Yom Kippur - Kol Nidrei - September 26, 2001
Today's date is September 26. We have all gone back to work, and we have all gone back to our lives, but we have many reminders, hourly reminders, of what happened fifteen days ago, on September 11. Yet
Our heads may be bloody, but they are unbowed, as individuals, as a community, as a region, as a nation.
For many of us, however, there are areas of our lives that have not yet returned to "normal", whatever that means. Noises, sirens, visual images, the daily news, all reawaken our feelings of that day - horror, sadness, righteous indignation, anger, and fear. I received an annual greeting card from a childhood friend on Monday, in which he noted that he took his first plane trip in August to visit his married daughter in Chicago. He added "that could possibly be my last time on a plane".
Another area where some of us, perhaps many of us, are experiencing difficulty, particularly today, is with God and with prayer.
The Rosh Hashanah liturgy visualizes God as Ruler, the One who is in charge of the Universe, the One who sets the rules of the universe. Such events shouldn't happen in the world where "You do not slumber or sleep"; how can You tolerate those who break the rules so egregiously, and in Your name, no less?
The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy focus on God as the ultimate Judge, and so we ask with Abraham "shall the Judge of the world not do justice?"
The Yom Kippur liturgy focuses on our sins, but today our sins pale in comparison with those of today's Amalek.
We think today about the crossroads in our lives, but it's hard to connect our choices with Your divine plans. Did You really decide "who shall live and who shall die" on September 11?
Many of you have more articulate ways of formulating these questions that I have, and I think that it's important for you to have an opportunity to share your concerns. So whoever wishes to do that may complete, in 25 words or less, the sentence "Prayer is difficult for me today because ..." This is not a discussion, so please don't respond to what I or others have said; this is an time to make the community aware of your difficulties with God and prayer. Let's first take a deep breath, and then another. "Prayer is difficult for me today because ..."
(participants shared statements)
Sh'ma ko-lei-nu, Sh'ma, Sh'ma ko-lei-nu Adonai Eloheinu -- listen to our voices, listen, listen to our voices, Adonai our God.
Although we chant Sh'ma ko-lei-nu frequently on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the verse also appears in the daily Amidah, starting off the last of the central weekday berachot. Years ago, the Highland Park Temple had a shammes who was known as Rebbe Cohen. Whenever he led services, he would shout out Sh'ma, Sh'ma, Sh'ma ko-lei-nu - saying the word Shma three times, loudly. I believe that he did that to make sure that he caught God's attention.
It would have been nice if we could have postponed Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for a few weeks, until we had gotten our spiritual bearings. But the calendar doesn't work that way - Yom Kippur is the tenth day of the month of Tishrei. And we have spiritual work to do today.
This is the time designated for tikkun hanefesh - for setting about to fix those parts of us that are broken. This is the time to examine our actions during the past year, to make an inventory of the ways in which we miss the mark, to resolve to improve our behavior, and to take concrete steps to implement our resolutions. This is the time to ask forgiveness for our treatment of others, and to forgive others for the wrongs, imagined or real, that they have done to us. This is the time to mend relationships, with our families, with our friends. This is the time to review the decisions that we have made, the directions we have taken, and ask ourselves if we did right by our families, our communities, our world, and ourselves. This is the time to consider how we, how each of us, can make this broken world a better place. All of this spiritual work can take place even if the words of the prayers are awkward, even if we feel a gulf separating us from God.
But we can't do that spiritual work if we spend the day focusing on that separation. We can only do it if we are engaged in the ritual with our community. On one level we need to be able to say to ourselves "God, I may not know where you are today, but I'm here, I'm present in "the day", the day that our tradition calls "ha-yom. the day", taking care of my spiritual business."
Perhaps I should stop here, and some of you may later agree "Yes, Joe, you should have stopped there", but I will continue.
I need to confess that I am not feeling the theological stress that I have been discussing. For the issues presented by the terrorist attack are the same as those presented by the Holocaust. And I had to resolve those issues for myself long ago.
As you have heard me say many times, I do not believe in a God who micro-manages the universe. The Holocaust tells us that we cannot believe simultaneously that God is all-powerful and that God is all-good; a god who is both all-powerful and all-good would have stopped the Holocaust, which killed a thousand times six thousand innocent people.
When faced with a choice of believing in a loving, caring, benevolent God or a God who moves mountains and causes the sun to stop in its tracks, my choice is clear. I prefer to believe in a God who is always the Source of all Blessings than in a God who is always the Ruler of the Universe. To express it Kabbalistically, God had to abdicate some Rulership to make space in the universe for human beings to have free will.
Where is God then today? God is just where we are, for we are created in God's image. The horror we feel is the horror that God feels, the sadness that we feel is the sadness that God feels, the anger we feel is the anger that God feels.
The notion that God cannot be both all-powerful and all-good is described more fully in Harold Kushner's book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People", which you may want to read. When I asked several people for advice about what I should say tonight, David Rogoff suggested that I look at a book by Rabbi Edward Feld entitled "The Spirit of Renewal" and published in 1991. I own it, but have never read it. It's subtitle is "Crisis and Response in Jewish Life" and in it he discusses, among other crises, the Holocaust. I didn't have time to read it in the last few days, but one chapter begins with the statement "The Holocaust causes us to revise our religious beliefs: to adopt a conception of God who does not exercise power in history ... ." You may want to read that book also.
