October 03, 1995
Yom Kippur is the most sacred day of the year, so sacred that it is often referred to simply as “The day”. There are other major and minor holy days on the Jewish calendar, but this is the holiest one of them all.
On all the other holy days, the evening that precedes them bears the name of the day that follows. Rosh Hashanah is ushered in by erev Rosh Hashanah; Sukkot by erev Sukkot; erev Simchat Torah precedes Simchat Torah; Shabbat is welcomed by erev Shabbat. This evening is remarkably different in a way that has tremendous significance because it is referred to not as the erev of the holy day it ushers in, but by the liturgy that has come to define this service: not erev Yom Kippur but simply and eloquently Kol Nidrei.
The Kol Nidrei prayer is the cornerstone of this service. It is the foundation for everything that will be addressed throughout Yom Kippur services tomorrow. This is the time for us to evaluate ourselves in the light of our deeds and misdeeds; to measure the distance between who we say we are and what we do.
Kol Nidrei, Aramaic meaning “all vows,” addresses transgressions committed by an individual against God. However, transgressions committed against another person must be resolved before one can approach God to request Divine pardon for broken pledges, angry words, vindictive acts or anything that hurt, degraded or belittled others. We redress our wrongs here on earth before we can approach God on high. It is an immense challenge because we are prone to rationalize our mistakes, outbursts, pettiness and anger. It is easier for us to assign blame than to accept responsibility.
Kol Nidrei arrives to help us sanctify relationships: to better define what we can do to enhance and enrich them. It is our call to conscience: a demand that we strive harder to keep the promises we make, to make our lives blessings, and to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated.
It is not easy to acknowledge that we have transgressed. It is difficult to forgive those who have wronged us. It is difficult for us to seek forgiveness from those whom we have wronged because to say “I am sorry” is to acknowledge error and to place the power of forgiveness in the hands of another. Forgiveness can free us to move ahead. Repentance is a spiritual sigh of relief. It does not discard the past, but it enables us to welcome the future unburdened of anger, guilt or shame.
Yet how difficult it is to forgive ourselves! We can be so hard on ourselves, going over and over our mistakes until they become a mantra that reminds us not what we can achieve, but how we have faltered. While forgiving ourselves does not come easily, you would think that it should be easier. You would think that the easiest thing is to love ourselves, which in turn makes us capable of fully loving others. This is the person who can say, “I’ve made mistakes. I’ve acknowledged them. I’ve learned from them. I have asked forgiveness from those whom I have wronged. I have forgiven myself. I am relieved of my anguish, anger, anxiety and guilt. I can move ahead. No regrets.” I want to tell you about something about “no regrets” that helped me immensely.
In November of last year, Susan and I had dinner with good friends. During the dinner conversation the husband told us how much he and his wife were looking forward to his 13th high school reunion. He spoke about those special years and the people whom he had known, and how much he was looking forward to seeing them again.
Later than evening, I thought about what he said, and I thought about people whom I had not seen in a very long time. During my sophomore, junior and senior years of college, I belonged to a fraternity. There were six of us in the 1969 Fall pledge class of Kappa Sigma on the campus of the University of California at Davis, and we endured what pledges suffered at the hands of actives. The travails of pledging and the tasks of fraternity life created a special bond among us. When we graduated, we made a solemn promise to meet every five years to reminisce and renew our bonds. I am sure that we intended to keep that promise, but we never did. I managed to stay in almost yearly contact with one of my pledge brothers, and connected with the others from time to time. Last year, after that dinner conversation, I thought about all of them again.
I had felt particularly close to one of them. His name was Pete Abdallah, and he had been raised in Stockton, California, where his family owned a produce business. The years in the fields and the family firm shaped Pete’s mind and body: at 5’10” he weighed 220 lbs. and could easily do 100 pushups, 50 one-handed. We called him “Little Hercules.” I remembered him best for his wonderful laugh and good heart. I also recalled that Pete wanted to stay in the college community after graduation to start his own produce business in Northern California.
Late that evening I called “Information” and obtained his phone number. Twenty years after I had last seen him, I would hear his voice again and I smiled at the thought. The phone was answered by a young lady, his teenage daughter whom I had never even known existed. I introduced myself and explained my relationship to her father, and asked if I might speak with him. “My father can’t talk,” was her reply. “Well,” I responded, “I’m calling long distance, so would you tell your father that I am on the line?” “I’m sorry,” she said, “my father can’t talk.” I was becoming exasperated. I asked her to please write down my number and ask her father to call me. Once again she told me that her father could not speak. It was then that I asked if her father was alright. She said that Peter had a brain tumor and couldn’t speak.
I’m really not sure what I said at that moment. I remember feeling dazed and I recall saying goodbye to his daughter. Then I sat on the floor, sobbing, as tears ran down my face. I hadn’t spoken to Pete in 20 years, but my memories of him were so clear. I had fully anticipated that our conversation and laughter would melt away the years and enable us to easily enter the present together. I wanted to tell him about my family and hear about his. And now this terrible news: “My father can’t speak”.
