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Kol Nidre 5777 - 2016

posted Nov 22, 2016, 4:50 PM by Ohel Avraham

Erev Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre 5777

(note, this is being posted 2 months after it was delivered)


Friends. Tzom kal. I hope our fast brings each of us to new insights and a heightened awareness of ourselves. I hope this fast eventually leads us to be in better harmony with our community and our environment.


You know that saying, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

I saw a version of that saying I like much better.


Whatever doesn’t kill you, leaves you with a lifetime of unhealthy coping mechanisms.


If you would indulge me,I would like for each of us here, right now, to imagine we are at the opening evening of a one-day personal empowerment workshop. We are taking this time, right now, to work on being better.


We may be trying to be better children, better parents, better friends, or better spouses. Our goal may be to be better Jews or better human beings.


But we are here, now, and we all know - it’s our common knowledge - that we are here to improve ourselves. I think it’s remarkable that this is what underlies this complex and ancient ritual called Yom Kippur.


But self-improvement also requires intention. We need to want it and work for it. Please indulge me some more.


I know that, usually, the trade-off of Yom Kippur is that you suffer through horrible services in exchange for not feeling guilty.


Right?   “I endured that long boring service and that sermon that went on forever and said absolutely nothing. Sheesh. Nothing I did is as bad as what I just went through!!!


Right?    Good to go until next year!

       That’s the cosmic exchange we ordinarily come to expect.


But this is Ohel Avraham! We have great services!


We’re not exactly swimming in the material goods, but we do singing right.


So if we need to do work, then I’d like your help to make it meaningful.


First, I’m going to talk about a private story of a real person. The names are changed and there are slight other differences out of respect for privacy. But overall, this is a true story. This is story of John.


John was born just around 1980 to a mother who wasn't ready for him, and an absentee father.


Whatever kind of child John was, by nature, his mother overrode the programming.


Instead of teaching him to talk and to think, she repeatedly told him to shut up.


Instead of kvelling in his school work, she called him a sissy. And worse.


She was verbally abusive and psychologically cruel. Unfortunately, her unfitness for motherhood was determined legally, only after deep scars had already been laid.


John, eventually, developed a coping mechanism. He stopped speaking. He became mute.


At home and at his religious school, he behaved the same way. He was an intelligent child, and always did his work well, but still, no one in the school, from kindergarten to 7th grade, thought to alert anyone about the fact that he had no more speech than an occasional grunt.


It was a minister I know who finally noticed John. He was in 8th grade.


The minister started the legal process to investigate the situation, as she was a reporter, but she knew it might potentially take years to conclude.


So, she felt compelled to action immediately.


She collaborated with the staff at the school. They made sure to welcome John into the community. They did not push affection, but they didn’t withhold it either. And they exemplified it.


All the adults working with John were given the game plan to be loving, to offer him opportunities to interact, and most importantly, to accept him exactly as he was.


It took 6 months before John would start to utter 2 word phrases. Remember, he was smart enough to slip unnoticed through 8 years of school. He wasn’t about to start trusting people that easily.


At home, he remained mute, still living with his abusive mom.


Another 6 months, and finally, John found his voice. And you know what was remarkable?


It was a singing voice.


It turned out that John was a capable musician with a good ear. For 13 years, his greatest wish for his ears was perhaps that they would stop working.


Those ears were the channel for his mother’s humiliating taunts. And now, they were listening to classical music.


The short of the story is that a couple of years later, John was moved by the court to an extended family member’s welcoming home, in a different city. Mom was relieved of her responsibility for him.


John was a gifted musician. For 13 years, he was deprived of discovering that gift, of pursuing happiness, to borrow a phrase from the Declaration of Independence.


John is now in his mid-30’s, living independently. He will never completely liberate himself from those first 13 years of scars.


As you might guess, relationships are challenging, both to make and to maintain. But John knows that about himself. So he works on it, and he lives and copes.


And he is a beautiful man.


This was a success story. Many other Johns are mentally ill, homeless, suicidal. All too commonly, they themselves become abusers.


But John was a success. He was a success because he was rescued. When his father and mother abandoned him, other people, real people, took him in and loved him for who he was.


We read about John in the Psalm for the Yamim Nora’im. Psalm 27. Verse 10 is:

כִּי-אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי;    וַיהוָה יַאַסְפֵנִי.


“For though my father and my mother have abandoned me, the LORD will take me up.”


My Bar and Bat mitzvah students know that when the Bible says “The Lord” does something or says something, that means it’s really important.


As Jews, God is the role model for us to emulate. God clothed Adam and Eve, so we clothe the naked. God provided us manna in the desert, so we must feed the hungry. God buried Moses, so we, too, bury our dead. (From tractate Sotah, page 14a, Babylonian Talmud, R. Simlai taught…”)


So when it says, God does this or that, Take it seriously.


That’s what that minister did to help John. Not everyone has beautiful loving parents (as we all hope we are), but there’s a great lesson to be learned about what is possible when you accept someone, even though his or her home life is terrible.


Even though their outward manner is antisocial.


Even though they look different, or even dirty.


It’s not just John they helped. By interfering with that intergenerational cycle of violence, they saved all those next generations from abuse.


That’s why it says in the Mishneh, the most ancient commentary on the Bible, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).


Let’s move on, now, to the metaphor of clay.


One of the recurring themes in the Yom Kippur liturgy is that we humans are like “clay in the Potter’s hands.”


