Here is this year’s (5773) Kol Nidre Sermon delivered at Congregation Kol Ami.
Happy New Year. Shana Tova.
As we begin this Kol Nidre evening our thoughts turn to the contemplation of our lives. For the last ten days since Rosh Hashanah we should have been engaged in a conversation with God to plead our case for atonement. If you haven’t yet had that conversation with God I welcome you to do so tonight. So let me wish you all the traditional greeting for Yom Kippur:
In Hebrew:” Gmar Chatimah Tovah “which is translated: “May the Odds Ever be in your favor.”
Tonight begins the Jewish version of the Hunger Games. It is one of the most popular book series and movies of all time.
If you are not familiar with the Hunger Games—it centers on the story of the brave young woman Katniss Everdeen. The stories take place in a post-apocalyptic America now named Panem. There are now 12 districts rather than 50 states and each year the districts must provide two teenage competitors for the annual Hunger Games. This fight to the death for the amusement of the bourgeois Capitol district is a semi-controlled pageant and death Olympics that brings so called “honor” and much needed food to the sole winner and his or her district. All the districts serve the Capitol and its outlandish inhabitants in this dystopian view of the world.
They fight hard to rebel against this end of the world scenario of slavery and death in the Hunger Games. Yom Kippur is our time to fight hard for our souls and ourselves. . It is our time to right those bad habits that have enslaved us. So that we can claim once again the image of God that each of us possesses Kol Nidre is the first step in renewing our Godliness and our helping us focus on our goodness! Tonight is a rebellion of sorts against the sins of our past, and a push toward creating a new liberated path for ourselves.
By the end of Yom Kippur if you are fasting you may be physically hungry but the idea is to be spiritually full. Even though we refrain from eating physically, we are replenishing our spiritual fuel. It’s like detoxing and rebalancing our spiritual selves all at once. When we fast we create a physical void and allow ourselves tonight to feast on spirituality. The High Holy Days and fasting are spiritual disciplines that will let our spirits soar higher and our inner divine light to shine forth once again. The rituals of Yom Kippur, fasting, refraining from sex, from being concerned with our physical appearance- allows our souls to reach higher.
Hearing the ancient Kol Nidre melody helps our souls go higher. It frees us from our past our vows that we failed to keep this time last year and helps us enter this sacred space.
Unlike the “Hunger Games “this is not a fight to the death physically. But it is the death of the old you. It is a time to annihilate the old tattered self-and emerge tomorrow evening with a fresh new you; a fresh new soul that is free from shame and free from guilt, free from sins large and small. We are taught during Yom Kippur to keep what is good within but this is our chance to toss out that which damages the essence of our humanity. Tonight we remind ourselves that we are made in the image of God
On Yom Kippur –we say in our prayers: s’lach lanu, machal lanu , kaper lanu,
Forgive us, wipe the slate clean and grant us atonement.
Forgive us, God, from our sins and errors and trespasses, wipe out our shame and guilt and restore our relationships with you Divine One and help us do so with others. That is atonement-when we restore our relationships with God and with others and with ourselves
If only it were easy! If only we could make those changes in a snap or a seek forgiveness in an instance. But I am not sure it would be as effective. Imagine If only we could apologize for our errors and sins, and our trespasses done to God and others and ourselves and be done with it quickly! Imagine we could make it all right with just a push of a button.
In fact Tom and Ray Magilozzi who write a column for Cars.com wrote about this very idea. They wrote a column about “Features We’d Really Like to See in All Cars”. Along with improvements in tires and brakes and suspension systems they imagined this:
10. ‘Sorry!’ Button
Is there anything that we need more on the roads today than a “Sorry!” button? We often do bad or dumb things when we drive, and we have no way to communicate remorse. It might just lead to a little more civility.
As it stands now, when you tick off another driver, he or she has little choice but to remind you that you’re a moron. Then you have to retaliate with a clever retort like, “Oh, yeah? Well, you’re a moron, too!” Say you’re sorry, though, and you break the cycle. A “Sorry!” button could defuse a lot of otherwise explosive situations — not to mention, it would generate a good deal of karma.
While we’re at it, we’d like to have two buttons, “Sorry!” and “You jerk!” Except when you press the “Jerk” button … your car still says, “I’m sorry!” Nice, huh? We thought so.
But Repentance doesn’t come with a push of the button. It won’t come at all unless you push yourself. It only comes from actually confronting what You did to screw up and committing not to do it again and repairing the damage if you can and finally by making amends to the person and to God.
