Each time the Kol Nidre is chanted we – the congregation – stand in witness. The Torah scrolls are removed from the ark so as to highlight the solemnity of the court's procedings. Tonight, as in every synagogue around the world, before Cantor Heit began to sing the hauntingly beautiful melody of Kol Nidre, our beit Din - our court - issued the following decree:

B'yishiva shel Malah u'vyishiva shel Mata, al dat ha makom v'al data ha-kahal anu matirim l'hitpaleyl im ha-avaryanim
In the heavenly and the earthly court, by consent of God and by consent of this community, we are permitted to pray with avaryanim - with sinners.
This ancient formula always precedes the chanting of the Kol Nidre. But what does it mean when the beyt Din proclaims: "We are permitted to pray with sinners?"

There are actually several theories:

One theory is that the Avaryanim were the Marranos; the Jews of Spain and Portugal who, during and following the Spanish Inquisition, disguised themselves as Christians. But once a year, when Kol Nidre came, feeling the tug of tradition they slipped into the synagogue and asked to be admitted. Other commentators do not agree with this theory. They say that this declaration could not possibly have referred to the Marranos because it pre-dates the Inquisition and probably has it's origins in Ashkenazic, not Sephardic sources.

Another theory is that refers to the philosophers - the rationalists - the epicorsim: those who challenged their faith by asking radical, even heretical questions - about God, about Torah, about Justice. Most of the year these people boycotted the Synagogue. But, like so many here tonight, when Kol Nidre came, they, too, felt a tug, rational or not, and found their way back into the community.

The third theory about the avaryanim is the simplest and yet, it is the most profound.

There's a story that tells of how one day God was looking down at Earth and saw all of the evil that happening below. As a result, God decided to do some investigative reporting. So God called for an angel and sent her down to check it out. When she returned she told God, yes it is bad on Earth - very bad. 95% of the people are sinners and 5% are not.

God was not pleased. God thought for a moment and decided to send down a different angel to get a second opinion. When the second angel returned he went to God and said: "Yes, the Earth is in a major decline. 95% of the people are sinners and 5% are not."

God said "This is not good. But at least there are the 5% who are not sinners."

So God decided to send e-mail to that 5% in order to encourage them and give them hope.

Do you know what that e-mail said?

Neither do I. I didn't get one either.
Anu matirim l'hitpaleyl im ha-avaryanim.....
We are permitted to pray with sinners....

The third theory about the avaryanim is that they are us, my friends. They are you and me: All of us - the plain, simple, ordinary everyday sinners, who cheat a little, steal a little, lie a little.

We are the ones…..

  • who are impatient with our spouses;
  • who mess up our houses,
  • who have corners we cut;
  • and doors we slam shut.
We are ones with no time for our children; who gossip and make excuses for our lapses every day of our lives. We are the imperfect ones. We are the ones who, for the next 24 hours, will be standing before God and pleading for forgiveness for our own sins and for the sins of those around us.

Tomorrow afternoon we will read the story of Jonah. Now Jonah was an unlikely candidate for a prophet. Not only was he reluctant - he was down-right defiant - even petulant. He tried to escape God's call by boarding a ship and sailing as far away as he could. Soon after setting sail, a mighty storm came that threatened the entire ship and crew. When Jonah was discovered to be the cause of the storm, the captain and crew of the ship asked him the following questions:
  • What is your occupation?
  • Where do you come from?
  • What is your country?
  • And of what people are you?"

Jonah answers the captain with a simple phrase:

"Ivri Anochi - I am a Hebrew....."
The word, Ivri is one of the oldest names for the Jewish people. It dates back to Abraham. The authors of the book of Jonah knew what they were doing when they put those words in his mouth because if we look closely at the word, Ivri, we can also see that it has the same root as Avaryanim (sinners): - ayin, vet, resh. In other words, to say, "I am a Jew," is also to say "I am a sinner." I am imperfect. Jonah has to come to terms with his own imperfections in the belly of the boat and of the beast, so to speak.

