Kol Nidre 5781
September 27, 2020
Catching Stones and Healing Breaks
by Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


There’s a well-known (well-worn) phrase with which many of us are undoubtedly familiar, though we all may not be aware of its origin.  It says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

If you’ll indulge me what may initially seem to be an odd mixing of metaphors at one of the holiest moments on the Jewish calendar, I’ll fill you in—it’s derived from an episode in the New Testament book of John.  A woman is accused of adultery, and the community seeks to put her to death by stoning, as the letter of the law prescribes.  Jesus prevents such mob violence with the admonition that no individual should seek to cast a stone unless he (or, presumably, she) is fully blameless of other punishable transgressions.  By thus appealing to the crowd, who must then admit that none of them are fully innocent, Jesus ensures that no stones are cast.

We don’t need to embrace the theological underpinnings of this parable to understand that its lesson is important for people of any faith to absorb.  Yet, in truth, our humanity does not merely call us to refrain from casting stones.  We should also turn our attention toward catching the stones that others may seek to cast.  When we stand up for those who are vulnerable in our society, who are most likely to feel the weight of stones being cast at them, then we strive toward holiness and begin to fulfill our true potential.

Author and attorney Bryan Stevenson, founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative, underscores the need for stone catching in his book Just Mercy.  In his narrative, he introduces us to a woman whom he calls Mrs. Jennings, who acknowledges, “we’ve all been through a lot… some of us have been through more than others.  But—”Mrs. Jennings continues—“if we don’t expect more from each other, hope better for one another, and recover from the hurt we experience, we are surely doomed.”[1]

I believe that the key to surviving the human condition, the key to what Mrs. Jennings is alluding to, is to learn to engage in the stone catching that Stevenson encourages us to undertake.  When we learn to lift up the hopes and dreams of others and assuage their hurts, we begin to come together as a society.

Several generations ago, the leaders of the Reform movement abandoned the traditional reading for Yom Kippur morning—Leviticus 16, which details the duties of the priesthood and the sacrificial rituals of Yom Kippur.  They cited multiple reasons for doing so, but that’s a discussion for another time.  The passage they chose to be read in its place, from the end of Deuteronomy, captures another important angle of this holy day.  It articulates that the fates and fortunes of every individual are intertwined.  It seeks to emphasize that no matter one’s profession or socio-economic status, each of us has an equal stake in Torah, an equal opportunity to enjoy God’s blessings.  The text proclaims, “You stand here today…all the individuals in Israel…even the stranger in your camp…from woodchopper to waterdrawer.”[2]   Further on, the text underscores that every individual has an equal stake in learning and an equal opportunity to forge a close relationship with the Divine:

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”  No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.[3]

The Torah’s language, crafted millennia ago, exhorts us to treat one another fairly.  It reminds us to be stonecatchers; it exhorts us to remember that all have an equal right to, and stake in, working for the betterment of the community.  This is further exemplified by the portion read on Yom Kippur afternoon, the so-called Holiness Code, which begins with the instruction, “Be holy!  For I, Adonai your God, am holy.”[4]

But how do we embody and exemplify holiness?  Unlike many other mitzvot, such as holding a Passover seder, or hearing the shofar’s call, holiness does not represent a concrete action that takes place within a definitive time frame. If we were playing a game and the leader called out, “Simon says, ‘Be Holy!’” it’s likely we would not know how to respond.  We are not ourselves divine beings, and thus we cannot exemplify holiness in the exact manner that God does so.

Nonetheless, we know that ignoring the call to holiness is not a viable option.  Neither the Torah nor Jewish tradition in general would look kindly upon us if we failed to complete this homework and proclaimed that we did not understand the assignment.  Thus, we seek out opportunities to emulate God—opportunities to work in partnership with God to engage in holy acts such as feeding the hungry, nurturing the sick, standing up for the oppressed and wronged.  We strive to be holy when we act as stonecatchers in our world, preventing harm from coming to others.

One of the most-repeated mitzvot in the Torah is the reminder to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim.  It’s even offered as a rational for some of the obligations enumerated in the holiness code.  Because of the way in which our identity as a people is intertwined with our memory of oppression during slavery, we are urged to live our lives in a manner that shows empathy for others who find themselves in similar situations.  Our people has known brokenness; now we have the sacred responsibility of fixing and healing the brokenness of others.

Bryan Stevenson notes that, “We are all broken by something.  We have all hurt someone and have been hurt.  We all share the condition of brokenness, even if our brokenness is not equivalent…”[5]  I think that in many ways, this is what Yom Kippur is all about: as difficult as the process of seeking forgiveness and forgiving others may be, it represents a recognition of human imperfection.  We acknowledge that we have not always conducted ourselves in a holy manner, in a manner consistent with that which is expected form us.  By taking this time to seek forgiveness for ourselves and to grant it to others, we acknowledge the brokenness of humanity that causes us to sometimes behave in negative ways.  But we also begin to clean up from that messy brokenness and build a brighter future.

As Stevenson writes, “our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.  Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion… There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”[6]

We are likely all familiar with the quotation from Reverend Martin Niemöller, who wrote:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.[7]

Niemöller’s words have been taken as a rallying cry for all of us to stand up for one another in recognition of the fact that we are all one human family—what hurts one of us can cause harm to all of us.

Being a stonecatcher, assuaging others’ brokenness, acknowledging the validity of one another’s hopes, dreams, fears, and concerns—and their basic humanity—stands starkly at the heart of our work on teshuvah this day and always.  We are taught that for sins of one human being against another, Yom Kippur does not atone unless we have made an honest effort to make personal amends for our wrongdoing.[8]  Our work on this sacred day, therefore, will be inherently incomplete until and unless we pledge ourselves to be stonecatchers.  It will be incomplete until and unless we can name the problems plaguing our society: yes, the anti-Semitism of which we as Jews are acutely aware, but also the entrenched racism, the Islamophobia,  the homophobia, the xenophobia displayed toward immigrants, the socio-economic inequities and striations of class, the fetishization of guns and violence, the rejection of science…just to name a few.  We must be able to say that black lives matter, to affirm that science is real, to proclaim that love is love is love.

The prophet Isaiah, in the Haftarah for tomorrow morning, exhorts the Israelites of his time to do right and return to God.  Then, he declares, “your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of ADONAI will be your rear guard.”[9]

When we learn to care for all as one human family, when we catch the stones before they can be cast, then we truly begin the healing work of teshuvah and position ourselves for a bright and wondrous future.


[1] Stevenson, Bryan Just Mercy (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014) p. 126

[2] Partial quote of Deuteronomy 29:9-10

[3] Deuteronomy 30:11-14

[4] Leviticus 19:2

[5] Stevenson, p. 289

[6] Stevenson, p. 289-290

[7] Niemöller revisited the statement several times in his life.  This version of the quote appears at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

[8] See Mishnah Yoma 8:9

[9] Isaiah 58:8