The Power of this Holy Day (Kol Nidre Service, Yom Kippur 2018/5779)
If you want someone to share a touching, inspirational anecdote about the enchanting life of the Eastern European shtetl – do not go to my grandmother. My mom’s parents, known to me as Nana and Pop, came to the U.S. from Drohobycz – a small city in Eastern Europe – not really a shtetl – which is what Jews call the small villages that many of our ancestors came from – but a slightly bigger place that housed many Jews but also Christians.
Nana is no longer with us but when she was, her occasional stories about Drohobycz never seemed quite like the charming children’s books that come out of PJ Library. Nana’s Eastern European life featured smuggling food for her starving family, hiding up in the attic with her teenaged sisters for weeks at a time so the Russian Cossacks wouldn’t find and assault them – it was a place where she remembered disasters, untimely death, lots of dirt, illness and ignorance. So on the rare occasion when she would share a story from her childhood – probably because I or another family member asked her – you knew it wouldn’t be something that would make it into a heart-warming children’s collection.
One story in particular made a big impression on me – I think of it on every Erev Yom Kippur. She shared that, as a child, when the sun went down at the start of Yom Kippur and it was time for the Kol Nidre service, all the Jewish adults in town would put on their white clothes and walk to synagogue. Because Kol Nidre is the night when our tradition teaches that we are most directly connected with God, the time when our words and actions from the past year are assessed and judged, everyone would make their way to synagogue crying and wailing in fear and pain and pleas for mercy. Their sobs and wails were so loud, that Nana would look out her bedroom window, see a line of wailing figures, all in white, and think they were ghosts. She was so scared of them that she would hide under her bed. This story always ended the same way: she would shake her head and say, “They thought the heavens were coming to swallow them up. They were so ignorant.”
I think of them each year on Kol Nidre – at this service when we read in our prayer book, “on this holy day, atonement shall be made for you, to purify you; you shall be cleansed from all your sins before the Lord.”
How deeply those Drohobycz synagogue-goers felt the great power of this night – they felt it in their hearts, in their souls, in their bones. Our early rabbis taught that the gates of heaven are especially open to our pleas and prayers on this holy day – that our connection with a Divine or Universal presence or power is never greater than now.
Was their deep and emotional spiritual connection at this sacred time simply a reflection of their ignorance?
Was the power of Yom Kippur for them simply a sign of their reliance on superstition and hearsay rather than on scientific research?
We, like my grandmother, might completely write off our tradition’s belief in holy time that brings humanity a greater sense of the awe and power of God in the universe. We might simply see it as a vestige of an ignorant pre-Enlightenment world.
But my question for us on this Kol Nidre night is, not only, “Should we dismiss our ancestors’ images of a special line to God on this Kol Nidre?” but also, “In a time of secularism, are we really better off as whole human beings?”
Does it show our superiority by denying that certain days and times in the Jewish year bring us closer to Godly truth?
Or do we actually close ourselves off to the true depth of human experience when we insist that the world is merely a collection of natural laws. Nothing more. That this Kol Nidre night is no more holy for the Jewish people than any other random time in the year.
Even in the United States, in the year 2018, I suggest we consider that we can bring our selves and our families a more meaningful life by embracing the idea that some moments, some times, some days ARE more holy than others. That we must acknowledge the power of holy times and live them differently: as times of self-reflection and renewal – of reaching out beyond our daily concerns and activities – using them to connect with ideals and values and power beyond ourselves.
Our Torah teaches, from the very first chapters, that God’s creations: land and sea, mammals and birds, trees and plants, human beings – all are called ”tov” – all are good. But nothing physical – nothing in the world of space – is called Kadosh – the Hebrew word for something sacred, holy, set apart in the mysterious realm of the Eternal God.
Only one thing created in that week is called Kadosh: Shabbat. Not a physical object. A period of time.
Only the special time that God set aside for rest is what is truly sacred in our world.
Modern Rabbi, mystic and activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel has taught: Our Torah, from the very beginning, puts forth a radical idea: while other cultures and peoples and religions created holy places – perhaps a mountain, a shrine, an intricately carved pole. These sacred objects or physical features are called, in the field of academic Religious Studies, Axis Mundi – a special place or statue or totem or shrine in the world where heaven and earth are thought to connect most intimately – where humanity can go to fully experience the Godly.
