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Confessing Upon Our Greatest Sin – Yom Kippur Kol Nidre 5779

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Confessing Upon Our Greatest Sin
Howard Schwartz (from Rosh HaShanah fame) came over to me a few days ago: “Rabbi I don’t know what to do. I haven’t missed a game all season. The Yankees are playing the Red Sox in Yankee Stadium Kol Nidre night. How can I miss that game?”
I told him “Don’t worry, Howard, “That’s why we have DVRs.”
He said, “Thank goodness, you mean you can record the services for me?”
Now it’s a good thing they didn’t have DVRs at the beginning of the 20th Century, for a little over 100 years ago, a young German Jew named Franz Rosenzweig, went into a small synagogue in Berlin to say goodbye to Judaism. It was his intention to convert to Christianity, which he felt would help him fit into modern society. But something happened to him that night. He wrote to a friend afterward, “After a prolonged, and I believe, thorough self-examination, I have reversed my decision … I will remain a Jew.” Rosenzweig went on to become one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the 20th century.
Something about the Yom Kippur service touched him and changed him.
There is something special about these moments of Kol Nidre that are unlike any other time of the Jewish year; Kol Nidre enters our soul. What it is that makes Kol Nidre so meaningful? It’s true, its melody is haunting. But its words, which are not even in Hebrew, but Aramaic, are a plain, simple annulment of vows. Indeed, at one point in our history the rabbis wanted to modernize some of the words but they couldn’t because the Cantors protested.
At another time, rabbis in Germany wanted to remove Kol Nidre from the service, for since it’s a communal annulment of vows, it might make our Gentile neighbors think we don’t need to keep our promises.
It wasn’t removed.
But beyond the words and the tune, Kol Nidre is much more. Rosh Hashanah is focused on the New Year that lies ahead. Kol Nidre brings together past, present and future. Its words seek to annul not just our vows and misdeeds of the past year, but of the coming year as well.
Perhaps the chilling Kol Nidre melody serves as a mantra, it mesmerizes us, allowing us to think about our lives, our actions in the past, and what we plan on in the future.
When I was younger and the High Holidays would come, I would think about my sins of the past year and write them down in a little pocket planner (this was before smartphones). When it was Yom Kippur, I’d pull out the planner and confess over those sins, regret doing them and promise not to do them again.
Yet, year after year, the same sins would written in my planner, I just couldn’t eradicate them. It would depress me, that every year I’d vow to get better, but in the end, I didn’t.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t improve or grow in other areas, but along these lines, I just couldn’t budge.
The other day, a rabbi friend asked how I explain the S’eir La’Azazel to my congregation.
It’s a practice going back to Temple times, that on Yom Kippur, the high Priest would stand two identical goats to his right and to his left. He’d confess the sins of the Children of Israel upon the goats. Then through a lottery system, one goat would be selected and offered to God on the Altar and the other would be walked to the highest cliff in Jerusalem and pushed off to its death.
I’m told him, my explanation is that we’re on a path of “Progress, not Perfection.” There are many statements and decrees in the Torah that aren’t “politically correct” or what we would now consider moral or logical. But Conservative Judaism views Torah and prophecy as a synthesis between God and human being. As the human progresses, so should Jewish thought. That’s why we’re an egalitarian synagogue even though the Torah written 2500+ years ago is not egalitarian.
But going back to the goat that gets thrown over the cliff. Perhaps there’s a lesson there.
Some sins, we just need to throw away.
We need need to throw them over the cliff and let go of them. There’s not much we can do about them. They’re a part of who we are
As John Legend says,
“Cause all of me
Loves all of you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections”
When it comes to our friends, we love them despite their faults; with regards to our children and spouses we love them because of their faults, we wouldn’t have them another way (there maybe a few exceptions to this rule!)
This is how we need to embrace ourselves, we need to love and accept ourselves with our imperfections.
Yet, there are some sins we should not ignore.
