Kol Nidre Sermon 5776 / 2015
I remember the first time that I put on a white robe like the one I am wearing tonight. It was on Yom Kippur afternoon during my junior year of high school. That year, the youth group was responsible for acting out the Jonah story, and the responsibility of assigning roles had fallen under my job description as our group’s Religious And Cultural Vice President. Being the humble and self-effacing 11th grader that I was, I gave myself the role of God. All of us were in sitting the rabbi’s study waiting for our cue, and then just before we were supposed to walk out onto the bimah, I looked at my outfit and thought, “I don’t look very godly.” Hastily searching the coat racks and closets of the rabbi’s room, I found an old, white, High Holy Day robe, slipped it on, and felt secure in the knowledge that this was the robe of someone who would speak with God’s voice. I walked out onto the bimah to over-act my heart out, knowing that I was clothed in the way that God’s mouthpiece should be.
As a fourth year rabbinical student, I was very excited to get my very own white robe. It felt like a big rabbinical moment. And, while I have enjoyed wearing it for every High Holy Day season since then, putting it on rarely gives me the feeling of divinely approved confidence that I received from the robe that I wore on that long-ago Yom Kippur afternoon.
In fact, now that I am a rabbi, putting on my robe often makes me wonder exactly why and how the rabbis of old chose to use their High Holy Day sermons- and especially their Kol Nidre sermons- to tell their congregation exactly what they have failed to do well and what they’ll need to improve upon in the upcoming year.
If someone were to ask me how to make sure that a sermon was poorly received by a congregation, I would tell them that it is relatively simple thing to do.
1st- Make sure everyone has eaten a large and filling meal right before coming to the synagogue.
2nd- Advise all congregants to spend a large and exhausting amount of time in services in the 10 or so days leading up to the big sermon.
3rd- Plan the service in such a way that the sermon is preceded by almost an hour of prayers which require the congregation to stand and sit, and stand and sit.
4th- Make sure that everyone knows that the service marks the beginning of 24 hours of fasting.
5th- Require everyone to be back at the temple in the morning, so that they’ll be especially aware of the fact that the longer the sermon is the less time they will have to sleep that night.
6th and lastly- Make sure that your sermon is a lengthy chastisement that makes everyone feel uncomfortable and confused as to why they have essentially volunteered to be lectured on their shortcomings.
With all of that in mind, and in the spirit of Yom Kippur, I want to confess to you that while there will certainly be times when I feel compelled to use this pulpit to point out what we should have done better, this Kol Nidre is not one of those times.
It is a running joke in the Bearman family that whenever I mention working on an upcoming sermon, someone will always suggest, “How about ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?” To which, I will always reply, “Well, it’s a classic for a reason!” The truth that hides behind this joke is that for generations and generations, clergy of all faiths have taken the opportunities presented by well attended services to explain in detail exactly what everyone present is failing to do well. The thinking behind this practice is something along the lines of, “Well, we only have them for a few hours, so we better use that time wisely and pack our sermons with all the lessons that they’ll ever need to know.”
To my mind, this style of sermonizing is part of the “old school clergy” model where the rabbis speak from lofty moral and sometimes even lofty physical ground. I think this classic model has its benefits, and the responsibility to help our congregations be better and do better is absolutely central to the identity of all clergy. However, whenever I imagine delivering a sermon like Mr. Jonathon Edwards did all those years ago, I can’t help but feeling that those words, words that condemn instead of uplift, words that rebuke rather than lead, words that chastise instead of inspire are not the words that I would want to share on an evening like this Kol Nidre. Sermons like those seem to rob us of some of the light each of us brought with us as we walked into the synagogue. My goal as your rabbi is to avoid dimming the light of each one of our spirits, while building us up and giving us the tools that we need to confront the darkness in ourselves and in the world. All too often, religions and religious leaders have used language of hate and intolerance to intensify the amount of darkness in our world. I believe that religion shouldn’t be a source of darkness. It should be its antidote.
On this Kol Nidre, I know that many of us are simply glad to have made it to temple. This year, this month, this week, this day have presented us with real and serious challenges, and in the face of all of those, just sitting in this sanctuary is a victory. I want to say to you that I see the effort that it took for you to come tonight, and I am grateful for it. We are all grateful for it. Thank you for rearranging your schedules and for taking the time to be a part of this congregation and this service. Thank you for being willing to spend time reflecting on how you’ll make this next year better and stronger for yourself, your family, and your community. Thank you, sincerely, thank you.
Over the past year, some of us have welcomed new babies into this world and into our families; some of us have struggled mightily and valiantly against disease; and some of us, too many of us, have wept over the loss of a loved one. I want you to know that the effort that each of these stages of life has required has been seen and is absolutely valued.
When we read in our prayer books, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” the image in my mind is not of God sitting in front of a massive book, writing a Santa Clause- style list of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Instead, I picture a God who counts our effort, our best attempts, our hard work, and our selfless behavior in our favor. The image of being inscribed in the book of life is meant to teach us that all of our efforts to live up to our Jewish ideals are noted and appreciated. And, that should a source of comfort rather than guilt or shame. Can we do better? Of course. Can we be better? Absolutely. But, I think that the most solid beginning for the work of self- improvement is love and acceptance rather than anger or rebuke.
I want to use the opportunity that this sermon and this robe give to me to thank you. Thank you for coming to this synagogue with hearts and souls open and ready for reflection. Thank you for the time and energy you have spent working to better this congregation and this community. Thank you for the times you have confronted ignorance and prejudice- whether it was your own or someone else’s. Thank you for the hands you have offered to those who have fallen in the dust. Thank you for the shoulders which you have allowed our children to stand on. Thank you for committing yourselves to living lives that add light to this world.
Know that when you walk out of this sanctuary tonight and any night, your clergy, your temple leadership, and your community are grateful that you decided to spend time strengthening yourself and your congregation. Feel assured that when you live lives bolstered by Jewish values, you make the world a brighter place. Be comforted by the fact that in the face of darkness- whether in your own life or in the world at large- the flame within you will burn brightly.
If indeed, this robe gives me some insight into God’s vision of the world, I’m pleased to say that we are not “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” Instead, we are humans whose best efforts are seen and supported by a compassionate God, a God who knows the challenges we face, a God who appreciates all we do to make the world safer, stronger, and brighter.