Kol Nidre 5780
October 8, 2019
Kafka and the Doll
by Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL

A story—possibly apocryphal—is told about the author Franz Kafka.  One day, while walking in a park in Vienna, he encountered a young girl who was distraught because she had lost her doll.  Kafka offered to help her search, but they did not turn up the missing toy.  However, he promised his new friend that he would meet her the next day in the same location.

The next day Kafka returned with a typed letter that he read to the young girl.  He told her that it was a message from her lost doll.  It said, “Please do not mourn me; I have gone on a trip to see the world.  I will write you of my adventures.”  The girl took comfort from the letter, and so Kafka continued to create ever more fanciful accounts of the doll’s travels, and he shared them with the girl regularly.

Eventually, the meetings came to an end and Kafka presented the girl with a new doll.  This doll clearly looked different from the lost one, but all was explained with an attached letter that read, “My journeys have changed me.”[1]

As we mark a new year and reflect on our actions since last Yom Kippur, we too recognize that our travels have changed us.  The journeys we have taken in this past year, whether they involved far-flung itineraries or they were comprised of moments of physical and emotional shifts, have reshaped our sense of ourselves.  Now, these days of awe call us to reflect upon these changes: some have been joyful, some have been painful.  Some have emerged as welcome expressions of our best selves; some have proven hurtful and harmful, and stand to be lamented—and hopefully, corrected.  Some changes represent an ongoing evolution: new skills and opportunities that continue to unfold before our eyes; some represent a closing of doors, an end to a particular chapter of our lives.  Whatever change we may have encountered in the past year, whatever change awaits us in the year just beginning to unfold, we pray that, through the grace of God, we may meet these changes and challenges with strength, courage, and integrity.

Kafka, of course had given much thought to the theme of human transformation and growth.  His 1915 novella, The Metamorphosis, follows Gregor Samsa through a monstrous transformation with which the protagonist is ultimately unable to fully cope.  For us, the shifts we make are generally less dramatic; sometimes we may require feedback from family or friends before we fully understand the scope and beauty of our makeover.

A maxim currently making its way through the internet reminds us, “Butterflies cannot see their wings.  They can’t see how beautiful they are, but everyone else can.  People are like that, too.”[2]  Caterpillars go through tremendous effort to build a cocoon and make the transformation to a butterfly.  Some innate species-specific memory tells them that this is a worthwhile endeavor.  But when they emerge, they cannot recognize that they have changed; they are unable to understand the full scope of their evolution.  So it is with us.  Oftentimes, until or unless someone else remarks on our transformation, be it external: “I like your new haircut” or internal: “you seem much happier lately,” we fail to fully internalize and appreciate how much we have truly changed.

According to Jewish tradition, true teshuvah, true change in our character that brings us in closer alignment with God’s expectations of us, cannot be achieved unless we engage with others with whom we have interacted over the course of the year and make amends for any way in which we have hurt them, whether purposely or accidentally.[3]  In this manner, Jewish tradition recognizes the power of interpersonal relations; our “travels have changed us” because on our journey through the past year we’ve taken the time to engage with others.  Some of our encounters have been richly rewarding; others have been hurtful or disappointing; all have left a mark on our persona.  Some of these impacts are nearly imperceptible, others are life-altering, but the enduring lesson is that since we do not move through life in a vacuum, we are ever-evolving creatures, shaped by our interactions with others.

At this season of introspection, we are called to examine how we conduct ourselves in relationship with others.  Have we been cold or sharp or aloof toward those with whom we interact—be they friend, family, or stranger?  Or have we pushed ourselves to be fully open to the ways that each individual may bless our lives?

Once upon a time, in a remote corner of a European village lay decaying monastery with only five remaining monks.   It was clear that their religious order had seen better days.  In the woods nearby the monastery, there was a little hut that a Rabbi from a nearby town used from time to time. The monks always knew the Rabbi was home when they saw the smoke from his fire rise above the tree tops. As the Abbot agonized over the imminent demise of the monastery, it occurred to him to ask the Rabbi if he could offer any advice that might help him avoid the fate that seemed so inevitable.

The Rabbi welcomed the Abbot at his hut. When the Abbot explained the reason for his visit, the Rabbi had scant advice to offer.  “The only thing I can tell you,” said the Rabbi, “is that the Messiah is among you.”

When the Abbot returned to the monastery, his fellow monks gathered around him and asked, “What did the Rabbi say?”

“He didn’t offer any concrete advice,” the Abbot admitted. “The only thing he did say, as I was leaving, was that the Messiah is among us. But I don’t know exactly what these words mean.”

In the months that followed, the monks thought about the significance of the Rabbi’s words: The Messiah is among us?  Could he possibly have meant that the Messiah is one of us monks here at the monastery?  If that’s the case, which one of us is the Messiah?  Do you suppose he meant the Abbot?  Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot.  Certainly, he could not have meant Brother Elred!  Elred gets crotchety at times.  But come to think of it, even so, Elred is almost always right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred.  Of course, the Rabbi didn’t mean me.  He couldn’t possibly have meant me.  I’m just an ordinary person.  Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah?

As they thought more about what the rabbi had said, the monks began to treat each other with great respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah.   At the same time, each monk began to treat himself with great respect.