I regained my composure after a while and called back. I spoke with his wife, and she told me that he had collapsed at work in 1984, and since that time had six brain craniotomies. The last surgery was performed just three months before my phone call. The first four were at Misericordia Hospital, here in Philadelphia. I was living in Center City while Pete had been flying east from California to undergo surgery in northeast Philadelphia! We had been so close, but I only discovered that fact during the phone call. Pete had a fast and deadly form of brain tumor called Astrocytomas. His strength and spirit had been indomitable, but his wife told me that he now had only three or four months to live. I took a deep breath and asked, “If you were to place the receiver next to Pete’s ear, would he understand me if I spoke to him”? “Yes,” she replied, “but don’t expect him to say anything. He hardly ever speaks”.
I heard the rustle of the phone being moved and then she said to me, “Go ahead.” “Pete, this is Ell. I know it’s been a long time since we last saw each other or spoke to each other, but I’ve thought about you during the years and I’ve thought about calling and tonight I finally have and I want to say hello and tell you how much I’ve missed the times we shared and I am sorry you haven’t been well….” And then I didn’t know what else to say. Then, remarkably, this is what I heard: “Gee … Ell … it’s … great … of … you … to … call.” I was stunned. It was Pete’s voice! The words came slowly, with measured precision, but we had spoken to each other! I told him that I was planning to be in San Francisco the following month and that I would drive north to see him. I told him I missed him. I told him I would pray for him. I told him to be there when I arrived. Then I called my other pledge brothers in Berkeley, Sacramento and San Diego, and the years melted away as we talked. I told each of them about Pete. They knew he had been ill but none of them knew how serious his condition was. I mentioned that I was going to visit him the next month and asked that they try to do the same, or drop him a line, or call to let him know that we were with him.
A month later, I drove two hours north of San Francisco to see Pete, and to meet his wife and three children, ages 16, 14 and 8. When Pete opened the door, I didn’t recognize him. His arms, once so powerful, were emaciated. The left side of his body was bent in toward his chest, so he walked with a stumbling shuffle. His shaved head was a map of surgical scars, but his smile was the one I remembered all these years. I was with Pete and his wife for an hour and a half. Our conversation, at first halting and tentative, became animated. Pete had trouble speaking, and so he responded with effort by just saying “Yes” or “No” to indicate that he understood or agreed, or that my questions to him were correct or not. He really spoke with his eyes and his smile, and at one point he took my hand and held it in his as he touched my wedding band. Looking at me, he simply said, “Great! Great!” I heard those words as joy and blessing. I still do.
When Pete and I walked out to the car, we both knew that this would probably be the last time we would see each other. We hugged and held one another for a long time. Words were not necessary; the silence was eloquent. We parted smiling. Two months later, on February 11th of this year, Pete died.
Before he died, he was visited, called or received a letter from each of his pledge brothers. One of my pledge brothers sent me a note in which he wrote, “I am just sorry that it took the tragedy of Pete’s illness to get us together after all of these years.” Another pledge brother, with whom I have kept in the closest touch, wrote, “We need to talk more often and shouldn’t need a situation such as Pete’s to force us to do that”.
Life is so precious, and we often take it for granted. We are familiar with the refrain, “I wish I had the time”. We wish we had the time to be with the people we love, or to see the people we miss. All too often we keep wishing we could and find reasons we can’t. We plead the press of time, the demands of work, the inconvenience of going somewhere, or the inability of doing something that we say we would to do if we just could, but we don’t have the time. We are very busy people. We respond to the demands of our professions, and the pressures of deadlines. Time is so precious to us that we spend millions of dollars a year to purchase products that will save us time. Certainly two of the enduring symbols of this era will be the computer and the microwave. We have answers and food at our finger tips, but time continues to elude us.
Do you know when we “have the time”? We suddenly have time when a loved one or dear friend dies. We suddenly have time when a person precious to us is ill or injured. Two weeks ago, a close friend was mugged with a baseball bat in broad daylight in the driveway of his suburban home in an upper class, southern California neighborhood. In his community, assaults are something you read about occurring elsewhere. He was very fortunate that he did not die or suffer serious, perhaps debilitating injury. When his college-age daughter came to visit him following the attack, she said that there were so many things she wanted to tell him, but just hadn’t made the time to do so.
We come here tonight to reflect not about rituals but about relationships. We stand before God and we say ahl chet sheh’chatahnu: for the transgressions we have committed by commission or omission, whether by deed or by default. For the promises we made but never kept, and for those we will make but never keep. The Hebrew word for “transgressions”- chet – is borrowed from a term in archery which means “to miss the mark”. It presumes that most of the time our intentions are good, but our aim is off-target. Now is the time for us to refocus: to reflect upon who and what truly matter in our lives, and to resolve to never let anything place a higher claim upon us than the sanctity of love and friendship.
Avinu malkanynu, forgive us for making the time to do many things, but not having enough time for the people we love. Forgive us for taking love and friendship for granted. Forgive us for subjecting our loved ones to a litany of complaints, demands and criticisms that we would not think of imposing upon others.
Kol Nidrei: with regard to all our vows, help us become more attentive to the needs of others and more aware of our need, motivated by love, to be with them. Strengthen us in our resolve to do better. From this Day of Atonement to the next, remind us that life is with people, and that every day is precious.
Rabbi Elliot J. Holin