Kol Nidre 5773/2012

Post date: Dec 28, 2012 4:38:48 PM

Let's talk about sinning.

It’s dear to my heart, and I consider myself an expert in it. Ask Shelli.

And just as an illustration, I'd like to start with a story about business ethics. A man walks into your store and purchases a light bulb for $5. He hands you a twenty. You take the bill and hand him the change. Just as he's leaving, you notice that it's really two crisp new twenty dollar bills, stuck together. Here's where the business ethics comes in. What do you tell your business partner?

Sin seems to be a relevant topic considering we are going to spend a lot of time over the next 25 hours saying out loud, for all to hear, how we’ve sinned. We call these confessionals, but in truth, these aren't confessionals like Catholic confessionals where people confess their most intimate secrets in privacy. There are some places where they do that in public.

But we Jews don't do that. We're all cerebral about it, we categorize our sins. There are the intentional sins & the unintentional sins. There's doing things we're not supposed to do & not doing things we are supposed to do. We don't even call them all sins. There's transgressions, regressions, digressions, and indiscretions. Yes, we categorize our sins. Then, we just confess the categories.

And, if I’m going to talk about sin, I’d like to start right at the beginning, with what Christians call original sin: the story of Adam & Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. It is sometimes referred to as “man’s fall from grace.” I have come to think of it, and I believe Judaism sees it, as just the opposite. It is, in my mind, the first step of man’s ascension to holiness.

What happened in the Garden? God said eat anything except for the tree of knowledge. What did Adam & Eve do? They chose. They chose in defiance of God’s command. Had they just done what they were told, there would have been nothing that distinguished them. There would have been nothing that made them special, no purpose for their existence. So they chose, and in choosing against God’s command, they established and confirmed, without doubt, that humanity was independent. In so doing, humanity began the inexorable journey toward holiness.

The Chinese have a saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” I think the Jewish version of this saying is, “A journey of a thousand miles begins in the wrong direction.”

Robert Penn Warren, the first Poet Laureate of the United States, said it beautifully when he wrote this in his book, All the King's Men: “The creation of man whom God in his foreknowledge knew doomed to sin, was the awful index of God's omnipotence. For it would have been a thing of trifling and contemptible ease for Perfection to create mere perfection. To do so would, to speak truth, be not creation but extension. Separateness is identity and the only way for God to create, truly create, man was to make him separate from God Himself, and to be separate from God is to be sinful. The creation of evil is therefore the index of God's glory and His power. That had to be, so that the creation of good might be the index of man's glory and power. But by God's help. By His help and in His wisdom.”

Now, the Jewish version of those 2 concepts, Perfection

So, here we are at Kol Nidre, confessing our transgressions, yet we don’t pretend we will not transgress again. The “Kol Nidre” proclamation talks about the annulment of promises or vows. But it's not annulment of promises we didn't keep last year. Rather, it is a pre-annulment (a pre-nup?) of all promises that we are going to make in the year to come. Like a one-year cross my fingers behind my back. We anticipate we are going to make promises we can not keep.

Truth be told, this prayer came about during a time when Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism or be killed. So the vows they expected to make were some pretty serious stuff. But it turns out that Kol Nidre was a good idea, so we kept it. <How far we’ve come!>

Jewish theology, in all its wisdom, never expects perfection from us. There are no Jewish saints. As a matter of fact, we Jews are better known for our stubbornness. “Keshay Oref” - a stiff-necked people.

I’m reminded of a story about a woman who was walking along the beach hand in hand with her young son. Along comes a big wave and, whoosh, in a second, the boy is whisked away by the sea. The woman is distraught. She drops to her knees and wails and screams, ‘Please God, bring me back my son.’ A moment later, another massive wave appears, and deposits her son right where he was standing. The woman hugs the boy adoringly. She stares at him for a moment, then she looks up toward the heavens and says, “He had a hat.”

In various different parts of the Torah, God loves us for our stubborn determination, and at other times, would very much like to wipe us out. We are not expected to be perfect. Heck, the way most Jews figure it, if someone seems too perfect, we wonder, "What's he hiding?"

No, we’re not expected to be perfect. We’re expected to do better. To fix what we break. To learn from our mistakes.

In Judaism, transgression is a necessary part of being human. To be human, is to be imperfect. And that’s, OK. In ancient Judea, before a soldier went to war, he was obligated to give a guilt offering. The leaders knew, in no uncertain terms, that in the heat of battle, that soldier was likely to do things that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Yet, the choice was to fight or be enslaved - or be killed. And so, our wise leaders offered the soldier a psychological “out”, a path to forgiveness and wholeness. A way to reconcile in their minds that what they were about to do was horrible. Save for the consequences if they should not do it, it was a necessary evil.