Right? We are glass in a Glazier’s hands. We are the tin under the Tinker’s hammer. We are clay, and the Almighty One, blessed be God, is the Potter.


So, if we talk about clay, we would be wise to incorporate a broader cultural awareness.


The Japanese are very proud of their clay work and ceramic art. They have some of the oldest and most respected traditions of ceramics in the world. They are to ceramics what the French are to cooking.


Their culture has produced many schools of ceramic design and aesthetics.


I know this because I live with a ceramic artist, who told me about one of those schools of thought, called Wabi-Sabi..  


Cited from Wikipedia, ‘Wabi-sabi represents Japanese aesthetics and a Japanese world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.’


The Wabi-Sabi teachers don’t remove every hand trace from a turned pot. If a cup is oval, it is not discarded in favor of a perfectly round cup.


To continue: ‘The aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete".’

Who here has something of beauty in your life that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”?


Let me put it differently. Who here knows anything of beauty that is not “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”?


Isn’t that just another phrase for being human? Are we not, by definition, imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete?


Heck, that’s what it takes to be Jewish. Right?


God is perfect. Everything that is not God, is, by definition, imperfect.


God is forever. Everything that is not God, is, by definition, impermanent.


God is One. God is whole. Everything that is not God, is, by definition, incomplete.


So, you heard it here first. Being Jewish is philosophically related to a Japanese school of pottery. No offense intended.


It reminds me of the mitzvah (command) from Leviticus, “ve’ahavta lereiecha kamocha”,

   love your neighbor as yourself.


The Hassidic masters describe this play on words. They consider “lereiecha” - your neighbor - to be a combination of 2 words. Leraa becha. The wicked that is in you.


In other words, Love the flaws that are in you - as yourself.


Or as my minister friend said to me - and lived by example with her work with John - you have to make room in your heart for people’s brokenness. Especially your own.


So, it’s time to come clean. I confess to be an attention loving, narcissist.


Don’t be all surprised. You probably heard it from Shelli first. That’s how I found out. And it’s totally true. I’ve been so most of life.


So my challenge is to accept that narcissism as one aspect of who I am.


When I accept that part of me, I respect that part of me.

But to accept that part of me, I must detect that part of me.


So, here is your next piece of work tonight.


I’d like for us all to be quiet for a moment.


Now, think about an aspect of yourself that has, more often than not, hindered you in some way.


Think. Think about the patterns in your life. You know them, although you’ve also spent years explaining them away, rationalizing them.


Are you reluctant to confront people with whom you disagree?


Are you shy to the point of deliberately sabotaging relationships?


Are you aggressive? Do you even know how often you are dismissive of other people?


Are you complaining so much that you don’t enjoy life?


Do you get caught up in other people’s issues and avoid looking at yourself?


Do you cheat on crossword puzzles?


Your job now, is to recognize those parts of yourself, without being controlled by them.


Think for a moment of how that trait has hurt you in the past.


Now, think of how that trait has helped you, or perhaps protected you, or prevented you from doing something you would have regretted.


This is who you are. It’s who I am. Recognizing who we are is prerequisite to the act of Kaparah, of apology, the root word of Yom Kippur.


There is another related, and relevant to Yom Kippur, Japanese school of pot philosophy, known as Kintsugi.


Kintsugi is the art of taking a broken vessel, and adhering the shards together using molten gold. It is not enough merely to repair the shards, but to highlight them and to beautify them.


The Hebrew word for this is Kebbalistic essence of … “Tikkun”.


This is our work for the next 24 hours. Last year, we spoke about Cheshbon Nefesh - an accounting for the soul.


This year, I would like for us to take this most holy day of the entire year, and work on repairing our souls. A Tikkun Nefesh.


First, to recognize our brokenness, our personal challenges. Because if we do not detect, we cannot accept.


Second, to accept those parts of us. Strangely, if we try to suppress or merely look past our less attractive traits, it usually bites us in ugly ways.


Third, let’s beautify ourselves. Let’s put gold into the cracks.


We are all a little broken. That's what it means to be human.


Now, there are billions of people who are hurting, or broken, or suffering more than you. But tonight, and for the next 25 hours, you are the most important person.


Eastern philosophy teaches that suffering is essential to the human experience, and is an irreplaceable element to our existing in the world. Therefore, it must not be masked, hidden, or buried. Because suffering is universal, the goal is not to eradicate it, but rather to move through it, finding meaning and purpose as we come to a less painful state of existence.

Victor Frankl, renowned author, philosopher, and psychologist, discusses this process in his groundbreaking book, Man’s Search For Meaning.


Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, observes that those in the death camps who found a purpose and meaning in life, were more likely to survive the horrors that were their reality.


Interestingly, people who hope or wait for the situation to improve are often, he observes, destined to take their own lives. Wishing away pain is not possible, because pain will always exist in our midst.


We have all come here to Yom Kippur services with the intent of becoming better. That alone is a remarkable and wonderful thing. So remember, Yom Kippur is not about changing who you are fundamentally. It’s about changing what you do and how you reframe your self-image.


Bringing ourselves through our pain, to put back together the broken pieces of our souls, to see them as beautiful parts of ourselves, and then, to help others do the same - this is how we can cope with and endure the inevitable suffering that surrounds us and invades our lives.


I am not going to grow hair, but I can love my baldness.


And remember, whatever doesn’t kill you …

Leaves you with a lifetime of unhealthy coping mechanisms.


Gmar Hatimah Tovah

Samuel Asher

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