Kol Nidrei Sermon - 2013/5774

Kol Nidre - 2013-5774

On Monday July 8 Rabbi Dr. Ilana Rosansky joined many women for Rosh Chodesh services at the Kotel in Jerusalem. Rosansky was one of hundreds of people that morning who had made the journey to Jerusalem to join Women of the Wall in their efforts to conduct a women’s service at the kotel. Though she came to support and pray with the Women of the Wall, Rosansky had another purpose that day. A close friend who has the BRCA 1 gene, was to have a prophylactic double mastectomy that day in Boston. Rosansky wanted to put a little note, as many people do, into one of the nooks in the Wall as a prayer for her friend’s speedy recovery. When Rosansky arrived at the kotel in her tallit, hundreds if not thousands of ultra Orthodox girls and women had blocked the way to the kotel. When Rosansky realized she couldn’t get through she asked many teenage girls if they would kindly put the note in the kotel for her. Instead of sympathy and understanding Rosansky was met with curses like “your friend deserves it” and “it’s your fault she’s sick”.

Around 7:15pm on February 26, 2012, 17 year old Trayvon Martin was shot to death by 28 year old George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch coordinator and he followed Martin through the Twin Lakes development in Sanford, FL because Martin’s actions looked suspicious to Zimmerman. Martin was walking slowly even though it was raining and he was walking between houses rather than directly home. After Zimmerman called in to the police, a scuffle ensued and Zimmerman shot Martin. For the next 17 months many accused Zimmerman of racial profiling. Many people wore hoodie sweatshirts in sympathetic support of Martin and his surviving family. President Obama said that Martin could have been him. Even though prosecutors charged Zimmerman with second degree murder and manslaughter, he was acquitted on July 13.

On Sunday July 14 journalist and scholar Yossi Klein Halevi was riding the light rail in Jerusalem. He was heading home and got off the train when he heard shouts from the back of the train. A young Jewish man wearing a kippah was lunging at a young Arab man, kicking and swinging at him. The Jewish woman who was with the Arab man said in Hebrew “leave us alone.” The Arab man tried to step away and protect the woman he was with. Klein Halevi approached the Jewish attacker and asked him to calm down. The attacker responded, “how can I calm down? He’s taking our ‘sister’ to his apartment to rape her!” Klein Halevi called the police who were already on their way. A group of ultra Orthodox teenagers were shouting “leave our sister alone”. Arab teenagers had also gathered trying to protect the couple. The police came and amid all the scuffling the Arab-Jewish couple slipped away. The ultra Orthodox accused the Arabs of attacking a Jew. The police immediately ran toward the Arabs. The cops noticed Klein Halevi and asked if he could identify any of the assailants. The Jewish attacker was still there and Klein Halevi pointed to the Jew. The cops asked if he was sure and he said “100%”. The Jew who was then handcuffed said directly to Klein Halevi, “kol hakavod (congratulations), you’ve lost the world to come and also this world.” At the police station the cops admitted that if Klein Halevi hadn’t stepped forward they would have arrested the Arabs. “In most of these situations it’s usually the minorities who attack the Jews" the police said.

Three horrific and tragic stories. Three events that occurred in July that were totally unrelated to each other yet which reflect one common theme. All point to the awful consequences of bigotry. Zimmerman thought Martin fit the stereotype of young black people acting suspiciously. The ultra Orthodox think any woman wearing a tallit is an apostate and deserves any sickness she or a friend has.  Police think that Arabs start trouble on the train and ultra Orthodox think it’s ok to go to any means to prevent mixed dating. Generalizations and stereotypes led to awful outcomes.

But even more than the bigotry is the fact that all these stories were the result of deep seated, learned behavior. The girls weren’t just being rude to Rosansky at the kotel, they had been taught that anyone not ultra Orthodox is a sinner and deserves to be reviled. This was also the second month in a row that the ultra Orthodox girls were bused in by their schools to disrupt the Women of the Wall. Zimmerman didn’t just see suspicious behavior, he saw a black teenager acting suspiciously which immediately prompted him to take out his gun. Somehow he had learned to be wary of young Black teens. Israeli police officers don’t just see a scuffle between people and investigate who is at fault - they see Arabs and immediately assume the Arab is guilty. The bigotry in all these cases is frightening in that it reflects learned behavior. Bigotry is promoted at home, at school and in society at large and the young  can’t help but learn that the other - the black teenager, the non-Orthodox woman, the Arab - not only should be shunned but should be cursed and attacked.

Bigotry that is deep seated and is learned behavior can ultimately lead to rifts in society. The rifts can become so wide that no matter how much people can strive to heal the wounds, the rift remains unbridgeable.  The Jewish community is even more divided than it has ever been, blacks still are treated as second class citizens in America and Arabs still remain second class citizens in Israel. Bigotry that is condoned by society and is promulgated from one generation to the next becomes instinctive and is nearly impossible to eradicate.

As Yom Kippur begins it is appropriate to think about the ills of society. They reflect what’s wrong with us and we are supposed to evaluate our own behavior. Though it would be interesting to think about the faults of society and even easier to think about other people, it’s much more important today to see how these societal faults - such as bigotry - are reflected in our own behavior.

