KOL NIDRE 5778
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi
B’rosh Hashanah yikateivun, uv’yom tzom kippur yeikhateimun. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. A phrase that has struck fear in the hearts of Jews throughout the ages. I remember being 9 or 10, sitting in Kol Nidre services and crying quite hard. I really couldn’t articulate why, but I remember what I was thinking; what if someone I cared about, especially my grandparents, didn’t get written in the Book of Life for good and for life? The thought terrified me. I remember feeling afraid to say that, because in addition to feeling like a crybaby, I expected that my parents and the others around me would try and comfort me, the way parents and other well-meaning people want to do. I wasn’t going to be comforted.
Now, having been through losses and shepherding others through loss as a rabbi and a chaplain, I have a better understanding of my fear, and what I probably needed at that time. I needed someone to be with me – to walk a few steps on my journey with me – not to try and make it all better the way kissing a booboo can–and by the way, the AMA has confirmed that’s still the best treatment for minor cuts and scrapes.
I still wonder about my future, near and long-term. How might I be written in the Book of Life? What about the people I care about? What if I don’t get to do the things I want to do? I’ve said before, and quite often, that the Unetane Tokef, of which the “who shall live and who shall die” statement is part, acknowledges that we live in a random world where things aren’t necessarily within our control. Bad things will happen to good people, and vice versa. But the liturgy gives us the tools of teshuva, tefillah and tzedaka, translated as “repentance, prayer and righteousness,” to help us cope when things don’t go the way we’d like.
By saying that teshuva, tefillah and tzedaka can help us in the face of adversity, we are reminded that each of us has resources we can call on in order to live lives of meaning and purpose; to give ourselves the best possible chances; to help others do the same. By beginning the solemn and grand proclamation in the first-person plural – Unetane tokef kedushat hayom! WE proclaim the kedusha – the holiness – of this day–we remind ourselves that we’re not expected to go through life alone. We human beings are social creatures; we want and need to connect with others, and not just on Facebook and What’s App, although if used properly, they can certainly open up new worlds for us.
Studies have consistently shown that especially as we get older, the stronger our in-person social networks are, the better our physical and emotional health tends to be. People who attend support groups often have better outcomes from serious illnesses than those who don’t. And people who attend religious services on a regular or even irregular basis do better as well, but now I’m preaching to the choir, aren’t I?
In Chapter 1 of Bereshit, God created Adam, the first human. In Chapter 2, Vayomer Ado-nai Elo-him, lo tov hehyot ha-adam l’vado; e-ehseh lo ezer k’negdo. The Lord God said, “it is not good for a man to be alone, I will make a helper opposite him.” Usually, the term ezer k’negdo is translated as a “fitting helper, or helpmate” but the word k’neged also means to be opposite, to oppose, to be against. Or next to. And isn’t that what interpersonal relationships are all about? We work next to each other for the same things, we agree and disagree, we agree to disagree, we play devil’s advocate, and we understand why Howard Johnson’s has 31 flavors.
Although we might think of God as a lofty deity – supreme, peerless – ayn k’erk’cha v’ayn zulatekha, “there is none like you and none besides you” – we do know that God has a community; what we call the “heavenly host,” the angels and other celestial beings that were presumably created just before people. What does God say in Genesis 1:26, “Let US make Adam in OUR image, after OUR likeness.” Ours, not “mine.” God created humans to populate the world and create community.
Solitary confinement in our prison system is being looked at as cruel and unusual punishment, and with good reason. However, many of us sentence ourselves to similar treatment when we choose to stay home instead of going out, when we mistake our Facebook friends for real flesh and blood friends, and when we become so involved in online communities that we forget about the need for in-person interaction.
Websites like Facebook, Meet-up and Ravelry have allowed me to meet people in this community that I might not have otherwise, and have helped me to make acquaintances and friends, and for that I am deeply grateful. Some of you are here this evening because of this wonderful technology. And some people who aren’t here, for a variety of reasons, are at home watching a streamed service from another city.
When I was growing up, my friends and I would complain about having to go to services. After all, if God is everywhere, why do we need to be in synagogue? Can’t we pray to God anywhere? And the answer is yes. To a point. The Hasidim have a solo prayer practice called Hitbodedut, where they go into the forest or another secluded area and pour out their hearts to God. But Jews also have a requirement for a minyan, for a critical mass of ten adult Jews in order to recite certain prayers and read from the Torah. We need a community to share in our joys and sorrows and everything in between.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, who’s best known book is When Bad Things Happen To Good People, also wrote a book called, Who Needs God? In his chapter about loneliness and the need for human connection he writes, “More than any other human problem loneliness, the absence of meaningful human connection, drains the joy and sense of purpose from our lives.”
Why are we here this evening, the beginning of the holiest and most solemn day on the Jewish calendar? I’m willing to bet it isn’t because no one made you a better offer. For some people, myself included, I’m afraid the sky might fall in if I weren’t in shul on Yom Kippur, and I don’t want to be responsible for that happening. We’re here out of a sense of community, a feeling that while we can fast and pray on our own, being together with others who share our faith and traditions adds to our feeling of connectedness to God and to each other.
But it’s not about what God wants from us, or what God wants us to do or say, it’s about what we want and need, it’s about being part of a community where we don’t have to explain ourselves, and where the power of an individual prayer is amplified by those of the others in the congregation.
The German pastor, theologian, spy and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “He who loves community destroys community; he who loves the brethren builds community.” Jean Vanier, a Canadian philosopher explained, “Community is not an ideal; it is people. It is you and I. In community, we are called to love people just as they are with their wounds and their gifts, not as we would want them to be. Community means giving them space, helping them to grow. It means also receiving from them so that we too can grow. Community is mutual vulnerability and openness one to the other. It is liberation for both, indeed, where both are allowed to be themselves, where both are called to grow in greater freedom and openness to others and to the universe.”
In Hebrew we would call this a kehilla kedosha, a holy community.
It is in community that we encounter the transcendent. In parashat Terumah, God instructs Moses, v’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tokham, “And they will make me a sanctuary–a holy place–and I will dwell among them.” Among them. Goes doesn’t say that only Moses will benefit from the Divine presence, everyone will. God will be here on earth with us, part of our lives.
Don’t come to services and other synagogue programs because you think God wants you to, or because the rabbi wants you to, but because the community wants you to. Emile Durkheim, who studied primitive religions, “concluded that the purpose of religion in its earliest manifestations was not so much to bring people to God as to bring people together, to protect them from having to see the world as a lonely, hostile place.”
When Jews get together, the Shekhina, God’s sheltering presence, rests among us. And within that community, God rests with each and every individual. For the next 24 or so hours, we will be praying individually and together, asking God’s forgiveness for our sins.
May this sacred community, and the individuals who comprise it, be sealed for good, for life and for blessing. G’mar hatima tova.