Kol Nidre Sermon 5780
Delivered by Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner
One day, when our oldest son Benji was four years old, he and I saw a man who was clearly homeless on the side of the road. Benji was buckled into his car seat behind me and asked, “Mama, why is that man sleeping there?” I explained that some people do not have homes, some people have to sleep outside. There was a long silence from the back seat. And then he said, “Mama, I have an idea. What if everyone who has a home builds a home for someone who doesn’t have a home? Then everyone would have a home, right? Right, Mama?”
His sweet innocence touched me. And I thought that was pretty brilliant. So, I did what I sometimes do, which is to make a crazy promise. “Ben, that is such a good idea. How about if one day, when you’re really big, like 16 years old, you and I build a house for someone who doesn’t have a house. What do you think?” We decided we had a deal. But as the years went on, and as this story was told and retold, the promise worried me. How exactly was I going to pull this off?
We went to New Orleans for three days when he was 12 and put up drywall in the lower ninth ward…. Does that count?
How unrealistic I was! In 2006, I had no idea what would be happening in the year that Benji was 16, I had no idea that we’d live here, that I’d have this job, or that I would have committed to spend my summers in Israel for three years in a row, or that he’d of course have friends and camp and summer jobs and commitments, or that places like Habitat for Humanity don’t even allow people under 18 to do major construction work. Suffice it to say, the promise was not kept. We have not built a house for someone who doesn’t have a house. He’s 17 now, he’s getting ready to go to college. It’s not in our near-term plans. Will we someday? Maybe? I don’t know.
We could laugh it off and say, no big deal. It doesn’t matter that much. But it was such a sweet promise between us. I really thought we would do it, I said we would do it.
Kol Nidrei v’esarei, v’haramei. Our vows shall not be considered vows, our renunciations shall not be considered renunciations, and our promises shall not be considered promises.
The Rabbis believed that making vows was a terrible idea, and they tried to prevent people from doing so. There is an entire tractate of the Talmud called Vows, Nedarim. Commenting on Ecclesiastes, which says that it is better not to vow at all than not to fulfill one’s vow, the Mishnah argues that it is better to vow and fulfill it. But in the Talmud, Rabbi Meir concludes that it is better not to vow at all, period. Following Rabbi Meir, the Rabbis even go so far as to say that it is wicked to make a vow. (Ned 22a) Rabbi Dimi calls one who vows a sinner. (Ned 77b)
To reduce the harm of unfulfilled vows, the Rabbis develop an elaborate process for the absolution of vows from the beginning, which depended upon locating a “door of regret,” finding a circumstance which the person making the vow could not have foreseen or considered when they took that vow, (for if they had imagined that circumstance they would never have made the vow in the first place). Two chapters of the Talmud are dedicated to such scenarios, in other words, to proactively annulling vows, which is what we did tonight.
The Rabbis were against vows because they knew that no one can predict the future. None of us knows what life will bring, where it will take us, what it will do to us, how we will grow and change, what / we /will be called to do and who /we /will be called to be. We think we know, but we do not know.
What happens when the story of our life, the story we’ve imagined and told, the story we always knew would be the story, isn’t the story anymore? When the job we were going to retire from tells us to pack our things. When someone we love gets sick. When our body gives out and we’re fighting for our lives. When a relationship breaks down. When the person who we thought would always be there dies, or goes away. (When the child we thought was happy and healthy suddenly isn’t.) When we’re on vacation doing something we love and get injured. When we fail. When the career that was our mission no longer fills us up. When we get a job offer out of the blue and move across the country.
The truth is we don’t know. We know only in probabilities. We know what has happened so far, which teaches us a lot. And based on the patterns of the past, we have good guesses about tomorrow. Because we can’t live in total uncertainty, we base our lives on those patterns and probabilities. We build stories about who we are and what we do and what we don’t do and who the people we love are and what they do and don’t do, and where we’ll be in the future and where they’ll be in the future. We are constantly generating, editing, adjusting, rebuilding these stories. But we do not know.
When something happens that interrupts our story, that ruptures it or renders it untrue, suddenly we realize how much we do not know, how much we do not know about our lives, how much we don’t even know about ourselves. Everything feels unfamiliar. All the scripts are gone. We feel disoriented. And that’s terrifying. It is terrifying to realize how much we don’t know.
This may be happening in your life right now. Or it may have happened. Or it may be about to happen. In time, it happens to every one of us. No matter what plans, no matter what promises.
Sometimes things fall apart. Sometimes our hearts are broken open. Sometimes what we thought was solid is suddenly not. The ground slips out from under us. And we feel like we’re falling, flailing, lost, grasping. And even who we thought we were is now a question.
We have two options when that happens. First, we can double down on our storytelling. Because stories give us something to hold onto. When we do that, we tend to careen between fantasy stories and nightmare stories.