I must admit, and I imagine that we all felt it a little bit too, that on some unconscious level, we might have agreed with all the profiling reflected in the Trayvon Martin case and the Yossi Klein Halevi story. Though we consciously fight against it, we might deep down think the Arabs are at fault in Israel or that it is appropriate to be afraid of  young Black people. Stories or jokes that our parents or grandparents told us or events that occurred in our lives long ago remain in the recesses of our minds and may in fact lead us to think prejudiced thoughts.

Therefore Yom Kippur is here to help us work out and cleanse ourselves of these negative feelings. We need to participate in חשבון הנפש - a true accounting of our souls - today so that we end the fast tomorrow night spiritually cleansed and renewed. If taken seriously the process is difficult and challenging but necessary if we are to become better people.

The term “cheshbon hanefesh” is appropriate because “cheshbon” in modern Hebrew means mathematics. It also means the check as in asking the server for the check at the end of the meal. Both definitions reflect the idea that we are to take an accounting of ourselves - that we need to examine deeply who we are and what we stand for. It’s as if we are auditing our souls to evaluate how we can ensure that our life and values stay in the black and not the red.

At the same time we have to ensure we don’t pay lip service to this process. We have to ensure that we’re not using the prayers as an excuse and sing them and recite them spiritedly in order to avoid the real work at hand. As we beat our chests to the alphabetical list of sins of the “ashamnu” prayer or the long list of sins detailed in the “al chet” we may be tempted to admit that we have fulfilled our responsibility - we asked forgiveness for sins and we should be forgiven.

But the accounting metaphor here is fitting because many firms when they are audited will reveal a ledger to the auditors while at the same keeping the real numbers secret. Perhaps a company can fool the IRS for a year or two but eventually the trickery is revealed and actions are punished. We have to feel the same way today. We can’t get caught up in the words in the machzor and use them to cover up our deeds and thoughts. We can’t use the words as the ledger we want to show God while knowing that we are hiding secrets. Rather the words have to prompt us and nudge us to say “yes, I need to work on this or I need to fix that. I truly am weak in this area or I truly am not perfect.” Because “cheshbon hanefesh” means accounting our souls. We need to dig deep into our beings, find the faults, and begin to fix them.

This isn’t an easy process. The true stories I shared highlight what can happen when bigotry goes unchecked. People can get killed, segments of society can be alienated. But this all has to be worked on one person at a time. The rabbis understood that Yom Kippur isn’t enough. We have to do inner reflection and soul searching every day. The amidah prayer - the 19 blessing prayer that serves as the core of each of the three daily services - contains a prayer of forgiveness. We tap our chests three times a day when we say סלח לנו אבינו כי חטאנו מחל לנו מלכנו כי פשענו - forgive us for we have sinned, pardon us for we have transgressed. This phrase sounds familiar because we will recite it several times today. The rabbis included it in the amidah because soul searching can’t be an annual event to be effective; it must occur daily.

This process can only be effective if we find fault. We can’t just pay lip service to introspection we have to take it seriously. Not only should we be beating our chests and singing loudly but during the silent amidah we should do the hard work of inner reflection. It is during the silent prayers that we should be thinking about why we are fasting and praying. It is then that we should have the courage to be true to ourselves and admit our faults. Know that we have the support of the family and community around us. If we can really do “cheshbon hanefesh” this Yom Kippur then we can begin לתקן עולם במלכות שדי - to perfect the world in God’s sovereignty.

Perfecting our inner world has to lead to perfecting the outer world. In other words, if we truly work on our souls, that work will be truly reflected in how we behave toward other people. If we work on our prejudices and thoughts of the “other” then we must reflect that in how we actually act toward the other. We should think about ways in which we can contribute to a more loving and equitable society. Should we volunteer in a neighborhood or community organization? Should we pledge to read more about civil society? Should we contribute to organizations that promote civil unity? Whatever we do the intense soul searching today must lead us to positive behavior tomorrow. As Isaiah urged us as quoted in the haftorah we read tomorrow morning - God doesn’t want the sacrifice if the poor still go hungry. The fast and prayers of Yom Kippur will be meaningless unless we feel changed and we feel motivated to act to make the world a better place.

The stories of Trayvon Martin, Rabbi Rosansky and Yossi Klein Halevi are our stories. We have experienced that baseless hatred ourselves or we have read about it far too often. They have personal meaning for us. They horrify us. They reflect what’s wrong with our society and in that way they reflect what’s wrong with us. If Yom Kippur is to be meaningful this year we need to reflect on those stories. We need to understand the roots of that hatred.

We need to know that society is a large group of individuals. For change to occur it has to start with one person. Self reflection one person at a time can lead to confession and then can lead to change in behavior. That change, one person at a time, is shared with other people who then can prompt even more people to change. We as individuals recite the prayers in the machzor, and perhaps at the end of the day tomorrow we as a community, will be changed.

May the soul searching we do today lead us to a more perfect world and may the new year be filled 

with stories of cooperation and love. Amen.