Yom Kippur - 2013-5774
Last night our service began with a very strange prayer. בישיבה של מעלה ובישיבה של מטה, על דעת המקום ועל דעת הקהל, אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העבריינים. “By authority of the court on high and by the authority of this court below, with divine consent and with the consent of this congregation, we hereby declare that it is permitted to pray with those who have transgressed.” This prayer, important enough to repeat three times, serves as the introduction to Kol Nidre .
We are familiar with the melody which is chanted by the Cantor and choir in a very solemn and formal way, and I imagine that we allow ourselves, as we stand in awe, to get caught up in the music. We are ready to enter into the solemnity of the Yom Kippur service. The music rushes over us and transports us through the Kol Nidre paragraph into this Day of Atonement.
But what are we really saying? Even though we let the music wash over us we have to know the words of the prayer. What exactly does it mean? The phrase “to pray with those who have transgressed” is usually understood to mean that we are all sinners. We have all committed some kind of transgression whether minor or egregious, and we are all here together as a community to ask God for forgiveness. All of our prayers are needed, not just prayers from the perfect or righteous, even prayers of those who are imperfect, in order for the community - us - to be forgiven today.
The prayer also means that there are transgressors in our midst. The prayer not only recognizes that we are sinners, but it forces us to look around and admit that there are sinners in our midst. That thought is a difficult one to accept because it means that perhaps the people around us have secrets. We think we know the people sitting next to us or in front of us or behind us, but the prayer suggests that there may be people here who are carrying a burden - a burden which is difficult to bear - but a burden that needs to be lifted.
Yet even more than an emotional burden that people may be carrying silently and alone, this prayer alludes to actions that perhaps some have tried to keep secret. No one may know what deeds others may have performed yet we all need to confront our secret deeds, take ownership of them, and seek reconciliation and repentance. This prayer is not just about confronting our own secrets but recognizing that other people, people in our community, have secrets, and we need to help one another become better people.
This standard interpretation of this prayer - that we are all transgressors - also carries with it a very basic and necessary truth. It understands that even though we have all done wrong, at heart everyone ultimately has a sense of right and wrong. We would only ask for forgiveness on this holiest of days if we recognize that we are at fault. Otherwise there would be no reason to say “I’m sorry”. Without a value system all prayers of forgiveness today are meaningless. So when we recite this introductory prayer we trust that everyone around us has the same sense of right and wrong. If everyone has a sense of right and wrong then it’s permissable to pray with them because we all supposedly maintain a basic value system.
The idea that we all have a value system guiding us to right and wrong and the idea that we have community to help us confront our ghosts are very powerful. Community has the power to create trust and safety. Though we are sinners we know we have people to help us get better. Though we have done wrong we know we have friends and family to set us right. Though we have done wrong we know that there are many more who have done right who can guide us on the right path.
This prayer creates a sense of trust in community. We assume that Shaare Tefila and all houses of worship for that matter are safe places because they represent religious moral and ethical values. That does not mean every individual in the synagogue is trustworthy; it just means that we can assume that our community as a whole is one that shares our values. When we say “to pray with those who transgress” we recognize that there is trust (because we are praying together) but we recognize that we must be wary nonetheless (because we have transgressed).
That prayer also highlights that the world outside these doors is a frightening place. Though we can find comfort and protection here as a community, the more frightening thought are the words not said by this prayer. We say we give permission to pray “with”, but what about those “not” with us - namely the larger world outside these doors? What happens when we walk outside this sanctuary into a world that is not with us today?
There is a certain level of trust that we maintain in order to allow us to leave our homes every day. We trust that schools will be safe. We trust that public places and gatherings will be well guarded and secure. We trust that our neighbors are good and decent people. With that trust we are able to make it through the day without looking over our shoulder.
But this past year we witnessed events that have shattered that trust. Events which make us realize that not everyone lives by the same value system. Events which could cause us to be afraid and to wonder if it is really ok to trust in our safety.
Last December a man walked into a school in Newtown, CT and shot and killed 6 adults and 20 children. That man shattered the peace and tranquility of that quiet town. Surviving students were afraid to go back to school and parents were anxious of letting their children return. In fact the students of Sandy Hook Elementary met in a different building the rest of the year.
Just a few months ago, in April, thousands of spectators gathered on Patriots Day in Boston to watch another running of the Boston Marathon. Ever since 9/11 we have gotten used to extra security at public events and we trust that police and federal authorities would be extra vigilant at events like that. However 2 bombs were detonated shortly after the first racers crossed the finish line killing 3 people and injuring 246. Many of those injured lost limbs and have endured and are still enduring physical and occupational therapy today.
