- Rabbi Shapiro
- Yom Kippur
Here we are. This is it. The big day. The biggest, holiest day of the Jewish year. The one day that brings most every Jew, no matter how observant (or not), out of the woodwork, to gather to repent the past.
Last night we began the service with perhaps the most iconic “prayer” we have, Kol Nidre. The cello playing and the cantor chanting that stirring, seemingly ancient, yet somehow timeless melody, as we read:
All vows—resolves and commitments, vows of abstinence and terms of obligation, sworn promises and oaths of dedication—that we promise and swear to God, and take upon ourselves from last Day of Atonement to this Day of Atonement: we regret them and for all of them we repent. Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone; they are not valid and they are not binding. Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves; and our oaths—they shall not be oaths.
There’s only one problem, that’s not actually what we read last night. That’s not the version of Kol Nidre that’s in our prayerbook, nor any other Ashkenazi prayerbook in the world, for that matter. It’s the original version of Kol Nidre, some 1300 years old. The version we, and all other Ashkenazi Jews in the world are familiar with has one small, but important difference. Rather than being about all the vows we made during the past year, it’s about all the vows we will make in the coming year. It’s preemptive, because 900 years ago, the rabbis realized that the legal formula that is Kol Nidre cannot change the past, but it can change the future. Kol Nidre is not about the past, it’s about the future. Yom Kippur is not about the past, it’s about the future; which makes sense because so is Judaism.
Many religious traditions date themselves, orient themselves, around a person or an event in the past. Judaism on the other hand, to be fair, gives a nod to the past, but is focused on the future—on a messianic age yet to come. It’s all about looking forward. It’s all about the future.
“It’s ok to look back, just don’t stare,” writes Doris Roberts in her memoir. Staring into the past, as Doris puts it, stops us from creating a future.
Two people in the Torah looked back, one explicitly, the other by implication. Noah, the most righteous man of his generation, ended his life by making wine and getting drunk. The Torah does not say why but we can guess. He had lost an entire world. While he and his family were safe on board the ark, everyone else drowned. It is not hard to imagine this righteous man overwhelmed by grief as he replayed in his mind all that had happened, wondering whether he might have done something to save more lives or avert the catastrophe.
Lot’s wife, against the instruction of the angels, actually did look back as the cities of the Sodom and Gomorrah disappeared under fire and brimstone. Immediately she was turned into a pillar of salt, paralyzed—unable to move on.
The synagogue I grew up in had an oneg Shabbat on Friday nights that would put any Vegas buffet to shame! The most amazing part is that the entire thing was put together, each and every week, by an elderly congregant named Ruth Nebel. She was an amazing woman in so many ways, but her energy, her optimism, and positivity, and her genuine and general good spirit and faith in humanity, are what I remember most about her. I remember being even more astonished when, after having known her for many years, I discovered that her entire family died at Auschwitz—she was the only one to survive. How, I wondered, did she keep going, knowing what she knew, seeing what she’d seen? I know that my great uncle who liberated the camps never forgot what he witnessed. Henry Kissinger, who entered the camps as an American soldier, shared that the sight that met his eyes transformed his life. If this is true of those who merely saw Theresienstadt and the other camps, how almost infinitely more so, those who lived there and saw so many die there. But Ruth, and the many other survivors I’ve been lucky enough to know, like our own beloved Betty Cohen, have the most tenacious hold on life.
I remember asking Ruth one afternoon as she meticulously scooped cantaloupe and honeydew melon with a melon baller, how she was able to go on.
“I never spoke of the past, not to my children, not even to my husband,” she told me. “I set about creating a new life in America. I learned English, I learned the recipes, the traditions. I found work; I had a family. I looked forward, not back. I had faith in the future.”
We are an optimistic people. Sure, you can make a case for Judaism’s pessimism based on a history of suffering and oppression, but we are nevertheless an optimistic people. Consider the story the Talmud recounts about Rabbi Akiva in response to the greatest catastrophe of his time1.
Living under Roman rule in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Akiva arrives in Jerusalem with his fellow sages to find the Temple Mount overgrown. They see a fox running out from where the Holy of Holies had been and they begin to cry—all but Akiva who laughs.
“Why are you laughing?”
“Because,” Akiva responds, “The prophets said that [Jerusalem] would be plowed under like a field but that [one day] men and women would again sit in her streets and [rejoice]. Now that I have seen the destruction, I know that it is only a matter of time before life and joy return.”
