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The Always Open Door – Kol Nidrei

September 21, 2007

The litany of transgressions that we read this evening is daunting, but just imagine if you had to stand every time a transgression was recited that applied to you! To quote from ‘Gates of Repentance,’ our High Holy Day prayer book:

“[for] the sins of arrogance, bigotry…deceit… greed [and] injustice… grudges, maliciousness…violence…xenophobia {GOR pp 269-270}…sin[s] committed under duress or by choice…consciously or unconsciously…openly or secretly…with our words…by the abuse of power…by hardening our hearts…through disrespect…slander…[or] dishonesty” {GOR pp 271-272}.

Should we acknowledge complicity for even a few of those transgressions, we would resemble prayerful pistons, rising and falling to confess our sins. We would barely have time to notice the sins for which those close to us are standing, so busy would we be acknowledging our own! But in reality, we would undoubtedly conclude that our transgressions have not been so onerous, we have not really transgressed, and we can remain seated.

The Hebrew word for “transgression” – chet – comes from a term in archery. It means “to miss the mark” and it presumes that our intentions are almost always good. Yet, like the archer who stands with perfect posture, bow in hand, the release point of the arrow exact, only to have a sudden gust of wind move the arrow just off the target’s center, so too do events beyond our control occasionally redirect our best intentions.

There are times when we are seduced by siren calls that promise success at the expense of family or integrity; times when we are eager to climb the ladder toward professional advancement, stepping on those too trusting or too innocent to take note of our greed or lust for power; times when we are witness to abuse, embarrassment, harassment or humiliation, and remain silent; and times when called by conscience to act, but remain silent. Fortunately those moments are few and far between, and so we legitimately stay seated during the litany of lamentation for “sins of arrogance, bigotry, deceit, greed, injustice, violence and slander.” We feel good about ourselves, but not all the time, and so at this auspicious time we hold up a mirror to our souls. We measure the distance between who we say we are and what our deeds define us to be.

The Kol Nidrei, for which we do stand, does not mention specific sins. It vaguely refers to “the promises we make and the obligations we incur” in pledges to ourselves and to God, and for those vows we stand in the hope of being forgiven. In the crowd of the upright – though not the wholly righteous – we are protected through anonymity. No one stands out, but what do we stand for? What goes through our minds when we hear the melody and words of the Kol Nidrei, an ancient incantation that exists in the very essence of our being? Ask any Jew to recite the words of the Sh’ma and you will hear the mantra of covenant. Ask any Jew to hum the melody of the Kol Nidrei and you will hear our annual call to conscience.

We confess our dismay over the distance between the values we espouse and the deeds we perform. The words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts – to do, to care, to comfort, and to uplift – are not often enough the works of our hands. The Kol Nidrei is the “call to return,” to do teshuvah: to narrow the gap between what we say and what we do. To do teshuvah is to return to our better selves.

Can everyone make teshuvah no matter what he or she has done or refrained from doing? Is taking God’s name in vain – swearing a false oath using the name of God to fortify the deceit – or cursing God a transgression so severe that no atonement is possible?

A story is told about four 2nd century sages who sought the dangerous pursuit of esoteric knowledge known as Kabbalah – Jewish mysticism. Ben Azzai entered the garden of knowledge called pardase/”paradise” but was overwhelmed by the expanse of knowledge that lay at his feet and expired from shock. Ben Zoma looked and, unable to cope with the advanced level of knowledge he needed to understand the texts, was rendered mute. Elisha ben Abuyah entered, studied and cut down the roots. Only Akiba entered in peace and left in peace. Elisha ben Abuyah had a taste of this advanced knowledge, misinterpreted what he read and thought that there were other powers in the universe, and so he denied God’s unity, alluded to by the phrase “[he] cut down the roots.” He severed himself from God. He was forever after called Ah’cher, “the other”: the one set aside, apart from.

Lest we think this incident was an aberration in Elisha’s life, the story is told about a time that a young child died and his father lovingly picked up the body of his son, cradled it in his arms and cried bitter tears. Elisha overheard one of the rabbis say, “Something like this is hard to understand, but let us remember that there is a better world, in which it is all day, a day that stretches for eternity.” Elisha cried out, “It is all a lie! There is no reward! There is no Judge! There is no Judgment! There is no God!”

