Towards the Peace Within: The Kol Nidrei Prayer
The idea of this drash came to me during last year's Yom Kippur, when, at the start of the Kol Nidrei service, the opening stanza struck me with a newly revealed meaning:
"We declare it lawful to pray with sinners" felt to me then, and now, as if it presupposes that we, ourselves, are not sinners, as opposed to "them" who are. That we are, somehow, better... We may not be exactly the "righteous," we transgress and we make mistakes; but we are not so bad as to be "sinners", in the biblical sense of the word. It was comforting ... and yet, somewhat inadequate. If it is lawful for me to pray with sinners, what would it take to make it lawful to pray with the righteous?
In the Passover Haggadah we read the Talmudic story of the Four Children: the Wise Child who says and does all the right things; the Wicked Child who is alienated from the Jewish people and from Judaism; the Simple Child whose connection to Judaism is shallow and superficial; and the Child, who is Jewish alright, but who, for whatever reasons, refuses to communicate with us. I want to bring these Four Children to this Yom Kippur, remembering also that each of us has all four children within us but also around us, among our most precious loved ones ... At Yom Kippur, we obviously deal with these four children within. But what about the Children without? What about the loved ones who do not talk to us, or who left Judaism, or to whom Judaism, so fundamentally and profoundly important to us, does not mean much at all any more? Are we our brothers' keepers? Our parents' and our children's keepers? How far can we take the "keeper" role without it morphing into something entirely different, a server for our own goals and conveniences, an oversight that those whom we are trying to "keep" are - consciously or intuitively - not comfortable with, or do not want? How do we deal with them on Yom Kippur? Do we? How personal is Yom Kippur? We pray as a community, yet the forgiveness we seek is for transgressions which are distinctly personal, and private.
The tension between individual and communal nature of Yamim Noraim is felt almost viscerally on Yom Kippur. I personally feel it in the most piercing way. It is true that for some mysterious reasons, for my whole life I seem to be a magnet for the most ... unusual situations. And yet - who among us is immune to the excruciating agony of facing a parent, or a sibling, or a child doing the wrong thing, straying away from the path we know is right, from the decision we know is best, hurting themselves in the process, hurting us by rejecting our help, advice, or guidance?
Biblical and personal examples abound. I will refer here to some hypothetical personal circumstances and composite human characteristics. Thus, any resemblance to my own or anyone else's family members is entirely coincidental.
We all know the second Creation story, where G-d curses G-d's children and throws them out of Eden. We, "les efants terribles," difficult children that we are, we are still dealing with this exile, never to return to our human "birthplace," to Gan Eden. We will be forever struggling to reconcile with our Heavenly Parent. But what about my human parents, my Mother and my Father, whose tortured lives have made them almost irrational at times, hurting each other, hurting me by having me helplessly witness their agonies. I try to help them do the right thing. And yet, in almost a King Lear-esque way, they perceive it as me taking advantage of their old age and frailty, both physical and mental, as being insensitive, cruel, becoming the "enemy" of their best interests instead of being the guardian. I am not their enemy. I love them. What should I do for them? They do not have faith in G-d; religion was never an instrument of their release of tension, of their repentance, or of forgiveness. Does Yom Kippur have anything in its liturgy by means of which I can intercede on their behalf? In other words, can I pray for their forgiveness on Yom Kippur? Or just for my own, and leave their voices unheard by G-d on this singular day when those feeble voices maybe ... just maybe ... become heard!??
We know the story of Cain and Abel, whose fratricide will forever resonate in human history. But what of my real-life brother, my only sibling, who's misguided anger, or perhaps a mental illness, made him withdraw from all of his social and personal relationships? Am I his keeper? He does not even talk to me; hasn't for years... Can I pray for his forgiveness on this Yom Kippur? Or just for my own, and let his voice not be heard by G-d again, maybe ever!??
Then there is the story of the Akeda. We have discussed it in the numerous drashot; we described and re-described what had happen there, and what would have happen if Abraham refused to follow orders, or if the Angel of G-d were late. (Ed has a great Heschel story about this particular "version"). However, let us envision this: let us imagine that Isaac, Abraham's son, the one he loved, just plainly refused to go with Abraham up that mountain? How would Abraham face his G-d, and how would he keep on living with that? After that? And what about me? What if my son, my only son, the son I love,
These are the questions to which I have no answers. What I have is love for the difficult people who are my family, and a need, and a yarning, to be of help even in the face of my utter helplessness. No more ... no less.
There is a concept in quantum physics which I like very much. It is called Quantum Entanglement. What it means is that elementary particles which were born together in the mysterious beginnings of the Big Bang almost 14 billion years ago are still, somehow, entwined without any physical contact or even proximity; they still influence each other in the most subtle ways, now, billions and billions of light years apart. My brother and I are in this predicament, this quantum entanglement which will never allow us to be free of each other. It is the same with my parents, and with my children. So, the question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" does not really have an answer. Or, rather there is an ambiguity here, an uncertainty destined to be forever, and painfully, unresolved: ... I am ... and I am not. ... It depends ...
How fitting it is that the very last of the sins on the long list we will be reciting again and again on Yom Kippur, the conclusion of our transgressions and of our inadequacy, yet a relief that it isn't any worse than that, is the sin of ... a confused heart!
Which brings us, mercifully, to this holiday season, Yamim Noraim, to this day of Yom Kippur, and to this cataclysmic moment, when
All of us, sinners that we are, trying desperately to do the right thing in the best way that we can, but sinners nevertheless, may we be permitted to pray with the righteous.
... l'hitpalel im haTsadikkim