Kol Nidre 5782
September 15, 2021
by Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
Some of you may know that back in March of this year, we slightly reimagined the Interfaith Seder that Sinai Temple has hosted for a number of years. Due to COVID-19, instead of holding an in-person event with a Passover-inspired meal, we took the entire program online. This allowed us to include a wide number of faith communities in the seder; even had we been able to host in our building, capacity issues would have dictated a much smaller crowd.
To allow more than twenty community faith leaders to participate, I divided the sections of the Passover haggadah into the traditional fourteen rubrics. I then invited the clergy to speak from their own faith traditions about what that section of the seder, and the broader themes of freedom celebrated during the festival, meant to them. In my opinion, this contributed to a very meaningful service, full of significant and creative insights. If you’d like to watch any of the seder, we’ll share the link again in next Monday’s email blast.
One of the reflections that really resonated with me was from Rev. James Fielder, a United Methodist pastor who is preparing to start a new church here in town. He spoke on the penultimate section of the Haggadah, known as “Hallel,” psalms of praise. Traditionally, this is the section of the seder in which psalms that recount the wonders that God has performed for us, including the Exodus from Mitzrayim, are read or chanted. For his piece, Rev. Fielder chose to zero in on the word “Hallelujah!” It’s a word that literally means “Praise be to God.” It’s prevalent throughout the 150 psalms collected in the bible and also found frequently in Christian liturgy. The word is said to have been coined by King David, who is traditionally credited as the author of most of the psalms.
Rev. Fielder noted that in the African-American churchgoing experience, oftentimes the congregation will punctuate worship, or sermons, or scriptural readings with shouts of “Hallelujah!” But, he added, even when we don’t feel like rejoicing, even when we are not witnessing signs of the blessings God has bestowed upon us, it is still incumbent upon us as people of faith to declare, “Hallelujah, anyhow.”
I do not wish to engage in cultural appropriation of the traditions of African-American worship. But the juxtaposition of those two words does seem to hint at a truth of human existence. We find that our lives are a mixture of sweetness and of disappointment, and pray that we will be privileged to know more of the former than the latter. But even when sad or frustrating moments arise, we are called to take those lemons that we have been handed, and strive to turn them into lemonade.
Judaism embraces this concept through a blessing that acknowledges that life will have its ups and downs. The Talmud teaches that we are to bless God for both the good and bad that we encounter in our lives. The blessing, Baruch Ata Adoani, ha-tov v’ha-meitiv—blessed are you, God Who is good and bestows goodness—only speaks explicitly of positive things, but the rabbis ordained that we should recite it over any potentially life-altering news, good or bad.
You don’t need me to remind you that the COVID pandemic has brought with it a number of upheavals to the sense of normalcy we once took for granted. It is appropriate and important to grieve what we have lost—not only the people whose lives were cut short because of the virus, but also the missed experiences and opportunities, and the plans that had to shift as we adopted mitigation measures. I do not mean in any way to rush or dismiss the mourning process, but I believe that we can mitigate some degree of our sadness with resiliency. For instance, we may lament the fact that we no longer feel as comfortable lingering and schmoozing after services. But the “Hallelujah, anyhow!” attitude might allow us to recognize that the shift to Zoom has allowed us to welcome a number of Sinai Temple “alumni” who no longer reside in C-U and would not otherwise have been able to easily participate in our community.
Life has its disappointments; this was true before we knew about this iteration of the coronavirus, and it will continue to be true well into the future. In some ways, Yom Kippur gives us space for a recognition of these disappointments. It testifies that though we are imperfect humans with our foibles and failings, recovery from our mistakes can be achieved. We can engage in a course correction. We can make teshuvah and rebound from past errors.
Kol Nidre can be seen to speak specifically to the Yiddish expression, “Mann tracht, unt Gott lacht—people plan, and God laughs.” Originally, the Kol Nidre formula came about to absolve members of the Jewish community of any oaths they had made under duress to oppressive regimes. But over time, it came to cover situations wherein, despite our best intentions, we just couldn’t keep our word. This is not to say that Kol Nidre, or any of the other liturgy of Yom Kippur, absolves us of ever making good on a promise. To the contrary, the Mishnah teaches that those who get caught up in a cycle of sinning, repenting, and then willfully returning to the same sin, with the expectation that Yom Kippur will absolve them each year, are trying to game the system. They will not be forgiven, because their efforts at teshuvah are recognized as not fully genuine. Similarly, one who makes a vow, fails to fulfill it, uses Kol Nidre to negate it, and then enters into the same agreement and starts the cycle over, is grossly misunderstanding the intent of the Kol Nidre ritual.
Many Jews qualify any commitment that they make over the course of the year with the phrase, “b’li neder,” meaning “without a promise,” or “don’t hold me to it.” So I might say, “I’ll get you that document by Thursday, b’li neder,” by which I mean, “I’ll do my best to get it to you by then, but I can’t make a full guarantee.” This is not saying that we are not true to our word; this is saying that best laid plans can, and do, go awry.
We know that there will be moments when we don’t do what’s expected of us, when we fail to make good on a pledge. When this happens, we let down others. When this happens in a faith-based context, such as when we fail to conform to standards of morality and lovingkindness, we let down God. And sometimes, we are the aggrieved party, feeling that our friends and neighbors, or even God, have let us down. But we are called to look for the positive side of such situations—how can we grow and learn from such disappointment?
Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes in his book Just Mercy, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Stevenson’s assertion was initially made in relation to the criminal justice system, but I believe it is applicable in the context of Yom Kippur, as well. We will experience disappointments in our lifetime, some predicated on our own words, behaviors, or lapses in judgment. The regrets may weigh heavily upon us, yet the very act of teshuvah reminds us to see that better days lie ahead.
