Tonight, we recited the words of Kol Nidrei. Its haunting melody reaches into our souls. Many times before, I have spoken about the Kol Nidrei. It originated as a legal formula designed to help Jews who were regularly forced to swear oaths against their will and also to aid Jews who, perhaps overcome with emotions, made vows that they could not or should not keep. I have also spoken in the past about how the inclusion of this prayer during High Holiday services became problematic. It was taken by those critical of Jews to mean that Jews were seeking to be absolved of any vows that they would make over the coming year so that they could later violate agreements and oaths made in courts and in business dealings. This became so troubling that Reform Jews removed the prayer entirely from our Yom Kippur services. The MUSIC without the words, the haunting melody alone, returned first, after World War I. Then congregations brought the words back. Can you imagine Kol Nidrei services without the Kol Nidrei? It returned by popular demand.
Connections. Many of you have attended our new Connections Services. Some attended this past Friday night and heard the simply spectacular music performed by Laura, Ira, and Sam, during the service. They sounded like they should go on tour together. If you were not there, you really missed something special.
I designed the Connections Services in such as way that those who attend would find the content of the services relevant to their lives. To be more accurate, I designed the content of the service booklets from which those in attendance pray and read only those portions of interest to them that night at that moment. The musical selections and passages are ones that evoke spiritual, emotional, and intellectual connections, speaking to each individual’s heart and mind.
The Kol Nidrei prayer is like that service. It speaks to each of us differently. Some of us think of vows that we made, but should not have. Some of us think of vows that we failed to keep, perhaps feeling a sense of remorse and expressing in our minds a desire to do better in the future. Some of us think, “How does this sound to someone who isn’t Jewish?” Others think, “How can I as a Jew say this?” And wonder why Reform Jews put it back into the prayer book. Some among us think of those Jews of generations past who were forced to convert at the point of the sword or the threat of the noose, and for whom the Kol Nidrei was prayer that they felt saved their Jewish souls. Many of us listen as it is sung, not merely to the words, but to layer upon layer of recitations from years gone by, intertwining the present and the past: seeing images, experiencing feelings, remembering. We listen to the words and remember the touch of a loved one who once sat beside us. We hear the haunting melody and experience so much more than its notes flowing from start to finish, so much more than a prayer about vows.
No few of us think of the fact that tonight Jews from all around the world celebrate in similar fashion, reciting prayers and songs in the language of our people and in the spirit of our ancestors. Some among our number see the Kol Nidrei prayer much more personally, as our own prayer, a prayer said from a place of hurt, a place of helplessness. It is the prayer of those who meant “No,” but were forced to say, “Yes.”
Some are unable to pray at all.
Rabbi Meshullam Feibush Heller, an 18th century Hasidic master, taught:
Even if at that moment we are not able to pray with full reverence and love of God, our words of prayer can still rise up to the degree that we have fully connected ourselves to others saying, “I now take on myself to fulfill the positive commandment of ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Connections. Connecting yourself to others matters. You need not be able to think about understanding or reaching into the divine realm. To return for a moment to our thoughts about the Kol Nidrei, you need not think of the prayer in its relation to your own life, helping you to seek forgiveness from God. Instead You may think about what the prayer means to people around you or even to others in the broader community. What might this melody and these words mean to someone who was forced against his or her will to do something that has caused them emotional pain? What might this prayer mean to someone fearful of being a Jew, perhaps rightfully so, who is forced to pretend that they are of another faith?
The Kol Nidrei takes on a new life, new meaning. If we think not only of ourselves, but of others, we gain a whole new perspective on our prayers, on our relationship to our tradition, and on our relationship to God. To that extent, Rabbi Heller continued:
In truth, I learned this from R. Yehiel Michel of Zlotzhov who said, “Before I pray I connect myself with all Jews, both great and small. The reason that I connect with those greater than I is so that, they can help raise me up. And I connect with those lesser than I so that I can raise them up.”
Those greater are those whom we wish to emulate, who set an example for us. Thinking of them, we strive to be better people. Those lesser are those whom would be happy to live our lives, whose challenges are great. They would gladly exchange what they have for what we have. Thinking of them helps us to realize the blessings that we have in our lives and to encourage us to help improve the lot of others. These are vital lessons for us as we perform Heshbon Nefesh, an accounting of our lives as they are today, as we stand before God. But, Rabbi Michel’s statement goes beyond that kind of thinking.
He implies that the very act of connecting ourselves to others in thought can not only help us to elevate ourselves but that it can help us to raise others up as well. One could consider this totally in the spiritual realm, imagining that our thoughts literally lift others. Or one could look upon it in a more practical way. Our thoughts impact how we see the world and therefore how we act in relation to it. If we see ourselves in relation to others, we are more likely to strive to be better and more likely to aid others in bettering themselves.