Tonight I want to you to think about three things in your year that you regret. That you shouldn’t have done but did anyway. The words you said that you shouldn’t have. The shading of the truth that gave you an unfair advantage. The charity that asked you for money but you lied a bit and claimed you didn’t have it. The way you avoided someone at the grocery store. The promises to call that you never made. The way you rejected your spouse to punish them for some slight real or imagined. The harsh judgments you made on a co-worker not really understanding what was happening to them. The way you felt entitled to special treatment and demanded it but you know you really didn’t. The valet you treated as less than human by not even looking him in the eyes when he handed you the key and the checker at the grocery store with whom you got impatient. That you were rude to your neighbor. The way you critiqued someone under the guise of humor but you knew it was true. The fight you had with your sibling that caused you not to speak any more. The cousin who asked you for money for the thousandth time that is annoying. When you lost your temper needlessly, snapped at your children or an elderly parent. Or your addictions got the best of you including being too tied to your phone?
I want you to reflect on your reactions, your behaviors in response to all these situations. What could you have done differently? How you might have responded with caring?
Whether any of these are on your personal list or not-the beauty of Judaism is that no matter our trespasses we come here to seek to improve ourselves. The Al Cheyt prayer enumerates exactly these sins we have just mentioned. We seek forgiveness from the small things and the big things. And we mention them all whether we have actually done them or not because we confess together as a community recognizing we all have the capacity to sin.
That’s a harsh word sin. We Jews all too often associate it with Evangelicals preachers we see on television. But sin is our original word. Sins are real. I always tried to side step this word trying not to be too judgmental but the truth is there are sins. If we assert there is a Jewish system of living, ethics and rules and order that is Judaism. Then there is sin. Sometimes we sin against God and sometimes we sin against other people and sometimes we sin against ourselves.
In fact we have several words for sinning in Hebrew. Like the Inuit –the Indigenous tribes of the Alaska and Canada that have many names for snow -we have at least six different words in the Tanach that refer to sin. And we have many more in the Ashamnu prayer we just sang. Our words for sin have multi-valent meanings.
Chet, Pesha, Avone are Sin, transgression and moral failing. In the most general terms here are some definitions. Chet means going astray… you have wandered off from the Halacha (the Jewish path, the Jewish legal path. It is an unintentional sin. You have missed the mark. Pesha is a transgression it means an intentional sin going against God. That you willingly chose to do. An Aveirah-is an iniquity-a sin of passion or lust- a sin not meant to deny God but a sin never the less.
But the truth is that to atone for these sins this takes work. It is more than a quick push of the button, saying “I’m sorry. “
In Jewish tradition the face to face ask is one of the hardest. Near the end of tractate Yoma, the Mishnah limits the scope of the Day of Atonement:
For sins between humanity and God, Yom Kippur atones. But for sins between people Yom Kippur does not atone until the injured party is appeased.
Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur are here to help us be free from those sins that which diluted our spiritual strength since last year. That caused a problem in our relationship with God. But the sins you committed against others –the time has come for a face to face encounter. That is the hardest amend to make. Hardest to admit and hardest to do. And a general statement on Facebook doesn’t count.
has the possibility of being a day of reconciliation with those we have hurt.
Our ancient ancestors they had it easy. They went to the Temple which stood in Jerusalem. On Yom Kippur they brought the Proper sacrificial offering, they fasted and prayed and were absolved. The High Priest would send out a goat to Azazel – out into the wilderness with all of our sins transferred to it. Banishing our sins for another year. But what about after the temple’s destruction? What about for us now?
Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan states the following:
One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehosua, they arrived at where the Temple now stood in ruins. “Woe to us” cried Rabbi Yehosua, “for this house where atonement was made for Israel’s sins now lies in ruins!” Answered Rabban Yochanan, “We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim (“loving kindness”), as the prophet Hosea stated “I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6).
And not just Hosea-but all of our prophets. Tomorrow morning we will read the Haftarah from Isaiah. Isaiah will remind us that God doesn’t want empty rituals, and empty prayers. God wants from us is action. Apologies to the person, Caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. Isaiah wants to remind us that God demands our caring for our fellow human beings above empty rituals and sacrifice.
And so along with the prayers tonight, and along with actually making amends to those you have hurt intentionally or unintentionally and making amends there is a third piece to atonement . A Third pillar of this soul-polishing is chesed-acts of lovingkindness
This third pillar the act of kindness is no different now than in time of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. There are real people who are suffering in our midst. We see in it the Congo. And our work with Jewish World Watch has helped our community focus on Darfur, and the problems in the Congo.
But right here in our own congregation there is suffering. There are still plenty who have no jobs. Or are only able to find part time jobs and so they have no health care. There are many who have no one to care for them in their senior years. There are many of us who suffer such great sadnesses, depression, health problems and grief. There is real suffering in our midst. But if we ignore it, if we pass by the mourner without offering words of comfort then we have sinned against God, and other people, and ourselves. Gemilut Chassadim- acts of lovingkindness not only helps redeem us from our own sins, transgressions and errors but helps us build our own spiritual lives as well. Acts of Chesed help us transform our souls and those of other people.
As my good friend and one of the first women Orthodox rabbis, Dina Najman wrote, “Tzedakah is sparked by the demands of compassion. One cannot bear to see a person suffering, so one is compelled by a sense of sympathy to help the other. If that present need did not exist, there would be no compassion necessary and no charity given.
Chesed requires a broader, more sensitive heart and a generosity of spirit to be integrated into one’s personality. Chesed then, will not be a reaction forthcoming only in response to sadness. It will be an ever-present quality which will anticipate needs, understand other’s limitations, search for solutions and initiate acts of benevolence, even when unstated or un-noticed by the recipient.”
Acts of chesed are considered the realm of our Ancestor Abraham. When we act with Chesed towards those around us… When we reach out in kindness to the person who is depressed or mourning or alone we change the worlds’ reality and we change our own reality. When we let the quality of Chesed flow from God through us into the world then we will begin to heal the deep holes left in our soul from sin or our own grief and heal those we help.
Abraham is the representative of Chesed-lovingkindess. If only we could match his Chesed – his lovingkindness, teach our sages.
As a result his acts of love and kindness, Chesed is built into our entire Jewish way of life. We don’t just have random acts of kindness-but in Judaism our chesed should overflow from our being and not just be random but it ought to be our state of mind.
In the Mishnah and in the Morning worship service we read Eilu divarim she ayn la hem shiur : these are the obligations without measure whose reward too is without measure. One of the items on the list of ten is: To perform acts of love and kindness-even though this quality should flow freely from us-it is also a responsibility as Jews.
Chesed Lovingkindness –is the mark of caring for others. It is the way of gentleness. It is the idea of radical hospitality.
A IL Peretz story retold by British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Every Friday morning before dawn, the Rebbe of Nemirov would disappear.
He could be found in none of the town’s synagogues or houses of study. The doors of his house were open but he was not there. Once a Lithuanian scholar came to Nemirov. Puzzled by the Rebbe’s disappearance he asked his followers. ‘Where is he?’ ‘Where is the Rebbe?’ they replied. ‘Where else but in heaven? The people of the town need peace, sustenance, health. The Rebbe is a holy man and therefore he is
surely in heaven, pleading our cause.’
The Lithuanian, amused by the credulity, determined to find out for himself.
One Thursday night he hid himself in the Rebbe’s house. The next morning before dawn he heard the Rebbe weep and sigh. Then he saw him go to the cupboard, take out a parcel of clothes and begin to put them on. They were the clothes, not of a holy man, but of a peasant. The Rebbe then reached into a drawer, pulled out an axe, and went out into the still dark night. Stealthily, the Lithuanian followed him as he walked through the town and beyond, into the forest. There he began chopping down a tree, hewing it into logs, and splitting it into firewood. These he gathered into a bundle and walked back into the town.
In one of the back streets, he stopped outside a run-down cottage and
knocked on the door. An old woman, poor and ill, opened the door. ‘Who are you?’ she said.
‘I am Vassily’, the Rebbe replied. ‘I have wood to sell, very cheap, next to
‘I have no money’, replied the woman.
‘I will give it to you on credit’, he said.
‘How will I be able to pay you?’ she said. ‘I trust you – and do you not trust God He will find a way of seeing that I am repaid.’
‘But who will light the fire? I am too ill.’
‘I will light the fire’, the Rebbe replied, and he did so, reciting under his
breath the morning prayers. Then he returned home. The Lithuanian scholar, seeing this, stayed on in the town and became one of the Rebbe’s disciples. After that day, when he heard the people of the town tell visitors that the Rebbe ascended to heaven, he no longer laughed, but added: ‘And maybe even higher.’
