A gift of tears: Kol Nidre 5771

Below is my Kol Nidre Sermon for 5771.

Tonight-I want to tell you a story.  A midrash. Midrash is a form of Jewish story that helps us better understand the Torah, that helps us better understand life.  And on this holy night of Kol Nidre, when we seek out God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of those whom we have wronged we need to understand life-our own lives.  For the choices we make are not always conscious choices.  We choose rightly and sometimes we choose wrongly.  We have errors in judgment. We have failures of character. Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur help us cleanse ourselves and this holy day season is to help us begin again. This night is here to teach us to repair and lift up the broken pieces of our hearts, our souls, our world and knit them together for life.

The Talmud teaches us: For sins between God and humanity God forgives

For sins between human beings—only that person who was harmed can forgive.

This night and for the next 24 hours-throughout Yom Kippur, we are given an opportunity to explore, and delve and deepen our connection to our souls and to the Holy Divine Source of All as we seek to understand our journey here. We are given an opportunity to forgive others and ourselves. And to seek forgiveness.

Oprah Winfrey, that great Talmudic scholar said: “The best definition of forgiveness I ever heard is giving up the hope that the past could be any different. I love that definition.  The past won’t change.  It is what it is.  Our regrets our hurts come because we think that somehow we can piece it all together and make it like it was—magically wipe away the pain and the situation.  But we can’t.  We can only choose to move forward with grace and a sense of renewal.”  She continued “Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you then have to accept the person that hurt you back into your life. Forgiveness does not mean I now want to have you over for dinner. It doesn’t mean I want to associate with you. It just means I will no longer be tied to the past.”

Forgiveness mean  I will not let it dominate me.

Forgiveness isn’t about the other person as much as it about empowering you.

And so on this night of Yom Kippur we look to our tradition to give us the tools—to empower us to forgive ourselves, to forgive God and to forgive those who caused us such hurt.  Tonight we hope and pray that we can strengthen our souls for this journey of forgiveness.  We pray that we can learn in the next 24 hours through our songs and prayers and meditations how to let go and let the holy Divine One wash us with love.

“Why? Why did I do it?” Eve wondered aloud as she sat by the edge of a brook, watching the water flow over the rocks. But the brook had no answer for her.

So she laid her head down and watched the setting sun. And again she asked, “Why? Why did I do it?” Instead of answering her, the sun just sank beneath the horizon, taking with it Eve’s last rays of happiness on her final day in the Garden of Eden.

As the sky turned from blue to darkest black, Eve asked the stars, “Why? Why did I do it? Why did I take a bite from that fruit? I wasn’t even hungry!” But the stars had no answer, either.

God had given Adam and Even only one rule for living in the Garden of Eden:  Don’t eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But that is exactly what they had done. Now, they would have to leave the Garden of Eden, this perfect place forever.

She watched Adam staring up into the night sky and knew he had no answers.  They both had been curious about the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil for some time. “Why doesn’t God want us to have knowledge?” they had asked each other. “What secrets is that Tree keeping from us?” But they had never dared to eat any of its fruit – until now.

“Why?” Eve burst out. They could have had any other fruit they wanted! She didn’t even feel more knowledgeable. Adam merely shook his head in response.

Eve and Adam spent the rest of the day in silence. It hurt too much to talk, and there really wasn’t anything to say. They just waited for God to tell them it was time to leave paradise, to show them what life would be like outside the Garden.

By afternoon, Eve’s heart ached with grief as the gates of Paradise began to open.  She and Adam said silent good-byes to the plants and the trees and the flowers. They blew kisses to the birds and the animals. At the Garden’s gates, they turned to take one last look behind them.

“I’m so sorry,” said Eve. “If only we could undo what we did.”

If only we could change the past,” said Adam, holding her hand.

Eve closed her eyes and inhaled the perfumed air one last time. “If only we didn’t have to go,” she said. “If only this moment could last forever.”

But the time had come, and the gates of Paradise were closing behind them. As they took their first steps into the world outside the Garden, they heard God’s voice speaking to them softly.

“You ate from the Tree of Knowledge,” God said, “and now there is much you will know. You will know fear, and you will know sadness but you will also know surprise and joy. For the first time, you will know pain and hard work-but that means you will also know the excitement of dreaming and the delight of accomplishment. You will know good times and bad. There will be times when life seems too hard, and for those times, I am giving you something that will help.”

“Is it something from Paradise?” asked Eve.

“A tree, or a fruit, or a rainbow? asked Adam.

“No,” answered God, “it is not from Paradise, but it will help you remember. This gift will come from yourselves. Whenever you are feeling sorrow- the way you feel now- whenever the pain gets too hard to bear, whenever you are truly sorry or frightened or lonely, I will give you tears, so that you can cry. And though tears are not from the Garden of Eden, they will lighten your hearts and give you a glimpse of Paradise again.”

Eve turned to Adam and saw that tears were already running down his cheeks.

Her own cheeks burned hot, and when she touched her eyes, they felt wet. Her tears turned to sobs, and finally her whole body shook as she cried.

Memories of their days in the Garden flowed freely as her tears. The peaceful animals, the wondrous flower petals, the glorious sunlight. Then came memories of their curiosity, and the Tree, and the fruit she had eaten. Eve’s tears flowed on and on.

There were more images- this time of the future. Eve could see herself carrying a baby as she worked in her own garden. She saw Adam turning soil and harvesting vegetables. She saw visions of homes built and people gathering to eat and drink and celebrate. She felt the comfort a good night’s sleep after a hard day’s work.

When Eve opened her eyes, everything seemed clearer and sharper. Her body still throbbed with sorrow, but that terrible pain in her heart had eased, and her head felt lighter. Eve turned to see that the gates of the Garden of Eden had closed. She saw Adam drying his tears with the back of one hand.  When he looked up his face, too, shone with a new kind of peace.  Ever since that day, people have found comfort in tears. Although both bitter and sweet, tears are a little taste of Paradise.[i]

On this Yom Kippur-the journey of our souls is to find healing, find forgiveness and seek out peace.  We are not to condemn ourselves for our sins, but to heal ourselves of the wounds we have made in the world.  We are here to try to repair our very being and the fabric of the world.  We are here to let our tears help wash away our mistakes, our errors in judgments our grievous harms.  The salt of our tears may burn open wounds but it will eventually soothe our guilt, our shame and our fear.

Through three things, Teshuvah, tefillah, and Tzedakah- repentance prayer and charitable acts—we can do this. It’s a simple message-but it is hard to do.  Very hard.  That is why we have such an important and holy day devoted to this end.

But tonight we learn of just one more piece of the puzzle.  An aid that will help the journey of our soul—towards that goal of healing.  A little taste of Paradise that will ease our way, bring some relief so that we may get on to the business at hand—which is the business of the delving into our essence—our souls to bring about that repair in ourselves. We learn about the cleansing power of our tears.

Carl Jung wrote: “Neuroses are a legitimate substitute for suffering.”

When we don’t acknowledge our pain, our errors, and our suffering we often make choices that are not in our best interest.  But when we can use our tears, and tap into that flow to let our suffering out, our pain, our sins, we can empower our souls for a new journey of life.

And then we can take the raw material of Yom Kippur—Teshvuah, Tefillah and tzedakah-and repair the tear in our souls and in the world.

But you have to do it.  So this year—do it.

Cry and let it out. Forgive.  Forgive others and forgive yourself. Because Judaism teaches us

The first step – is Forgiveness— and with a good cry. As the Psalmist writes (Psalm 56:8)  “Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll — are they not in your record?”  Thus God will take account of your tears in the Book of Forgiveness and the Book of Life for the gates of tears are open.

The Talmud Teaches this story:  Rabbi Elazar said: “From the day the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer have been closed, as it says, “And when I shout and plead, God shuts out my prayer” (Lamentations 3:8). But even though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are opened, as it says, “Hear my prayer, Adonai, give ear to my appeal; do not disregard my tears” (Psalms 39:13). (Babylonian Talmud 32b)

On this holy night-with the gates of tears open to our prayers-let us learn to forgive, forgive through our tears.  Let us learn to forgive ourselves and others.  And may God grant us the fortitude to see our tears as the cleansing and purifying gift that God intended.  Our tears make us stronger.  Our tears help us heal.  In our tears we will find  redemption—yours and mine and the world.

Just as the Psalm verse teaches us:  (56:9) “Place my tears in your waterskin”. According to this tradition, the tears shed by the Jewish people during the destruction of the Temple and during the sorrowful years of exile are gathered in a waterskin (or waterflask); when the waterskin will be filled, redemption will take place. (http://jhom.com/topics/tears/jar.html )

Tonight we fill begin to fill that waterflask with the path to our redemption.

May your tears wash you clean and may the forgiveness we give to ourselves and others help heal our souls and the world.  Ken Yehi Ratzon—So may it be God’s will.


[i] “The Gift of Tears” p.187-190,  A Year of Jewish Stories, Maisel, Grace Ragues and Shubert, Samantha, illustrated by Keiser, Tammy L., (UAHC Press, NY, 2004)

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