Kol Nidre– 5775
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
My Dear Friends,
A few weeks ago, Sue and I drove Ethan to the airport to begin his second year of college at the University of Texas. Now those of you who have ever said goodbye to a college student know very well that, as much as you want to pretend that it’s no big deal….it is a big deal – you’re saying goodbye to your kid for at least 3 months. Each year of college is one year closer to your child becoming an adult and leaving the nest for good. And as we drove, I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t going to get upset. I tried very hard to be nonchalant – and so, as a way to avoid my feelings, I peppered Ethan with questions:
- Who’s going to pick you up at the airport?
- Did you forget to pack anything?
- Will you call us when you get to Austin
And then there was one more question:
- Why is that police car behind me with his lights flashing?
And then I looked down at my speedometer…..
It turns out, I was driving 70 miles an hour in a 55 mile an hour construction zone…on Pena Boulevard…
Now, of course, we all know that EVERYBODY speeds on the way to the airport! I wasn’t going any faster than the other cars around me. But I got caught. I was distracted by trying to pretend that I wasn’t upset about Ethan leaving for college…..
After the policeman gave me the ticket, I started to rationalize – to myself, to Sue and Ethan – to God, perhaps…. After all, I wasn’t doing anything that anybody else wasn’t doing!
Then I got angry. How dare they issue me a ticket? Don’t they know who I am? I’m an important member of this community! I’m the Sr. Rabbi of Temple Emanuel! I’m the president of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council! I’m a Chaplain for the Colorado State House of Representatives. I could fight this – and probably win. I have friends in high places.
And then I looked over at my son – with thte smirk on his face – on his way to college. I asked myself, what behavior am I modeling here? What am I teaching my children? Am I above the law? Is anybody, really?
I shut up – and when I got home, I paid the ticket.
No matter how important you might think you are – that speed gun doesn’t - or at least shouldn’t recognize anything other than the fact that you were driving over the speed limit and you have to pay a fine.
What an important lesson for me to learn in the weeks prior to the High Holy days – leading up to Yom Kippur!
On this day, we are told, we stand in judgment before God. Everyone is equal on Yom Kippur. It doesn’t matter what we do, who we are, what titles we hold, how much money we make.....all of us are mortal. All of us have sinned. Many of us have driven above the speed limit...... All of us need to go through the process of teshuvah – turning and repentance. And that’s not easy. And that’s why we’re here tonight.
Yom Kippur is the day that levels the playing field.
On Yom Kippur, our tradition teaches, each of us comes to the Synagogue with our bag of sins – our collection of misdeeds from the past year. All year long we add more sins to our bag. Some of us carry small little peckelach – little sacks. Others are carrying steamer trunks..... But we’re all carrying something. We don’t like to look at our baggage. Most of us avoid it at all costs..... and yet, at some point we need to open it up, examine what’s inside, fess up to what we’ve done and ask for forgiveness. We need to say “I’m sorry” – to God and to one another.
Jewish tradition teaches that Teshuvah – repentance - is a process – it is not something that is done lightly, easily or, for that matter, for profit. The great medieval sage, Rambam – or Maimonides -- articulates in Hilchot Teshuvah—the Laws of Repentance, the steps one must take in order to bring about full teshuvah/Repentance. Just as a twelve-step program for people with addictions can pave a path towards recovery, so too can a Maimonidean “five-step” program show us the way to a better life.
The first two steps in doing Teshuvah are recognition - admitting to ourselves that we did something wrong – and renunciation – resolving internally that we will never repeat what we have done.
These are the acts of looking into the mirror and facing ourselves as we really are – warts and all. They are often the most difficult of the steps in this process because they are so counterintuitive to what society teaches us. We tend to measure ourselves by external, rather than internal metrics. Admitting wrongdoing is seen as a weakness when we compare ourselves to others.