In May a woman called 9-1-1 in Cleveland, OH to say that she is safe. Amanda Berry along with two other women had been kidnapped, held hostage and raped for 10 years. During that time the kidnapper acted like a regular neighbor. He waved hello and acted normally all the while no one realized the evil that lurked within. Trust in that neighborhood was shattered.
Horrific events like these threaten to shatter our trust in humanity. They are meant to spread fear and panic and they are meant to cause us to question how safe it is to walk down the street. What are we supposed to do to combat this fear? What can we do to strengthen our resolve and rebuild a basic trust in humanity?
Arguably, the most well known of all 150 psalms is number 23. We are familiar with it from attending funerals or even from the conclusion of the yizkor. This short psalm is written in response to the reality of death as this verse states: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil for You are with me”. But the psalm isn’t just about death, it’s about any fear that threatens us, any fear that is debilitating. If we are fearful of others, if we think we can no longer trust others around us then this psalm - which reflects Jewish tradition - says not to worry - God is with us.
In fact that is also reflected throughout the machzor. We may be unsure if our prayers will be heard. We may be afraid of what tomorrow will bring. Tradition repeats that we are not to fear. God is there. God is listening. God is a source of comfort and strength. God will lead us through times of fear and mistrust and will have us see a time of goodness and peace. Though God is distant, God - as the source of eternal values - can be a source of inspiration and motivation.
Jewish tradition also teaches us that ultimately we should trust in the goodness of humanity. From the first chapter of Genesis when the first humans were created we are told - בצלם אלהים ברא אותם - that God created humanity in the image of God. People have a spark of divinity in their souls. That spark motivates us to do good. That spark helps us recognize right from wrong. That spark inspires us to help others see right from wrong and to advocate for good in the world.
When tragic and unspeakable crimes occur we question the nature of the world. We question the trust we have in our safety and the trust we have in the goodness of others. Though the introductory prayer of Kol Nidre emphasizes this trust it also helps us recognize the reality. The world isn’t a perfect place. Though we are relatively safe and sound in this sanctuary, the world outside is fraught with challenges. How are we going to confront those challenges? What are the resources at our disposal that will enable us to survive?
If trust in God isn’t enough of a resource then trust in the goodness of humanity should be. In each of those horrific crimes there were instances of goodness. Teachers protected children while the shooter went on the rampage and until the police arrived. Innocent bystanders in Boston risked their lives, not knowing if another bomb would be detonated, to seek medical assistance and get the wounded to safety. Neighbors ran to the house when Amanda Berry yelled for help and when the first neighbor on the scene didn’t understand English the second knocked down the door.
What enables us to keep trusting in humanity is that the overwhelming majority of people are good. Yes horrific crimes will still be perpetrated. Yes, no matter how hard authorities try to keep us safe, bombs will go off. But what will enable us to keep walking out the door is the trust we have that people by their very nature are good and want to do good.
Now that we have understood the last line of the prayer we can better understand the line that comes before - “we have the consent or knowledge of God and we also have the consent and knowledge of the congregation”. That line too seems strange. Since this is a prayer - expressing our thoughts to God - why do we need to ask approval from other people? We only need to ask for God’s approval. Perhaps we should understand this to mean that with the knowledge of the nature of God and the knowledge of the nature of humanity we can then pray with other people.
If we understand the prayer that way then we acknowledge at the very beginning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, that we can both trust in God and trust in people. Acknowledging that we have trust in the face of sinners takes courage. It demands that we admit, out loud, that God is good and people are good. It forces us to say, when we see crimes around us, that despite the evil in our midst we know that we can pray with the people next to us.
That resolve should also lead us not only to trust others, but to be a force for change. Teshuva - repentance - is a process of coming to terms with who we are, understanding who we need to be, and ensuring that when faced with similar choices we will choose the right path. We have acknowledged our faults. We have acknowledged that others have faults. We recognize though that at heart we and all people are good. Now we have to be a force for good in the world.
We only need to start slowly. We begin with ourselves and our loved ones. If these prayers are to be effective then we need to meditate on them. We also need to discuss them with those we love. How are we good? What good things have we done? How do we trust other people? How can we continue to trust others? What kind of force for change will we be in the coming year?
As we come to terms with the events of this past year the prayer forces us to look around. If events
in our life have been tragic we look around and acknowledge that we have a community of others
who have been been dealing with tragedy too. Look into each other’s eyes. Recognize that we are
עבריינים - that we have done wrong or have been affected by wrong. Yet recognize that we can trust
one another to search for that spark of goodness. May our prayers this Yom Kippur help fuel that
spark so that our light of goodness can burn bright in the year ahead. Amen.