September 13, 2013: Kol Nidre sermon


“You know what? Thanks for nothing! I’m tired of putting up with your nonsense.”

A dozen words articulated—mere sound vibrations in the air. What was your emotional reaction just now? Surprise? Shock? Shame? Anger? Or maybe you realized it was merely an oratorical ploy to grab your attention, and not genuine. If so, think on the last time you unsuspectingly opened your inbox and were caught of guard by a hurtful email or someone lashed out at you unexpectedly. Did your muscles tense up? Did a knot form in the pit of your stomach? Did tears well up in your eyes? Did you fantasize about striking back? Did you stay up night endlessly reviewing imaginary conversations with your antagonist? Now consider the last time someone called you out of the blue to say: “you’re terrific! You’re wonderful. I love you.”

Here’s another message, this time sincere: “I feel so lucky that we found each other, and I have come to care for you a great deal in the past year. I can’t think of a better place for me.”

“Actions speak louder than words.” Perhaps, but words by themselves speak loudly. The day after Yom Kippur, and beyond, will afford unlimited opportunities to translate words into action. Now is the time, on Yom Kippur, to concentrate on words. The essence of teshuvah is verbal confession. Our tradition demands that we express out loud our regret and articulate through speech our resolve to change. If words counted for nothing, then our earnest supplications in synagogue all day long would be hollow.

The very first chapter of Genesis attests to the potency of speech. And God said: “Let there be light, and there was light.” At every step, Creation majestically unfolds in patterned call and response: vayehi, “let there be,” vayehi chen, “and it was so.” Baruch she-amar ve-hayah olam. “Praised be the One who spoke,” declares the morning liturgy, “and the world came into being.” We, too, have the power to create worlds through words. With words, we also have the power to destroy them.

Do you remember the old childhood ditty: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never harm me?” The ditty is false. Names do break bones. Jewish tradition ranks lashon hara, literally “an evil tongue,” among the gravest offenses. Maimonides writes: “bearing tales is a severe sin and causes death… Who is a talebearer? One who collects information and then goes from person to person, saying: ‘this is what so-and-so said,’ ‘this is what so-and-so did.’ Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 7:1-2) Maimonides bases the equivalence between slander and murder on the juxtaposition of two key commandments in the Holiness Code: “do not go about as a talebearer, and do not stand by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16)–that is to say, if you traffic in gossip, then you will be responsible for your neighbor’s lifeblood. You may not be slaughtering her body, but you are massacring her soul.

Strikingly, even when aspersions are true, they are venomous. Maimonides cites the Biblical character of Doeg as an example. Within earshot of King Saul, Doeg mentioned that the priests of Nob had sheltered King David—which was true. The problem was, Saul was already violently predisposed toward David. Doeg’s statement was enough to send Saul over the edge into a frenzied rage. Saul ordered the slaughter of the entire village of Nob, including women and children, in revenge for the priests’ kindness toward David. (I Samuel 22)

Truth is not always the only consideration governing proper discourse. The Talmud records the following dilemma. It is mitzvah to greet the bride on her wedding day saying things like: “how lovely and graceful you are!” But what if she is ugly? Even so, declare the sages (following the opinion of Hillel), you must praise her, because “your mind should always be commingled with others.” (bKetubot 17a) What a beautiful definition of empathy: “your mind should always be commingled with others.” Sometimes, it is better to remain in the wrong when to be in the right causes harm or injury.*

How often our words wound others through thoughtlessness, insensitivity, or self-righteousness, even without malice. All the more so, when we’re incensed at a perceived wrong, impetuously fire off an email and hit send before considering the consequences. “Speak when you’re angry, and you'll make the best speech you'll ever regret,” quips one writer. Pay close attention in a few minutes when we recite together the al cheits, the long confessional of our transgressions, and note how many of them involve speech. The Rabbis responsible for compiling the list knew that keeping kosher and observing Shabbat were easy commandments to follow in comparison with guarding the tongue! If we were to fully absorb their admonishment, we would be terrified to ever open our mouths!

Nevertheless, the gift of language is the crowning glory of our humanity, with immense capacity for effecting good as well as evil. In tomorrow’s Avodah (worship) service, we read: “every word that we speak in truth is the Name of God.” In light of the Talmud’s directive, we might amend the statement: “every word that we speak in truth and compassion is the Name of God.” Because the Day of Atonement is devoted entirely to words, rather than deeds, it offers us a unique opportunity to focus on our speech. Today of all days, we should avoid gossip and idle discourse, which demean ourselves as well as our listeners. More importantly, we should strive to express both compassion and truth, despite the inherent contradiction between these two ideals.

The recitation of Kol Nidre (a few minutes ago) at the outset of Yom Kippur enables us to freely confess our transgressions over the course of twenty-four hours with scrupulous honesty but without shame. Kol Nidre is both one of the most well-known and one of the most problematic Jewish prayers. For one thing, although it reads like a legal formula, the declaration has no juridical standing whatsoever. Furthermore, the text is jumbled to the point of incomprehensibility. “All vows, obligations and promises that we have vowed, sworn, and imposed upon ourselves from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur—may it come upon us for good!—we regret them all and we renounce them all; they are null and void.” Are we talking about vows that we have sworn in the past or ones that we might impose in the future? Does it make sense to disavow something while simultaneously praying “may it come upon us for good?” Is it possible regret something that hasn’t yet occurred? (If you were feeling sorry for a promise that you were contemplating, wouldn’t you refrain from making it in the first place?)

