Yom Kippur 5780

This is for Kol Nidre - 5780.

For Yom Kippur morning, please link here.

Shalom. Thanks to all. The court has come to order.

What is Kol Nidre? How does it fit in the context of Yom Kippur? We’ll examine these questions tonight and tomorrow.

KN has been a controversial prayer at least since its introduction in the 8th century CE, or about 1300 years. Tonight we'll explore the controversy, tomorrow a fascinating insight proposed by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his 2012 Mahzor, and it's root, based in Midrash.

KN transforms a sanctuary, a Beit Tefillah, into a Court, a Beit Din. Why is that? Because we are talking about annulling our vows, and in Judaism, we are not allowed to annul our own vows. Only a Beit Din, or in some cases, a great Sage, is permitted to annul another’s vows, but never their own.

The 2 broad classes of transgressions we can commit are “Ben Adam Lemakom” (between man and God) and “Ben Adam LeHavero” (between a person and their friend).

The broken vows for which we can be forgiven on YK are only between us and God.

(Talmud) Mishna (Yoma 8:9 (English)):

עברות ש​​​​​​​​​​​​​​בין אדם למקום, יום הכפורים מכפ.‏

עברות ש​​​​​​​​​​​​​​בין אדם לחברו כד, אין יום הכפורים מכפר, עד שירצה את חברו.‏

Sins between man and God: Yom Kippur atones for.

Sins between man and his friend: Yom Kippur does not atone for them until he has appeased his friend.

This was the exposition of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya: [The verse states (Leviticus 16:30):] "From all your sins before God shall you be cleansed." Those sins which are between you and God, Yom Kippur atones for. But those between you and your friend, Yom Kippur does not atone for.

To understand KN, we must start with an understanding of the Neder, the Vow.

In Judaism, one’s word is one’s bond, and vows, things promised in the name of God, are sacred. In Torah, the whole subject matter of voicing a vow is serious business. It is incumbent on one to fulfill the vow. Just imagine if one’s promises could be annulled every year by declaration? How seriously would our promises, our contracts, our vows be taken if we could annull them easily?

In Ecclesiastes, chapter 5, “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it, because He takes no pleasure in fools. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.”

Growing up, my parents rarely made a promise to us children without appending it with the phrase “bli neder” (without a vow). “Pa, will you come to the school concert?” “Of course, bli neder.”

Jewish attitudes toward the Neder have changed. Just as there are cyclical movements in social sensibilities - the pendulum swings from strict to lax to strict and back - Judaism encounters such such cyclical changes.

In the 7th and 8th centuries, Jews were making nedarim (vows) frequently and not keeping them. Imagine the Cerebral Palsy foundation investing millions in a TV Telethon, getting hundreds of millions of dollars in pledges, but no one actually fulfilling their pledges!

The Geonim were the Jewish religious authorities of the early medieval times. In response to so many people breaking their vows, they introduced rulings that made Nedarim nearly impossible to annul. The Geonim were, to a man, against even the recitation of Kol Nidre!

Rav Natronai Geon, one of the earliest of the great Geonim, in the 8th century, was opposed to reciting KN at all, as it reduced the seriousness with which one undertook vows.

The later sages, known as the Rishonim, starting with Maimonides (RAMBAM), said that the Geonim’s strict attitude toward vows was a stumbling block for those who did take Nedarim. These later sages said if there is no way to annul a vow, Jews would either never make a vow, or would simply reject Judaism altogether. The Rishonim were still uncomfortable with the public and communal annulment of vows as done with Kol Nidre, but they let it continue.

Rabeinu Tam, a major halachic authority of the 12th century, and grandson of Rashi, thought of KN as scandalous. Until he changed it, the language of KN was to annul vows taken during the year just ended. He saw that as utterly wrong, and changed the prayer to annul vows we would make in the year to come. It makes KN a sort-of pre-nuptial agreement. (Some thought it was Rashi’s son-in-law who made that change.)

Contemporary Rabbi Zion Bokser points out that there is an obvious paradox “in the fact that Kol Nidre is not even a prayer, but rather a legal formula for the annulment of certain types of vows. The name of God is never mentioned.”

Another weird thing about KN is that it is famously sung. But that begs the question, why? It’s a legal document.

The only place I’ve heard this is in fiction, in the Wizard of Oz.

As Coroner I must aver,

I thoroughly examined her.

And she's not only merely dead,

she's really most sincerely dead.

This is funny, but it illustrates the point.

More recently, scholars have thought that Kol Nidre is not so special itself, but it inaugurates the most solemn day of the Jewish year, and thus it has come to represent all that solemnity itself.

Also, KN is not recited precisely on YK. It is officially recited prior to sunset.

But the most difficulty with KN is that it promotes anti-Semitism, Mishum Eivah.

There is a principle in Jewish Law called: Hadevarim assurim Mishum Eivah. Things that are prohibited to prevent hatred of Jews.

In Gemara, there is an argument between Queen Esther and the sages of her day in which she argues that her story, the Megillat Esther, should be canonized. The sages argue that if Goyim read that Jews slaughtered Haman and his 10 sons, and all the rest of those who attacked them, they would hate the Jews!

A Jewish doctor, observing Sabbath restrictions, may (some say must) break Sabbath to treat anyone, including a non-Jew. There are other reasons of course, most notably Pikuah Nefesh … but even the most observant Shomer Shabbat would break Sabbath for Mishum Eivah.

While we know that broken Nedarim for which we can be forgiven are only between us and God, this detail has never mattered to people who hate Jews.

Over the centuries, anti-Semites have interpreted this annulment of vows to promote and spread hatred of Jews, saying that Jews can not be trusted. For hundreds of years, Jews were forced to take a “Oath Judaica”.

It was controversial enough that Rabbi Simon Raphael Hirch, one of the founders of the Modern Orthodoxy, and the author of the concept of “Torah im Derech Eretz” - eliminated the recitation of KN at his first pulpit in Frankfurt in 1851.

Henry Ford, the inventor of the production line and famous anti-Semite, said "It requires no argument to show that if this prayer [Kol Nidre] be really the rule of faith and conduct for the Jews who utter it, ordinary social and business relations are impossible to maintain with them." (The Dearborn Independent, Nov. 5, 1921)

This is not just ancient history. Contemporarily, Rev. Ted Pike of the National Prayer Network published an essay in 2012, “Kol Nidre: Judaism’s License to Lie”. It is written with all the skill of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, written to fool people who don’t really understand Judaism into thinking that Jews are scheming and untrustworthy. This stuff is happening today!

Chaval! Why then, would we continue such a practice?

I grew up hearing that on YK, marranos, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity lest they be killed, the marranos came to the synagogue to recite KN, to annul their conversion. Marrano is a derogatory name, meaning pig.

It is highly improbable that this happened, or happened to any large extent, let alone it being the reason for KN. First, Christians in Spain were permitted to take the wealth of any hidden Jew they found out and turned in. They were highly incentivised to rat out their “marrano” neighbors. But most rationally, the Inquisition in Spain took place mostly in the 1400’s, whereas KN had been practiced for at least 600 years by then.

The legal proclamation that comes just before Kol Nidre (Bishiva shel maala) was indeed for Jews who were excommunicated and declared Cherem to join the congregation. It was a way to bring back a Jew that was excommunicated.

But again, that declaration is made prior to KN.

What is the historical context for YK? It commemorates the time that Moses pleaded with God to forgive us for worshipping the golden calf. 10th of Tishrei.

More importantly, after Moses did his wonderful job of arguing on our behalf, God knew that human beings in general, and Jews in particular, would forever transgress, however we would likely never have a charismatic interlocutor as effective as Moses.

So God installed a bureaucracy, the Priesthood, who would memorialize the ritual of forgiveness for all succeeding generations.

That brings us to tonight’s point about about Kol Nidre. In effect, it states that from this moment and for the next 25 hours, this Beit Tefillah, House of Worship, is also a Beit Din, a House of Justice.

We have just called the court to order, but we are not in any ordinary court. We are in a court in which all the evidence is known. There is no discovery to be made. No DNA to be tested. No clues. God already knows. We may lie to ourselves, but there is no hiding from God.

With God as our witness, we have only one avenue available to us. To ask the court’s mercy. God asks only one thing of us, and that is to do Teshuvah - repentance or return to our pure selves. How do we do teshuvah?

RAMBAM taught that real teshuvah must contain 3 principle elements:

  1. Confession. Which we accomplish communally with Viduey. Individual confession must specifically itemize the transgressions.
  2. Remorse. Where is remorse expressed formally in the YK liturgy? Look at the paragraphs just before Viduey and just after it.
  3. Change. Where is our commitment to change? This is not expressed directly in the liturgy. In the U’ne Taneh Tokef, we read that God will accept us, even if our sincere desire to change is our last dying breath. Ad yom motto tekacheh lo (until the day he dies, You will take him, the sinner, back). Hashiveinu, which we recite as part of Sh’ma Koleinu, is the closest thing to a commitment to change (Turn back to us, and we will turn back to You), but still, the commitment to change seems to be a personal part of Teshuva.

This is the P’shat of the YK liturgy, the surface level meaning. Tomorrow we will delve into the D’rash, the underlying message.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah - Samuel Asher

Yom Kippur Day 5780


Please indulge me to continue the theological journey we began last night. My goal is to explore some of the concepts underlying our YK prayers, and hopefully lead to a more meaningful and spiritual experience.

You may know that YK originated as the anniversary of God’s forgiveness to the Jewish people after our quintessential sin of idolatry, worshipping the golden calf. But what if I were to tell you that, while that is the P’shat, the obvious - surface layer - understanding, the D’rash, the next deeper layer is that it is the anniversary of God doing teshuvah - repentance? That is daring to imagine, because it must be reconciled with the perfection of God.

This insight was discovered by R. Jonathan Sacks as he was editing his Sacks-Koren Machzor and has tremendous implications for us individually, theologically, and societally.

Let’s start by introducing several concepts which are critical to understanding our YK practice.

First is the Neder, the vow, the oath said on the faith of God. We spoke last night about that.

In the Book of Numbers, the commands regarding vows, nedarim, contain a famous negative proscription, that one who makes a pledge "Lo Yachel Devaro" -- "he shall not profane [take back or go back to the drawing board] his word" (Numbers 30:3). This word, Yachel, to take back, plays a critical role in understanding YK as we shall see.

Contrasting the Neder is Hatarat Nedarim, the nullification of vows. Indeed, vows are extremely serious business, but human beings are fallible.

Remember the story of the early Judge, Jephthah. He was a rebel but a superb warrior. The leaders in pre-monarchy Israel asked him to wage war against the Ammonites. He famously made a vow that if God made him victorious over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice the first thing he saw when he returned from battle.

He was victorious, and the first thing he saw was his daughter, whom he sacrificed.

The sages were repulsed by this. Clearly, a vow taken to extreme can be destructive. There needs to be a relief valve. Enter Hatarat Nedarim.

This ritual in Judaism called Hatarat Nedarim is based in Torah and Halacha. Hatarat Nedarim is the annulment of vows. It is done on an individual basis. The Noder (one who made the vow) must appear before a Beit Din (tribunal). The Noder must declare what vow was taken, the circumstances under which it was taken, their state of mind then and their state of mind now. The Beit Din interrogates the Noder. It goes back and forth, but it is specific to the individual.

The next concepts I would like to introduce are the Riv and Ikuv Hakriah.

The Riv, ריב, is a legal case, a lawsuit, a dispute that can be brought up between parties. The prophets Hosea and Micah both describe God having a Riv, an adjudicable case against Am Yisrael. In effect, God says, “We had a deal. We made it at Mt. Sinai, and you, Am Yisrael, have not fulfilled your side of the bargain.”

But Judaism is different from every religion in the world, in that people have often brought God to task. It started with Abraham Avinu, when God tells Abraham that the iniquity of Sodom and Gomorrah is so irredeemable, God intended to utterly destroy them. How does Abraham respond? He argues!

What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?

Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (Genesis 18:24-25)

And God famously responds, I will spare the city for the sake of the 50. Even for 10 righteous souls.

Moses and Jeremiah both call God to Justice. Jeremiah says: Lord, if I ever make a Riv, a [legal] claim against You, You will win! Nonetheless, I shall present the charges against You: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are workers of evil at ease? (Jeremiah 12:1)

And of course, Job wants to bring God to court for punishing him, even though he lived an exemplary life.

Enabling the Riv is Ikuv Hakriah, which means literally, the stopping of the reading of the Torah. There is a powerful story by Shlomo Katz in Commentary Magazine about two people in a shtetl who discovered one of the Jews in the village was an informant. The following Shabbat, when the Torah was brought out of the ark, the two men slapped their hands three times on the reading table, made Ikuv Hakriah, stopped the service while the Torah was in full view, and stated to everyone present, there was a traitor in their midst. That act turned the synagogue into a court. The gabbai was then obligated to hear the plaintiffs and appoint a tribunal to investigate the accusation and report back to the community.

While Ikuv Hakriah is not practiced to any great extent that I know of today, it is nonetheless, established Jewish Law, Halachah, that any Jew may interrupt the Kriat Hatorah, the reading of the Torah, turn the synagogue into a Beit Din, a court, and bring up a Riv against another Jew.

The last concept I want to bring up is Teshuvah. We all know of Teshuvah as … repentance or literally return.

Rabbi Sacks proposes that Teshuvah is not merely a return, but a reframing of our past actions, so that we can move to a better tomorrow, free from the halo of guilt, or the permanent stain of shame.

What constitutes an act of Teshuvah? As we discussed last night, the RAMBAM wrote in the Mishneh Torah, in a chapter called Hilchot Teshuva, that Teshuvah must contain 3 elements: 1) Confession; 2) Regret; and 3) a commitment to change.

In ancient times, in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), where we brought sacrifices to atone for our sins, the precedent was set, that one could not atone for a sin that was deliberate (mezageg). A sin offering was only valid for an unintentional sin (shogeg or bishgaga).

The Babylonian Talmud contains the teachings of Shimon Ben Lakish (Reish Lakish) who is unique among the great rabbis in that he started life as a bandit. (There is yet hope for me).

Among his many teachings, Reish Lakish stated that “Great is Teshuvah, because sins we committed deliberately are recognized as unintentional sins.”

To put it differently, Teshuva allows you to plead down your speeding ticket into a parking violation.

How does this happen? Remember the ritual of Hatarat Nedarim, the nullification of vows, which we spoke of earlier. Remember that when a Noder goes before a Beit Din, a tribunal, the Borerim (members of the tribunal) interrogate the Noder. One of the questions they must ask is, “If you knew then what you know now, would you have made the promise which you violated?

If the answer is “No, had I known then what I know now, I would not have made the vow,” then the Beit Din may conclude that the Noder was not aware of the consequences, and therefore could not have made the vow with full knowledge of its impact.

Essentially, the Beit Din allows one to view something, which at the time seemed deliberate, into something which in hindsight, was not made with one’s full faculties, because of the remorse one feels with fuller knowledge of the consequences. (I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!)

Regret or Remorse is an essential part of Teshuvah, and therefore, what happens with Teshuvah is that we can reframe the act of violating our Vow, not to say it never happened, but to say that the Vow was made in error. From a Mozeg to a Shogeg.

Why does this matter?

If we truly perform Teshuvah, (confess, regret, and change), we may then atone for our sins and achieve Kaparah - forgiveness, because our errors are accounted as Bishgaga. This is why the verse immediately following KN is:

וְנִסְלַ֗ח לְכָל־עֲדַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְלַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֣ר בְּתוֹכָ֑ם כִּ֥י לְכָל־הָעָ֖ם בִּשְׁגָגָֽה׃

The whole Israelite community and the stranger residing among them shall be forgiven, for it happened to the entire people through error. (Numbers 15:26)

To recapitulate, these are the concepts: a Neder, Hatarat Nedarim, a Riv, Ikuv Hakriah, and Teshuvah.

Let’s put these concepts together for a deeper understanding of YK in general, and KN in particular.

As reference texts, let’s consider the following two verses, Exodus 32:10-11:

Let me set the scene. Our ancestors just left Egyptian slavery and were in the wilderness of Sinai. Moses went up Mt. Sinai to get a written copy of the law, spending over a month away from the people.

God gave Moses the Decalogue, the central moral code by which the Jews would live, and the second Logo (utterance) of these Decalogos is: “You shall not have a graven image before Me,” and paraphrasing, Anyone who worships a graven image shall be destroyed. What is the first thing we do when Moses leaves to get the law? We make a graven image and worship it. Talk about a stiff-necked people! God speaks to Moses:

וְעַתָּה֙ הַנִּ֣יחָה לִּ֔י וְיִֽחַר־אַפִּ֥י בָהֶ֖ם וַאֲכַלֵּ֑ם וְאֶֽעֱשֶׂ֥ה אוֹתְךָ֖ לְג֥וֹי גָּדֽוֹל׃

Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and I will make of you a great nation. (Exodus 32:10)

וַיְחַ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־פְּנֵ֖י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֑יו וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לָמָ֤ה יְהוָה֙ יֶחֱרֶ֤ה אַפְּךָ֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔ךָ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הוֹצֵ֙אתָ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּכֹ֥חַ גָּד֖וֹל וּבְיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה׃

Most translations of this sentence go something like, Moses implored the LORD his God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand.” (Exodus 32:11)

But the word, “Vaychal” does not mean to implore, to beg, or to pray. There are other Hebrew words for those concepts. If you recall from earlier, when we spoke of the laws of a Neder, the Torah said of a Noder, a person who takes a vow, “Lo Yochel devaro” he shall not take back his word.

The grammatical form the Torah employs for Moses speaking to God is causative: “Vayachel” - he caused Him to take back.

This is both remarkable and uniquely Jewish. God made a Neder, a Vow, that whoever worships a graven image will perish. The very next moment, the Israelites worshipped the graven image, and God was ready to wipe them off the face of the earth. And Moses nullified God’s Vow!

To illustrate this remarkable point, let me relate an ancient Midrash from Midrash Rabah.

Berakhot 32a: (19) And Rava said: Moses stood in prayer until he nullified God’s vow, as the term vayḥal alludes to nullification of an oath....And with regard to vows, the Master said: He who vowed cannot nullify his vow, but others, the court, can nullify his vow for him. Here, it is as if Moses nullified God’s vow to destroy Israel.

Moses spoke to God saying, did You not teach me Your laws? And did You not teach me Hatarat Nedarim, the nullification of vows? For no one may annul his own vows, but a sage or a court may annul another’s vows.

The Midrash continues, that Moses spoke to God saying, if anyone issues a law, in order for that law to be taken seriously, the issuer must obey the law!

Moses tells God, “You Yourself taught me that a sage may nullify another’s vows. So I will nullify Your vow to destroy Israel.”

And Moses wrapped himself in his Tallit and sat before Hakadosh, Baruch Hu, and made a Beit Din.

[Rabbi Yohanan said that] Moses asked a difficult question of God. “Do You regret ever having made that vow?”

God said, “Yes, I regret it. Making a rule that forces Me to destroy my own people? I regret it.” Then Moses caused God’s vow to be annulled.

Now we can see the deep and powerful history of Yom Kippur. It marks the anniversary when Moses argued in God v. Israel, for Kaparah, for forgiveness of our quintessential sin, the golden calf.

How did Moses accomplish that great act of mercy? By Hatarat Nedarim and through God’s Teshuvah! By showing the Master of the Universe that the utter destruction of God’s Segol, God’s Jewel, the Nation of Israel, was never God’s intention!

Imagine now, the implications of this Jewish theological framework on our place in God’s creation. Moses was just a person. An extraordinary person, to be sure, but just a person nonetheless. And he, using God’s own laws, changed the course of history!

Two people in modern history come to mind. MLK and Margaret Mead.

Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Judaism teaches us that such power devolves even to us as individuals.

With respect to MLK, the power of his message, what made his message resonate to every patriot, was that he demanded of us, as a nation, to live up to the ideals of our founding, the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Moses insists that even God must follow God’s own law!

Finally, we read in the Talmud, Sotah 14a, that to walk in the ways of God means that, just as God clothed the naked (Adam & Eve), God visited the ill (Abraham), and God buried the dead (Moses), we should perform these G’milut Hasadim, these acts of loving kindness.

Adding to that, if the Ribon Shel Ha’olam, the Master of the universe, can make Teshuvah, how much more incumbent is it on us to perform that sacred act today?

Before I conclude, let me add this additional insight of Rabbi Sacks, from today’s Haftarah in the Book of Isaiah:

כִּ֣י לֹ֤א לְעוֹלָם֙ אָרִ֔יב וְלֹ֥א לָנֶ֖צַח אֶקְּצ֑וֹף כִּי־ר֙וּחַ֙ מִלְּפָנַ֣י יַֽעֲט֔וֹף וּנְשָׁמ֖וֹת אֲנִ֥י עָשִֽׂיתִי׃

For I [God] will not bring a case (Riv) against my people forever, I will not be angry forever: For souls wither in My presence, but these souls, I created Myself. (Isaiah 57:16)

The Midrash on this passage goes further, saying that God who is the victor, actually wants not to win! “I will not be angry forever,” means “I will not be angry to the point of winning, for if I win the Riv, it means my beloved creation does not survive.”

This is how YK is not just the most solemn day of the Jewish year, but also the most joyous one. We stand in a court of law before the Master of the Universe, pleading for God to forgive our transgressions, knowing that God wants us to live!

G’mar Hatimah Tovah - Samuel Asher