Kol Nidre, 5780
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
About 15 years ago, when our family was living in Albuquerque, my then 10-year-old son, Ethan, came up to me when I was furiously working on a sermon. He asked me if I could help him with something. Now – you must understand that I was highly stressed. I was facing a deadline. I had a lot of work to do and not a lot of patience.
- “Dad – I need you to help me learn how to play a song on the guitar.”
- “Can it wait?” I asked. “I’m really busy here!”
- “It won’t take long…it’s a great song.”
- “Ethan – I really can’t help you right now. Soon…”
- I started to get annoyed. “What song do you want to learn?”
- “Cat’s in the Cradle – by Harry Chapin.” He had a big grin on his face…..
- He had me.
- We both laughed…..
- “Give me the guitar and I’ll show you, I said….”
If you’re not familiar with “Cat’s in the Cradle,” – it’s a song written by the late, great singer/songwriter Harry Chapin about a father who has no time for his young son. When he grows into adulthood, the father craves time to be with him, but by then, his son has no time for his dad – he’d grown up to be just like him….
Tonight, on this holiest night of the year, I want to talk about how we experience time. Cat’s in the Cradle is a song that is timeless. It tells a powerful truth about the need to prioritize and savor each moment with which we are blessed – because once they are gone, these moments can never be recovered. Time is precious. It is fleeting.
So - let’s begin at a vitally important place. Let’s talk about my DVR – my Digital Video Recorder.
I think the DVR is one of the greatest inventions of our time. When I was growing up, we had three TV channels. We watched the news at 6 and 10 and, if we were lucky, we got to see a few of the other programs that took place between these two bookends (if we finished our homework on time….). If we missed a show, we had to wait until it came around again – or heard what happened from friends.
Then, miraculously, as our options for entertainment grew, as the number of channels multiplied exponentially, the technology to store and record TV shows grew as well. It started with VCR’s and then the technology improved. Today – we can basically watch anything we want, any time we want – taking it from our stored recordings or searching for them online.
But some programs are best viewed in “Real Time.” On Sunday, I was officiating at a baby naming in our chapel while the Broncos were playing the Chargers. “What’s the score?” I asked someone as we gathered to begin the ceremony. “Don’t tell me!” shouted the grandfather of the baby. “I’m recording it - so don’t spoil it for me. I want to watch it tonight!”
Really? First of all, the Broncos won – Finally! It’s practically impossible to hide yourself from this amazing piece of information. Truth be told, if you don’t watch the game in Real Time, unless you cut yourself off from all technology, its almost impossible to stay uninformed.
It’s a phrase that we bandy about with ease, but I’m not sure I know what it actually means. Isn’t all time “real?” Whoever came up with that expression is a genius!
Tonight, I want to talk about “real time” – what does it mean for us as people who live in a world that is governed by time – some might even say obsessed with time?
We tend to view time as a precious resource – but unlike other resources such as water, coal or nuclear fission, it cannot be refined, stored, or controlled. While time can be measured – it cannot be tamed, it cannot be recycled – even on our DVR’s.
In his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, the late educator, Neil Postman writes about how our society’s insatiable appetite for being entertained has stripped away our ability to think rationally about the important issues with which we are confronted. He cites Lewis Mumford, the great American philosopher and historian of technology. Postman writes:
In Mumford’s great book, Technics and Civilization, he shows how, beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time keepers, and then time savers, and now time servers. In the process, we have learned irreverence toward the sun and the seasons, for in a world made up of seconds and minutes, the authority of nature is superseded. Indeed, as Mumford points out, with the invention of the clock, Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events. And thus, though few would have imagined the connection, the inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment; that is to say, the clock introduced a new form of conversation between man and God, in which God appears to have been the loser. Perhaps Moses should have included another Commandment: Though shalt not make mechanical representations of time[i].
Most of us, because our daily lives are so removed from the natural rhythms of time, feel subjected to a more oppressive, human generated, unnatural sense of time – and it is relentless. Exhausted by this, we crave control. We try to master it and sometimes even cheat it, and yet, no matter what we do; no matter how many technical advances we discover, time still slips through our fingers.
As a result, many of us live disconnected from Real Time. We are out of synch with the world around us and with one another. And to compensate for this disconnect, we look for artificial means of regulating and experiencing time: cell phones, the internet, DVR’s, even movies where time stands still through digital manipulation. How many recent films have allowed us to see the world in a kind of suspended animation that freezes all the action and presents us with multiple, digitally enhanced perspectives? We crave control over time – we try to master it – and yet, as we know all too well – we cannot succeed for time does not belong to us.
