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Kol Nidre Sermon 2013

As Robert so eloquently pointed out, the Jewish tradition appeals to us to give of our time, talent and treasury. But as you all know, that is not all our tradition asks of us. You may recall, from last week, that I mention one of my earliest childhood memories where men and women walked around the shul, just prior to Kol Nidre, asking forgiveness for any sin, transgression, or hurt they may have inflicted, either accidentally or on purpose, on their fellow congregants. It was a beautiful custom that I have not seen done in decades, but would like to institute in our High Holy Day minchag. 

So let me begin what I hope will be our new tradition right now with the following request for forgiveness: If I have hurt your feelings by raising my voice inappropriately, slighted you, failed to pay close enough attention to your questions or your family’s tzuris, or if I didn’t call you back as promptly as you may have liked, or snail mailed you temple bulletins and updates, I beg your pardon and ask you to forgive me. Likewise, if you think you may have hurt me, either by accident or on purpose, I forgive you. 

Asking for forgiveness is difficult. Why is it so hard to do? I think there are as many answers to that question as there are people sitting in our sanctuary tonight. For some of us, asking for forgiveness must feel like an admission of weakness, or worse, an acknowledgement that we may not be as perfect as we deceive ourselves into believing. Now there’s a discomforting thought: we are not perfect beings and most of us hate admitting it.

For others, it’s hard because it forces us to take responsibility for our actions. We don’t much like doing that, do we? 

One of the tricky parts of forgiveness is its counterpart, repentance. What we call tishuvah. Tishuvah is difficult because we have to do so many things simultaneously. First we must acknowledge that we have fallen short of our desired behavior over the past year. Some of us have fallen short through no fault of our own; humans simply make errors in judgment. But others of us made bad choices in order to advance themselves in the work place, or to seem more desirable to members of the opposite sex or just to make their day-to-day life feel easier. Some of us have been downright mean and ornery. Today, the reasons behind our behavior is not important. But what we do about it is. After we acknowledge our transgressions to ourselves, we must go to the people we have offended and ask for forgiveness. Then, they must ask us to forgive them for their transgressions, too. Once we have resolved those things to the best of our ability, we must go to G!d and ask G!d to forgive us as well. That’s a lot of work! Especially if our resentment is high, and our egos are inflated. Luckily, there is help for us.

Our tradition allows us to ask for forgiveness in two ways. The first way is by using our own words, what I call the language of our heart, spelling out our own faults, with a combination of sincerity and single-minded focus. The second way is to turn to the language of our traditional prayer book, using the ancient words of our ancestors to connect us to Jews across geography and time to help give voice to our feelings when our own words fail us. We may struggle between the words we compose and feel and those we read and recite. But struggle or not, our goal is to acknowledge our missteps, ask for pardon and try not to repeat the same mistakes again.  

The Talmud tells us, in Brachot 28a that “Rabbi Eliezer said: if a person prays only according to the exact fixed prayer and adds nothing from his own mind, his prayer is not considered prayer.”  In prayer, balancing the keva, the fixed prayer on the page and the kavanah, the prayer from the heart is not always easy.  Finding the balance between keva and kavanah is the reason we always pause for silent prayer during services, ensuring a space for our own personal prayers in the midst of the formal words of tradition.

Asking for forgiveness requires a similar balance between keva and kavanah, the words on the page and the words in our hearts.  In a perfect world, we all enter the sanctuary this Yom Kippur having talked to one another personally, asking for specific forgiveness, having figured out what we want to do differently in the coming year.  We would then turn to our prayer books, and be inspired by the words and the music we find there, connecting with our prayers, acknowledging what we have done wrong and asking God to forgive us where our loved ones already have. I suspect that’s not the case for many of us. That’s why next year I want to institute the new tradition I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon where we walk around the sanctuary before we begin Kol Nidre and personally ask people to forgive us. 
But for right now, the words on the pages tonight and tomorrow can help us, even inspire us, to find the courage to seek out those we’ve hurt and make things right. And then encourage us to make some self-improvements while we are at it
The Keva, the printed words of my favorite psalm, psalm 27, the psalm for the season of repentance, is magical. Through its words, it allows us to enter a space of great Kavanah – a safe, yet reflective space of intended purpose.  Why? Because it allows us as a holy community to admit, as a collective, as one group of people, that we have made mistakes. We have the opportunity to admit, together, that we are scared, that owning up to our bad behaviors is not pleasant and that we are afraid that G!d will stay mad at us. Knowing that we are not alone in our efforts to do better makes it easier to admit that we missed the mark in the first place. Knowing that we stand with generations of Jews who have been reciting this psalm for centuries, helps us feel less isolated in our imperfections. When we feel less isolated, perhaps, we can feel less guilty. If we feel less guilty, we may be able to initiate some self-improvements. If we initiate self-improvements, G!d will see that we are trying and we will be judged favorably. With those thoughts in mind, listen to this modern rendering of the ancient words. It’s worth the time it takes for me to read:
Adonai is my light and my help,
whom should I fear;
Adonai is the strength of my life,
what should I be afraid of ?

We all find ourselves in tight spots, armies are encamped all around us.
armies are encamped within us
our lives sometimes feel like battlegrounds.
We all have our personal concerns
we are concerned about
health … family …
relationships … careers
We all have our personal fears
sometimes we are afraid of death
sometimes we are afraid of life
Sometimes we are afraid of the past
sometimes of the future
and often of the present.

During these High Holy Days
We take the time to look more closely at ourselves
We see ourselves as we are
we see ourselves as we could be and
we see the gap between the two.

Each of us
each day
has the opportunity
to dwell in God’s house
Whenever we are afraid
whenever we are in narrow straits
whenever we feel pain or aloneness
whenever our lives feel overwhelming.

As we continue on our journey of introspection
we remind ourselves
that even while we are on this journey
we are still in Your house
that even when things look the darkest
we can turn toward You
with hope and with courage.

then repeat: “each of us, each day has the opportunity to dwell in G!d’s house.”
Here’s the key, ladies and gentlemen. Here’s the link between the keva and the kavanah…The printed words can open our hearts. We can dwell in the house of G!d, the house that lives within us at all times, the house that may be hidden from us but can be accessed simply by the opening of the heart, the house that awaits us here in community on Shabbat and yontif, or the house that beckons us as we lie in bed at night. Where ever we are, when ever we want it, the house of G!d is always available to us. When we are afraid, in pain, lonesome or overwhelmed, G!d is there to catch us, to advise us, to help us.
Tonight, tomorrow and all through the year, I want you to remember what I’m sharing with you. It’s Ok to be afraid. It’s ok to struggle with what ever your trials and tribulations are. But be brave and be of good courage. Make an effort to spend time within yourself. Make that inner self of yours a better place to visit. Use the words of prayer to find the words of your heart; use them to talk to G!d. And please, always remember that while G!d does indeed judge us, it is with grace, compassion and mercy.
G’mar Chatima Tov and Shabbat Shalom