Many years ago, a dear friend was spending her first autumn as a student rabbi in rural Illinois. A member of her new congregation asked if she would accompany her to a nursing home nearby, so that my friend might chant the Kol Nidre for her husband, who had advanced Alzheimer’s and wouldn’t be able to attend services. Of course my friend agreed … and she and her congregant were off to the husband’s residence. They entered his room. “Honey?” the woman called out cheerfully. No response. “I’ve brought the new rabbi!” Still nothing. My friend tentatively sat on the edge of the chair she was motioned towards. Looking around, she realized that indeed she was “the rabbi,” and she was on. The man before her lay unmoving, eyes staring straight ahead fixed on nothing. His wife smiled encouragingly. As best she could, my friend began to chant Kol Nidre.
One line. No response. Then two lines. Nothing. She might as well have been chanting to an empty room. By the third line, even though she knew she shouldn’t, she was beginning to get a little restless, thinking of everything else she still had to do to get ready for Yom Kippur. This was a sad situation, but what was the point? What was she doing here?
Still, she dutifully continued chanting. And then she saw them. In the corners of the man’s unseeing eyes. Like a candle at the end of a dark hallway. There were tears.
My friend went on to be a congregational rabbi, a teacher, a bee-keeper, a mentor. My mentor, in fact. A mother of five, a grandmother of one. A long, eventful rabbinate full of wisdom… full of stories and songs. But this was the experience she never forgot. That room, with its motionless form. Those unseeing eyes. Her own unsure voice. His tears.
We’ve been talking a lot about forward motion over these High Holidays. About finding the courage to take the first steps forward into a new journey, and what we discover as we go. About journeys like the one Abraham and Isaac took up the mountain, so dark and foreboding that they defy any easy understandings. And tomorrow we’ll finish with a reflection on the one who it could be said, travels furthest of all. Without giving away any more than that… think whales.
That movement … that motion comes in subtler ways as well. Some of us have begun the difficult process of mending a relationship, of exploring different ways of reacting and responding where we would normally be on guard and defensive, unmoving. We have been making room in our services for different settings of our usual melodies. We have been shifting, all this long while, turning towards humility, towards repentance, towards our better selves, which are also constantly moving, it seems. Further from us? Closer to us? We don’t know yet.
Tonight, we pause. We stop moving, stop working, stop analyzing, even if just for right now. We sit in stillness on this holiest night of the year
My friend’s long ago question “what am I doing here?” could belong to any of us tonight. What are we doing here?
We are here to listen. As one of the protagonists on the long concluded and keenly missed television series “Six Feet Under” said to his deceased father, who the family regularly conversed with, “oh it CAN’T be that simple.” And his father’s response: “What if it is?”
It’s not just a slogan for pedestrian safety, you see… for crossing the street. It’s for any of us crossing over into someplace or something new. And tonight, that means all of us. We stop. Look. And above all, we listen.
We listen to the haunting, centuries old melody of Kol Nidre. And for many of us, that is enough. What are we doing here? It’s Kol Nidre! It seems impossible that one ancient chant evokes our deepest longings, dreams and regrets. But this one does. Our Torah scrolls themselves stand as witnesses to these things, as Kol Nidre finds us. I recently learned from my colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Blake, that “in almost every sign language in the world, to indicate the past, you point behind you, and to indicate the future, you point in front of you. But in Chinese sign language, the action is reversed. You indicate the past by pointing in front of you, and the future by pointing behind you. Why? Because the future is hidden. You can always see the past.” (Rabbi Jonathan Blake, “Rosh Hashanah 5775: This Day of Remembering.”)
Maybe that’s the pain… and the poignancy… if we really do pause and allow those less than comfortable feelings to sink in. Kol Nidre lays the past bare and asks us to see the vows we didn’t keep, the goals we didn’t fulfill. Our more tarnished, less idealized selves are on display, and it is so very hard to see ourselves and to be seen by others in that light. In these quiet moments so filled with hope and yearning, we make room beside us for the simple truth of how hard it is to admit to vows not kept, goals unfulfilled, potential unmet. How do we begin to forgive ourselves?
Here I’m reminded of a pause during a walk I once took with a fellow rabbinic student. I was about to be ordained, and she had been a rabbi for almost a year, so I figured she knew her stuff. As I waxed on about all that I was afraid of, she listened for a while, and eventually we found a bench where we could watch the river and the cars whizzing by, which any New York City water view seems to include.
“Now, what are you really afraid of?” she asked
Before I could give it any more thought I said, “That I’ll disappoint people.” Immediately a lump rose in my throat, the kind that tells you you’ve gotten to the core of it. My friend nodded.
“Well,” she said, “I have news for you. You will disappoint people. Sometimes that will happen.”
“Oh come on,” I responded. “You – you’re great at this! How have you – as a rabbi – disappointed people?!”
She thought for a while and finally turned to me, puzzled. And she said:
“You mean… today?”