The doctor sees something that might be cancer. You don’t know for sure, you don’t know what kind, you don’t know how far along, you don’t know if it’s spread, you don’t know what the prognosis is. You have to wait for tests, it’s going to take time, weeks, longer. Immediately you start spinning stories. Spinning and spinning. Including fantasies of perfect health and miracle cures. Including every worst-case scenario you can imagine, including how you will die. Or someone you love does die, and you realize you don’t know who you are without them, or what you will be, or what your life will be. Sometimes you see yourself utterly alone. Sometimes you see yourself surrounded by loving people. Your mood careens along with the stories that you tell. Everything changes based on the story you happen to convince yourself of in that moment. And you have the illusion that the stories will protect you, because even the worst stories seem better than the not knowing—the not knowing seems unbearable. Some of the stories are about assigning blame. Anger is a useful distraction from the fear of the unknown. Clearly it’s someone’s fault. It’s your fault, it’s my fault, it’s God’s fault. Addiction is another effective distraction, numbing. To work, to drink, to food, to social media, to anything.
But sometimes, sometimes we can stop. All the distraction. All the addiction. All the denial. All the avoidance. All the blame. All the stories. We can simply admit that we do not know. We do not know what’s going to happen, at all, ever. When we stop, when we admit that we do not know, we look at ourselves and see a very afraid human being. We see pain. We feel an aching heart. So tender, so vulnerable.
Sometimes for a moment, we might even feel compassion for this suffering person right here. We see this being, trying so hard, hurting so much. We pick ourselves up and we hold ourselves in the gentlest, most tender love.
And we look right at our fear. And we don’t run away. And we’re terrified. And we feel it. And we’re still breathing.
There are moments, sometimes, when we can do that. And there are moments, sometimes, when the fear dissipates. And there’s a release and a relief and a freedom. And everything opens up.
Sometimes there is great clarity right in the midst of that. Seeing ourselves so nakedly. Not running away. Not telling a story. We find something true.
Rabbi Alan Lew taught in his book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, that this is exactly what the High Holy Days are designed to do to us: make things fall apart. He wrote,
“You are walking through the world half asleep. It’s not that you don’t know who you are and that you don’t know how or why you got here. It’s worse than that; these questions never even arise.”
“Then the walls of the great house that surrounds you crumble and fall. You tumble out onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness.
A great horn sounds calling you to remembrance, but all you can remember is how much you’ve forgotten. … you sit and try to remember who you are and where you are going… your need to know these things weighs upon you. Your prayers become urgent. Then the great horn sounds in earnest one hundred times. … the world is once again cracking through the shell of its egg to be born. The gate between heaven and earth cracks open. The Book of Life and the Book of Death are opened once again, and your name is written in one of them. But you don’t know which one.
The ten days … are fraught with meaning and dread. They are days when it is perfectly clear every second that you live in the midst of a chain of ineluctable consequence, that everything you do, every prayer you utter, every intention you form, every act of compassion you perform, ripples out from the center of your being to the end of time. Anger and its terrible cost lie naked before you. Grievance gives way to forgiveness.
We are not perfect. We are profoundly imperfect. We’re not supposed to be perfect. We’re only supposed to take down our defenses and look with courage at what is true, hold ourselves to account for what we find there, and then forgive ourselves and forgive each other and forgive God, and allow ourselves to be forgiven.
Lew continues, “At the same time, you become aware that you also stand at the end of a long chain of consequences. Many things are beyond your control. They are part of a process that was set in motion long ago. You find this idea unbearable.”
Three years ago, an active member of our congregation, a mother in Yachad, was diagnosed out of the blue with a late stage, metastasized cancer. She was 60. She had a son in 10th grade. She fought. She took every treatment available, but it was no use and much too soon she was semiconscious in bed, with her husband and son at her side. They asked me to come to help them say goodbye. We sat there together in silence as she surfaced and went under and surfaced again. We sang. I suggested that they might want to do a version of the Vidui, the confession prayer we did together tonight, we’ll do together tomorrow, and we do on our death beds. The idea is to confess all of our wrongs and to ask for forgiveness just before we die. It can be a beautiful way to release whatever’s being held, to let go of old hurts and shame and broken promises, spoken and unspoken. To forgive each other and love each other from life into death.
Her eyes were closed, her breathing labored. It wasn’t clear whether she would be able to speak or follow what they were saying. Her husband and son were quietly crying and even laughing through their tears as they asked her forgiveness for little things they could think of – the times the son didn’t listen, the times they didn’t appreciate her artwork or her wild ideas. And then, suddenly, she opened her eyes and lifted her head and looked right at her husband and then right at her son and she said, “Will you please forgive me for dying?”
They wept, “We forgive you. We forgive you. We love you. We forgive you.”
What happens when someone we love breaks a promise and it’s not their fault? What happens when the person who made the promises and broke them isn’t even here anymore to say I’m sorry. When the person who made the promises never imagined they’d get sick. Or have a breakdown. Or grow in a different direction. Or be so limited. Or die. When the person who made the promises simply couldn’t see what the future would be like?
Can we forgive?
Can we forgive someone who can no longer ask our forgiveness? Or who won’t?
We can. If we choose, we can.
Our lives fall apart and they come back together again and fall apart and come back together. This is what it is to be alive. And right in the middle of all of it, right alongside the grief and the fear and the anger and the pain, there is laughter, there is joy, there is pleasure, there is fulfillment, there is delight, and there is so much love.
In the words of the poet Li-Young Lee
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
May the year 5780 bring you truth and forgiveness, nectar and dust, sugar and days, skin and shade, fellowship and summer, fruit in your hands, an orchard within, and sweet impossible blossoms.