We humans are unique among all the creatures of the world.
There’s a famous Hardin cartoon, where the first amphibian emerges from the water. It’s thinking: Eat, Survive, Reproduce.
Then it becomes a reptile, it thinks: Eat, Survive, Reproduce.
The reptile evolves into a small mammal: it thinks: Eat, Survive,
The mammal evolves into a gorilla: it thinks: Eat, Survive, Reproduce.
The Gorilla evolves into a man: it thinks: What’s it all about?
When I was a teen, I used to ask this question.
I was spiritual and I believed in a God, a Creator. Taking AP Biology in my senior solidified the matter. Molecular biology alone is so complex, the ADP-ATP cycle is so complicated that it felt to me unrealistic this sophisticated chemical reaction could develop randomly, I believed there had to be a Creator.
The next step seemed logical to me as well.
If there’s a Creator, then why wouldn’t It/He/She communicate with its creations?
Why leave us in the dust. Normal parents want to have a loving relationship with their children, it made sense to me that God would too.
So I left the University of Michigan for Yeshiva University where I could study Torah, the word of God, and also continue my secular studies.
I then decided I want to study the word of God full-time, so I left for Yeshiva.
For 11 years, I studied all the different disciplines of Torah and Rabbinic literature.
Yet a question bothered me. Perhaps thousands of questions bothered me, but one more than the others.
If God once spoke to People through a coherent form of prophecy, then why just stop. Why all of a sudden, 2500 years ago, was Malachi the last prophet?
If the five books of Moses is enough for us, then why did we need Prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Malachi?
And if the Torah is not enough, that we need a current prophet to speak to us, as it says in the Torah (Deuteronomy 18:15):
טו) נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי יָקִים לְךָ יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵלָיו תִּשְׁמָעוּן
“A prophet from among you, from your brothers, like me, the Lord, your God will set up for you; you shall listen to him,” then why would prophecy have stopped?
Now the gemara answers this question, but it’s a dubious answer at best, and many rabbis believe that prophecy has not ceased.
So how do we hear or understand the will of God?
The answer is from within us. From within ourselves we can feel the Divine
The Torah teaches us that we are made in the “Image and likeness of God.” This doesn’t mean that our physical bodies look like God, but, it does mean that our essence is the same. The human soul is a spark of the Divine.
There’s a pre-Shema song by Rabbi David Paskin that I like to sing during the evening Shabbat services. The beginning words are:
“I am one and,
You are one and
We are one together…”
How can we, God and Us be one? Because, our souls are a bit of the Divine.
And each one of us was fashioned uniquely in order for us to experience and create different things.
That’s we’re called to different professions, locales, hobbies and relationships. There’s something in us that drives us to be who we are, and more. The soul within us, speaks to us, guides us upon the path we’re call to experience.
And perhaps the biggest sin, is to ignore that call.
How many people change professions, locales and relationships in a midlife crisis? Could it be that they chose something not for them, or just not for them anymore?
Many of us were shocked when we read Andre Agassi’s autobiography, but he hated playing tennis! It was his father’s dream but not his. It’s not just Andre who got sidetracked in their life.
Tonight, we’ll confess for many legitimate sins: gluttony or not taking care of our health, abusive words or apathy, minor theft or more, but perhaps the biggest sin is not being who we really pine to be, not living out our Divine calling.
If we dream it, if we feel it, it relates to us.
Why is it that you have a certain desire and I do not? Because you were created to realize it.
God is still speaking to us, but the message comes from within, we just need to take time to listen.
Tonight let’s use the mesmerizing melody of Kol Nidre and the other Yom Kippur prayers to think about our unrealized, secret ambitions. Perhaps our greatest fault is not living them out.
Theodore Hertz lived with the dream of creating a Jewish state. His mottos was: “If you would but will it, it is no longer a dream.”
May you see you dreams and inner desires fulfilled in the year ahead.
Shana Tova

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