Tonight, before we chanted Kol Nidre, our communal beit din - our Rabbinic Court - came along to say - there is no such thing as a morally unblemished human being. There is only us - the avaryanim -the sinners -the Ivrim - the Hebrews - the imperfect and the incomplete - not only are we permitted to pray with avaryanim - we are required to pray with them; there is no one else with whom to pray! And it is precisely because we are avaryanim that we need each other so much.

The Talmud tells a fascinating story at the very end of Yoma, the tractate which addresses Yom Kippur. Rav, the great Scholar, had a falling-out with a local butcher. In some way, at some time this butcher had sinned against Rav. But the butcher never came to the Rabbi's house to do Teshuvah - to try to make amends. Finally, on Erev Yom Kippur. Rav himself went to the butcher in order to do teshuvah.. The great rabbi walked into the butcher's shop and found him busy cutting meat.

Eventually, the man looked up from his work and saw Rav, and he said: "Ah, it's you - go away! I have nothing with you - no business with you; nothing to say to you; I have nothing in common with you!" Rav remained silent. The butcher turned back to his meat; he raised his cleaver and swung it down, and as he did, a fragment of bone shot up at him and killed him.

What is the point of this story? Is it to teach us never to insult a rabbi? Is it to show the power of a Talmudic scholar?

I believe that the message is much deeper. I believe that the butcher does not die because he insulted Rav; his death is God's way of responding to what he had just said to Rav: "Go away; you and I have nothing in common!" Indeed, he had a great deal in common with Rav - his mortality. The response is death - not merely as a punishment - but to teach us that the one thing all of humanity has in common is the fact that one day, death will take us all. We don't want to think about it, but there is no greater Truth. The butcher denies this basic connection between himself and the rabbi; he insists that they have nothing in common, and therefore he has no need to talk or to reconcile with him. God, in effect, is saying to the butcher, "You don't understand; you have everything in common with Rav. You are both mortal; you are both limited; you are both imperfect; you are both human."

This is what it means to pray with Avaryanim - with sinners, for by accepting the fact that every one of us is a sinner, we are joining together and acknowledging our bond of weakness. Ironically, this is also our strength. The butcher could not ask forgiveness of Rav because he refused to acknowledge that he was flawed. But once we stop pretending, once we realize that we are all limited and all flawed - that we are all avaryanim - sinners - then and only then can we ask forgiveness of others and grant it to them as well.

This holiest of days also reminds us to accept ourselves as we really are. It teaches us to see ourselves with clarity.

A story is told of a businessman who had some time to kill at a train station. Now this was not a particularly large station and, consequently, there was not a lot for him to do except wait for his train. While he was waiting, he noticed a scale with a sign that stated: "Your weight and fortune, 5 cents." He put in a nickel, and out came a card which read: "Your name is David Aaronson, you're Jewish and you weigh 189 pounds." He was astounded. He put in another nickel and the same card popped out: "Your name is David Aaronson, you're Jewish and you weigh 189 pounds." He couldn't believe that this was for real, so he ran up to one of the porters at the station and asked him to get up on the scale. He put in another nickel, and the card popped out, saying: "Your name is Samuel Cunningham, you're Catholic, and you weigh 187 pounds." Aaronson was astounded; moreover, he thought someone was playing a trick on him – and he didn't like it. He knew of a certain waiter in a Chinese/Mexican restaurant around the corner. He ran to get him, put him up on the scale, and out came the card, which read: "Your name is Juan Chang, you're half-Mexican, half-Chinese and you weigh 158 pounds." Determined to fool the machine, Aaronson remembered that he knew of a friend of a friend who was 1/3 Hawaiian, 1/3 Russian, and 1/3 French, and moreover, had grown up in Saudi Arabia - being raised by the Bedouins in the Desert. He somehow managed to get this person to come to the train station and on to the scale. Out came the card which read: Your name is Boris De-kaukaloa. You are 1/3 Hawaiian, 1/3 Russian, and 1/3 French, and you weigh 250 pounds. By this time, Aaronson was infuriated. He ran around the corner to a costume shop, bought a wig and a beard, filled his suitcase with rocks, put on sunglasses and got on the machine. Out came the card which read: "Your name is still David Aaronson, you're still Jewish, you still weigh 189 pounds….and you just missed your train."