Rabbi Meir, one of the greatest teachers of the mid-2nd century, continued to express love for Elisha, his teacher and apostate. One day as they were walking together, Elisha said, “Turn back because Shabbat is about to commence” even though it did not appear that darkness was descending. Meir was surprised and asked Elisha how he knew it to be so, and Elisha responded that he had been counting their paces and knew that they were approaching the outer boundary of the eruv that defines the distance one may travel on Shabbat, and he wanted to make sure that they not travel too far before Shabbat began. Meir could not deny the larger significance of Elisha’s admonition to turn back, and said to him, “How is it that someone as educated as you, my teacher, who knows when we should turn back lihk’vode Shabbat/in honor of the Shabbat, will not turn back – do teshuvah – in repentance?” and Elisha replied, “It is not in our power to come back.”

Later in life, Elisha became ill and was at the doorway of death. Rabbi Meir sat with him and said, “Repent, it is not too late,” and Elisha, who denied the unity of God, replied, “Will God accept me after all of this? Is it still possible to change?” Meir quoted from Psalm 90: “Thou, O Lord, turnest man to contrition” {90:3} by which he meant, “You can return until the moment of your death.”

The fact that Moses sought forgiveness before he died is one of the most compelling and instructive stories in our literature. [“When he was about to die] a Divine Voice came forth and said, ‘The time has come for you to depart from this world.’ Moses pleaded with The Holy One, ‘Master of the universe, for my sake, wait until I bless Israel. On account of the warnings and reprimands I heaped upon them, they never found any ease with me. Then he began to bless each tribe separately. He said to [all of the children of] Israel, ‘Because of the Torah and its precepts, I troubled you greatly. Now, please forgive me.’

They replied, ‘Our master, you are forgiven.’ In their turn they said to him, ‘Moses, our teacher, we troubled you even more. We made your burdens so heavy. Please forgive us.’ Moses replied, ‘You are forgiven.’

[It was only then that the] Divine Voice came forth: ‘The moment has come for you to depart from this world.’” {Sefer ha’Aggadah – Legends From the Talmud and Midrash, ch. 5:137}

Our work on earth is not finished until we have made teshuvah, and since one never knows when the moment of death will arrive, it is something we must do whenever we have the opportunity. The ancient rabbis emphasize this in a story about a prince who was a hundred days journey from his father, the king, who sent him a message saying, “Come back to me,” to which the prince replied, “I don’t have the strength to come back.” So the king sent him another message saying, “Come back as far as you can, and I’ll meet you the rest of the way.”

What might this mean to us? We get in arguments with people we love: hard words are exchanged, and then there is distance. Someone has to break the impasse, and so one person reaches out but perhaps the other person is not yet prepared to come back to where the relationship was. We can either retreat into silence and wait, or we can say to the other person, “Come back as far as you can, and I’ll meet you the rest of the way.”

Ahl chet: for the times we should have been at someone’s side when they needed us.

Sheh’chah’tahnu: for the times when just a word or a gesture would have brought someone joy or healed their pain.

Ahl chet: for the times we heard someone’s reputation being maligned and said nothing.

Sheh’chah’tahnu: for the times we heard a joke being told at the expense of people of color or faith, gender or sexual preference and did nothing.

Ahl chet: for the times we used sarcasm to prove how clever we are, forgetting how insensitive we can be.

Sheh’chah’tahnu: for the times we avoided responsibility, requiring someone else to shoulder a greater load.

Ahl chet: for the times we said, “I’m sorry” but did not mean it.

Sheh’chah’tahnu: for the times we said, “I’ll be there” and did not show up.

Ahl chet: for the times we made promises we knew we would not keep.

Sheh’chah’tahnu: for the times we thought less of someone else because it made us feel better about ourselves.

Kol Nidrei: may our vows be for healing; may our words bring happiness; may our deeds create blessings; may our intentions be good; and may we do teshuvah with those we say we love, in the spirit of reconciliation and renewal this New Year.

Rabbi Elliot J. holin