Kol Nidrei Sermon – 5772
Vows Worth Making
Kol nidrei. How has this haunting, evocative prayer come to define what we do here tonight? It isn’t poetry — or prose. It isn’t even a prayer. On its face, it is a dry legal formula that annuls vows. The first time we hear about it — in the eighth century — great rabbis are already against reciting it. Can we annul vows that easily? Is this what we should be doing on the holiest night of the year? Yet here it is, and here we are. Kol nidrei has outlasted all its critics, defied its opponents, and remains one of our most moving prayers. Why is this?
A great rabbi explained, “because it’s what a large part of life and teshuvah are about. Like vows made too quickly, like thoughtless words, we do things we know we shouldn’t. And on this night of nights, we look back at the mess we’ve sometimes made of our lives, the people we’ve hurt, the mistakes we’ve made, and the things we should never have done, and say: God, Kulhon icharatna lehon. We regret them all. And if regret can undo a vow, let it undo an action as well. Give us the strength to make things better and begin again, a little wiser this time, a little less sure of ourselves, a little more understanding and patient and humble. Help us undo kol nidrei, ve-esarei, ushevu’ai, all the knots I have tied myself into, and let my life become simple and honest and kind again.”
Let the echoes of our best intentions and our apologies, as well as the silence and hardness of our stubbornness well up this evening. Let us brush ourselves off, take a look at the foundation on which our lives are built, and vow, once again, to rebuild our lives — not bury what we may be ashamed of, but to vow to become who we were meant to be by building upon who we are — tonight.
When we visit Israel, we may climb to the top of a tell, a pile of old civilizations, one on top of another. We can see many such hills marking the landscape, reminding us that life and civilization are less about building than about rebuilding.
What is true for many civilizations throughout centuries is true for a single life throughout its years. There is always erosion — and sometimes just sustaining the blessings we have requires constant rebuilding. We make new configurations of the qualities we have, much as a new culture takes the material from all that went before. Over time, our lives are as tells: the new built on the old with unimagined possibilities unfolding.
What are our unimagined possibilities? We definitely have something here — something worth blessing, and something worth building upon. We have and are a kehillah kedoshah – a sacred community. I want so very much to name names, but I know I will forget someone, so I will just tell you what they do, and when I’m talking about one or a group of you, I hope that you recognize who you are.
In times of loss and difficulty, we are a place of refuge. We are a small community, and that enables us to reach out to one another in moments of crisis – we are in each other’s business and we know and check in on one another when someone is sick or suffering. Some of us provide meals or get someone else to the doctor when they are temporarily out of commission and others help organize and provide minyanim for prayer, comfort, and support.
In times of joy, we celebrate together. Last year on Sukkot, almost half of our community ate a meal in our Sukkah – some for the very first time in their lives. The lighting, the food, and the shared bodily warmth from sitting so close together created an atmosphere in the Sukkah that made people glow. Last Purim, our Religious School children and our Sisterhood ladies made mishloach manot baskets – and when one little girl dropped by unexpectedly with the very well-thought out treats, the surprised woman cried out, “I feel like I just won the lottery!” And in a way, she did. Often we act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.
We live in abundance. We have true tenders of the garden in our midst. In Arthur’s and my back yard, the Temple’s front yard, we have an eternal fountain – spilling forth plum tomatoes as well as other vegetables.
Last year many of us became engaged – not necessarily to each other, but, certainly, with each other. We formed a learning chavurah, which started out with my accidentally missing our first learning session by not paying attention to what time it was at kiddush, and last month they told me, “hey, Rabbi, we’re starting in the Small Sanctuary whether you’re there or not.”
And let’s certainly not forget about the children. Although we are not yet blessed with great numbers of noisy children, we have been blessed with the ruach (spirit) of young life this past year. We celebrated two brisses and a baby naming – a two hundred percent increase over two years ago. And our Religious School children are leading the way in Tikkun Olam, volunteering at Foodlink, and remembering, connecting with, and caring for our older members,
And what about our Religious School children’s parents and teachers? These patient and sometimes tired parents are actively involved in their children’s educations. Why? Because a secular education just isn’t enough. A parent or a Religious School teacher first taught Albert Einstein that we are all our brothers’ keepers. Another one explained to Dr. Jonas Salk the value of choosing life. Henrietta Szold learned in Hebrew School to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And a caring teacher or parent encouraged a boy named David Green to join a youth group in Russia and he grew up to become David Ben-Gurion.
We have a good foundation – and when the foundation is strong, everything else will work out. We live in one of the greatest civilizations that ever existed, although it has its problems right now. And even though we also have our problems and challenges, Temple Beth David is probably doing better than the United States of America! We own our own building. We don’t have any debt. We have children in our school who are learning wonderful values. The ruach (spirit) of the founders echoes throughout our sacred space, from the floorboards to the vaulted ceiling. We look out on the beauty of nature. What could be better?
Continuing through this year, we will create together, and hopefully, argue with one another be’shem shamayim (in the name of heaven). Who we are is a phenomenal caste of characters, talented people, and thoughtful, hard-working core groups of members.
We all come here because we mean well, we ache to do good, and we yearn to find meaning in our singular and communal embodiment of Judaism. To sustain ourselves requires that we commit to continual growth and an evolving perspective as we adapt to our changing world. We won’t know who we can become until we make a deep commitment to who we are now. When we accept ourselves, we will tap into the deep resources that lie within us. Like the power that emerges at times from performing mitzvot when they feel like a burden, creativity stems from not giving up or giving in during difficult times. Both spiritual growth and creativity burst forth from inspired dreaming. My favorite saying of Albert Einstein is “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And it just noses out, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
We all have the ability to become great spirits. This is our space and our time. On the wall of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. it is written: “In this Temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” — In this Temple as in the hearts of all of you who preserve this unity, the ruach and the memory of your neshamahs will be enshrined forever.
One of my mentors has said, “Jews lost many things in the course of history, their land, their home, their city Jerusalem, their holy of holies, their temple; — sometimes they lost their lives. But never did they lose their hope. Jews kept hope alive, and hope kept the Jewish people alive. And if you were to ask me what difference faith makes, I would say: faith is the ability to know the worst and yet remain committed to the best, to know how cruel life can be and yet never ever to despair. Faith is the courage to hope.”
I hope that we will create a giant, morphing Venn diagram, where all of our lives intersect one another’s.
And I hope that we will continue to struggle and create and pray together.
But most of all, I hope that those who follow us will build upon the foundation that we deepen, climb into the heavens, reach out to us, and say, “thank you for making that vow so many years ago, — to never, ever give up on our future.”
Rabbi Aviva Berg
(My gracious thanks for the words and inspiration of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi David Wolpe, that helped me prepare this message).