The textual confusion evinces Kol Nidre’s turbulent, controversial history. Almost all of the central prayers in the prayer book derive from the Bible or the Talmud, but the first reference to Kol Nidre did not appear until centuries after the Talmud’s completion. The medieval rabbinic authorities waged a concerted campaign against its inclusion in the sacred Yom Kippur liturgy on several grounds. For one thing, the annulment of previously undertaken obligations provided fodder to anti-Semites who cited it as proof of the Jew’s deceit. More to the point, it undercut Judaism’s own fundamental set of values, which places the fulfillment of one’s word among the most serious ethical responsibilities. ** Ultimately, Kol Nidre’s enormous appeal among the masses overrode rabbinic objections. The sage Rabbeinu Tam reluctantly admitted Kol Nidre into the Machzor but blunted its contradiction with Jewish ethical concerns by stipulating that its wording contain the additional phrase “from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur.” *** (Reuven Hammer, Entering the High Holidays, pp. 114-116)

To this day, Kol Nidre’s haunting melody captivates its listeners and sets the tone for the entire sacred day that follows. As one poet describes: “it is a song draped with the veil of grief, a night song dying away in the innermost recesses of the penitent human heart,… a song of absolution so fraught with terror and yet so rich in mercy.” (Hammer, p. 116) The combination of terror and mercy reflects the latent power of promises as a vehicle for both evil and good. We want desperately for our Yom Kippur confessions to signal lasting resolve and for our expressions of remorse to make a difference. However, we doubt our words. We remember all too well the many times in the past when we proclaimed: “this time, I’ll act differently,” only to fall back into old behavior. Kol Nidre gives us license to declare our intention to turn—however feeble, however fickle. “All obligations that we impose upon ourselves—we regret them and we renounce them” means: “over the next twenty-four hours, we will say many things that we know we don’t mean and make many promises that we know we can’t keep, but we will affirm them anyway.” “May they come to us for good” means that maybe, just maybe, we’ll take baby steps this time to follow through on our intention. Yes we have stumbled before; so what? We pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and try again.

Before we can ask God to forgive us, we must be able to forgive ourselves. In his psychoanalytic exploration of Jewish worship, Theodore Reik contends that Kol Nidre stirs us so intensely because it evokes powerful unconscious conflicts. Deep down, we all have the compulsion to break taboos. When confronted with “no, you may not!” part of us inevitably rebels. We want to overcome our destructive urges, and at the same time we want to continue to yield to them. Reik illustrates our internal battle with the story of a child who breaks some crockery. When his mother says: “will you be a good boy and promise never to do it again?” he answers, “Bubi wants to be good, but Bubi can’t be good.” Reik concludes: “So it is with us. Our Kol Nidre formula is the formal counterpart of the child’s sincere admission with its naïve antithesis of two simultaneous and opposing tendencies: ‘I want to be good, but I cannot be good.’” (Herman, p. 118) ****

The Kol Nidre’s formal renunciation of vows is symbolic of breaking all commitments, flouting all communal and religious authority, and defying God. Giving voice to inner rebelliousness liberates us from it for the rest of the sacred day. Admitting at the outset that we will never once and for all overcome our temptations paradoxically relieves us from constantly struggling against them. Having already articulated that our words and promises are null and void, we can from now on throw ourselves wholeheartedly into verbal confession and expressions of resolve. We are no longer striving for holiness but wholeness. “Kol Nidre is indeed a release, but not from technical vows: it releases us from all that binds us to our imperfect selves—the self-imposed limitations that keep us from fulfilling our ideals of who would like to be.” (Hammer, p. 119)

The most powerful faculty we possess as human beings is speech. Even the president of the United States, the single most influential person on the planet, finds himself stymied in the deployment of military force, but rhetoric abounds. The diplomatic crisis currently embroiling Congress and the world may demonstrate that in many cases words speak louder than action after all. Certainly, in our own lives, the most common weapon we pick up in order to strike another is the tongue. Netzor leshoncha meira, “guard your tongue from evil,” and the verse continues: sur meira va’aseh tov, “turn from evil and do good,” baqeish shalom veradfeihu, “seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34: 14-15) Our words have immense capacity to heal as well as wound. On this Day of Atonement, may we seek peace and pursue it through language. May we pursue peace through the compassionate manner that we address each other and through the fervor and sincerity of our verbal confessions. May we pursue peace by respecting and valuing our genuine expressions of resolve to change, even if we may stumble again in the future. And, at the end of the day, may we find peace, the peace of wholeness, acceptance, and forgiveness.

* Compassion takes precedence over truth under some but not all circumstances. One is obliged to tell the truth under oath in a court of law, for example, as well as when failure to disclose information might endanger the wellbeing of another.

** Compassion takes precedence over truth under some but not all circumstances. One is obliged to tell the truth under oath in a court of law, for example, as well as when failure to disclose information might endanger the wellbeing of another.

*** We often think of the traditional liturgy as “fixed.” The history of Kol Nidre attests to the evolution of prayer in response to the demands of its worshippers.

**** In terms of the Freudian structural model of the psyche, the Kol Nidre ritual symbolically exorcises the tension between id and superego. In Rabbinic parlance we might say that it lays to rest the perennial battle between the yetzer tov and yetzer hara, the so-called “good inclination” and “evil inclination” that comprise the human heart.