Kol Nidre Sermon (2016)

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read about the birth of Isaac and the birth of the world, thus my sermon was about birth.  On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, inspired by the Torah reading of the binding of Isaac, I sermonized about adolescence, the Bar Mitzvah, and the power of choices.  Today, in keeping with this lifecycle theme, I’d like to talk about chasanas, weddings and marriages, because they seem to fit very nicely with tonight’s themes of vows and commitments.  Also, weddings are one of the few times in a Jew’s life when we get to wear this kittel.  This white robe is worn on weddings and during the High Holidays as a symbol of purity, from a line in Isaiah that says, “our sins shall be made as white as snow.” In addition to the purity that this robe represents, it also symbolizes unity on the wedding day as both the bride and groom are garbed in white if the groom chooses to wear a kittel over his tux.  Finally, you’ll never see a kittel with pockets because for weddings, it’s a reminder that the couple married for love, not possessions.  We also wear it as a burial shroud, and not having pockets serves as an equalizer…because regardless of the material possessions acquired throughout our lives, we are all equal when we are buried.

I’m not married yet, so it may be something of a leap for me to talk about the various challenges of marriage, but what I can offer are teachings from our tradition regarding this most-important rite of passage.

For example, let’s think about what the Bible and the Talmud say about divorce.  In Deuteronomy, which was written in the 7th century BCE we learn that a get, or bill of divorce, is required to end a marriage.  In the first few centuries of the common era, the Rabbis clarified that a man needed a reason to obtain a get. Sounds good so far, right?  It’s protective of the woman because a man couldn’t just divorce her when he woke up one morning and decided to.  However, the rabbis were INCREDIBLY lenient in what that reason could be.  If the woman was displeasing to her husband in ANY way, like if she burnt his food, she could be divorced.  And the status of a divorced woman in that society was extremely precarious. Unlike widows and orphans, divorcees had very few social or legal protections.

And that’s the way it stayed for women pretty much until the 20th century. Starting in the 19th century and coming to fruition in the 20th century, the power and grip of family and tradition gave way to the power and freedom of the individual.

It was in this milieu that Reconstructionism developed.  One of the ways Reconstructionists strived to reduce the cognitive dissonance between our Jewish tradition and our modern American culture was to equalize the roles of men and women.  We initiated the first Bat Mitzvah, we embrace female rabbis, and we have no qualms regarding people’s sexual orientations, seeing ALL marriages and partnerships as holy unions.

Before Reconstructionism existed, within classical Jewish thought is the idea that the Torah must be reinterpreted for each generation, to keep it relevant and meaningful.  Though the words have stayed the same for thousands of years, the way we understand the Torah has evolved.  Continuing in this chain of tradition, I’d like to offer my reinterpretation of Kol Nidre and the High Holidays, as a season that teaches us not only how to be our best selves, but also serves as a useful guide for successful marriages.

As I see it, the many months that go into planning the wedding can be likened to the period that we are just now emerging from, the yamim noraim, the Days of Awe, which concludes tomorrow night.  As a couple prepares for their wedding, they construct a plan for literally every minute of their special day.

As some of you may recall, this preparatory period before the wedding can really bring the couple together as they plan the first day of the rest of their lives.  Or alternatively, things can get ugly – Sometimes the 2 sets of in-laws have issues, sometimes the bride and groom differ over flower arrangements or seating plans, you know how it can be…

Similarly, over the last 10 days, Jews around the world have been preparing their minds, bodies, and souls for Yom Kippur.  Just like when a couple gets engaged and begins to envision what their life together will look like, Rosh Hashanah was an opportunity to envision for ourselves what our new year will look like, an engagement of sorts.  In order to make that vision a reality for ourselves, lots of self-work and introspection is necessary…plenty of planning and preparation goes into making ourselves the best we can be.  And, as with everything, the greater the energy put into this effort, the greater the reward.

On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about how the G-d-Human relationship can be understood using the parent-child analogy.  Also within our tradition is seeing our relationship with G-d like a husband and wife.  G-d as the archetypal husband, and we, the people Israel, are the bride.

Whatever preparations and envisioning you did since Rosh Hashanah, tonight is Yom Kippur, and tonight we’re getting married to G-d!!  It’s happening, ready or not. We started off the night by saying the prayer for which this service is named, Kol Nidre. In this prayer, we say that we tried our best to uphold the vows and promises we made last Yom Kippur, but we may have forgotten some, or tried to live up to them and failed.  And for those reasons we declare those vows null and void. This allows us to start off the new year with a fresh, clean slate.

What if every year we could get a new start in our familial relationships?  We could recognize our own failings in the relationship, commit to trying our best to be a better partner, and then begin to act differently.  These High Holiday services actually provide an excellent model and formula, I believe, for successful marriages and familial bonds.

