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Speaking to God: The Challenge of Language – Kol Nidrei

October 08, 2008

In about twenty-one hours, the Neilah Service and its refrain, “When the gates are closing and the day begins to fade” {Gates of Repentance, p. 518} will signify that the ten days that encompass Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are coming to an end. By six o’clock tomorrow evening, all appeals to God for mercy will have been heard. Our commitment to teshuvah, t’filah and tzedakah/”repentance, prayer and acts of righteousness” during these ten days to “temper judgment’s severe decree” {Gates of Repentance, p. 314} will behave been noted by God. During these ten days we have repented, prayed and performed acts of righteousness to obtain God’s favor, and as the Neilah service draws to a close, we sprint to the finish line and then to the parking lot on our way to break-fasts. Even so, we will be an hour behind those who, upon first hearing the words, “The gates are closing,” took that as their cue to rush out of the sanctuary as if fearing that they might otherwise be locked in. As the service lengthens and the hours dwindle, we hold our breath, praying that by virtue of our efforts, we and our loved ones will be written into the Book of Life during this New Year.

The Book of Life and its companion text, the Book of Death, suggest a correlation between righteousness and reward on the one hand, and evil and punishment on the other. The problem is that we can rarely find any correlation between the two! Job said it best in the book that bears his name: “The just and innocent [are mocked]… [but] the tents of robbers prosper, and [those who] provoke God are secure” {Job 12:4, 6}; “…the wicked [endure], become old and mighty in power” {Job 21:7, 9}. His ancient words are contemporary: we too have seen the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Those entrusted with the care of the aging infirm could often care less about those in their charge. Those who claim that they are scrupulous in their commitment to provide kosher food to their suppliers and customers violate the ethics of kashrut. Those who sent American soldiers to fight in distant lands and proclaim their heroism at every opportunity could not ensure their proper, dignified treatment at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center when they returned home broken, burned and maimed.

In the liturgical selection called b’Rosh Hashanah yih’katay’voon we read: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written [in the Book of Life] and on Yom Kippur it is sealed [in the Book of Death] who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by hunger and who by thirst; who shall be secure and who shall be driven” {Gates of Repentance, Rosh Hashanah morning service, p. 108}.

None of us takes this literally. Death comes for everyone, some before their time, but who believes in heavenly scrolls of parchment on which are inscribed lists of those who will die by fire, hunger, thirst, or worse? On what basis are some “secure” and others “driven”? Do the wicked die a more horrendous death than the righteous? Do the righteous die gently as did Moses, who was kissed by God to draw out the soul from his body?

“Who by hunger.” Nearly 16,000 people die from hunger-related causes every day.

“Who by plague.” Cancer causes more than 7 million deaths per year. Two million people died from AIDS last year.

“Who by water.” A cyclone in Burma killed 84,000 people and Hurricane Ike claimed more than 80 lives. Is there a correlation between righteousness and reward, or transgression and suffering? Almost all those who died by hunger, plague and water would deny it if they could still speak.

“Who by beast.” In March of this year, a Palestinian gunman killed eight students at the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Firing rounds from an AK-47, he slaughtered young men as they studied in the school’s library and sat in the auditorium. Upon hearing the news, Arabs in Gaza City fired rifles in the air in celebration. In the past few months, residents of East Jerusalem working in the construction business in Jerusalem turned bulldozers into instruments of death, ramming buses and cars filled with men, women and children until bodies were broken where they sat. Students became statistics, commuters became casualties, and families once again sat shivah. Suicide bombers are the theologians of the Palestinians, and Hezbollah and Hamas their high priests.

“Who shall be exalted”? Just two weeks ago {September 23rd, 2008}, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, spewed venom in his annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly. He repeated his call for the destruction of Israel, referred to Jews as “a small number of acquisitive and invasive people,” adding that “it is deeply disastrous to witness that some presidential…nominees in some big countries have to visit these people, take part in their gatherings, swear their allegiance and commitment to their interests in order to attain financial or media support.” Once again, his anti-Semitic tirades were greeted with applause by representatives of the nations of the world. After his crude, inflammatory, anti-Semitic remarks, he was hugged by Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, president of the UN General Assembly. Are there so few shreds of decency remaining in that once-esteemed body that no one turned his back on Ahmadinejad? Can the applause during his speech and the hugs that followed it suggest anything other than that anti-Semitism and disdain for democracy are ascendant? Among the exalted, in Job’s words, “the wicked endure…mighty in power” {21:9}

