I want to wish all of you a zis yor, a sweet New Year – bruchim haba’im, welcome, to 5778!
I’d like to begin with the story of a young man, a Zionist growing up in a very small town in the Southeastern, US. Most of the population in this town had never encountered a Jew before. Our young man grew up in a culturally, but not religiously, Jewish home. Upon graduating from High School, this young man made aliyah, immigrated to Israel, looking for adventure, excitement, and to immerse himself in a Jewish, but not religious, nation. When he arrived in Israel, he saw his Israeli peers dressed in military fatigues and walking around with a confident swagger and in an instant all became clear. This young man became a chayal boded, a lone soldier, and due to his exceptional physical and mental capabilities was accepted into an elite combat unit. Being a chayal boded can be very difficult, but our young man is friendly and engaging and in no time he was ‘adopted’ by a secular Zionist family from an affluent neighborhood outside Be’er Sheva. His adopted brother, Roi, served in the Israeli Air Force and was just as secular as our chayal boded. The Yom Kippur holiday arrived and the young man’s unit was on leave from base. The young man was ready to sit back and relax after a challenging few weeks of training. Upon walking in the door, he dropped his bags in his room, kicked off his boots, jumped on the couch, and turned on the TV for some much deserved chill time. Some time later Roi arrived home flabbergasted at the sight that welcomed him! He immediately turned the TV off and announced to his brother, “get off the couch and make yourself presentable, we are leaving for Yom Kippur services in an hour”. This announcement takes our young man by surprise. He responds, “Since when are we so religious?” Grudgingly our young man follows suit and attends services with his Israeli family. At shul, all of the young people from the secular neighborhood are dressed in white and have gathered for Kol Nidre. Even though these young, cool, and good-looking Israelis that our young man had befriended generally never did anything outwardly religious, it was understood that as a Jew this is what you do. The labels chiloni, ba’al teshuva, reconstructionist, reform, conservative, orthodox, haredi, etc. ultimately lead to the same outcome on Erev Yom Kippur. We do Jewish. Eventually this young man came to understand the power of Kol Nidre and became the man sharing this tale with you today.
As we prepare for our service we don our tallitot, prayer shawls. What makes tonight different from all other nights? Although this is a question that is more commonly associated with Passover, it is appropriate this evening as well. This is the only evening service in which we will don the tallit. Why, you may ask? Because the Rabbis want us to feel angelic. We also abstain on this day from activities including eating, drinking, wearing leather shoes, bathing, anointing, and marital relations. These are also meant to put us in an angelic mindset, as angels do not have these human urges. On this day are tasked with transcending our human desires in order to humble ourselves and connect to our creator. However, in the event that one is pregnant, ill, or otherwise finds these mitzvoth to be a hardship, he or she is permitted to practice self-care and be lenient. These stringencies should not make this day unbearable.
Very soon during our Kol Nidre service, we will bring out three sifrei torah to recreate the heavenly court. Kol Nidre is part of Yom Kippur, but also takes place prior to Yom Kippur. What do I mean by this? Kol Nidre stands alone and prepares us for our Yom Kippur service. What is Kol Nidre? We are all working towards gaining a closer relationship to Hashem. For this to happen we have to make recompense for our past. Kol Nidre is a legal declaration that allows us to move forward. In Judaism vows, oaths, pledges, promises, commitments and the like are all taken seriously. When I was a yeshivah bocher, a young seminary student, I dedicated a month to studying tractate nedarim (Babyloan Talmud) in order to learn about neder and shavu’a, vows and oaths. Personal declarations of a religious nature are generally frowned upon in Judaism, as we never want to commit to something we cannot guarantee. In more observant communities, you may hear the phrase ‘bli neder’ commonly used. This phrase means ‘I hope to, but I’m not making a vow’. It expresses the intention without making the commitment in order to avoid the possibility of breaking a vow to God. Words are very important in Judaism, as they are in life. Jewish wisdom likens the tongue to an arrow. Why an arrow? Once the arrow is shot, it cannot be returned. We are often consumed with what goes into our mouths, but we are reminded during this time of year that what is more important is for our speech – and not our food – to be kosher, fit and appropriate.
Returning to the power of Kol Nidre – there is a famous tale about Franz Rosenzweig, a Jewish theologian and philosopher of the 20th century. It is said he considered leaving the Jewish faith to convert to Christianity. Prior to finalizing any such decision, he attended Yom Kippur services in a small shul, yet during the Kol Nidre service something happened. To use the phrase coined by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Franz experienced what I believe to have been radial amazement– though he himself never admitted what occurred. Franz had a transformative experience and from that day on he never entertained the idea of leaving Judaism again. Similarly, it is my hope that we all experience a sense of radical amazement over these next 24 hours. May we do Jewish, find closeness with our creator, and be sealed in the book of life!
Tzom Kal – may we have a meaningful and easy fast!