After reciting Kol Nidre, we moved into the Shema prayer, declaring our unconditional love for G-d.  This prayer is part of our daily liturgy and is meant to be recited every morning and night.  Imagine if we told our loved ones that we loved them every morning and every night?  Imagine if we were obligated to do that, even if we’re angry or upset with them?  Because after all, it’s true, isn’t it?  When we’re angry at someone in our immediate family, our frustration is ultimately coming from a place of love, because you care for them so much, and it’s painful to see when someone you love isn’t living up to their potential.  So I invite you to try this: Tell the people you love that you love them. Tell them every morning and every night. As clichéd as it may feel, I think those words are always welcome, and you can’t say them too often.

After the Shema we moved into the Amidah.  The Amidah is part of every Jewish prayer service and is meant to be recited thrice daily – every morning, afternoon, and evening.  The Amidah, or Shmoney Esreh, which means 18, because there were originally 18 blessings, is the climax of every Jewish prayer service – it’s when we’re standing in G-d’s presence!  This is why most of our important prayers for Yom Kippur are inserted into the middle of the Amidah, because it is then that we are closest with our Creator.

It is these moments of intimacy that bond us to G-d.  Likewise, healthy relationships are also permeated with physical, emotional, and maybe spiritual bonds of intimacy.  The verb used in the Torah for the act of procreation is “To Know,” like in Genesis, “And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.”  Aside from sexuality, there is a plethora of ways to be intimate with your partner, to know your partner.  Whether it’s comforting them after a long day, or being emotionally available to their deepest needs, supporting each other in their spiritual growth – these are all ways of being intimate with someone – getting to know their souls, seeing them as they are, and loving them and helping them when they are in need. So just as Kol Nidre and the Shema can be seen as guidelines and suggestions for how to engage in a loving, healthy marriage, I also recommend using the wisdom of the Amidah.

After I finish speaking, we have several more big prayers tonight, including Shema Kolenu, Ki Anu Amecha, Ashamnu, and Al Cheyt.  In Shema koleynu, we will beseech G-d to hear our voices and to accept our prayers.  To me, this teaches us about reciprocity.  We are praying and we hope G-d is listening: Similarly, in a marriage, when we have a problem, we hope our spouse will help us solve it, or at least give us the space to verbalize it.  And just as our relationship with G-d requires our presence and G-d’s compassion, so too do marriages require effort from both partners.  The reciprocity that we aspire to in our relationship with G-d can also encourage equality and respect between partners.

The next prayer after Shema Koleynu, Hear Our Voice, is Ki Anu Amecha, “for we are your people.”  Ki Anu Amecha establishes our relationship to G-d using a variety of metaphors.  I think this would also be useful for partners – to spell out for each other what your roles and expectations are of one another, so instead of, “we are your people and you are our God”, like we read in the prayer, you might say to your partner, “I do the dishes and you do the laundry, I drive the kids to school and you pick them up, or I am yours and you are mine.”

Finally, in Ashamnu and Al Cheyt, we admit our wrongdoings.  As I spoke about during Rosh Hashanah, we all make mistakes because we’re human.  The problem is not in making mistakes…the problem is not doing anything about them when we do!  In order to learn and grow from our mistakes, we must admit our wrongdoings to ourselves and to those whom we have wronged.  And that’s what we do in this prayer. Once a year, we ask for forgiveness for EVERYTHING in one fell swoop.  Can we do this in relationships too?  Surely we can ask for forgiveness, that’s the easy part…but can we actually forgive people if they’ve really hurt us?  We know that’s something G-d can do, but can we?

Whether you’re married or not, I hope you were able to see what I did here tonight as a lesson in interpretive methodology.  My reinterpretation of the Kol Nidre prayer service has lots of precedent within our tradition.  The haggadah, our prayer books, our festivals, and our Torah are all constants, but our interpretations of them vary through the ages.

There are many of levels of interpretation for everything that goes on in Judaism. There’s no one set way to approach anything in our faith, because so many unique people have been “doing Judaism” so differently all across the world for thousands of years, adapting it and making it their own.  That’s what we’re doing here!  As I’ll discuss further tomorrow, what we’re doing here in no way resembles Yom Kippur in Jerusalem when the Temple stood.  So I invite you to make it yours!  If you want Judaism or Jewish values to be a bigger part of your life but you find certain things crazy or alienating, I invite you to try to understand it beyond the literal meaning.  Try the approach, “How can this be useful for me right now?”  Experiment! Learn!

Tonight we solidify our vision of our best self.  Though we believe that tomorrow night the heavenly gates begin to close, there IS a teaching that you still have the opportunity to change your “seal”, your inscription in the book of Life or Death, between now and Simchas Torah, which is still a couple of weeks away.  Or to put it another way, this is a holy season, and it’s a great opportunity to do some self-work.

May you be transformed and uplifted during this High Holiday season.  May you become the better person that you aspire to be, and may the fruits of your growth nourish all the people in your life, for this year and for many years to come.