Kol Nidre Sermon
2020 / 5781
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Gut Yontiff to all of you. This is a time for Shehekhiyanu-- we indeed thank God for keeping us alive and sustaining us for this present moment. It is certainly a unique Yom Kippur, but the power of this day shines through and brings back memories of Yom Kippurs from my past--memories of being child sitting next to my dad, taking hold of his wrist to check his watch every few minutes, asking him “how much longer?” Memories of being college student and awakening to the spiritual power of the holiday as never before. Memories of being a rabbi and feeling the power of the community and the privilege of leading prayers.
There is one memory in particular that has stayed with me since I was 20 years old and in Israel for the first time. I attended a small synagogue, all of whose members were immigrants from Yemen or children of those immigrants. There was much that was different, of course, from the synagogues I had attended at home. The women and the men were separated; the tunes were different; everything was in Hebrew. All these differences I had expected, but there was another difference that took me by surprise—and that was tears. Most of the people praying, men and women, at some point in the service, openly wept.
I had never seen that before. In my home synagogue and in college, shul was not a place to cry. One cried privately or with the closest of family or friends. But in the synagogue, one did one’s best not to cry—either not to feel tears or, if one did feel them, to suppress them. Crying, especially the weeping that I heard in the Yemenite synagogue, would have been understood as a disruption. And brokenness made visible, would have made other people uncomfortable.
Yet the primary Jewish language of prayer, is not Hebrew or Aramaic, but tears. The model of praying, according to the Talmud, is Hannah, whose story comprises the Haftarah for Rosh Hashanah. Hannah is in despair over not being able to conceive a child, and could not even vocalize her prayer because of her tears. It is that wordless weeping of loss that the Bible and the Talmud holds out to us as the prayer of the heart.
I think we can agree that this Yom Kippur especially, tears are something that we all share. It is impossible to hide the brokenness inside us and around us. When I was on a rabbinic zoom call with colleagues in June, we did a sharing and check-in through small groups. I shared about mourning the loss of my father. And then I said, “I am also mourning the loss of my country,” and found myself crying. I was mourning the loss of my belief that no matter what our political differences, Americans shared deep down the value of democracy and the commitment to democratic institutions and the public good. But that dream was being shattered, and as I spoke, many of my colleagues began to cry with me. We have so much to cry about. Illness and death, hunger, dislocation and joblessness, exhaustion, corruption at the highest levels, firestorms burning from Australia to the West Coast of the U.S., causing suffering to millions. Has anyone not shed tears these last 6 months? There is no reason to hide or suppress them. “Hear my prayer, Lord” the psalmist says, “. . . keep not silence at my tears” (Psalms 39:13).
So we cry. But though we cry, we do not need cry alone. We can cry together, and we can cry with God.
The Piaseczna Rebbe, who was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto before being murdered in the Holocaust, wrote: "Tears that one sheds crying alone over one's troubles can break and lower the spirit, leading to spiritual paralysis. But tears that one sheds together with God serve to strengthen a person. . . . one enters the inner chambers, where God Himself weeps and wails together with him."[i]
We are here together, because being together can transform tears of despair to tears of hope. I want to talk tonight about taking strength from our tears. I want to talk about the resources of our tradition that help us to experience the brokenness without feeling despair. I want to talk about the wisdom of our tradition that gives us strength for our spirits and encouragement for our human yearning to reach beyond the brokenness toward wholeness.
Let’s start with a story from the Talmud.
“Rabban Gamliel said: Once I was traveling on a boat, and I saw a boat that shattered and I was grieved over the Torah scholar who was on board. And who was it? Rabbi Akiva.
But when I disembarked onto dry land, he came, and sat and deliberated before me about halakha. I said to him, My son, who brought you up?
He said to me: A plank from the boat came my way, and to every wave that approached me I nodded my head.”[ii]
There is so much for us to learn from that story. Rabban Gamliel was sure no one could have survived the catastrophe that had unfolded before his eyes. But Rabbi Akiva did survive, aided first by brokenness itself, the plank from the boat, but also by his inner resources. If he had tried to escape or fight each wave, he may have exhausted himself and not survived. Instead, he held on to the broken plank and nodded to each wave. The word used for “plank” in the story is the Hebrew word “daf” which also means a page of Talmud. So there is a double meaning that he drew both on the brokenness and on the wellsprings of tradition to help him keep afloat, bobbing up and down in the waves, until he reached dry land.
We, like Rabbi Akiva, are in a time of crisis, surrounded by waves that are dangerous and sometimes fatal. What are the planks, within and around us that we can hold on to, helping us to bob up and down, nodding to what is. What makes up our spiritual inwardness in the face of the storm? And how do we not succumb to exhaustion or despair as we are in the middle of a wide ocean with no shore in sight.
