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This is Not How We've Always Done It

09/14/2021 01:04:22 PM


Good evening and good yontif. We gather this evening for what is known as the Kol Nidrei service, named for the opening prayer we heard in its haunting melody earlier. We think of tonight and the 24 hours to follow as the holiest day of the year. A time of fasting and self-affliction, a time of communal mourning and repentance. The liturgy maintains a high church tone regardless of denomination and generation. It is the conclusion of these Days of Awe, full of reverence and dread.

          The Torah mentions Yom Kippur only twice, and it is not mentioned again for the rest of the Tanakh, not even in Ezra and Nehemia though the first public Torah reading takes place in those books as the commemoration of Rosh HaShana is marked as the new Jewish year. In the Torah, Yom Kippur is mentioned in the same two places in Leviticus and Numbers where Rosh HaShana is mentioned. Rosh HaShana is not mentioned specifically as a new year in the Torah but as a time of remembrance and a cessation of work, a time to hear the Shofar blasts and join together in sacred assembly. Immediately following this commandment, the Torah then tells us that ten days later another holy day will be commemorated with self-affliction, as well as another cessation from work and the offering of a sacrifice. The Israelites are told that atonement is made for them that day. There is no explicit mention of fasting or teshuvah. The passage continues with the naming of the three pilgrimage festivals, which get significantly more airtime throughout the Tanakh.

          Yom Kippur does get one more Torah mention that Rosh HaShana does not: during the description of the scapegoat ritual described in Leviticus. The ritual starts out as a response to purify the Mishkan and the people after Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu are struck down dead for offering their improper sacrifice. Yom Kippur seems to be an afterthought as a good time to renew the ritual annually. Some scholars believe that this mention of Yom Kippur was in fact an afterthought of many hundreds of years, that a scribe in the Second Temple period added it as a purification ritual that was being done in anticipation of Sukkot. In the Temple times, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot were undeniably the high holy days, but in the second Temple period, these first ten days of Tishrei took on the more somber tone of teshuvah we are now familiar with as the priests began to prepare themselves, the Temple, and the nation for Sukkot. It seems the strongest driving force of shifting from pilgrimage festivals to the Days of Awe as high holy days for all Jews came after the destruction of the Second Temple. As the diaspora grew more spread out, as there was no more Temple to make pilgrimage too, and as the understanding of the relationship between Jews and the Divine and the other nations of the world changed dramatically, an introspective time of repentance and forgiveness makes a lot more sense to be the central spiritual activity of our liturgical year. No matter how far from Jerusalem, how many other Jews you live near, whether or not there are goats nearby, you can pray and fast and apologize.

          In the Talmud, some of the traditions that would have been fairly new at the time were codified into halakha. Many more developed over time. Kol Nidre was likely not written until after the completion of the Talmud as we know it today, though it does appear in the first machzor in the 9th century. The tradition to hear it three times did not develop or take hold for another 300 years after that. We don’t really know where the tune came from, other than that it holds resemblance to a form of early medieval Catholic chanting.

          As Reform Jews, sometimes we like to call attention to the adjustments we’ve made over the last 200 years of Judaism, whether self-consciously in response or in anticipation of those who claim we are not serious Jews, or proudly as proof of how seriously we take authenticity in our practice. But the evolution of the Days of Awe proves that change has always been a part of Jewish practice. Traditions change as time flows. It is important to learn to live in adaptability.

          As we embark on these final 24 hours of soul work to start 5782 with a clean slate, we will spend considerable time on communal confessions. Things we may or may not have done as individuals, but that as a collective we are all guilty of. So much of what is wrong in society – oppression, greed, inequality, poverty, public health crises – are maintained by an unwillingness to change or adapt to new ways of living. We apologize and work on the little things that improve ourselves personally: we will be more patient, we will be more kind, we will be more honest, we will be more helpful. But as a general rule we don’t think about the ways in which we contribute to much larger issues. Will we lesson our reliance on fossil fuels and large corporate consumerism? Will we plant something edible and something that attracts pollinators? Will we advocate for the disenfranchised, demand serious climate action, and devote our free time or excess funds toward education, environment, and equality? 

We shouldn’t have to wait for the Temple to be destroyed before we start looking for new innovations. Even before the shift of holiday focus, the pilgrimage festivals were a hardship to many Israelites and Jews; it was difficult to travel to Jerusalem even from within the borders of the Holy Land, it was expensive to offer up the sacrifices, it reinforced a hierarchy established by random chance of birth rather than merit. This time around as we see people struggle to maintain the status quo, to keep up with their neighbors on basic needs like shelter, food, education, and health care, let us not wait for the moment of complete societal collapse to adjust our expectations and traditions.

          It is often said that the most dangerous words in communal organizing are “This is the way it’s always been” or “This is the way we’ve always done it.” This is true not only in regards to ritual committees and service structures but also in much broader terms of economic model, social hierarchies, labor expectations. Just because we “always” do it one way (which is almost never true, anyway), doesn’t mean that it’s the only or best way of doing things. Sometimes true growth of spirit, community, and so on, requires a fresh perspective, a new adaptation to traditions, a new understanding of self-denial and returning to what matters.

          What have you done these past ten days to start that shift of vision? What will you do in the year to come? How can we, and how will you, adapt and change? Not just for yourself and your interpersonal relationships but for society, for the betterment of everyone. How can we shape change to honor the Divine spark in everyone, and ensure an authenticity in our words and deeds from these days of teshuvah throughout the coming year?

          May your life be a link in the never-ending chain of Judaism, which not only passes tradition down from generation to generation, but adds in new traditions with each generation, offering new understandings and interpretations to help the next generation grow and learn and do better than the one that came before. May you find adaptation fruitful and easy. And may we be written for blessing in the Book of Life. Amen and Gmar Chatimah Tova.

Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782