I have a confession to make. (I know, I know, wrong religion)
My confession is that I really struggle with Kol Nidrei.
I am moved by the haunting tune, who isn’t? There’s something magical about all the Sifrei Torah being taken out of the ark. I love that too. It’s the prayer itself that just doesn’t do it for me. The annulment of vows, which is what Kol Nidrei really is, is just not very inspiring.
And yes, the term ‘vows’ includes not only vows, but commitments that we’ve made over the course of the year. But if I had to pick one sin to focus on as we begin this holy day, I’m not sure if broken commitments would even crack my top ten list. And for a long time, I really struggled trying to connect to this prayer. But I could not.
So you could imagine how heartened I was when I read a backstory to this prayer. How in 7th century Spain, many Jews, due to violent pressure by the ruling Goths, converted to Christianity, and how on Yom Kippur, these very Jews, would slip into shul, and beg G-d for forgiveness for all the times they lied about their faith, all the times they committed to other gods.
Though they lived as Christians throughout the year, on Yom Kippur they would come to shul to profess their true faith. And so, to formalize the renunciation of their external Christian lifestyle, Kol Nidrei was instituted to annul all those commitments to Christianity that they would have made over the course of the year.
Thinking about those Jews, running through back alleys on Yom Kippur to avoid being seen, risking their lives, all to stay connected to their faith, thinking about how broken and confused they must have felt, all of that transformed Kol Nidrei for me, and I was able to really connect to the prayer.
But upon further research I learned that many historians dismiss this theory. It doesn’t explain how Kol Nidrei became so popular, how it spread to virtually every Jewish community. This story is probably not true.
Tomorrow, we’ll read Unesaneh Tokef, the passage that speaks of our mortality, of all that lays on the line on this awesome day. If you look in the footnotes of your siddur, you’ll read a story of an 11th century German rabbi, Rav Amnon of Mainz, a friend of the powerful archbishop.
One day, the story goes, the archbishop started to aggressively encourage Rav Amnon to convert to Christianity. Rav Amnon wasn’t sure how to respond, and so he finally said that he needed three days to think about it. But as soon as Rav Amnon left the archbishop’s palace he was filled with regret for even having let on that he would consider converting. And so he immediately returned to the archbishop and dramatically proclaimed that his tongue should be cut off for even having uttered such words.
The archbishop did not appreciate the rabbi’s response and gave him one last chance to convert, which Rav Amnon turned down. The archbishop cruelly gave instructions to his servants to cut off Rav Amnon’s limbs, limb by limb, for his audacity and for refusing to convert.
The story goes that the next day was Yom Kippur, and Rav Amnon, wrapped in bandages, and slowly dying, asked to be brought to the synagogue. At the beginning of Musaf, he entered the shul, to the shock and horror of the congregation, and from the front of the room, he started describing the awesome nature of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and he composed Unesaneh Tokef, this famous prayer, with his final breath.
What a story! What imagery! What a tale!
But that’s really all it is, a tale.
There are no historical records of a Rav Amnon of Mainz ever existing, the story sounds oddly similar to other German folktales of that era, and the prayer doesn’t even seem to have originated in Germany.
Whereas Pesach and Sukkos have the story of the Exodus, Chanukah the great victory of the Maccabees, Purim, the story of Esther. There are no stories for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Or at least no accurate ones.
And although it’s a little disappointing to learn that stories you believed in are fabrications, having no stories to think about at this time, is actually a very good thing. In the words of my colleague, Rabbi Pini Dunner, to whom I owe this insight, and I quote: “On these Days of Awe, we reflect on our lives unencumbered by literary gimmicks and narrative crutches… On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur they would be nothing but a distraction.”
Stories are a distraction from what’s really important on this day.
And before I tell you what is really important on this day, let me tell you what else is a distraction.
I have spent the past two years trying to craft an overarching message about this new political era. We’re bombarded by it 24/7 and so I was strongly considering sharing a perspective on the poisonous political climate we’re living in at Kol Nidrei. What bigger topic is there to focus on than American politics in 2018?
Alternatively, last week marked 25 years from the Oslo accords. I have spent just about that much time thinking about Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. Developing views, changing them, and then changing them again. And I would have loved to have an open and maybe difficult conversation about Israel, about peace, on Kol Nidrei evening. What could be more important to Jews like us, than Israel?
But let me tell you a little trade secret. When rabbis talk about politics, American politics, Israeli politics, and really all current events, they do so for one of two reasons; At best, as a metaphor to life, and at worst, as a hook to get your attention.
And to be clear, the values at stake both here in America, and in Israel, are important. Not only are they important, they are essential to nothing less than the future of civilization. And of course, one would expect our tradition, our faith to shed some light on the burning questions that face mankind, and the Torah does have what to say about these issues.