It so happened that even in its decline people still occasionally came to visit the beautiful forest and the monastery.  Now, visitors began to sense a powerful spiritual aura. They were sensing the respect that now filled the monastery.  Though they didn’t really understand why, people began to come to the monastery even more frequently to picnic, to play, and to pray. They began to bring their friends, and their friends brought their friends.  Then some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk with the older monks.  After a while, one asked if he could join them.  Then, others asked if they too could join the abbot and older monks.  Within a few years, the monastery once again became a thriving order, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the community.[4]

Like the monks in this parable, we have the opportunity to see our neighbors—and ourselves—as something greater than the immediate impression we may give to the casual observer.  Whether we embrace the notion of an individual Messiah, or whether we see individuals or ourselves as possible catalysts of a messianic age, our behavior toward others can and should be guided by the understanding that each person has importance and worth, even if it is not readily evident.  Judaism holds dear the notion that we are all created btzelem Elohim, in the Divine image.  When we strive to recognize and celebrate the good and the Godly within everyone whom we encounter—as the monks in the story began to do—we find, like the doll in Kafka’s story, that this sort of compassionate journey may change us for the better.

And being so changed, being so attuned to the Divine spark in others, may in turn inspire us to make changes to the manner in which we welcome and appreciate God in the world and in our lives.  Whether you find yourself to be “religious” or not, whether or not a consciousness of God’s expectations for you informs your day-to-day behavior, each of us arguably derives some benefit, some comfort, some sense of our place in the world by acknowledging the presence of a power higher than ourselves.  For many of us, what we call this Power, and how we choose to interact with this Power, remains in flux.  We may rejoice and embrace God when we feel blessed; we may be inclined to shun God or feel angry when tragedy befalls us.  But Jewish tradition assures us that as much as our feelings about God may shift from moment-to-moment, God stands steadfast and immutable.

The Yiddish poet Aharon Zeitlin reminds us that God does not mind how we interact, so long as we care enough to engage with the Divine in some manner.

Praise me, says God, and I will know that you love me.
Curse me, says God, and I will know that you love me.
Praise me or curse me
And I will know that you love me.

Sing out my graces, says God,
Raise your fist against me and revile, says God.
Sing out graces or revile,
Reviling is also a kind of praise,
says God.

But if you sit fenced off in your apathy,
says God,
If you sit entrenched in: “I don’t give a hang,” says God,
If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and don’t cry out,
If you don’t praise and you don’t revile,
Then I created you in vain, says God.[5]

At this season, we invoke God as Avinu Malkeinu, a parent and a ruler.  This phrase is meant to juxtapose two qualities of God: mercy and lovingkindness stand side by side with firmness and justice.  As we pray that God will be able to find balance in these qualities, so too do we strive to achieve a similar balance within ourselves.  As Zeitlin writes, God wants us, as representatives of humanity, to make our presence in this world worthwhile—to be changed by our journey.

Doing so requires not only that we examine our interactions with others and our relationship to the Divine; we also must take a close look at ourselves.  As we engage in the challenging but rewarding work of teshuvah, we find our tradition encouraging us to engage in the act of cheshbon ha-nefesh, an “accounting of the soul.”  As I go through this self-reflection process, I examine myself in the mirror.  I seek to look beyond the few extra pounds, the few fewer hairs, the few new sags and wrinkles.  What I should really be looking for in the mirror, what Ishould really be focused on is not the superficial image, but my inner self.  I ask myself: in what ways did I change in 5779?  —  what new skill did I acquire, did I kick that bad habit, discover a new interest, form different attitudes, or champion new causes?  Did I pay attention to a social injustice, did I try to make a positive difference in my community, did I tell a dear one that I loved him or her, was I generous or stingy in my praise or in my rebuke?  Did I have the opportunity to celebrate an auspicious milestone or enjoy the flowering of new or rekindled love?  Did I grapple with disappointment or the pain of loss?

We are all invited to engage in similar introspection.  Having undergone such an assessment, our tradition then encourages us to act upon these self-discoveries in an effort to shift our destinies in a positive manner.  Whatever our experiences, we recognize that we are not static creatures, standing stoic and unchanged as the seasons march on.  Rather, we are participants in the constant current of time, evolving with each passing moment.  We only hope that we are aware enough of our surroundings to steer ourselves toward positive changes.

Billy walked into the five-and-dime store (remember those?) and went to use the payphone (remember those?).  The clerk at the counter could not help but overhear the conversation.

“Hello, Dr. Silverberg?  I was wondering if you’d like to hire a boy to mow your lawn twice a week and maybe run some errands for you?  Oh, you already have somebody?  Are you satisfied with him?  You are?  OK, thank you!  Goodbye.”

As Billy started to leave the store, the clerk stopped him and said, “Listen, if you’re looking for a job, they are hiring here.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Billy replied, “But I already have a job.”

“But didn’t I hear you asking Dr. Silverberg if you he needed somebody to work for him?”

“Well not exactly,” Billy answered.  “You see, I’m the boy who works for Dr. Silverberg, and I was just checking up on myself.”

From time-to-time we need to check up on ourselves.  We need to honestly examine our thoughts, our deeds, and our words of the past year—for when we recognize our propensity for change and devote ourselves wholeheartedly to it, we begin to delve into the full range of possibilities and obligations associated with teshuvah.  And we may find that this journey of self-reflection has changed us for the better.

We pray that this year of 5780 will be a good, meaningful year filled with blessing for us all.  And when we return to this place next year to gather again for these Days of Awe may we each be able to say that we have been on a marvelous journey, and that we have changed in many positive ways.


[1] Many versions of this story exist.  This account is paraphrased from a telling by May Benatar called “Kafka and the Doll: The Pervasiveness of Loss,” posted on Huffington Post on October 3, 2011.  Retrieved July 23, 2019 from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/kafka-and-the-doll_b_981348

[2] This quote is found in many places on the internet.  Its origin is unclear.

[3] A precept taught in Mishnah Yoma 8:9.

[4] Adapted from Peck, M. Scott. The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. (New York: Touchstone, 1998)

[5] “If You Look at the Stars and Yawn,” by Aharon Zeitlin, trans. Emanuel Goldsmith