It is that perspective—that belief that our future will be better and brighter that has sustained our people for four thousand years.
I love Israeli music and despite iTunes and Spotify, one of my favorite things to do whenever I’m in Israel is to visit a record store or go to a concert. I remember so well waking up in the middle of the night to go see David Broza at sunrise at Masada. His most famous song is called “Yihei Tov—It Will Be Good.” My favorite verse reads:
We will yet learn to live together
between the groves of olive trees
children will live without fear
without borders, without bomb-shelters
on graves grass will grow,
for peace and love,
one hundred years of war
but we have not lost hope.
It’s a ballad of faith in the future.
Then there’s the famous 1970’s Israeli song Bashanah Habah, the chorus of which repeats over and over again,
You will yet see, you will yet see,
how good it will be next year.
And let’s not forget Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, literally The Hope. You get the point. We are a people who have faith in the future, it’s baked into our DNA.
It’s why in 1862 Joseph Newmark organized the first synagogue in Los Angeles that later became Wilshire Boulevard Temple. It’s why in 1943 five families began what would become University Synagogue—because they all had faith in the future of Judaism and in Los Angeles. They believed that tomorrow could be richer, brighter, and better than today. It’s why we merged—because we truly believe that our future can be even better than our past. What is that if not the message that Yom Kippur comes to teach us?
God-willing, this year we’ll put this pandemic in the rear-view mirror making our collective future better, but it’s not just about all of us—it’s about each of us. Our individual futures, as husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, friends and neighbors—can be better too.
That’s why we’re all here. Whether we realize it or not, we believe that tomorrow can be even better than today. We believe that we are not trapped in yesterday’s ways—we believe that we can change—we have faith in the future.
The Yom Kippur question is what is the future we want for ourselves, our families, and our communities? And Yom Kippur’s ancient prescription for a better, brighter future is teshuvah. Afterall, what is teshuvah if not an expression of faith in the future?
We usually translate teshuvah as “repentance” which is true, but it’s literal meaning is to “turn.” The rabbis believed that repentance, that real change, is about turning. The turning of teshuvah is like steering a giant ocean liner, it takes small corrections for the ship to slowly turn, there are no ninety degree turns. We cannot change ourselves in one day—not even Yom Kippur—it takes small, modest adjustments, one step at a time.
So where do we start? Perhaps the answer is in our laps—in the machzor.
Traditionally, there are forty-four al chets we recite today—forty-four ways in which we all missed the mark.
We were thoughtless and impulsive. We abused our power and disrespected our parents and our teachers. We let anger get the better of us and were inflexible and stubborn. We deceived others and ourselves with lies. We were greedy and envious. We ate too much. We drank too much. We allowed hate to obscure love. We looked the other way for a little cash, and spread rumors and gossip. We hardened our hearts to the pain and suffering of others.
If you really think about – they’re such seemingly simple, modest things really.
If it’s true that these are forty-four of the ways we’ve missed the mark, then it’s also true that these are forty-four opportunities, invitations, to do better, to be better. Imagine if we were to use the al cheits as a kind of road map by which to live our lives? Imagine what our future could look like?
It seems so simple doesn’t it—to live the al cheits? But as a psychologist friend of mine likes to say, “simple doesn’t mean easy.” The al cheits, may be simple, but they’re not easy.
Most of us think we’re more productive when we multitask, we’re not. Human beings can actually only engage in one cognitive task at a time and the time and energy it takes for us to quickly switch back and forth between tasks actually makes us less efficient. In other words, the best way to get something done is to pick one thing and do it.
The al cheits are long list. No one can do them all. So don’t. Just pick one. One thing—one small, modest, thing. And that small, modest thing can brighten your future.
If you don’t have the machzor open on your screen, open it and turn to page 300. Take a minute and look at these al cheits because this is it—the biggest day of the Jewish year. The one day that brings most every Jew, no matter how observant (or not), out of the woodwork. But we aren’t gathered to repent the past, we’re gathered to create an even better future. So which one of these al cheits is it for you in this unusual, virtual, virus-laden year? If it’s not in the machzor, pick your own—you know your al cheits. Ask yourself right now; with faith in the future, which one am I going to live in the coming year to create a brighter and a better future so that next year, when we sit in the sanctuary together, this will have truly been a new year, a better year for each and every one of us.
 Gleaned from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks ז׳׳ל