I should mention that there are two traditional Jewish responses to crisis. One is that the crisis is all part of a divine plan, but since we are human we just don't understand God's plan. This is expressed very beautifully in Psalm 91 - Mizmor Shir L'Yom HaShabbat - in the passage that begins with a verse that we often chant, "mah gad-lu ma'a-se-cha adonai, m'od am-ku mach-sh'vo-te-cha - how great are Your deeds Adonai, how deep are Your thoughts". Fools don't understand, it continues, that though evildoers grow as the grass, they will ultimately be mowed down. And, indeed, this belief that the future will be better, that good will ultimately defeat evil, is an important foundation of Judaism, motivating and energizing all of our efforts at tikkun olam, at repairing the world. On the other hand, this response always lets God off the hook - which the tradition is not always happy to do. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, for example, convened a Rabbinic Court and brought God to trial, charging "Vos host du tzu dein folk Yisroel - What do You have against Your people Israel?"
Another traditional response is that the crisis is a punishment for our actions, that we are at fault. I certainly don't find this response satisfying. Indeed, as I mentioned on Rosh Hashana, the one sentence that I most want to remove from the High Holiday prayerbook reads "Because of our sins we were exiled from our land". Many of the Rabbis actually argued that the punishment of destruction and exile was much more severe than our sins merited; nevertheless, this phrase was included prominently in the Machzor. And we have our present-day blamers ranging from Jerry Falwell who says this act of terrorism was God's punishment for our pursuit of feminism, homosexuality, abortion, and civil liberties to those on the other end of the political spectrum who say that we are being punished for our foreign policy. We even have Jews who blame the Holocaust on our shortcomings. Yes, we each have shortcomings. Yes, our country has shortcomings. But none of them merited such destruction.
And, in any case, I do not believe that such destruction is delivered by God. One corollary of God's not micro-managing the universe is that God doesn't punish us for our misdeeds. The opening scene of the play "Steambath", takes place, logically, in a steambath, which, we soon learn, is a way-station for souls traveling from this world to the next. From the attendant's monologue we discover that he is God, looking down into this world and deciding who gets zapped and who is saved. Here we see a wonderful caricature of "hash-ga-cha pra-tit" - yes, we have a word for micro-management - not what the Baal Shem Tov had in mind when he said that every leaf falls under God's direction. There were many miracles on September 11, but if you believe that God specifically saved some people then you must also believe that God specifically zapped other people.
The God in whom I believe does not zap people. I do however believe that there are consequences of our actions. So the choices we make today are indeed important.
Not only is today the day designated for tikkun hanefesh - for setting out to fix those parts of us that are broken - it is also the day designated for teshuvah - for turning from the darkness to the light, for turning from evil to good, for turning from the world of illusion to the world of spiritual reality, for turning back to God.
But which God do we turn back to. When we were young, we believed that our parents would protect us from all harm, but eventually we learned that we were mistaken, that we had ascribed to them more power than was reasonable. We learned to accept them as they were, and to accept from them what they could provide.
God is a Source of strength, a Source of energy, a Source of healing. Let us today draw on that strength, that energy, that healing.
(A guided meditation on strength and healing that concludes with the opening lines of Psalm 27. This is followed by a reading of the psalm.)
A Psalm of David.
Adonai is my light and my help.
Whom should I fear!
Adonai is the strength of my life.
Of what should I be afraid!
I do have foes, external and internal,
which could potentially devour me.
I do have troublesome enemies,
but I know that they will fall.
Even when I am surrounded,
my heart will not succumb to fear.
Though wars rage all around me, and within me,
I know that You are with me.
One thing I asked of God,
this I sought most earnestly,
To dwell in God's house
all the days of my life,
To experience the sweetness of Adonai
and to dwell in Your presence.
You cover me with Your Sukkah during terrible times,
You hide me in Your tent.
You raise me up on a rock,
out of reach of disaster.
You raise my head high,
above all the enemies that surround me.
So I bring You my offerings,
I bring You my shouts of joy.
I offer my music and my voice
to You, Adonai.
You, Adonai, You hear my voice when I call,
You answer me and are gracious to me.
Since my heart longs for You,
I turn to Your face,
it is Your face,
Your presence, that I seek.
You will not hide Your face from me,
You will not reject Your servant.
You have always been my help.
You will not abandon me or desert me.
You, God, are my deliverer.
Though my father and mother will abandon me,
You will always gather me in.
Teach me Your way, Adonai,
guide me to walk straight on Your path,
despite all distractions.
You will not abandon me to my foes,
to those who would mislead me and betray me.
That would happen if I weren't sure of seeing
Your goodness in the land of the living.
Ka-vei el Adonai!
Put your hope in Adonai!
Cha-zak v'a-meitz li-be-cha
v'ka-vei el Adonai!
You will gain courage and strength
when You hope in Adonai.
May we all gain courage and strength on this day of Yom Kippur.
From Rabbi Arthur Green's book Seek My Face, Speak My Name: "Each series of shofar blasts begins with teki'ah, a whole sound. It is followed by shevarim, a tripartite broken sound whose very name means "breakings". "I started off whole," the shofar speech say, "and I became broken." Then follows teru'ah, a staccato series of blast fragments, saying: "I was entirely smashed to pieces." But each series has to end with a new teki'ah, promising wholeness once more. The shofar cries out a hundred times on Rosh Hashanah: "I was whole, I was broken, even smashed to bits, but I shall be whole again!"
When we hear the final teki'ah gedolah at the end of the day, may we hear its message of wholeness, its message of healing, and carry that wholeness and that healing with us into the year ahead. G'mar cha-ti-ma to-va; may we all be inscribed for a good year.