Judaism gently teaches us through the stories of the Torah that true goodness is not carried out in a blaze of glory.
True goodness and giving that we call Chesed often involves nurturing and caring in little ways that go unseen. Often when it’s hard. Often when it hurts. Often when it’s not really “my job.” Impacting this world is not reserved for the knight in shining armor, for the airbrushed faces of Hollywood. It is the responsibility and right of every one of us—with all of our talents and strengths, and yes, with all of our weaknesses. We, and our loved ones, are immortalized long after we are gone, through the kind acts on this earth—the comforting whisper to a frightened child, the mending of a broken heart, the giving of charity when we need to dig deep, the patience and forbearance to a cantankerous relative, the nourishing home-cooked meal delivered with love . . .
It is through this goodness and giving that we touch the divine, ascending higher than heaven.”
Tonight I am asking you to each go Higher this year. I am asking you to help wipe your sins away through acts of chesed. Acts of lovingkindness. I am asking you to hear the call of our Ancestors- like Abraham and Sarah who brought chesed into the core values of our Tradition. I am asking you to stop focusing only on yourself and focus your chesed-your kindness on others.
For a number of years our Chesed Committee has remained moribund. With few to take on the responsibilities and joys of bringing kindness to those who are homebound, who are ill, who are in mourning. This is the year to rejuvenate this important group within the life of our congregation- I am looking for people who will want to dedicate some of their time and energy this year to bringing Chesed to others, to calling on the sick and homebound and comfort the mourner and to make the guest feel welcomed. Chesed –lovingkindess in all we do-is the theme of the year and we will feel the redemptive power of acting with chesed.
For those of you who are not yet members along with those who are members I am also asking you to remember that these times are still tough for so many. 1 out of six Angelenos are hungry. Sova, our Jewish food pantry that serves everyone regardless of religion moved a couple of doors away from Kol Ami on La Brea two years ago. Each morning the line to get food snakes past the temple and wraps around the block. At holidays, Thanksgiving, Pesach, especially the line is triple. They used to serve approximately 7000 a month. Since the 2008 recession those numbers are now more than double. These are the real Hunger Games.
And hunger is to get worse since the Farm Bill which reauthorizes Food Assistance formerly known as Food Stamps was not acted upon by the House. The present 5 year law expires on September 30 and many programs that affect our farmers who are facing the worst drought since the dustbowl in the early part of the 20th century will be affected.
The biggest impact of the proposed bill though would be in America’s anti-hunger safety net, SNAP (still known by most folks as the Food Stamp program, and CalFresh here in California.) SNAP accounts for 80% of Farm Bill funding and is currently helping 46 million Americans survive during this extended recession, most of who are unemployed or work at low wage jobs, or who have disabilities and can’t work, and of whom a huge number are children.
In the bill that was proposed, some $16 billion is cut out of the SNAP program over ten years, particularly affecting seniors and others with high utility bills in certain states, possibly affecting thousands of people locally in California who’ve been able to get benefits under new rules that allow people to keep more assets, and putting immigrant families with fully qualified members under added scrutiny.
But With no Farm bill passed and congress gone home…. Things will get worse right here in California and around our nation for those who depend upon Food Assistance to simply survive. This is a time for Chesed because the Hunger Games are about to get worse.
This is the time that we as a community must step up as never before. Chesed is one of the ways we work through our sins and make atonement. One way to do this is to help bring food to those who need it. I am asking you to make a commitment to bring canned food with you to temple tomorrow as never before. And I am asking you to do that every time you come to synagogue. I am asking you to volunteer with our Team Sova-that goes to help. I am asking you to get involved in our Game night once a month on Thursday and our Thanksgiving program for the seniors of Triangle Square I am asking you if you have fruit trees on your property to let us arrange a fruit pick so that the fruit doesn’t get wasted and can go to food banks around town. I am asking you to let Chesed flow through you into the world to help change the world and yes, change you.
There are other ways Chesed can be expressed. Tonight I have given you several easy examples of how you can let chesed-lovingkindess become part of your everyday life. Maybe it’s not as easy as a Push of the button but all of these will help you do the work of atonement. And help redeem you from your sins.
All we have comes from God—yes-Judaism believes we have a responsibility to share it with others.
On this holy night the time of atonement-is here. The time to confront our sins and ask for forgiveness has arrived. It’s time to reach higher than you did last year.
I know you can.