But I decided to not speak about those matters today because they are not the most important things in our lives; in our day-to-day living. And if we think they are, then we are living life wrong! If we think that Kol Nidrei, Yom Kippur, the High Holidays, should be dedicated to events in Washington or Jerusalem, events that are well beyond our circle of influence, then we don’t have our priorities straight.
We are not defined by whether we love Trump, hate him, or hold our nose but would still vote for him!
We are not defined by whether we believe in one state or two!
We are not defined by the sports we watch or the shows we love!
We are not defined by our profession!
We are not defined by the car we drive or the house we live in!
None of that matters! At least none of that matters today.
And you know, as a rabbi, it’s nice to be current, it’s nice to talk about the latest news, and provide hopefully thoughtful insights, but it also sends a terrible message:
It says that politics should consume more of our brainwaves than thinking about how we behave with our parents, children, and coworkers.
It says that we should think more creatively about an Israeli peace plan than on how to create peace in our own home.
It says that calling out every actor, sports player, and politician for their truly vile behavior is more important than calling ourselves out for the poor judgments we make all the time.
Focusing on Israel, on America, today, would be a distraction from, and a distortion of, where and how we could really make a difference in our lives. There is only one story on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, it’s you, it’s me, it’s the life we live. Don’t be distracted today by all the catchy headlines. How do you want to live your life? What do you want to be remembered for?
I really hope it’s not for your brilliant and passionate Facebook posts and dinner conversations on Serena Williams, Matt Lauer, or Donald Trump. Those things are all important, they are! But far more important to you and me, is
Whether the people we regularly interact with feel uplifted or put down by those interactions? Judged or appreciated? Important or ignored?
Whether we are giving our children, our spouses, our parents, all the love they deserve, or are we being distracted by the unimportant things in life?
Whether we are truly striving to be good people, decent, fine people, mentchlich.
I suppose this is the litmus test – if someone was watching our life from the outside, and saw how passionate we get when we talk about politics or sports, if someone was watching from the outside and saw the amount of mental effort we put into our careers, or how much we daydream and plan our vacations or outings, what impression would they have about what’s valuable to us?
What is really important to you?
That’s my question for you today.
That’s the real story of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Faith, family, maybe friends?
That’s all we need to be thinking about today. And really every day.
Nothing else matters. Everything else is a distraction.
There’s a parable, an old tale, one that I’m sure many of you have heard before about a very poor candlemaker who just couldn’t make ends meet. He had a large family to feed and he wasn’t doing a good job feeding them. This candlemaker heard that there was an island, a far-away island, where diamonds were literally scattered on the street. Imagine, he thought to himself, the life he’d be able to live if he spent some time on this island collecting diamonds. It was a long and dangerous voyage to this island but he had nothing to lose and so he decided to go.
After a tearful goodbye, the man leaves his family behind and promises to return as soon as he can. Six months go by, a year goes by, the family is just barely surviving off of hand-outs and whatever work the older children are able to find. But two years later, there’s a knock on the door, and in walks their beloved husband and father. They embrace him, they hug him, they kiss him. They’re just so happy to see him, and then they notice, their father is well-dressed, he has an air of importance about him. They know, they know, they know he was successful.
Sure enough, triumphantly, the man turns to his wife and says, “Honey, it went very, very well. Not only did I succeed, I became one of the wealthiest men on that island.” He then walks over to the tremendous box that he brought with him and gently lifts the cover, and with a beaming smile he shows the family what’s inside.
The box is filled with candles.
His wife’s face turns white. “Wh-what is this? What did you do?”
And he says, “Honey, you just don’t understand! On this island, diamonds were so common, it was like pebbles, no one cared about them. But they didn’t know how to make light. And I, me, the poor candlemaker showed them how to make candles. These candles became so popular that people traded in candles, it became the local currency. They were the most valuable commodity on the island. I didn’t bring back diamonds, everyone has diamonds. I brought back candles! These candles are worth a fortune!!”
But of course, back at home, in his little town, those candles were worthless. And this man was left right back where he started, with nothing at all.
My favorite version of this story has the candlemaker’s wife cleaning his clothes later that day and finding one single diamond in the cuff of his pants. A diamond he must have kicked up while walking.
He spent his year on this island, literally walking back and forth over diamonds, ignoring the precious stones and opportunities, and instead focusing on all the wrong things.
Friends, we are surrounded by diamonds; they’re all over the place. The most important things in life are living in the same house as us, or at most, a phone call away. The opportunities for being a fine person are everywhere, and endless. Israel, America, the world, of course they are all important! And yes, working hard and relaxing well are necessary to get by. But let’s not trade our diamonds for candlesticks. Let’s commit to living life with our priorities in order, with our loved ones at the center of our existence, by constantly refining our inner lives, and becoming better people, decent people. Because that’s what really matters. That’s who we really are.
Good Yom Tov. May G-d bless us all with the insight and strength to spend this year and our entire lives never losing sight of what’s truly important.