A story is told of a young boy who was sitting at a restaurant talking on his cell phone. He dialed a number and asked to speak to Dr. Ginsberg. The boy said:
"Hello, Dr. Ginsberg, how would you like to hire a boy to cut the grass and run errands for you? Oh, you already have someone? Are you satisfied? You are? OK. Goodbye."
As the boy was getting up to leave the restaurant, the manager stopped him and said:
"Listen, son, you seem like an enterprising and hard working young man. I could use someone like you around the place. If you're looking for a job, you can work for me."
"Thank you sir," the boy replied, "but I already have a job."
"But didn’t I hear you asking Dr. Ginsberg if he needed someone to work for him?"
"Well, not exactly,” replied the boy, "you see, I'm the boy who works for Dr. Ginsberg and I was just checking up on myself." [Thanks to Rabbi Barton Lee for this story...]
So much of our time is spent comparing ourselves to others! We want to know how we "measure up". We play this game in all areas of our lives: at work, at play. Even in our families. And all of this is fueled by the messages - the sales pitches - we receive every waking minute of every day. If we are to believe what we see on Television, what we read in the many "self-improvement" books that fill our bookshelves, what we hear from “experts” who have simple answers to life’s complicated problems.... we can have perfect homes, perfect families, perfect jobs and perfect teeth. We can live in perfect communities where the roads are always free from repair, where crime is nonexistent and the air quality index is above average. We can drive the perfect car and wear perfect clothing on our perfect bodies.....All we have to do is find the right secret for success. And those secrets are within our grasp – for the right price.
As silly as it sounds, when our impossible dreams do not come true, our souls are in turmoil. We hide our true feelings, fears and frustrations. We also refuse to see that this inner turmoil is controlling us and forcing us to go to great lengths to compensate for them.
But when we own up to our actions and admit our faults and our frailties, we actually show our strength. That’s why we teach our children that telling the truth about what they did is praiseworthy even if the deed itself was wrong or even illegal (like speeding on Pena Boulevard....).
Once we have gone through the difficult process of looking deep into ourselves and our souls, Maimonides’ next two steps teach us that we have to look outside of ourselves, publicly acknowledging our hurtful actions and actively asking for forgiveness.
I recently received an e-mail from someone I hadn’t heard from in a long time – someone with whom I had lost touch over the years. The heading on the message said: “L’Shanah Tovah.” I opened the e-mail and saw that it was not only addressed to me – it was a mass-mailing sent to a group of friends and acquaintances. The text of the e-mail was as follows:
“In the spirit of Elul, if I have done anything in the past year which caused you any hurt, embarrassment, pain, or difficulty, or was offensive to you in any way, I humbly offer my apologies and ask for your forgiveness.”
I must say, I was saddened when I read his e-mail. But at least it wasn’t a tweet…. While the spirit of message may have been genuine, it was not a true act of Teshuvah. The fact that it was contained in a mass-mailing was bad enough, but the truth is, it didn’t accomplish anything other than possibly allaying his personal guilt. To state: “If I have done anything that may have offended YOU.....” puts the onus on the one who was offended – not the person asking forgiveness.
I have been guilty of doing the exact same thing - not in e-mail form, but in words that I have spoken. Before each High Holiday service, those who will be participating in the service or sitting on the Bema gather together in the Green room behind the sanctuary for a short prayer. Just before we begin the prayer, I thank the participants for all that they do for Temple Emanuel. And then I ask their forgiveness for anything that I may have done to hurt them over the course of the year. In reading my friend’s mass-e-mail, I recognized my own words in his remarks. And so, I will try to enumerate those aspects of my own failings when I ask for forgiveness in the future.
And this brings us to the next step. Maimonides teaches us that the third step of Teshuvah is putting into words exactly what we have done wrong. We acknowledge our misdeeds – first to a trusted friend, colleague or loved one – in order to find the proper words. But then, in the fourth step, we are required to go directly to the person we have wronged, acknowledge how we have wronged them, and ask them for forgiveness.