Now there is a reason that I told this particular story - apart from the fact that its fun to tell….. How many times are we confronted by the obvious; and yet determined not to see it? Yom Kippur reminds us to accept ourselves as we really are.

Once we come to terms with our true selves, we need to accept others' trues selves as well. And this, my friends, is our main task on this Yom Ha Kippurim- this day of Atonement: The task of Teshuvah - repentance.

The Mitzvah of Teshuvah teaches us that we live life to the fullest when we connect fully with those around us. Tomorrow, when we recite the full litany of confession in the Al Cheyt prayers, I want you to notice that we list only those sins we have committed against human beings - not sins we have committed against God. The essence of teshuva is in the reestablishing of balance in our relationships. When we do teshuvah, we acknowledge the fact that we are all works in progress. We are aware that our actions impact others; that it is essential that we maintain the health of our relationships - with our loved ones, our friends, our colleagues - even with our enemies - or those whom we think are our enemies.

We share so much - all of us. Our hopes, our dreams, our flaws and imperfections..... But sometimes we can't see what we share – we can only see our hurt and our anger.

I can't tell you how many times I have been with families who refuse to talk to each other. Whether they are sitting in my study or standing on the Bema - I have watched as people forget that everyone is flawed - that everyone is a sinner. I have seen how families and friends can destroy each other:

  • fathers and mothers who once shared a vision of the future and now use their children as weapons to hurt the other.
  • I have seen brothers and sisters, parents and children who refuse to talk to each other.
  • I have seen former friends who turn into enemies - pretending that the other does not exist - holding on to grudges - nurturing them, feeding them with anger, rage and sorrow.
  • I have seen how I myself can succumb to anger and mistrust over small pettiness and items of no concern.
And then there are the truly heart-wrenching moments - the times when there is no more time; when we realize that the flaws that we could not bear in others were only a small part of their totality - but it is too late. The most painful words that I have ever heard are "...if only..."

  • I hear them said by children, spouses, siblings and friends - sitting by a hospital bed or standing at the grave of a loved one:
    • "If only I told him that I loved him more often......"
    • "If only I wasn't so stubborn...."
    • "If only I spent more time...."
    • "If only...."

I hear these words said months, even years after a loved one is gone – when the guilt, the pain and the loss are so great – and there is no time left to tell those whom we loved the words they desperately needed to hear – and that we needed to say. 

We are all avaryanim, my friends. We all possess great beauty and great ugliness. Our worth is measured, not by our wealth, or even our wisdom but by the degree to which we accept our own flaws and those of others around us.

Today is the day that we stand before a holy beyt din – convened by none other than the Eternal God. Today we are reminded of what is truly important in our lives: our relationships, our ability to make a difference in the lives of the people in our homes, our families, our friends and our community.
My dear friends, don't put off telling those whom you love that you love them - you may never have another chance.

  • Make amends - do it tonight, before it's too late.
  • Speak to your estranged family and friends – I know it's hard – but anything of value in life shouldn't come easy.
  • Stop the fighting.
  • Say you're sorry
  • Do Teshuvah
  • Even more important - accept other's teshuvah and forgive them.

And once you've done this sacred, cleansing act of Teshuvah, then take the next step – work to make the world, just a little bit better. Get involved in our community. Help others in need, find a cause that moves you and make a difference. Come to synagogue more – it couldn't hurt…..

Yes - we are ALL AVARYANIM - we are all sinners. May we allow that awareness help us to see the humanity in those around us:

  • let us have more patience – more understanding.

That is the message of our service tonight. That is why we come here. During the next 24 hours we will have opportunities to reflect on how we allow our own sins to impact our lives - and the lives of those around us. Remember - no matter how much we may feel slighted or hurt or even betrayed by others, all of us are equal in the eyes of God.

B'yishiva shel Malah u'vyishiva shel Mata, al dat ha makom v'al data ha-kahal anu matirim l'hitpaleyl im ha-avaryanim
In the heavenly and the earthly court, by consent of God and by consent of this community, we are permitted to pray with avaryanim - with sinners.

G'mar Chatimah Tovah - may we all be sealed for a blessing in the book of life.



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