Tonight is Kol Nidrei, the most meditative and moving moment of the Jewish liturgical
year. This day marks the culmination of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of
Repentance. Through the prayerbook, our Machzor, we have been bombarded with petitions
and pleas asking us to consider our own lives, to take stock, to evaluate the direction of our
relationships, and to awaken fully to the reality of our mortality. No service might call us to
that task more powerfully than Kol Nidrei. This service sets an intention for the day.
But it is challenging to embrace the purpose of this one day, without the journey which
precedes it. In a sense, we have been building up to Yom Kippur for the past several weeks.
Not only the ten days since Rosh Hashanah, but thirty days of the month of Elul before that – a
total of forty days. Teshuvah, the sages offer, takes time.
Those same sages notice an interesting parallel between the time we spend preparing
for today – and other places in our Torah where preparation for a significant moment is
connected to the number forty. There are of course the forty days of rain that Noah
experienced on the Ark, and the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert. In more
recent days, it is associated with the period of time needed for isolation due to a contagious
disease – the word quarantine means 40 days. However, in Torah, the number forty seems
connected with growth, and process, and spiritual awakening.
Moses has brought the Israelites to the foot of the mountain, and they have gathered
there in order to receive Torah. And Moses prepares himself to meet God, face to face,
according to the text, the closest any human being has ever come to knowing God directly. At
the end of his experience on the mountaintop, he will be ready to lead the Israelites across the
physical desert, and through the spiritual journey that desert represents. And the Torah tells us
Moses ascends the mountain of God for forty days to prepare.
Our biblical ancestors are anything but perfect, and Moses is no exception. Having
literally prepared for this moment his entire adult life, it seems that Moses is still not ready, not
prepared to encounter God and to receive Torah. It takes him over a month to… what? Purify
his thoughts? Embrace the task? Or maybe just meditate?
The parallels between the time Moses spent on the mountain and our own journey to
Yom Kippur continue. At the peak of our service, tomorrow morning before the open Ark, we
recite the very same words that Moses offered at Sinai, “God, you are compassionate, gracious,
endlessly patient, loving and true; showing mercy to the thousandth generation; forgiving evil
and wrongdoing, and granting pardon.” It is almost as if Moses has something to atone for, as
we do today, before he is able to receive Torah. And so he appeals to a compassionate God as
the merciful forgiver.
Few things in our modern world require this kind of preparation. But we know the work
we are attempting to do during our High Holy Days is challenging – and it is supposed to be so.
It is far too easy to allow the words of our liturgy to become rote, or our words of contrition to
be superficial. When we absolve ourselves too quickly, we forego the possibility of significant,
lasting change. Relationships tend to fall into patterns of behavior and get stuck there. These
patterns, healthy or not, resist change or, perhaps, we feel helpless to change them. We might
lack the skill, or the tools, or the willpower to make any difference. Like a mediocre football
team, we are simply not as prepared as we think we are.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak ben Meir of Berditchev (d. 1810) was one of the early Chasidic
masters who wrote extensively about the idea of spiritual preparation. He argued that Moses
had actually been preparing for his moment, meeting God and delivering the Law to his people,
ever since their encounter at the burning bush.
At that time, God says to Moses: I want you to free the Jews from slavery. And Moses
responds, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” He asks as if any other choice would be a better that
choosing him. This may just be Moses feigning humility before God, but classic commentaries
suggest he lacks all confidence in his own ability. Moses goes on for quite a while, trying to
convince God to send someone else.
God finally answers: “Don’t worry, I will be with you. “ Rabbi Levi Yitzchak explains that
none of us come into this world with the skills we need. We begin learning from our very first
moments, and at our best, we never stop learning. To be a human being, he argues, is to
recognize there is always more to learn, always more to understand, always a higher level to
Spiritually evolved adults, writes the Berditchever Rebbe, will be perpetually and
painfully aware of their deficiencies and inadequacies. “Who am I?” they will ask, over and
over again. They will endure a continuous state of incompleteness.
If we are honest, we know this deep truth about ourselves. Sometimes we hold
ourselves to the impossible standard of self-sufficiency, when in truth we feel incomplete and
inadequate. At work, at home, with one another, we share this human trait of deception – we
get pretty good at fooling ourselves. When our most honest response would be, like Moses, to
say, “Who am I to handle this situation?” instead we “fake it, until we make it,” so as not to
appear weak or less than competent. We are aware of the Peter Principle, that suggests we are
all acting above our ability, but we refuse to take down our façade of confidence. It should be a
sign of strength to admit the need for help, guidance, and support. We know it is a sign of
strength to reach out, to admit our need for the wisdom and experience of others. And yet we
mask our deficiencies, and we deny ourselves the chance to grow.