At the beginning of our service tonight we recited the Bracha:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melech Ha-Olam, shehechianu, v’kiimanu, v’higianu lazman hazeh.
Praised are You, Adonai, Ruler of the Universe, who gives us life, sustains us, and brings us to this holy moment.
The Shehechianu is a prayer that we say almost routinely. And yet, if we truly examine its message, it teaches us to focus on the fact that we are in the midst of something holy – something wondrous. God has given us life, sustained and brought us – it says – to this holy moment! Time is sacred. Let us acknowledge it. Let us savor it.
We are supposed to say the Shehechianu whenever we do anything for the first time- in a year- or in our lives – whether it is eating the first fruit of a season or standing underneath a chuppah – a wedding canopy. It is a prayer that helps us to see and live in time and recognize time as a gift.
As Jews, we mark time, not by ticks on a clock, but by cycles of the moon. Our holidays are regulated by seasons, not seconds. We remember anniversaries – and we measure the years that have passed for each cycle.
For example, each year, for the past 8 years, when November 8th roles around or, if I’m in tune with the Hebrew Calendar, the 19th of Cheshvan, I am reminded of my father’s yahrtzeit – or the anniversary of his death. On the 9th day of Av – we commemorate the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples.
We often talk about “Jewish Time” in jest, but the truth is – Judaism does have a great deal to say about time. It is all relative - especially when we examine our lives in the light of the uncertainties, joys, events and obstacles that are placed in our paths.
Our tradition presents us with a complex multi-dimensional structure wherein the past, present and future merge to create a sacred whole. Every aspect of Jewish life is predicated on this.
In our liturgy, for example, we re-experience the Exodus from Egypt each time we recite the Mi-chamocha. In the Aleynu, we envision a world outside of time - whole and healed as we give form and meaning to the dream of the coming of the messianic age. At the Passover Seder, we say the words: B’chol dor vador, Chayav Adam Lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah mi Mitzrayim - In every generation, each of us is required to view ourselves as though we, individually, went forth out of Egypt. The foods we eat, the songs we sing, even the way we sit at the seder table help us to relive and experience the Exodus from Egypt and the sweet taste of liberation.
“Jewish Time” is not a resource to be harnessed – it is an arena by and through which we experience the sacred. The great theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel called Shabbat “holiness in time.” He writes:
Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our holy of holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: The Day of Atonement.[ii]
There are no sacred spaces in Judaism – there are only sacred moments.
The fact that we all sit here tonight in our beautiful sanctuary – experiencing this holy time is remarkable! There are so many other things that we could be doing – and yet, we commit ourselves to performing these ancient rituals which are eternally new – as we seek to return to the times and the places where we can be our best. What a blessing to be here all together!
Our calendar moves us through a holy cycle – from week to week – Shabbat to Shabbat. Most of our holidays are agriculturally based: they are about planting and harvesting. This is not accidental. Even though most of us do not grow our own food anymore, the message of living with and through the earth is paramount. When a farmer plants her crops there is no guarantee that they will grow. We are totally dependent on the whims of weather and time.
When she brings in the harvest, we are commanded to give thanks – to appreciate the bounty that God has given. On this holy day, we gather in the harvest of our deeds.
Judaism commands us to remember the past. Elie Weisel, upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1986, said the following:
For us, forgetting was never an option. Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered[iii].
The High Holy Days are also about remembering. In the Amidah, we insert the following petition:
Zokhreynu l’chayim, Melech Chafetz Ba chayim, L’ma-an-cha Elohim Chayim.
Remember us unto life, O Sovereign who delights in life, for Your sake, O God of Life.
Remember us O God. But maybe, in asking God to remember, we are prompting ourselves to remember as well. At this most sacred time of the year our main task is to remember:
· we remember our proudest moments.
· We remember when we were humbled to the core.
· We celebrate our triumphs and suffer our tragedies.
· We remember loved ones who are no longer with us.
From joy to sadness we look back and strive to find meaning in the time that has passed since we last sat together in these seats.
Real time is not just about remembering the past. It also forces us to look ahead. Just a few moments ago, at the very beginning of our service, we heard the haunting melody of the Kol Nidre. This ancient refrain that links us to our past also prods us to look ahead to the future.
The text of Kol Nidre is deceptively simple:
“Let all our vows and oaths, all the promises we make and the obligations we incur to You, O God, between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be absolved of them.”
