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Kol Nidre 5783: Like a Wedding

Rabbi Sidney Helbraun

Kol Nidre 5783, October 4, 2022

Every holiday has its own feeling and texture; qualities we associate with it from the span of our lives. The taste and scent of its meals. The clothes we wear. The sound of its music, prayers, and poetry. The people we gather with, and those we remember from years gone by.

Still, some holidays are more unique than others, and this one, Yom Kippur, is in a class by itself. Instead of laughter and joy, Yom Kippur feels somber and serious. There’s no ‘at home’ celebration. It’s a day spent at temple, marked by austerity, fasting, and even pain. Indeed, affliction is a central part of this day’s character. Yom Kippur hurts.

It’s also a day, for more than a few, that creates fear and dread. Some of its liturgy threatens us with what next year might bring. We’re told to carefully consider: “Who will live and who will die…”.

These frightful words comprise a haunting message that we’ve internalized. Their intent is to stir us; to move us to do the heavy lifting of looking into our souls, where if we’re not satisfied by what we find, we can make a change and follow a different path.

But for many, the combination of experiences that comprise Yom Kippur just don’t work; turning this ‘day of awe’ into something awful. I’ll admit that this year I find myself a bit more aligned with this way of thinking. The day isn’t working for me right now. It’s leaving me feeling empty.

I have no doubt that it’s because I’m coming into Yom Kippur from a different place than I’ve experienced before. This year, instead of seeing myself as a sinner who needs to confess his failures, I come as one who’s been lifted by the joy of seeing his daughter marry her beloved, and celebrating with family and friends, sharing warm smiles, being embraced by open hearts, wiping away tears of joy. And to be honest, I have no desire to delve into Yom Kippur’s dark and disappointing catalogue of human failure.

As I approached Yom Kippur this year, I came to realize that the way to get from where we are, to where we want to go; the way to transition from who we are, to who we can become; it doesn’t need to come from threats or warnings. It can come instead from being with someone who loves you. Not ‘who you might one day become,’ but someone who loves you for who you already are. Someone who sees your soul as and is lifted by your presence. The way a bride and a groom see each other at their wedding.

This year I don’t want to feel trapped in the narrow confinement of challenge, doubt, anxiety, and criticism. I want to experience the opportunity for healthy growth that comes from the acceptance of who I am; the growth that comes from being embraced by love.

This space, I don’t want it just for myself.  I want you to be here with me. Because, let’s face it, we really don’t need our Machzor – our prayerbook to beat us up this year. These last few years we’ve been beaten up more than enough already. We’re tired of being scared by illness; tired of being afraid to leave our homes. We don’t need to be threatened by our Machzor: Who by water, who by fire; who by earthquake, who by hurricane; who by drive by, who at a parade. We’re living it already.

And frankly, we don’t need God to weigh in and find us wanting either. We have earthly justices who have found us wanting and deprived some of us of control over our own bodies, in a manner that puts a single day of fasting to shame. No, we really don’t need the self-affliction of Yom Kippur this year. We’ve been afflicted enough already. What we need, what we really need this year is love. Why can’t Yom Kippur be about acceptance and love, instead of our mistakes and sins?

I want to tell you a secret about Yom Kippur that almost no one knows. There’s a mysterious tradition, mentioned in the Talmud by Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, who happened to be the greatest sage of his generation. He taught: “There were no days as joyous for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur, as on them the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in white clothes… and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? Young man, please lift your eyes and see what you choose for yourself…”. On Tu B’Av, known today as the holiday of love, and on Yom Kippur, women would dance in the fields and find their spouse. (Mishna from the end of Tractate Ta’anit) Now, how’s that for a different kind of Yom Kippur?

While I’m not aware of a source that provides any more details of that joyous Yom Kippur, we can actually find hints of its existence within our practice today. To begin with the most obvious: the Hebrew month that leads into the High Holidays is called Elul, a name, we’re told, that’s an acronym for a verse from the Song of Songs; the famous wedding refrain: Ani L’Dodee, V’Dodee Li – “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” Beginning a month prior to these Days of Awe, as we prepare for this holiest season of the year, we are given a daily reminder of God’s unconditional love for us. “I am my beloved’s” – I am yours, says God, “and you are mine.”

Not only do we enter this season with the mindset of one who will be standing under a huppah, we wear white and dress, as if for a wedding. The custom of wearing white on this day is usually explained as an ancient deception. We wear white, so that when we stand before God to be judged, we’ll appear to be angels. And, since angels are spiritual beings with no bodies to care for, we reinforce this impression by not eating or drinking.

But there’s an interesting ‘side note’ here. There’s also a tradition of fasting on one’s wedding day which provides an opportunity for the wedding couple to focus their thoughts on new beginnings and consider what they want their future to be.