In other words, it’s not enough to say, “If I have harmed you in any way, I didn’t mean it....” We need to name our transgressions and own up to them. We need to make ourselves vulnerable. We need to let down our guard and face those whom we have harmed.
True Teshuvah can have no ulterior motives.
True teshuvah must come from the heart – from an acknowledgement that we have hurt someone and we cannot move on until we address the fact that we have created that hurt.
Over the past few weeks, we have watched the leadership of the NFL come to terms with the fact that too many professional atheletes have a problem with domestic abuse. The way that Commissioner Goodell has dealt with the problems in his league has come under a great deal of scrutiny. Was he truly apologetic at first? Did he and the teams under his umbrella fully accept responsibility for the problems they faced or did they do just enough to satisfy the public’s desire for change? Time will only tell…..
True teshuvah involves risk. It means that we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection – it means we need to be vulnerable. But nothing worth getting in life comes without some risk.
There are people we know who will do almost anything to avoid having to face the pain of their own inadequacies.
The Haftarah we will read tomorrow afternoon is one of the most powerful and confusing stories in the Bible - the book of
Jonah. If you remember the story, God calls to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh and proclaim
that the city will be destroyed if the Ninevites do not repent. Jonah
decides to flee. He boards a ship and
sets sail for Tarshish. A great storm
shakes the boat and Jonah is thrown
overboard. Immediately, the waters are
calmed and Jonah is swallowed by a
fish. For three days he remains in the belly
of the fish until he is spewed forth on dry land - at Nineveh: the very place from which he was
Why do we read this story on Yom Kippur afternoon? There are many reasons.
Jonah, when first confronted by the size and scope
of his task, flees in terror. The
message of the story is that, try as he might, Jonah
could not run away - for his problem was not
that he had an onerous task to perform - no, his problem was that he was trying
to run away from himself. The book of Jonah
teaches us that, no matter how hard we try, eventually we are going to catch up
with ourselves - and we are going to have to deal with our mistakes and
missteps – it can’t be avoided.
Another reason we run is that we are afraid that, by showing our true selves, we might become repulsive to those around us – especially those who love us. And this is the greatest mistake that anyone can make. Love is not based on perfection. It is based on perspective and acceptance.
We hide our true selves for fear of rejection.
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes the following:
To love is to accept with enthusiasm that which is less than perfect. It involves the willingness to accept imperfection and to accept it enthusiastically, not in a spirit of long suffering self-righteousness. Anybody can be stirred by perfection; you have to accept perfection because it makes an unassailable claim on you. You have to admire it, but you cannot love it. It is only by reaching out and accepting, without disdain, the less-than perfect that we show our capacity for love. [I’m not sure the source of this quote. It is either from Rabbi Kushner’s book, How Good Do We Have to Be?A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness or from an article or sermons that he wrote. I could not find the source.]
If everyone were perfect, we would have no need for Yom Kippur. We would have no need for prayer, for this synagogue, for community. We wouldn’t need audacious Hospitality!!! We would all be complete. We would all be content with ourselves and nothing more – for what could perfection ever need from another person or institution, or idea. If we were all perfect, we would all be bored out of our minds. If we only allowed ourselves to interact with perfect people – no one would be here right now.
We are not perfect. We are flawed. For this reason we need Teshuvah. We need to be able to say “I’m sorry” – and mean it – really mean it.
There is a subtle irony in the fact that, just before Cantor Heit chanted Kol Nidre so beautifully tonight, we proclaimed: “Tonight we are permitted to pray with sinners!” The truth is, every interaction that takes place in our lives happens in the company of sinners – we all sin!
No, we are not perfect – we are flawed. As a result, we also need to be able to forgive those who come to us – afraid, vulnerable, weakened by their own self-awareness, desperately needing our forgiveness.