An important teacher on strengthening the spirit in the face of despair is the Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, whose wisdom came from his personal struggles. You may know Rebbe Nachman through his famous teaching—“the whole world is just a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear--lo lefached clal.” He also taught that the essential thing is not to despair. “Ain ye’ush ba’olam clal.” While it is natural to sometimes feel the emotion of despair, he teaches, we must not give into it. He offers three suggestions to help us, suggestions for hitchazkut, self-encouragement.[iii]
The first is a form of prayer called “hitbodedut,” taking time to be by yourself in direct, spontaneous, and heart-felt conversation with God. Hitbodedut is a wonderful practice in that it is accessible to all no matter what one’s religious background or experience. It is a simple heart connection between ourselves and the Source of Life. There is no prayer book involved. The place and the time are chosen by each of us. The subject is whatever is on our hearts. We don’t have to have any particular theology or any theology. The discipline is to take time to be alone and open one’s heart in conversation with the One that is within and beyond us. It is a daily practice.
The second suggestion of Rabbi Nachman’s moves from being solitary to being in relationship. It’s called sichos haverim -- to be in conversation with friends. Just as we have study partners for Talmud and complicated written texts, we need study partners for our lives, Dr. Ariel Burger teaches in the name of Rebbe Nachman. Cultivating and investing in our friendships and relationships should not be considered a leisure time activity but an essential part of a spiritual life.
Finally, Reb Nachman teaches the importance of engaging in action as a way to keep despair at bay. Doing something--l’mayseh--even if it is a small thing, is critical for our spiritual life as well as for the world at large. We should not wait to find the thing or the organization that will solve everything. A bissel is oykh gut, a small thing is also good.[iv] The important thing is that we are moving from thoughts to action.
Here is a paradox. The more brokenness there is, the more our action is needed. But the more brokenness there is, the more vulnerable we are to despair and inaction. Our ancient tradition teaches, however, that it is exactly in that place of catastrophic brokenness, that the possibility exists for something new to be born.
The Hebrew word for “crisis” mashber, comes from the word shever or the breaking of something that is whole. As Professor Melila Hellner-Eshed taught,[v] Shever is used in the Torah and Hebrew Bible in many interesting ways. It is used as the word for grain, since we break open the earth to plant a seed. Shever is also used in the Torah for a dream interpretation—in other words, the breaking open or cracking open of a dream. It is also used for that most painful moment in labor just before giving birth. In the book of Isaiah, to describe a day of great distress, the day is compared to coming to the point of birth, mashber, but not having the strength to give birth. It is as if one is at the point of transforming the pain, the crisis, into something new and whole, but one’s despair and exhaustion prevent it.
This connection between brokenness, crisis, and birth is understood in Jewish mysticism as a primal truth of the universe. The creation story of the cosmos, in Lurianic Kabbalah is called shevirat hakelim, the breaking of the vessels. Similar to the modern origin story of the Big Bang, which is also about brokenness and birth, Jewish mysticism imagines a cosmic dense, unity. But that unity could not hold and is shattered, leading to shards of broken vessels but also to the possibility of life.
Just as the cosmos experienced shever, brokenness, the tablets with the words of God, were according to the book of Exodus, shattered as soon as they were completed. Moses beheld the Golden Calf and threw down the tablets, breaking them in pieces. What did God say? Yasher Koach! Good job, Moses. The midrash says the broken tablets were put in the ark and carried by the Israelites throughout their wanderings. From the breaking of the cosmos to Moses’s breaking of the tablets of God, to the birth of each child, brokenness is inherent in the process change and rebirth. I say this not to cheer us up or offer compensation. That would be cold comfort. The brokenness is painful, sometimes tragic, usually unwelcome. But it is the truth of life. And knowing that truth can help us experience the pain without moving to despair, experience the pain with faith that change in our world is possible, even when it is not immediately visible.
What is a new birth you hoping for this year? What is a vision that is worth putting aside our despair and pessimism for. What is a vision bold enough that it can really save our planet, our bodies, our souls? For Martin Luther King, it is eliminating the “triple evils” of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism, holding the vision of “beloved community.” Tomorrow we will read Isaiah’s vision—“if you banish oppression from your midst, the menacing hand and tainted speech, if you give of yourself to the hungry, fulfilling the needs of the poor—then shall your light shine in darkness, and your darkness shall be like the noon” (Isaiah 58:9-10).
What is your vision? What is our vision? Don’t let people discourage us in the name of realism, because we can’t survive much more “realism” of towns burning or flooding, or citizens dying from gun violence or police brutality, or our country failing to address a public health crisis without a sense of shared purpose and welfare. If that is “realism,” it is the “realism” of despair. Let us dare, among these ashes and broken shards, to birth the realism of love.
May we have the courage to nurture our vision of a different world and to take action to make it a reality. On Rosh Hashanah, the rabbis teach, the world was conceived. On Yom Kippur, may our commitment to birth this new world be sealed. In so doing, may we all be sealed in the book of life.
[i] Nehemia Polen, The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, The Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto.
[ii] Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 121a.
[iii] See Rabbi Ariel Burger, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxngk4l3NVA
[iv] Rabbi Ariel Burger, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxngk4l3NVA
[v] Melila Hellner-Eshed, “Spiritual Sustenance in a Time of Crisis,” https://www.hartman.org.il/spiritual-sustenance-in-a-time-of-crisis/