And a final hint, there’s the climactic wedding moment when a bride and groom exchange a Neder – exchange their vows. And this, too, is preserved in today’s Yom Kippur. As our service begins with pomp and ceremony we listen to a stunning recitation of Kol Nidre – a powerful melody which is nothing other than a sacred vow.

So, when we look carefully at the elements of our current tradition, we see that remnants of Shimon ben Gamliel’s joyful Yom Kippur are still present, hidden in plain sight. Between the month of Elul that arrives like a wedding invitation, to the fasting of the groom, and the beautiful white garments that are worn, and the formal vows that are recited, the only piece that seems to be missing from this wedding is Rabban Gamliel’s dancing.

With so many hallmarks of an ancient, joyous, Yom Kippur still present, it begs the question: How was a day that was once so filled with love transformed into the dark, foreboding holiday we observe today?

Actually, this question might not be so hard to answer. Because these strikingly different observances happen to be two sides of the same coin. A coin, which might be called ‘change.’

On Yom Kippur we’re called to change for the better. And change can be effected in two different ways. We can bring about change by pushing, punishing someone for what they’ve done wrong. Or we can bring about change by opening our hearts with acceptance and nurturing a secure, trusting relationship. In both cases we’re striving towards the same end and are often spurred by the same intent. It’s just that, in one of these cases the tool we use to motivate change is harsh and negative, while the other is kindness and love.

We know that none of us are perfect, that we all have missteps and make mistakes that leave us feeling diminished. How do we recover from these moments? I think it’s safe to say that we recover best when we’re approached with acceptance and love.

And yet, when I’m the aggrieved party, when I’m the one who was acted upon, rather than responding with generosity and kindness, far too often I strike out in anger or fear. In the midst of a moment, when I’m confronted by a tired child, an overwhelmed spouse, a concerned parent, or a multitasking friend, responding with love is not always an easy feat. It can be hard work, even for God, as we see in the book of Genesis.

When God began the work of creation, He sought to build a world where everything would be good. And so it was, day after day.

But at the last moment of creation, God thought to form a creature like no other, a creature made in God’s own image, with the ability to think and act for himself. God created Adam and placed him in a beautiful garden, filled with every delicacy a person could imagine. Adam was happy, and so was God. For after living an eternity with no one to talk to, God was no longer alone. God had a companion, a friend. And it was good.

It was good until the day came when Adam crossed a line, and went too far, and broke the only rule that God had set. Because God was just, and the world was balanced, Adam needed to be punished for creating imbalance and breaking a rule. So, God expelled him from the garden; sent him off to see what life was like living on his own.

And while justice was served, it wasn’t long before God grew lonely again. God missed Adam and wanted his friend back.

Centuries passed before God tried again, this time with the generation of Noah. And when God took notice of the ways of his creatures, God was outraged again, decreeing a flood to wash away our human sins.

For 40 days it rained, and Noah and God took to talking. Noah questioned God, pushed at his decision, and left God feeling conflicted, for God knew that these human’s he’d created had minds of their own; and that whatever rules might be set would one day be broken. How could God maintain a relationship with beings who wouldn’t follow the rules? And yet, sticking to those rules and upholding strict justice on this planet would leave God lonely, for there’s no person yet to be created who doesn’t make mistakes.

As God thought it over, He realized that it all boiled down to a choice. God could uphold justice and live alone or forsake it and find companionship. It was a stark choice: Be right and lonely? Or be merciful, kind and forgiving and have a companion, a partner, a friend. Well, you know the answer. God created Rachamim – Mercy. Not even God wants to live alone.

This day of Yom Kippur was given to us, not to be a day of threats or punishments, but as a day of Rachamim – of Mercy, allowing us to find companionship and blessings with those who are most dear to us. No one can live a perfect life. But by opening our hearts, we can love them none-the-less. We can embrace them with kindness. We can let them know that we appreciate their beauty, their gifts, the blessings they bring to us, to our family, to our community. And at the same time, provide them with the opportunity to continue to grow.

You know, somewhere along the line this ‘Yom Kippur of Love’ was transformed from a celebration, into a plea for Mercy from the God of Justice. But for this year, at least, let us once again allow the love to flow and fill us with the joy of a bride and groom who see the soul of the one they’re marrying and loves them for who you they truly are.

Let us feel the promise of that moment, under the huppah with the one you love, and the dreams you share, that you’ll create together. Let us carry the joy of that moment with us into the year, and share it with those we encounter through acts of kindness and care.

For on this night, we are Israel, the bride, and God is our groom, who doesn’t want to be alone anymore.

May the year 5783 be filled with light, love, kindness and blessing. Amen.

Thu, November 30 2023 17 Kislev 5784