I don’t have to tell you she was right. Or that her words were a gift I have returned to again and again through the years. This was… this is a model of being in the world that reminds us all that we will disappoint… and be disappointed. We will soar, and we will crash. And we will survive these things. As we acknowledge the failings of our past, the disappointments, the promises that did not bloom, we are also, paradoxically, making room for better ones to grow in their place.
We listen for images of God that are foreboding and majestic. And we’re not disappointed. Or we are. I think here of people I’ve listened to over the years who genuinely struggle with all we say about God, all we say that God is, during this time of year. To say nothing of how difficult it can be to puzzle out the right words the rest of the year! But on the High Holidays, God can seem especially authoritarian and distant… just when we need that Divine Presence to be the still, small voice within us. Recording, recounting, sealing our fate… the bravest among us struggle even as we listen, and that has always been so. For those who are ambivalent about God at the best of times. For those who have been genuinely hurt by the religious training of your early years, revolving around images of God as celestial taskmaster. Are we throwing such images right back to you, at the time you need it least?
Can you – can we all – find a place for these all-powerful images? Can we allow them to help us focus in on the intensity, the urgency of this Kol Nidre night? How can they help us to acknowledge, and to feel the truth of what we mean when chant – or even hum – Avinu Malkeinu, and when we pray the words of U’netaneh Tokef? It’s one of the hardest and bravest acts there is: letting go of that illusory world where it all makes sense and we’re in ultimate control. Where the righteous flourish in immediate, visible ways and the less righteous are punished just as they should be. Although who was it who said “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do?” (Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird, p. 22.)
Let these images of God envelop you. Lean on them, where you can. Allow them to be points of connection with so many other Jews saying them too, with doubt, with conviction, with fear. And listen for the new songs that have arisen out of them. From the masterful Leonard Cohen, whose words will animate our U’netaneh Tokef tomorrow morning. And the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai of blessed memory, for whom the traditional image of God as Avinu Malkeinu spurred him to ask, “What does a king do in the republic of pain? (Feels) nostalgia for God, and a better world. Our Father, Our King.”
And speaking of the republic of pain! There’s a story of a man who brings some fine material to a tailor and asks him to make a pair of pants. When he comes back a week later, the pants are not ready. Two weeks, three weeks, four… still no pants. Finally, six weeks later, the pants are ready, and it turns out they really are beautiful; they fit perfectly. But as he pays, he can’t resist telling the tailor, “Look… you know, it took God only six days to make the world. It took you six weeks to make this one pair of pants!” “Sure,” the tailor says. “But look at these pants; now, look at the world!”
Look at the world indeed. We listen tonight for what cries out in our broken, fallen world… the only one we know. This Kol Nidre we feel the aftershocks still of the summer’s war between Israel and Gaza. We remember signs and shouted slogans displaying virulent anti-Semitism; caricatures and stereotypes we may have thought we would not see or hear again. We listen in disbelief as more and more ground is lost in the world of public opinion and wonder how we will continue aspiring to be the people we want to be: clear-eyed and strong, never paranoid, on the right side of history, standing up to bigotry, responding to real threats and discerning invented ones, open and knowledgeable enough heed our heads and our hearts, pride and compassion intact. It’s no wonder we listen to Kol Nidre three times through. This is all going to take a very long time. We pray that that’s exactly what we have.
And still, tonight crowds of Israelis stood outside synagogues from Jerusalem to Eilat to listen to Kol Nidre. A few stood inside too.
And still, Seeds of Peace continues their work of bringing teens from areas of global conflict, including the Middle East, together — to teach them dialogue and peacemaking skills. And The Parents’ Circle, made up of Israelis and Palestinians who have all lost immediate family members in the conflict, continues to pursue reconciliation and hope. They struggle to look into the face of the enemy and see a fellow parent, sister or brother, daughter or son. And they do not give up. Listening to their voices reminds us that if they of all people can retain their humanity, then we know we too can try.
And we return always, to listen for what cries out in our own hearts and souls.
For many years, I have read these words in our siddur Mishkan Tefillah: “May the door of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship.” Only recently though, do I feel I’m truly hearing them. Do you know that at least three or four of comments in the box just outside are about wanting help starting a chavurah?” No wonder. Chavurah, a word whose root means friendship. The very first flagship chavurot of the 1960’s and 70’s, whose founders listened to the Judaism of their youth and felt notes missing, have grown to include countless groups in Jewish communities and synagogues of all sizes and sensibilities. What they have in common is that they offer meaning and connectivity to individuals and families who might otherwise feel lost in the shuffle. The most successful chavurot, and I include ours at B’nai Tikvah here, are the ones that have evolved over time, growing according to the needs of the group, not according to one single blueprint. In the coming year, we look forward to the conversations and connections that will pave the way towards new chavurot. All who are hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship … we, your rabbi and cantor, your Temple leadership are ready to listen, and to help.
On this, the holiest night of our year, let us listen as well and as deeply as we can. As our new vows, our new beginnings find their voice in us, let us pause to allow for a meaningful shift.
Let us listen for each other’s presence and support, so that our joys may be amplified… and so that like the man in that nursing home, gone a long time now, who could have been forgotten and wasn’t, none of us need cry out alone.
Listen. What will you hear?