I should pause here to note that not every problem we face can be classified as a mere disappointment; not every issue can be resolved by plastering a smile on our face and keeping a “stiff upper lip”. A number of us are managing significant trauma and grief in our lives, and it is important to process that pain in an appropriate way. If you are hurting in such a manner, please know that you are not alone, and please reach out to me or to a counseling professional if you need to talk with someone.
But for more fleeting disappointments, perhaps we can learn to adopt a different outlook. Perhaps we can reframe that which we initially see as a negative and find a way to declare, “Hallelujah, anyhow!”
Dr. Erica Brown, Director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University, shares a story of Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, the founder of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. Pastor Nadia writes, “It’s my practice to welcome new people to the church by making sure they know that House for All Sinners and Saints will, at some point disappoint, let them down. That I will say or do something stupid and disappoint them. And then I encourage them to decide before that happens if they will stick around after that happens. If they leave, I tell them, they will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills the cracks left behind by our brokenness. And that’s too beautiful to miss.”
Dr. Brown recounts that Pastor Nadia once let down two of her congregants. They had met in the church and after years together, decided to get married. Of course, they wanted Pastor Nadia to officiate. So they booked her eighteen months in advance. Two weeks after making this arrangement, Pastor Nadia accidentally double-booked herself to speak in Australia. When she realized the conflict, she felt awful and tried hard to get out of the travel, even at personal expense. When that effort failed, she volunteered to find the couple another colleague to perform their ceremony. They were upset and really wanted her.
She felt absolutely terrible…until the couple sent her a text which read, “This is that time, isn’t it?” Pastor Nadia had no idea what they meant until she received the next text message: “When you do or say something stupid and disappoint us.” She woke up the next day to an email from them absolving her from doing the wedding. The message concluded, “We love you. And we forgive you.” Pastor Nadia read it and cried. She calls moments such as this “the sting of grace,” when you get love and forgiveness you don’t totally deserve but really, really need.
There will be times…I certainly pray they are few and far between…when Sinai Temple will let you down as an institution, and/or when I will disappoint you as your rabbi. Perhaps it’s already happened; if so, I am truly, deeply, sorry. But I do pray that the sacred covenant that we have implicitly forged by virtue of being part of this holy community we call Sinai Temple can help us to weather any such difficult moments, and work collaboratively to move beyond them.
We are blessed to have this holy day of Yom Kippur—not because we should perceive it as our only opportunity to make amends, but because it focuses our attention on the important task of teshuvah. Thus, when we have let someone down, or feel that we have been let down, we are able to make and effort to offer restitution in words or deeds, repair the relationship, and move forward.
The Book of Hosea, like many of the other books of prophecy found in the Hebrew Bible, minces few words as Hosea—giving voice to what he believes to be the word of God—expresses severe disappointment in the people of Israel having strayed from the path of truth and righteousness. But in the midst of the scolding is a beautiful passage in which God reassures the people that though they have drifted from accepted practices, there is still an opportunity to repair the relationship. “I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you to Me with righteousness and justice and goodness and mercy. I will betroth you to Me with faithfulness.” Even as God feels disappointment because of our errant ways, the Holy One provides us with the chance to rekindle a loving relationship. As Dr. Brown notes, “That kind of commitment only happens over a lifetime of failing and loving.” God recognizes humanity’s continual striving to fulfill the purpose for which we were created, and God has decided to look beyond the disappointment and focus on love. “Hallelujah, anyhow.”
When I began my first full-time rabbinic job and moved into my office at Temple Sinai in Denver, my predecessor had left one decoration on the wall: a paper banner with three Hebrew words. These words come from a story told about King Solomon.
God had blessed Solomon with great wisdom, but he made sure to cultivate this gift and expand his knowledge however he could. He was a particularly voracious reader.
One day, however, his royal librarian came to him with a problem: the library was running out of space. As the known world was growing larger and more and more people were writing down their ideas, books were being written at a rate that would outpace the ability to expand the library, even if they were to undertake new construction.
Solomon considered the problem for a moment, and then tasked the librarian and his staff with devising a solution by consolidating all of the collected wisdom of the books into a more manageable form.
The library staff worked for months, and returned to the king with a three-volume compendium. “Not small enough!” the king replied. After more work, they managed to reduce it to a single volume. Still Solomon was not satisfied. They further refined the text until it fit onto a single page. But Solomon dismissed this effort, saying, “You can do better.”
At last, the royal librarian came into the king’s chamber. “Your majesty,” he said, “After great effort, we have consolidated the wisdom of the world into three words.”
Those three words are the same that were hung in that office; I left the same banner for my successor. The words are “Gam Zeh Ya’avor,” which means, “This too shall pass.” Like Solomon, we can read these words when our sense of self becomes inflated, and they can serve to remind us that one can fall from good fortune in the blink of an eye. Or we can read them in a moment of tribulation, and be reminded that even disheartening situations can eventually give way to goodness.
In this new year 5782, may each we find our joys and celebrations heightened, and our moments of disappointment diminished. And in those trying moments that do arise, may we have the patience and grace to be able to recognize Gam Zeh Ya’avor, these challenges shall eventually pass. May we find room in our hearts to declare, “Hallelujah, anyhow.”
 It has been brought to my attention that a number of Christian authors have written on this theme, and there is at least one popular Gospel hymn that uses the words as a refrain, but I first heard the phrase from Rev. Fielder.
 Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 60b.
 cf Mishnah Yoma 8:9
 Hosea, 2:21-22