If you think about it, Kol Nidre is a strange prayer. Why, on this sacred night of repentance when our deeds are symbolically paraded in front of us, are we not asking God to forgive us for the broken vows and promises we made during the past year? Instead, we begin this most sacred of days saying, in effect, “we know that we’re going to mess things up in the future – so let’s just dispense with the asking God for forgiveness for what we’ve already done and look ahead to the future for the mistakes that we will be making.”
I believe that there is a vitally important reason that the Kol Nidre deals with vows that we will break in the future – and not in the past. What this prayer is trying to tell us is that Real Time isn’t linear. It teaches that we can’t dwell exclusively in the past –we must also look ahead to what comes next. The past, present and future are all intertwined.
How many people do we know who live only in the past – who are unable to let go of either the pain or the joy of what once was and now is no more? How many of us hold on to grudges and shut out those who are closest to us? How many of us are keeping score and waiting for the next opportunity to right a wrong that occurred against us somewhere or sometime long ago – and yet continues to consume us with anger or remorse?
If we are to truly appreciate the gift of time, we need to let go – to have faith in the future – no matter what the future holds.
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes about how Real Time plays itself out in this context:
If you think of life as a road along which we travel, then the past is behind us--that’s the part of the road we’ve already covered --and the future is in front of us. That’s the part we haven’t gotten to yet. But suppose you don’t think of life as a road to be traveled. Suppose you think of it as a story being played out on a movie screen. Then the past would be in front of you. It would already have been shown on the screen. And the future would be behind you, in the projection booth, not having reached us yet. [iv]
In the Torah, in Leviticus 23:24 we are commanded to celebrate the New Year on the first day of the 7th month – the month of Tishrei – not the First Month – the Month of Nissan. I’ve always felt that this was a powerful statement. We announce the new year in the middle of the year – when we can see where we have been and look ahead to where we are going. These Ten Days of Repentance are about taking a step back – thinking about our past and planning for the future – often at the same time.
My friends, a key message of Yom Kippur is that sometimes we need to live in multiple dimensions –at the same time. These 24 hours of self-reflection are sacred because they allow us – no, they FORCE us – to confront who we are, who we have been and who we are becoming. This is not always easy. It can be unsettling – but essential. Another key message is that we are not in control. Life occurs around and through us. We are along for the ride. Real time – JEWISH TIME -- is experienced – not controlled. We can’t record it on our DVR’s and come back for it later. Life is full of uncertainties. Maybe the message of these holidays is that we need to see time– not as a resource that needs to be exploited, but as a sacred gift in and through which we can experience life fully.
Real Time is a gift. Life itself is a gift. The seconds, hour, minutes, days and years which we are allotted are precious. “Teach us, Eternal God, to number our days,” the Psalmist writes, “….that we might acquire a heart of wisdom[v].”
My friends, on this Erev Yom Kippur – this night when we are so keenly attuned to the passage of time – let us pledge to find the time -- the Real Time – to experience the daily gifts that we are given. Each moment is precious. Let us not waste them with pettiness, grudges, or cutting ourselves off from those who mean the most to us.
I cannot tell you how many times I have sat in my study and listened as people have shared their grief and poured out their hearts as they tell me how family members have shunned them; how dear friends have turned their backs; how they have tried to make amends for mistakes - to no avail. The pain of lost friendships and family connections is unbearably sad. They are experienced in Real Time – all of the time.
For the next 24 hours we have both an opportunity and an obligation to look back and ahead and to focus on ways that we might be able to make vitally important changes in our lives. And so, once again on this holiest night of the year I challenge you:
- Tell the people you love that you love them.
- Reach out to those who need you.
- Ask for help from those who want nothing more than to be there for you.
- Make amends with those who have hurt you – and to those whom you have hurt as well.
I know that there are times when forgiveness and reconciliation is not possible – when chasms have been created by callousness and, even worse by abuse. Not every action can be forgiven and not everyone can forgive. And yet, whenever possible, we must try to forgive those who come to us in true repentance – and even those who can’t or won’t. Holding on to grudges takes up too much of our time. There are more important things to do in life.
There’s just not enough time in the world to let the pain of the past wreak such havoc on the precious moments that God has gifted us. And so, I pray that this holy day will help us to let go of the past while we embrace the future. May we find the time – the REAL TIME to live firmly in the present and, in the process of doing so – to find God in our lives.
AMEN – Chatimah Tovah
[i] Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. USA: Penguin. P. 11
. The Sabbath. p.8. (I changed the language to be gender-sensitive) Abraham J. Heschel
[iii] Elie Wiesel -- Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1986
-- Sermon: “Facing Forward.” From The American Rabbi 17/4 Harold Kushner
[v] Psalm 90:12