A story is told about the famous Nazi Hunter, Simon Wiesenthal:
There was a man living next to Weisenthal in one of the DP camps after the war. One day, the man borrowed $10 from him and assured him that he had a package coming from a relative any day - and would positively pay him back the next week. At week's end, he had an excuse for not paying, and the next week he had an even better one, and so it went on for almost a year. Finally, one day the man approached Weisenthal with a $10 bill in hand and said: "My visa has just come through. I'm leaving for canada tomorrow, Here's the $10 I owe you." Weisenthal waved him away and said: "No, keep it. For $10 it's not worth changing my opinion of you.”
The story rings true, doesn’t it? So many times, we get so invested in our hurts, our slights, our anger, that we find it difficult to let them go.
Somewhere here tonight is a man who is painfully remembering how he was deceived a partner in business, or a parent, a child, a lover, or friend.....and that memory is like a hot coal – burning angry red in the pit of his stomach.
Somewhere here tonight there is a wife who is so angry at her husband that she is ready to leave him.
Somewhere a son is seething with resentment that his mother could treat him so badly.
Somewhere a parent has written off a daughter for her misdeeds.
Somewhere there is a friend who is deeply hurt by another.
Somewhere, everywhere – we all have been wronged. For just as we have sinned, we also have been sinned against by others.
We hold on to our grudges. They become familiar, habitual, a part of us – and they steal from us our ability to see the holiness – not only in others, but also in ourselves.
Our task – on this Yom Kippur – is to find the strength to ask for forgiveness – and the ability to forgive when we are asked.
But what is even more important, we are also charged tonight with forgiving those who will not admit that they have wronged us – who won’t or can’t ask for forgiveness – and that is the most difficult task of all. We need resolution – and when it is not forthcoming –we are trapped by our emotions. When we hold on to our anger, our resentment, our sense of righteous indignation, we also are allowing ourselves to be controlled by these feelings that sap our capacity to move on and channel our energy from hatred and anger into love and compassion.
Now I also understand that there are some actions that are truly unforgiveable. Victims of abuse have shared with me their struggle to move on and rid themselves of the anger and fear that they feel when they recall the actions of their abusers. Those who have had loved ones harmed or even murdered by others must deal with both their grief and their anger. But some of these brave souls have also have shared that, through hard work and the support of caring individuals, they can move beyond the fear and hatred. They understand that holding on to anger and resentment keeps them linked eternally to the person who caused their pain in the first place. This is not an easy process – it takes years of difficult and painful therapy – but it can be done…. These chains can be broken.
Maimonides final step is resolution. What happens when we are confronted with the same opportunity to sin for which we have asked forgiveness? Will we succumb? Will we find the inner strength to resist the temptations that lie in wait for us? This is the final test of the process of teshuvah.
A story is told of a rabbi who on the eve of Yom Kippur asked his students, “How far is it from east to west?” One student eagerly responded, “Hundreds of miles!” Another shouted, “No, thousands!” A third proudly replied, “Twenty-two thousand! That’s the circumference of the globe.”
The rabbi shook his head then calmly spoke, “My children, the distance from east to west is just one step. Just put one foot forward and turn yourself around.”
Tonight all of us are equal before God.
Tonight we need to pay the fines and move on.
Tonight we recognize, renounce, confess, apologize and resolve to change our deeds.
And so, my friends, once again – as I do every year – I ask you: To whom do you need to ask for forgiveness? Who do you need to forgive – whether they ask you for it or not?
Now is the time – don’t wait until it is too late – that is the message of these Yamim Noraim – these Days of Awe –and especially this holiest of days when we stand before God – in all of our weakness, our mortality and our potential for holiness. Do it. Ask for and grant forgiveness. Don’t allow fear, guilt, resentment or anger to control you. These five steps can and will change your life and your relationships. I promise.
May we all find the strength within ourselves to take the necessary steps towards Teshuvah.
And may we learn to drive the speed limit – especially on the way to the airport!.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah