Kol Nidrei 5774
Shabbat Shalom V Tzam Kal, may we all have a meaningful fast.
I was visiting someone in the hospital as they waited to go into the Cath Lab for angioplasty to remove the clogs that blocked his heart. As I was about to begin the misheberakh prayer for healing, he asked me, “rabbi, can you make this prayer a super-strong one to make sure it completely unblocks my heart?” I responded, “We can certainly hope so, but you know you are in the great hands of your doctor; the only angioplasty that I perform is spiritual.”
His question brought to my mind the story of Yaakov and the well, the well at which he meets his future bride, Rachel. The Torah describes how Yaakov arrives in Lavan’s village, and sees the local shepherds standing around the well with their sheep. He asks them, “Why are you standing around and not watering your sheep?” They point to a large stone blocking the top of the well that is too heavy for one or two men to roll off; they have to wait until all the shepherds have arrived, and together they will remove it.
Just then, Rachel arrives at the well. Yaakov takes one look at her and is struck by her beauty. Inspired by the sight of her, Yaakov single-handedly rolls the stone off the well, and invites the shepherds to water their sheep.
That’s the story. It seems to be nothing more than an account of a young man trying to impress an attractive woman.
Nothing more to the story until one reads the commentary of the Sfat Emet. Listen to what he says: Yesh b’chol davar nekudah hanotenet hayyim, v’zeh be’er basadeh – In everything there is a small element that gives life, and this is a well in the field.
According to Sefat Emet, the well is not simply a well. It represents the source of everything that makes life possible and worth living. And the stone is not just a stone. It represents all things that block our access to those life-giving waters. Our challenge is to do what Yaakov did, to summon all of our strength and remove those stones that block the wells; the stones that clog our hearts from fully drinking from the well of life.
So, what are some of the stones, the clogs that we have to unblock so that we can enjoy our lives as I believe we are meant to? It is what I call performing spiritual angioplasty. For starters, let’s begin with tonight, with Kol Nidre, as we gather to seek forgiveness for our sins before God. But, I must ask, is that really on your minds? Do you really have a list of sins? And, does the Kol Nidrei prayer really absolve us of those sins?
I have news for you; not really. Listen to what we said in Kol Nidre: “All vows, promises, commitments that I made between last Yom Kippur and tonight, may they be annulled, cancelled and regarded as non-binding.” Did you hear that? [x2] Kol Nidre is about vows, promises, commitments — things we said we would do. What is it not about? What word did you not hear in Kol Nidrei? SIN – There was nothing about sins. It’s about things we said we should do and never got around to doing. It’s about habits we promised we would break and we meant it when we said it, but we couldn’t do it. There will be plenty of times in the course of Yom Kippur when we will beat our chest and confess our sins, but Kol Nidre, the prayer that sets the tone for the day, is not one of them. What would be a more accurate word than “sins?” How about “regrets?”
Indeed – regrets: the would’ve – could’ve – should’ve. Do you have any regrets that are blocking your heart?
Thus, the first stone that clogs our access to the well of life is the accumulation of life’s regrets - memories of things we intended to do, but never did, things we gave up on because it turned out they were harder than we anticipated, bad habits we intended to break but somehow they persisted.
Kol Nidrei then comes to ask; what should we do for the burden of our regrets? Is there a way of feeling better about ourselves, giving ourselves reason to hope that we won’t keep on doing the same things we’re embarrassed for doing? There is, and it’s a fairly simple one. It’s called “starting a New Year,” putting last year behind us, turning the page, looking at a blank space b`Sefer Chayim – in the Book of Life, where we haven’t let ourselves or anyone else down yet.
Tonight, Kol Nidrie asks us to summon the courage to do spiritual angioplasty; to unclog the regrets that block the well and help ourselves to the fresh water of life.
What else comes between us and the prospect of moving forward im the New Year? I would suggest the stones of envy that clog our hearts, feeling bad when you see other people having things you would like to have, doing things you would love to do.
Is there a trick to doing the spiritual angioplasty to unclog the envy that blocks our hearts so that we can enjoy our own lives more? It turns out that there is, and I can teach it to you in ten words: Focus on what you have; not on what you lack. [x2] That’s it.
Did you know that the biblical word for a Jew, Yehudi, means “one who is grateful.” It comes from the biblical story of the birth of Yaakov’s fourth son. His mother calls him Yehudah, saying “for this, I will thank God.” What has happened to us, is that our culture has so overwhelmed us with advertising about things that claim will make our lives happier if we had them. What we should be doing is thanking God for what we have, and not allow the cholesterol of envy to destroy us.. That’s why the author of the 23rd Psalm can say kosi r’vaya, my cup runneth over, not when things are going well for the psalmist, but even when he’s just made his way through the valley of the shadow of death. Do we remember to be grateful, or are our prayers all about “I wish”: “I wish I were better looking, I wish I were taller, I wish I was slimmer, I wish I were smarter. I wish… I wish… I wish” Wouldn’t we feel better if we could re-program ourselves as Yehudah, and recapture that sense that Yehudah’s mother had when she named him, “For this, I will thank God.”
And, last [x2], perhaps the biggest stone of all that clogs our access to the well of personal fulfillment is the stone of anger. We’re angry at the way parts of our lives are turning out. We’re angry at people who didn’t treat us right. We blame our mates for not providing us with the happiness they said they would, we blame our children for not being the nachas-producing machines we had hoped for, and most of all, [x2] we blame God. We’re angry at God because the world isn’t a nicer, fairer place. As a result, we live a life deprived of spiritual depth and direction. The well that could nourish our souls is clogged by a stone of anger that blocks our hearts; the blame lies within.
There are some endangered plantsin Hawaii that have a mountain habitat. They are endangered because their natural pollinator is nearly extinct. So men climb the mountains and go from plant to plant, pollinating them by hand, saving them from extinction. Before the stone of anger threatens our spiritual extinction, we need to recall that in Exodus 19:3 when Moshe climbed Har Sinai to receive the Commandments, it was only when he had ascended, did God call out to him. Rabbi Abraham HaLevy bar Hasdai comments on this verse: “Where is God? In the heart of all who seek.” The initiative to climb is ours; that is what Teshuvah means: we need to take the 1st step. Spiritual angioplasty is that 1st step.
Over the years, the question that has frustrated me more than any other is when someone would ask me, “If this could happen to my family, what was the point of our coming to shul all these years?” I never knew what to really say to them. Most of the time, it didn’t matter because they weren’t really looking for an answer. They weren’t looking for theology; they were looking for reassurance that they and their family were good people in my eyes, and presumably in God’s eyes as well. I answered them best by explaining less and hugging more.
But, in recent years, I’ve come up with an answer, and it would be something like this: A homeowner’s insurance policy can’t prevent your house from catching fire, or being damaged in a storm. What it can do is see to it, that if such a thing did happen, you would have the resources to rebuild your home. A life insurance policy doesn’t keep a person from dying. It assures you when that should come to pass, your family will have the resources to go on with their lives. Of course, a life grounded in religious faith and practice won’t keep bad things from happening to you. You’ll still be vulnerable to the illnesses and accidents that are the burden of being human. But it can provide you with the emotional resources you will need to survive even the worst of circumstances.
Daniel Miller, in his book titled, Searching for God Knows What, writes: “I was struck by how many ‘spiritual people’ for lack of a better term, tell me the same thing: after discovering religion, they are less angry.”
Karl Marx decreed that religion is the opiate of the masses; I disagree. Religion keeps us focused on what is good in the world, and teaches us not to despair about our inability to make things better. It gives us the energy, the resolve and the support of a community that strengthens our will and lives.
To go back to that scene in the Torah, Yaakov says to the shepherds, “Why are you standing around in the hot sun? There is water right in front of you. Drink it, refresh yourselves and your flocks. You’ll feel better.” They answer him, “But that large boulder is blocking our access to it. We can’t move it.” Yaakov rolls the stone off the well and says to them, “You see, it’s not as hard as you thought it was. Believe in yourselves, believe in a source of strength beyond yourselves, and you’ll be surprised by what you can accomplish.”
Tonight, the Kol Nidrei service holds a similar conversation with us. It says to us, “This world is full of blessings. Why aren’t you gathering your share?” And we answer, “We don’t believe we’re up to it. We’re disappointed in ourselves, we’ve seen people who are stronger and smarter grab all of the good things in life, and we’ve learned that we can’t count on the world to distribute blessings fairly.” But, the Yom Kippur liturgy says to us, “You’re giving up too easily. Like the shepherds in the Yaakov story, you don’t know your own strength. God is saying to you, I don’t care if you don’t believe in Me. There is nothing in tonight’s service, not one line, about a requirement to believe in God. I want you to believe in yourselves. I want you to believe that you have the power to turn the page, the power to do spiritual angioplasty, the power to leave the regrets and mistakes of last year behind and start the New Year fresh. I want you to believe that you are already more blessed than you realize. And I want you to know — I want you to believe, that when you strive to make this year New Year into a kinder year, a happier year, you won’t be struggling alone. God and this sacred community will be at your side.
My friends, let us begin, tonight, to unclog the stones that block our hearts, the stones of regret, of envy, of anger at everything that keeps us from enjoying all the things in the world that are waiting for us to enjoy. And let it be our prayer, that, when we gather here at this time next year, we will be looking back with satisfaction at how much we have done, and how much we felt blessed in the process – all thanks to spiritual angioplasty. ALUASA
 Wolpe, David, Floating Takes Faith, p,. 6 & 14
[i] Based on a suggestion/material from RABBI HAROLD S. KUSHNER