Rabbi Heschel teaches that from our earliest roots, Judaism understood holiness differently from other cultures and peoples. We do not experience Godliness by travelling to one particular holy place in the world. We can experience Godliness wherever we may live, when we join with the rest of the Jewish world in observing our people’s special times, days, and moments with fellow Jews around the world:
Times set aside by our tradition
for focusing on the present moment,
for taking deep breaths,
for being with and focusing on the people with us rather than on our technology,
for looking not to consume but to observe and to marvel,
to let the beauty and wonder of the world wash over us,
to experience a sense of awe.
Yom Kippur is called the Sabbath of Sabbaths: ‘Shabbat Shabbaton.’
Therefore, Yom Kippur, coming once a year, is even more holy – has even more sacred power – than Shabbat, which comes once a week. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, a Chasidic teacher, taught, “On Yom Kippur your core soul – your very essence – is laid bare.” Who we truly are within is displayed clearly before God and, if we are honest, to ourselves as well. No amount of rationalizing, of posturing, of putting on a false, public veneer, hides our true selves on this most holy Yom Kippur day. And so it is also taught that this day – a difficult day of pure and brutal honesty – is the one on which each of us is best able to make teshuvah. Teshuvah is sometimes translated as repentance. But it more literally means to return in our words and our actions to a pure and honest and Godly inner self.
There is no way to prove, through pure logic, our tradition’s claims: that time is holy, that time is our most precious possession, that the true key to a life of meaning and Godliness is recognizing that time is a scarce resource – that a life journey of purpose involves using our time wisely and well. That a life with no purpose, a life in which we do not live but merely exist – is brought about by thoughtlessly squandering our moments away on pursuits that bring us no growth, that bring nothing of substance to the world, that do not bring real connection between and among human beings. These are truths we learn through the wisdom of experience.
On this holiest of holy days, can we honestly face how much precious and holy time we spend staring at screens?, reading emails?, rushing – constantly – from place to place?, worrying?, regretting?, making excuses and avoiding things, people, conversations and thoughts that we really need to encounter directly?
We began tonight’s service with a very unique blessing: Shehecheyanu. Do other religions have a special blessing for a moment in time? I don’t know.
Shehecheyanu can be said individually, among members of a family or among an entire community when a meaningful moment is reached. We may mark a holiday, a Bar Mitzvah, a graduation, the first time a child rides their 2-wheeler, or the first time a child donates a bag of food to a food bank. We praise and thank God for our lives and for bringing us Lazman ha-zeh: To/ this / very / time. This present moment. What could be more authentically Jewish than publicly recognizing that time is the most holy thing at our disposal. It is what we have – more important than physical things – to build a purposeful life – to repair a broken world. As we recite Shehecheyanu we exclaim: “Thank you, God – this very moment in time is a gift.”
Can we remember, later tonight, after services, when it might be an easy habit to pick up the smartphone, turn on the TV, scroll through electronic messages – that if we cannot take this one 24 hour period to be purely with ourselves, our souls, our people, and our God – whatever we imagine God to be – then when will that time come? We can distract ourselves with technology and minutia for many years but time, holy or not, will eventually run out for us. This Kol Nidre night – the start of our Yom Kippur observance reminds us: Our days are precious – we must take the time: to reflect, to think about our real goals, to be fully present with the people around us, to wonder if we are on the right path, to fill our hearts with gratitude, to open ourselves in understanding regarding the faults of others, to open ourselves to understand that we, too, have flaws and imperfections – and that we can forgive others as we can forgive ourselves.
Some have played with the English word, Atonement – as we sometimes translate Yom Kippur – the day of Atonement. Atonement can be broken up into the word: At-one-ment. This day of At-one-ment is a day where all are truly one: boundaries are erased, upper and lower worlds are joined, people and wisdom and love past, present and future, humanity and Godliness, all come together for one shared communal purpose: to do the inner and outer work necessary to bring greater blessing, peace and meaning to our own lives, to our families and communities, to our nation and the world.
Our ancestors poured out their hearts on this night. Our world is so different from theirs. Yet the holiness, the preciousness of time – the importance of carving out holy moments of reflection, confession, rejuvenation, and striving to see the big life picture is just as vital as it always has been: Maybe more so.
May you be emotionally and spiritually moved and changed by the historic and global power of this special Jewish night, leading into a holy Jewish day. May its rituals, prayers, spirituality and precious moments touch you to the core, and bring you a more meaningful life in the year to come.