And even when you take all the right steps, correct your mistakes, justify your actions, make amends and reparations, if you're a sensitive thinking human being, you often have a little tiny voice that keeps irritating you - you should have known better, you should have done better. Yom Kippur gives us the permission to tell that irritating little voice, "I got it. Now shut up already!"

To be sure, Yom Kippur is about atoning to God, not atoning to people. We all know that our Jewish tradition requires us to make amends directly with the people whom we have harmed. There are two broad categories of transgressions: “Hatat bein adam la’haveiro” sins between one person and another (literally between man and his friend), and there are “Hatat bein adam laMaqom”, between man and God, “The Place,” where God is referred to as “the Space” - the Universe. And Hatat Bein adam lahaveiro, the transgressions between one person and another must be amended Bein Adam Lahaveiro.

Within each broad category of sin, there is a range of harm. At the far end of that range, the harm is irreparable. No amount of repentance will suffice, no expiation is possible, and God's forgiveness is never forthcoming. Between people, there are two such sins with equivalent impact. They are murder and the spreading of rumors intended to hurt someone. In these cases, nothing we will ever do will be able to fix the harm done.

But shy of those, everything can be fixed. Yom Kippur is about correcting the rifts that we, with our God-given free will, have wrought, against the Divine. For example, suppose I came into work with a cold, and one of my coworkers lost a day of work after catching it. This is an example of a “Bein Adam Lahaveiro” and further, it’s a special case of “Heit bivli da’at” a sin without thinking, versus “Heit be’ratzon” - willful sin.

After acknowledging my offence and making amends with my coworker, my Jewish practice informs me to face God and acknowledge that I hurt a fellow creature - one of God’s children. I did not deliberately come to infect the coworker, but my thoughtlessness had the effect of causing harm, and not using my God-given brain to think is Hetat bein Adam LaMaqom. I have to find a way of coming to peace with what I've done, and I have to hope that God is listening, and cares, and will forgive me. And almost always, that hope starts with me saying, "Please God, I'm an imperfect creature. I make mistakes. I am flawed.”

“But please remember, this is how You made me.”

So, in order for us to atone with God, we must first acknowledge our mortal frailties. We cannot achieve wholeness, and beyond that, holiness, without recognizing and accepting our own limitations, limitations, incidentally, that God instilled in us in the first place. You might think it’s a kind of dilemma, but it’s not.

God knows we are natively imperfect. We were not created to be perfect. We were created to strive, to learn, to reach, to be unsatisfied with the way things are, to yearn, to always try to do better. I was listening to a talk given by the late Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was riling against complacency, and said something like, “The day I wake up and I am satisfied with myself, that’s the day I’ve died. Wherever I am, I find something wrong with it. You might say I’m the most maladjusted person on earth.”

I’m sure most people have heard of the terms Yetzer Hatov and Yetzer Hara. Yetzer Hara is our inclination to do “evil” and Yetzer hatov is our inclination to do good. In Jewish rabbinic theology, these two opposing forces live in constant balance or struggle inside of every adult, and what makes us human is our ability, responsibility, and obligation to choose between them. Interestingly, in children, there is only the evil inclination, yetzer hara. Clearly, the rabbis who wrote this had teenagers at home.

<actually, a person isn't responsible to his yetzer hatov until he attains the age of bar mitzvah.>

It’s also interesting if not down right brilliant, that in the theology of yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, it is the yetzer hara, our natural inclination to defy God, that motivates us to accomplish great things, like building cities, creating inventions, having families! It’s only when we give in too much to our yetzer hara that it becomes sinning. That’s when defense becomes aggression, sex becomes rape, building cities becomes destroying the environment.

Here we are, together, at the start of Yom Kippur 5773. Our transgressions Bein Adam LaHaveiro, between us and our fellow people, that’s up to us to fix, by ourselves, now or later. That’s what you get with ability, responsibility, and obligations of free choice. But even after we make good with our fellow creatures, there is always that residual guilt, that part of us that doesn’t feel whole or complete. That part of us that knows we could have and should have done better. That is the kind of sin that Yom Kippur cleanses us from. The fasting and prayers of Yom Kippur are our way, as Jews, to re-adjust, to re-align with HaMaqom, the Universe, and say, "It's ok. You can move on with your life."

We're imperfect. Get over it. It's not the point. We'll always be imperfect. Our goal is not perfection, it's not absolution of sin. Our goal is to be the best we can be, to leave this world, even if it's ever so slightly, better than the way we found it. We're here to struggle with our infirmities and our imperfections, to push against the barriers of intolerance and injustice, to not be satisfied with the status quo, to speak truth to people who don't want to hear it, to teach the uneducated, to be ready to fight for our liberty, to set our expectations of ourselves and of our fellow human beings higher than we could ever possibly achieve.

And Yom Kippur is our time, as a people, to re-aim, to refocus ourselves, to reset our sites in that inexorable march towards holiness that God has set before us, this day.

G'mar hatima tovah, may you all be sealed for goodness.