Rabbi Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, before the nation of Israel was created, offered a wonderful teaching about connecting oneself to others in the context of song. I would like to share his words with you today with the slight modification of making them egalitarian.
There is one who sings the song of his or her own life, and in it he or she finds everything, full spiritual satisfaction.
There is another who sings the song of the people. One who leaves the circle of the individual self, because it is without sufficient breadth, without an idealistic basis. One who aspires towards the heights, and attaches with a gentle love to the whole community of Israel. Together with the whole community one who sings the people’s songs, feels grieved by the people’s afflictions, and delights in the people’s hopes. One who contemplates noble and pure thoughts about the people’s future and probes with love and wisdom the people’s inner spiritual essence.
There is another who reaches toward more distant realms, and goes beyond the boundary of Israel to sing the song of humanity. This one’s spirit extends to the wider vistas of the majesty of humanity generally, and humankind’s noble essence. He or she aspires towards humanity’s general goal and looks forward to higher perfection. From this source of life this one draws the subjects of meditation and study, aspirations and visions.
Then there is one who rises toward wider horizons, until linking self with all existence, with all God's creatures, with all worlds. This one sings his or her song with all of them. It is of one such as this that tradition has said that whoever sings a portion of song each day is assured of having a share in the world to come.
And then there is one who rises with all these songs in one ensemble, and they all join voices. Together they sing their songs with beauty, each one lends vitality and life to the other. They are sounds of joy and gladness, sounds of jubilation and celebration, sounds of ecstasy and holiness.
The song of the self, the song of the people, the song of humanity, the song of the world all merge in this one at all times, in every hour.
And this full comprehension rises to become the song of holiness, the song of God, the song of Israel, in its full strength and beauty, in its full authenticity and greatness.
Rabbi Kook implies that for thoughts and prayers, for singing the songs, we will be rewarded in the world to come. While I believe that he is correct in his assertion that it is important for us to broaden our thinking beyond ourselves, I would also argue that actions speak louder than words. To pray and sing about helping others pales by comparison to actually helping others. If our thoughts and words remind us to consider others, that is good. But if they fail to motivate us to act, that is not good enough. Our thoughts, our prayers, our songs must inspire us to action.
One of the greatest orators in American history was a man of faith. He certainly sung the songs of his people and of humanity. Martin Luther King Jr. did more than simply urge people to thought, to prayer, and to song. He urged them to make the concepts of their faith and those found in the songs sung in freedom’s name real.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
New meaning. A new connection. It is important to connect thoughts and hopes to deeds, to put prayers into action. Even if we believe with the utmost devotion that our prayers will reach into the heavens and that God will respond, we cannot consider ourselves as having helped ourselves or those in need until we act to help. Martin Buber taught that:
When people come to you for help, do not turn them off with pious words, saying: ‘Have faith and take your troubles to God!’ Act instead as if there were no God, as though there were only one person in all-the-world who could help—only yourself.
On Rosh Hashanah morning, I spoke of seeing the bigger picture, of looking beyond our own life, to the world around us. Now, our challenge is to connect to the broader world, to act with knowledge of our place in relation to that which is beyond the self. On this Erev Yom Kippur—this night in which Jews throughout the world and Jews throughout history are connected, this night on which we say the words of the Kol Nidrei prayer, seeking forgiveness from God for not fulfilling vows—let us utter new ones, ones that we intend to keep.
It is customary to sing Psalm 96 on Shabbat. The psalm directs us to praise God, to sing of God’s salvation and to remember God’s deeds. The first three verses of the psalm are:
1 Sing unto Adonai a new song;
sing unto Adonai, all the earth.
2 Sing unto Adonai, praise God’s name;
proclaim God’s salvation day after day.
3 Declare God’s glory among the nations,
God’s marvelous deeds among all peoples.
Shiru L’adonai, Shir Chadash.
In the coming year, may we sing a new song. In the context of Rav Kook’s words, may it be:
A song of others and not only of ourselves,
A song of our community and not only of our family,
A song of our people and not only of our community,
A song of our world and not only our people,
A song of how we can make this world a better place.
May we not simply return to this place next year having thought vain thoughts, spoken empty words, and uttered empty prayers, only to atone for failing to fulfill our promises.
May the songs we sing in our hearts be ones that inspires us to act and may next Kol Nidrei, as we hear the melody and the words of the prayer, as we recite it ourselves thinking of all of those promises we did not fulfill, let us smile just a bit on account of one that we did fulfill. A new promise, a new hope, a new song: one that inspires us to dance.
May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health and happiness, of blessings and of sharing blessings.
Shabbat Shalom and Gamar Hatimah Tovah.
[Sing Shiru L’adonai Shir Chadash]