“Who shall see ripe age and who shall not?” Joanne Palmer, Director of the Department of Public Affairs at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, wrote words of lamentation as a parent whose young child died: “I cry…sheets of saltwater [streak] down my face as a heavy rain streaks down a car’s windshield…I rage – I am a fire barely encased in skin: sometimes I sear my would-be comforters. I throw chairs, I throw words, and I wish death on…any driver who cuts me off, all traffic lights when they turn red. I don’t know if I really mean it…I go to shul every week and listen to words that I do not believe, about a world that I wish were true but know is not. Sometimes the music seduces me into singing, sometimes the rhythm of the words seduces me into chanting – but then the meaning betrays my weakness and I am abandoned. Hodu l’Adonai ki tov/”It is good to give thanks to God because God is good”…how about Hodu l’Adonai ki ineffective? Ki distracted? Ki bad? My Orthodox friends sprinkle so many “God willing” about that sometimes I think God was too busy with his other clients, seeing to it that their dentist appointments didn’t conflict with their kids’ soccer games, to remember to check on Shira crossing the street…After she died, the Hebrew letters of Shira’s name whirled around me but I could not catch them. They were her song, my song, and they teased me and vanished…My daughter is gone, but I am not. I do not understand this, but I know it to be true. I do not ask for forgiveness, and I do not forgive.” {Yom Kippur Readings, p. 71-72, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005}

An ancient rabbi, quoted in the Talmud, changed the words of the MiChamocha from its rhetorical question, “Who is like You, God, among the gods?” to the charge, “Who, like You, God, is so malevolent?” The strength of the Talmud is that those words remained in it because the rabbi’s anguish – about a matter not revealed to us – is so human that his words demanded to be included.

What is remarkable is that despite her grief and rage, Joanne Palmer returned to the work of raising her family, and families who sat shivah in Jerusalem rose after their days of mourning to return to work and the world. The pain that life dispenses has not deterred them from hoping and working for a better world in which to raise their other children, and to create a bulwark against leaders who vilify, threaten and seek to deligitimize us.

I have a lover’s quarrel with God. My challenge is to find balance between all the praise through which God is exalted in our prayers – a seemingly endless litany of “Blessed art Thou…” and Modeem anachnu/”We give thanks to You…” – when in fact there are times when I feel quite the opposite. I am grateful for the many blessings in my life – love and laughter, transcendent moments and bursts of inspiration – and there are times that I am disappointed in God. There are times that I am angry. What exactly shall I say to God at this time? I am conflicted. Yet I am no less conflicted than God, to judge by a passage in the Talmud in which God utters this prayer: “May it be My [God’s] will that My compassion overcomes My anger and may My mercy prevail over My attributes of [strict] justice and judgment. May I deal with My children in accordance with My attribute of compassion” {Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 7a}. Anger or mercy…mercy or anger…God struggles, as do I, toward resolution. God, I come to reason with You.

We are in eternal partnership and covenant. God needs our help, for it is God Who says to us, “Come, let us reason together” {Isaiah 1:18}. In Abraham’s ultimately failed negotiation with God at Sodom and Gomorrah, he told God, “Heaven forbid, that You would do a thing like this, to deal death to the innocent along with the guilty! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” {Genesis 18:25}. Abraham acknowledges that the use of such power may be God-like but argues that it is not God-appropriate.

This is not meant to be a holy day of ease, and the fact that we fast during it is only one indication of that. Throughout the High Holy Days, we come before God to say, Aveenu Malkaynu cha’tanu l’fah’necha/”Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You”…ahl chet sheh’chatanu l’fah’necha/”for the sin we have committed against You”…chamole aleynu/”have compassion on us”… forgive us our pettiness, laziness and negligence; forgive us our arrogance and our passivity; forgive us for failing to respond to Your call to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor; forgive us for turning mountains into molehills, the sea into a receptacle for sewage, and the air rank with fetid smog…cha’naynu v’vah’naynu/”be gracious and answer us”…s’lach lahnu, m’chal lahnu, capare lahnu/”forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” Does God whisper in response, Y’dih’deem/”My precious ones, be patient with Me and forgive Me for My silence when you needed Me and My distance when you searched for Me”?

We need You, God, but no less than You need us to make the world whole. Kol Nidrei: let this be our vow – not to wait for peace, but to work for it, not to pray for change, but to create it. Let us realize that to struggle with You, God, is to advance toward You in an effort to enter into the fullness of relationship with each other and You, giving voice to who we are and want to become in the sight of a wonderfully Self-limiting God Who enables us to write daily chapters in our own ‘book of life’ as we enter the New Year.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin