A Most Essential Vow – Kol Nidre 5778

Posted on October 02, 2017

Kol Nidre touches us in many different ways.

There are many well-known stories about what it has meant to individual Jews over the centuries.

Here is one famous story.

At one time in his life, the famed Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig had decided to convert to Christianity. He went to synagogue one last time. It was Kol Nidre night. He heard the prayer and it touched him so deeply that he changed his mind about conversion.

What is particularly fascinating about this story is that, to my knowledge, this prolific author never explained why Kol Nidre moved him to reaffirm his Jewishness. He left it as a mystery. But, he later is said to have taught that hearing the Kol Nidre prayer helps us all to measure how we have grown as Jews over the past year.

Tonight, I will speak about what I believe to be the best mechanism we have to grow as Jews. It is the aspect of our faith that, more than any other, has kept me spiritually energized in my choice of career for over 40 years. To this day it continues to bring me a thrill and the joy of discovery. It is a pursuit that I will carry with me no matter where my future travels take me.

That pursuit is the study of Torah.

Kol Nidre: All vows.

The prayer that begins the Yom Kippur service, the prayer whose melody moves us so deeply and brings such deep and lasting memories, the prayer that touched Franz Rosenzweig’s heart and touches our hearts as well, is not a prayer at all. It is, in actuality, a dry legal statement releasing us from vows we might have taken last year or might take in the year just begun, depending on how we interpret it.

The vows referred to are those vows between ourselves and God. The vows are those that might have been made in a moment of distress or even sincere spiritual fervor. Apparently, our rabbis felt that God understands that some promises made to God are made in the moment and should not have lasting repercussions.

But there are some vows to God that we can’t be released from and one of those is the vow our ancestors made in our name at Mt. Sinai: the vow to love and to learn Torah.

On several occasions in the past few years, I have dedicated a High Holy Day sermon to teaching Torah. Tonight, on the holiest night of the year, I will do so again.

But, unlike past years when I used the text as a way of demonstrating how rich Torah study can be, this year I will teach a text which puts that study into a context: a context of faith and of ideas. I am doing this because I sincerely hope that my words will encourage you to embrace the study of Jewish text more deeply than you have done to this point in your life.

To do so is absolutely incumbent on every Jew.

Be assured I’m not suggesting that you spend inordinate and unreasonable amounts of time fully absorbed in study denying personal responsibility and refraining from interacting with the world. That would be a desecration of all the good that Torah can do as the life we live in the world, the good works we do are much more important than the time we take studying. But, taking time to study and wrestle with our traditional texts provides a grounding that inspires us to take our responsibility in the world more seriously and gives everything we do a foundation of deeper meaning.

Studying Torah is the quintessential Jewish act.

Besides, I sincerely believe that it gives God great pleasure when we fulfill our vows to study Torah and anything that pleases God is good by me. There is an old story about a woman who wanted to wish God something for the new year and she finally decides that the best she can come up with is to wish that God should have “nachas fun de kinder”, satisfaction from the children. I firmly believe that God sheps nachas, gets great satisfaction when we do good things, when we act with compassion and when we study Torah.

So, on this Yom Kippur evening, let us fulfill our vow.

Please open up the machzor to page 99 and you will find the text at the bottom of the page: the blessings that are said when one has an Aliyah to the Torah. You will hear them 8 times tomorrow morning as you do every Shabbat. But, this evening, I want you to listen to them more carefully and understand and appreciate them more deeply.

So, I am going to chant them slowly. You are welcome to join me but keep in mind that I am going to chant them very slowly.

How many times have we heard those words and that melody?

In fact, the first question people often ask is: “Why do we have to hear it so often? It just makes the service longer. It seems the only reason to say them over and over is to give more people a chance to be up on the bima”.

That’s what I hear often and believe it or not, that is exactly the reason we say the blessing so many times.

Obviously, reading from the Torah, like any Jewish ritual merits a blessing. But, originally, during Talmud times, the blessing was only said once during the Torah reading. Each section of the Torah was read by a different individual. The first to read would say the opening blessing before he read while the closing blessing would be said by the last reader after he read. The blessings bracketed the Torah reading, beginning and end and were chanted only once.

But, over time, fewer people had the ability to read from the Torah and the process was changed: the Torah reading was done by one particular reader or a group of specially trained individuals. Then, in order to make sure that the Torah reading still reflected a truly communal celebration of the covenant, people would be called up to say the standard and easily learned blessings before and after each reading. So, by structuring the reading this way, more people participated.

But, the repetition doesn’t in any way minimize the role of the person saying the blessings.

When you stand next to the Torah reader and hold on to the scrolls, the atzei hayim, the “trees of life” as they are called and say these familiar words, you are providing the theological and spiritual context for the reading. You aren’t telling everyone what is in the Torah. The reader does that. But, you are announcing what Torah means and that is just as important as what is written in the scroll.

I want you to look at the three most important words in these blessings, words which I will translate more literally than the way they appear in this translation.

Those 3 words are the 3 past tense verbs that appear in the blessings: bachar, in the first blessing natan which appears in both blessings and nata in the second blessing. We say that God bachar chose us from among all peoples; God natan, gave us the Torah; God nata, planted within us eternal life.

These three verbs are central to the understanding of the blessings and unite them into a consistent theme.

And I believe they are in chronological order.

Let’s look at each of them individually.

The first: Asher bachar banu God chose us from among all peoples.

This concept of the “chosen people” is so important yet so unfortunate when its importance is minimized and so dangerous when it is misused.

Many are uncomfortable with the “chosen people” concept in our egalitarian world and feel it is inappropriate. How can we claim that God chose us from the other nations and faiths with the implication that we’re better than others? This concern has led some to change the wording of the traditional blessing and to eliminate completely the concept of chosenness.

Alternatively, there are those who embrace the concept with great enthusiasm and boundless pride, leading to a sense of entitlement and superiority, believing that whatever they do is fine with God because they are Jews and that the universe has to adjust itself to the desires and dreams of God’s chosen ones.

I believe that both of these approaches are dangerously wrong. We shouldn’t deny this concept and we should never use it as a cry of triumphalism.

My teacher at JTS, Rabbi Neil Gillman, once said something that I have never forgotten about the chosen people idea. I’m not sure he would have taught the same thing months or years later but he did teach it to us back in the 1981 and it’s the answer I still used when I am asked what I think it means.

Rabbi Gillman taught us that he believed that every serious adherent to a theistic religious faith by definition believes he or she is among God’s chosen people in the sense that they are worshipping and acting in the way God has chosen.

What a great answer! God has chosen different faiths to teach different lessons.

Other religious traditions have been chosen to bring other ideas to the world: for example, absolute faith in God, the importance of meditation and introspection or a commitment to universalism. We can learn from all of these by respecting and learning from other faiths.

While I believe that other faiths can teach the world so much, I firmly believe that the gift we have been chosen to bring to the world is the inspiration that comes from reading a sacred text, discovering its mysteries and its depth, and taking its message of justice and the potential holiness of a community to a world in desperate need of redemption. This is our gift from God. This is our charge as Jews. This is what we are chosen to do: to study Torah and to use what we have learned to do our part in bringing the world to a better place.

I’m not at all hesitant to say it. I believe God bachar, chose us to learn and act on Torah.

Now, the second verb, natan, God gave us the Torah.

I don’t know what happened at Sinai. But, I believe something monumental did and we must believe in that moment of revelation and then find the inspired texts which elevate us, which inspire us, which move us to something greater. When we allow those texts to move and challenge us, we demonstrate our desire to be more than just a physical being. We commit ourselves to being a mentsch with a conscience, with a heart, with a soul. Every day that we leave our sacred books closed, we deny the importance of a gift that has been given to us however we imagine the source of this gift. And even those who don’t believe in God the way I am speaking tonight can find great meaning in Torah. There is never a theological litmus test when it comes to engaging in Torah study. Everyone can learn.

While you will hear in a few minutes that I believe that we are justified in using a present tense verb, that God is still giving us Torah, the past tense here is critical. By using the past tense: God “gave” us the Torah, we recognize that we are not starting from square one. We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants who can inspire us with words that were written for our benefit, whether 2500 years ago or last week. We remind ourselves that we are not walking an entirely new road but taking possession of an inheritance intended for us. We remind ourselves that the moment that united all of us as Jews occurred when we all stood together at Sinai. We all started from the same place and moved forward in our own way so no Jew’s approach to Torah is more valid than any other.

Each of us has the memory of Sinai inside of us because God natan gave us the Torah.

But, I believe we have another memory about Torah, a mythic, legendary memory.

That is reflected in the third verb, nata, God planted within us life eternal.

What could that mean?

As I mentioned, I believe these three verbs were placed in chronological order. God chose us, at the time of creation, or Abraham or Moses, it doesn’t matter which. God then gave us the Torah at Sinai. So, when, after that, did God plant within us life eternal?

Let me tell you my answer by means of a bubbe meise, an old story.

How many of know what a philtrum is? The philtrum is the small ridge under the nose. I read some interesting ideas as to why we have a philtrum from an anatomical perspective but many of you know the real reason why we have one.

We have a lovely legend that just before a baby is born, an angel comes along and strikes her right there, leaving this depression.

Actually, this bubbe meise has its origin in the Talmud.

There is a beautiful Talmudic legend that while a fetus is in the womb, it is taught the entire Torah and just before birth, an angel comes along and strikes the fetus on the lips and the Torah is forgotten.

I absolutely love that legend about us learning Torah in utero and I believe that the phrase in the Torah blessings which says that God planted within us life eternal could actually be a reference to that story. There couldn’t be a more dramatic expression of “planting within us”.

So, Torah was within each of us from our earliest days. Before we became an independent life, before we had even the status of being fully alive according to Jewish law, our tradition tells us that Torah was planted in our kishkes.

It’s just a legend so don’t take it literally. But, take it seriously enough to ask one question. If it’s so important, why did the angel take the Torah away from us?

It is simply because were it left inside of us, it wouldn’t be our Torah. Had the angel left the Torah we were taught there, it wouldn’t be our Torah, it would be the Torah of the teacher who put it there. Even if the teacher who put it there was the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, as the text in the Talmud seems to imply, it wouldn’t be ours.

In simple computer terms we all can understand, I believe the angel hit select all and delete and left the empty file there.

The file named Torah lies there waiting to be filled. There is something empty inside of us that has to be filled and it has to be filled with our Torah.

It has to be our Torah and it becomes our Torah when we refill that file, that vessel that once contained the holy words, with our own view of Torah, our own understanding of the words of our tradition.

When our b’nai and b’not mitzvah stand on this bima and tell us how they understand the section of Torah they just chanted, they create their own Torah. And so it is for anyone who comes up with a new understanding or who adamantly disagrees with a text: who screams out at God for commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, or reinterprets the archaic and misguided approach of Leviticus regarding homosexuality. It is the same when a couple chooses a beautiful phrase from Song of Songs and places it on their wedding invitation or on their ketuba as Ellen and I did or analyzes a traditional text from a modern psychological perspective. When we put our personal stamp on one of the stories or teachings of our tradition, we refill the Torah file with our own thoughts and we make Torah our own.

This is our legacy.

When we refill that vessel with our own version of Torah, we are doing exactly what every human being does in the course of his or her life. We start with the DNA given and move forward as individuals affected by environment and experience. When a Jew studies Torah, she takes the DNA from the past, not just the communal past, but the past that has been planted in her kishkes and uses that foundation to become the person she chooses to be.

This is why the blessings end with a present tense verb: notayn, God gives the Torah. The Torah is constantly being given. It is an ongoing process that each of us must fulfill in our lives, it is a vow from which can not be released.

So, why have I chosen to speak about this tonight on this Yom Kippur?

It is because this Yom Kippur is, needless to say, particularly emotional for me.

As I enter my final year as rabbi of this wonderful Congregation, I have been thinking quite a bit about what has been most important to me over the past 30 years.

Of course, being with you, supporting and guiding you through joyous and lihavdeel, difficult times, has been the most important. But, right behind it and very close, has been the joy of teaching of Torah in many different settings from this bima to religious school, to lunch and learn, to divrei Torah on the bus during our many memorable trips to Israel to our Shabbat morning Shabbat limmud, to adult education classes.

A Rabbi’s job is to be a teacher and the thirst for knowledge and the respect for learning among so many of you in this community has made teaching Torah here a delight for me and I sincerely thank those of you who taken advantage of the many opportunities for us to learn together. You have challenged me to continue to think, to search for interesting sources more diligently, to analyze the text more deeply and to listen to many different perspectives more respectfully. It has been such a privilege to learn from you.

I am so grateful because of all the vows a Rabbi makes, the one to learn and teach Torah is the one I cherish most deeply.

But, the vow is not just for Rabbis.

God chose us, gave us a gift and planted within each and every one of us and we must respond.

May you continue to come to the bima and praise God as the one who planted the love of Torah within us. Then, may you act on it.

On this Kol Nidre night, may we all commit ourselves to fulfilling that ancient vow to study Torah and thus, always, always, continue to grow as Jews.