The hours are ticking down to Yom Kippur, the culmination of over a month of preparation.
I have a mental list of things to ponder. I’m open to what the prayers will bring up for me. This year will be an interesting trip through the day, since I have a bad cold and don’t feel so good. Maybe the fogginess will let me see something I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, who knows?
The point of this day is not perfection. Perfection is only for God. The point of this day is to open my heart and let in whatever needs to come: awareness, realizations, remorse, insight, or just quiet. I won’t know until I am in the midst of it exactly what will come.
As I wrote a few days ago, this is a rehearsal of death, but unlike death, we don’t do it alone. I will observe Yom Kippur in the heart of my community, Temple Sinai. I hope that you are able to observe it with your own communities. I understand that many synagogues are planning to live stream their services: Central Synagogue in NYC, Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA, among others. If you do choose that option, I’d love to hear about your experiences afterwards.
So here’s wishing you a tzom kasher, a proper fast, but also a tzom kal, an easy fast. Let’s both remember that fasting is a mitzvah, not a contest, and by itself it is not enough. The prophets remind us again and again that ritual observance is empty unless we open ourselves to the transformation that it can produce.
My hope for us is that when we rise from prayer at sundown on Saturday we will be changed in all the ways we need to change, that we will rise renewed for lives of Torah.
Kol Nidre is a famous and much-misunderstood part of the Yom Kippur service.
- Kol Nidre (KN) means “All Vows.”
- Kol Nidre is pronounced COAL nee-DRAY.
- Kol Nidre is a legal formula recited at the beginning of the evening Yom Kippur service.
- Kol Nidre is a legal formula declaring that religious vows made in the coming year are null and void.
- The purpose of Kol Nidre is to underline the seriousness of vows, and to nullify vows made out of passion or frivolity.
- Kol Nidre does not affect oaths taken in court or any other secular vows or promises made to human beings.
- Kol Nidre is written and recited or chanted in Aramaic.
- We do not know when Kol Nidre was first recited, but we know it appeared in the prayer book of Rav Amram in the mid-9th century CE.
- Today Kol Nidre sets the mood for the beginning of the Yom Kippur services, the most solemn in the Jewish Year. Its significance goes beyond any literal meaning of the prayer; rather, it puts the congregation into the mood to do the serious prayer work of the evening and the day that follows.
To learn more about Kol Nidre, you can read this article in the Jewish Virtual Library.
The first funeral at which I officiated by myself took place at graveside on the afternoon before Kol Nidre.
I remember it vividly. My feet were planted uneasily on the distinctive grass typical of cemeteries, a thick spongy carpet of thatch. Before me was a plain wooden casket suspended over a hole in the ground. The raw earth looked like a wound; it disappeared into darkness below. The desert sun above beat down on our heads and a hot wind ruffled the pages of my rabbi’s manual.
The dead woman’s name was Ruth. The eerie quality to saying my own name at graveside was magnified by the fact that I did not know this Ruth at all, nor did I know her family. I was simply performing a mitzvah, called to it by the fact that I was the newest rabbi in town, and it was my turn in the rotation for unaffiliated Jews. I had assembled a hesped [eulogy] from the recollections of her relatives, but they were taciturn people and I had not yet developed much skill at drawing stories out of strangers. Skills or no, the hesped had the proper effect: the meyt [dead person) was remembered with dignity and the mourners began their process of grieving with tears.
Fortunately they did not know that the rabbi was well and properly freaked out.
I hardly remember the Kol Nidre service that night. My place in it as the new part-time assistant was small, and I was free to pray as long as I remembered to sit like a lady and keep a calm face on the bimah. I was busy, though, busy processing the afternoon’s revelation, that someday some other rabbi would stand by a hole in the ground and say those words before they lowered my body into it. Someday I would die and they would bury me. It was unpleasant, but as I worked through it, I realized it was a gift. That visceral knowledge of my own mortality taught me that I have no time to waste on this earth.
The Psalmist wrote that our “days are like grass.” Most of the time we are able to avoid that knowledge. Thinking about it too much isn’t healthy. Thinking about it too little is just as bad.
Someday I will die. What must I get done before that day comes?