Shaarei Shamayim

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KOL NIDRE 5776

KOL NIDRE 5776

I must confess, and tonight is the time for confessions. I confess that I give the same sermon every year at Kol Nidre. Oh I change the stories and the quotes, but essentially it’s the same sermon about doing teshuva, “repentance,” and drawing closer to Gd and to our truer selves, because that’s what Kol Nidre night and Yom Kippur are all about. The purpose of Yom Kippur is not to live through a difficult day of fasting. The purpose is to set aside physical concerns and to transform ourselves, to return to our true selves—literally, to do teshuva. If at the end of the 25 hours we’re different people from those who began the day, then it will all be worthwhile. So let us—as we do every Kol Nidre night—turn now to the task at hand—not the fast, but the teshuva, the repentance, making the changes necessary within ourselves to return to Gd.

This has been a summer of making changes—even changing identities. It was the summer when Bruce Jenner turned into a woman—Caitlyn. It was the summer when it was discovered that Rachel Dolezal—the President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Spokane, Washington—was in fact, not black but white! These stories got massive media attention but what most people are unaware of is that there was also a Jewish story of a change in identity, which carried with it an important lesson.

It took place on June 28th in Greenwich Village at New York’s annual LGBT Pride parade. The parade, celebrating the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders, was particularly joyous coming right after the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. But, of course, that ruling was not cheered by all and there were protesters at the parade denouncing homosexuality as a sin against Gd from a group called The Jewish Political Action Committee—a Chassidic group. It was later discovered that the protesters were not really Chassidim and in fact were not even Jews! The group hired Mexicans laborers to dress as Chassidim to protest! When questioned, Heshie Freed, a representative of the group remarked, “The rabbis said that the yeshiva boys shouldn’t come out for this because of what they would see at the parade.” So, there they were …Fernando Schwartz and Hymie Hernandez representing the Jewish people!

I am not making this up! Now just think, before Donald Trump is elected President and gets rid of all the Mexicans, what if I was able to get a Mexican to speak for me on the High Holidays? Mucho Shana Tova! Wouldn’t that make my life much easier? And what if I could pay him to fast for me on Yom Kippur? If you think about it, people do these kinds of things—it’s called “outsourcing.” I remember once reading that Angelina Jolie has an army of 25 staff members—including numerous live-in nannies, 4 nurses, a doctor, personal trainer, cooks, housekeepers, secretaries and personal assistants. Wouldn’t we all like to have someone we could outsource our daily tasks to?

It sounds good, but you know what? It’s not so good, because of the price you have to pay for it. What’s the price? What do Angelina Jolie’s children call their nanny? That’s right, “Mommy!” There’s a lesson somewhere.

A couple of weeks ago we read in the Torah about the Bikurim—1st fruits—that were brought to the Temple. Any Jew living in ancient Israel who owned fruit trees had to take a portion—any amount—of the 1st fruits produced from that tree, tie it in a bundle and bring it as an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem in a basket. The ceremony itself was most inspiring. It began on the outskirts of Jerusalem as the pilgrims marched carrying their baskets with music playing and dignitaries greeting them. Finally the farmers placed their baskets next to the altar in the Temple and recited a prayer of thanksgiving. 

In describing the Bikurim ritual the Torah tells us: V’halachta el hamakom asher yivchar Hashem Elokecha l’shakeyn shmo sham, “And you shall go unto the place where Gd shall choose to cause His name to dwell.” Based on these words, V’halachta el hamakom, “and you shall go unto the place,” Maimonides comments: He who brings the 1st fruits has permission to give them to his servant or relative to carry the whole way until he reaches the outer precincts of the Temple. But then…he has to take the basket himself on his own shoulders…even if he be a great king in Israel.

There was just so much your servant, messenger, proxy or personal assistant could do on your behalf. You couldn’t Fedex it…you had to bring it yourself and personally recite the thanksgiving prayer. 

And to this day we live by this rule. After we individually recite the Amidah—the Silent Devotion—the Baal Tefilah, the leader repeats it aloud. Why? In case there are members of the congregation who don’t know how to say it themselves, so the leader becomes our shliach tzibbur—our communal messenger—and recites the prayer for us. But there’s one part of the Amidah where this changes—when we come to the Modim thanksgiving prayer. While the leader recites one version of that prayer, each member of the congregation is supposed to recite another version as well. You see, the leader can’t thank Gd for us…gratitude has to come from within. To send someone else to say “thank you” robs your thanks of meaning. 

Sure, we all could use a personal assistant, and we all need assistance. There are so many demands made on us, and being part of a “sandwich generation,” we certainly do need help when called upon to take care of our parents and our children at the same time. And we shouldn’t feel guilty about getting that help—whether it’s babysitters or tutors for our children…to nurses and housekeepers and assisted living facilities for our parents. But doing all that doesn’t take us “off the hook!” Some things have meaning only if we do it ourselves.

And one of those things is the essential work of Yom Kippur—teshuva, repentance. If you want someone to forgive you, you can’t do it by sending a messenger…you’ve got to do it yourself. Even though there’s a principle in Jewish law that shlucho shel adam k’moto, “a person’s messenger is like himself,” forgiveness is different—you’ve got to show up. Otherwise, how sincere is your request?  

I remember one Kol Nidre night there were 2 people, long-time best of friends. For some reason they had a terrible disagreement and stopped talking. No one, not family, not friends nor rabbi could effect a reconciliation. One of them became very ill, and the other didn't know how to break the ice and make up. He didn’t know what to say or do after almost a year of not having been in touch…and then Kol Nidre came. The holiness of Kol Nidre is miraculous and has the power to open our hearts—even as the gates of heaven open for our prayers. And so, as they came for Kol Nidre to their regular seats—which were not far from each other—they saw each other and began to look away. Suddenly one of them had enough and ran up to the other and gave him a big hug, and the 2 of them embraced, cried and made up. They didn’t send a text or an email. They didn’t send a mutual friend. They showed up and did it themselves. 

Our central task tonight is to ask for m’chila, “forgiveness,” not only from Gd, but especially from each other. Saying the words, “I’m sorry,” to family and friends is not always easy because it’s an acknowledgement of our own failings. But we must have the courage to show up and do it.

There’s another side to forgiveness that has nothing to do with saying that we’re sorry, or feeling remorse, or confessing our sins. It has to do with how we respond to those who have wronged us, those who have hurt us. The Torah (Lev. 19:17) warns us, Lo tisna et achicha bilvavecha, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” When I read this verse every year, I think of all the people I’ve known who permitted anger and hatred to fester and consume them. If you’ve ever carried around anger, you know how truly wise this Torah teaching is.  

Some forgiving is relatively easy. But what about the forgiving of the big hurts of life? Can one forgive a mother or father, an uncle or aunt who physically, or emotionally, or sexually abused a child? How does one forgive such a traumatic scar? How can you forgive someone who has brought immense suffering to someone you care about? Sometimes we like to nurse our grudges. Oh, it can feel good to hate. But in the end it just poisons our souls, and consumes us. Do we want to give those who have hurt us that kind of power over us?

There’s a fundamental principle in the process of repentance. Judaism maintains that Gd will not forgive us from on high unless we forgive each other 1st down below.

During the 6-Day War Rav Chaim Shmulevitz—head of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem—was huddled with his students in a bomb shelter. They recited Tehillim all night with great fervor. Jordanian guns were heard pounding the buildings all around them. Everyone was scared for their lives. Suddenly in the midst of this frightening scene they heard the cry of a woman. She was a woman who had been deserted by her husband 10 years before without a divorce— “a chained woman” because she then couldn’t remarry. He had mistreated her and disgraced her publically; she was lonely and broken. There in the bomb shelter with the sounds of shells exploding everywhere she cried out: “Rebono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, I am prepared to forgive my husband for everything he did to me. You need to forgive your people and save this great nation.”

Rav Chaim Shumlevitz was convinced that all the people in the bomb shelter were spared only for the merit of that woman who was prepared to forgive her husband for all the wrongs he had done to her.

The Talmud (Gitin 36b) states: “Those who are insulted but don’t respond in kind; those who hear themselves disgraced but don’t answer back…of them the Bible (Judges 5:31) states: V’ohavav k’tzeyt hashemesh bigvurato, “Those who love Hashem will be like the sun when it goes out in its full strength.”  

A person who acts selflessly is given an extraordinary bracha. When one acts in a way that defies human nature one is given a bracha l’maala min hateva—a blessing that can surpass even the limits of nature.

In the description of the offering made on Rosh Hashanah the Torah (Num. 29:2) commands, v’asitem ola, “and you shall make a burnt offering,” rather than the usual, v’hikravtem ola, “and you shall offer an burnt offering.” Rabbi Eliakim Koenigsberg suggests the difference is…that on Rosh Hashanah we have to become the korban—we have to make ourselves the offering, sacrificing a little of ourselves. We have to be willing to give up something—whether it’s our pride or physical comfort to forgive someone else. With that kind of sacrifice we can then present ourselves before Gd for forgiveness.  

Yes, we like to nurse our grudges for it can feel good to hate. But in the end it just poisons us. My friends, have courage tonight and sacrifice your grudges. Do you want to live your lives as victims? When we forgive, we begin to heal the hurts we don’t deserve. How do we forgive? We must find a way to separate the deed from the doer. Yes we have arrows in our hearts that hurt. But those who have put those arrows there also have arrows in their hearts that may have caused them to behave that way. When we don’t forgive, our hearts grow heavy, making those arrows much harder to remove. When you try to understand the wounds of those who have hurt you, only then can you begin to remove the arrows from your own heart. Unless we want to continue to feel pain, we need to work at forgiving—not for the sake of the one who hurt us, but for our own sake.

Let me read you an amazing story form the holy Zohar (Miketz), the Bible of Jewish mysticism, about a man who was traveling on a hot day:

          The man grew weary and entered a ruin and sat down to rest in the shade of a tottering wall and fell asleep. A poisonous snake crawled slowly towards him. But just as it was about to bite, a big lizard emerged from the ruin and killed it. When the man awoke and saw the dead snake, he rose to leave. As he walked away, the wall collapsed right on the very spot on which he had slept.

          Rabbi Abba had watched this whole thing unfold and asked him, “I just saw you saved from death by a miracle twice in succession. Tell me, what is your power? What are your good deeds? How is it that Gd does such wonders for you?”

          The man answered, “Throughout my life I have tried to make peace with anyone who harms me. Never have I gone to sleep without forgiving someone for hurting me in any way. Anyone who would hurt me I would try, with all my heart, to resolve whatever animosity was between us.”

          Rabbi Abba replied, “Do not belittle what you do, for you are greater that Joseph the righteous one. He forgave his brothers…but you forgive strangers as well. It is no surprise that Gd performs miracles for you.”

If you look in the Siddur you will see that the bedtime Shema is preceded by a prayer for forgiveness. But before one asks Gd to forgive his sins, the prayer has one recite the following: “Master of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or sinned against me this day…I forgive everyone. May no one be punished because of me.” Only when we forgive those who hurt us do we have the right to ask Gd to forgive us.

My friends, let me suggest that you say these simple words every single night, “I hereby forgive whoever has hurt me this day,”—not because the person who has hurt you deserves to be forgiven. Maybe he/she does and maybe he/she doesn’t. But the person who has hurt you doesn’t deserve to continue to have his misdeed fester inside you and warp you. It’s not good for the liver in both senses of the word—the one who lives, and that part of the body! 

And so may I suggest that if there’s anyone in your family…or in your circle…or at your office…or in shul, with whom you are on the “outs,” muster up the courage tonight to sacrifice your grudges on the altar of forgiveness…and for your own sake make up. For if we forgive each other, Gd will forgive us…and this then will be a good year, a truly blessed year, for all of us. And to our Mexican Chasidim: “Feliz ano neuvo.” Amen!

Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

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