On Rosh Hashanah, I asked us to consider how we might bring healing to our community
and our nation by remembering how to listen to one another. Tonight I am suggesting a first
step in that pursuit: In order to open ourselves to learning from, and about one another, we
must first admit we don’t have all the answers. In fact, we might acknowledge we don’t have
any answers at all.
Perhaps then we will come to value leaders and role models who display this kind of
courage. More than a spiritual pursuit, the Rabbi of Berditchev is telling us a truth we all need
to hear. We, like Moses, are stumbling along an uncertain path, and we are much stronger
when we learn the humility of dependence. We are stronger together.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak suggests one other important insight into the world of Moses as a
way to understand our own spiritual path. As is so often the case with rabbis, he suggests a
parable: imagine a parent who wants to teach his child how to walk. No sooner does the little
one take a few steps towards his mother or father than the parent intuitively steps back, urging
their child to take yet another step. And once the child takes a few more steps, the parent
moves still farther away. And why? The whole point is not to reach some destination, but to
teach the child how to walk on their own.
When Moses leads the people through the desert, he is destined to stumble and fall,
veer off course, and frequently lose his temper. God sometimes appears in the form of a cloud,
filling the Mishkan, the travelling tabernacle, and then disappearing just when the Israelites
complain the loudest. Moses is often left alone to attempt to manage, govern, and discipline
the nascent nation. Perhaps, says the Rebbe, God was teaching Moses this most important
lesson – your failures and misfortunes are not mistakes; they are the very reason you were
chosen to lead. You were never meant to be perfect. If God had wanted you to be perfect, God
would have made you robotic, obeying every command by design. Instead, God wanted us to
learn. And any educator will tell you, the best way to learn is to make mistakes, to grow from
them, and then to go out and make new mistakes.
Levi Yitzchak suggests that Moses was chosen for the task of liberating the Jews
precisely because he would be the one to ask, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” The fear of
inadequacy is the source of Moses’ authority, because it is honest, and it is human. God says:
Your fear that you are unworthy makes you worthy. And this will be the sign that I have chosen
During our High Holy Days, we are asked to strip ourselves of the pretense that
surrounds us so often in our lives and relationships. It is a day for looking honestly at ourselves.
This is what we mean when we say “taking stock of our own lives,” and “writing our every deed
in the Book of Life.” Will we be able, today of all days, to be honest with ourselves about our
weaknesses, frailties, our fallibility? If not today, when?
The prophet Micah says: “What does God demand of you? Only this – pursue justice,
love mercy and compassion, and walk humbly before your God.” (6:8) We are not expected to
know, only to pursue. We are not expected to understand, only to love. Above all, we are
expected to approach life with humility, knowing there are always higher levels of
understanding, kindness and wisdom for us to attain.
In another parable attributed to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, he asks us to trust
that we are worthy of saving, despite all our flaws, just as the Israelites tribes, so recently freed
from slavery, we worthy of receiving Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai. This is his understanding
of the Golden Calf – God’s promise that even though we are imperfect in every way, God
renews the covenant with every generation in love.(The Cry of the Shofar: Two Parables)
Which brings us back to Sinai. Both times Moses ascends the mountain to convene with
God he is there for forty days, for the first set of tablets, and the second set as well – the same
forty days it takes each one of us to move through the process of teshuvah each and every year.
Tonight we gather to pursue the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh, the accounting for our souls.
We too have prepared for forty days to make our way up this mountain, to come more directly
face to face with our request for spiritual guidance and support. Tonight we as a people entire
and as individuals yearn to have our prayers ascend and be heard. But even Moses, standing on
the mountaintop, was unable to find that certainty.
As we recite the litany of sins tonight and tomorrow, perhaps, we should add this one
line: “Al Chet Shechatanu — for the sin we have sinned against You, and ourselves, by failing to
admit weakness, by speaking when we should have listened, by not using the time that we
have, especially these 40 days of preparation, to honestly attempt to change.” And yet, we
have been chosen exactly for those honest moments, in which we might admit our flaws.
Rabbi Larry Kushner notes that Tefillah, Tzedakah, and Teshuvah have the power to save
us, because these three activities – repentance, charity, and prayer, “all share [the] common
denominator of a loss of self… a voluntary, loving, lessening of our inflated egos. The goal is
simply to let go of ego.” But to do that you must first get yourself out of the way so that there
can be room for God.
The New Year has begun, we are the same people we were ten days ago. And yet. We
maintain that change is possible. We believe we can build a better world. And if not that, then
perhaps we can build a better me and you. This is exactly the right place and at the right time
to begin the process. Tonight the cycle of the Jewish year begins again, as we climb the
mountain for a moment alone with the Divine. In a few days’ time we will begin reading from
Torah anew, and experience the Creation of the world with fresh eyes and ears. May this be
the reading, may this be the year, may this be the day, when we finally begin to turn.