Kol Nidre Sermon
October 7, 2011
A man was walking
along, minding his own business, doing his job on a day just like any other
ordinary day. When out of the corner of
his eye, he saw a fire. He didn’t really
think anything of it, as he sees little fires all the time in his line of work. But this fire was different, it would not go
out. Eventually he turned and noticed
this extraordinary fire, and his life was changed forever. For the longest time, Moses stared at the
bush that was burning unconsumed in the desert.
And when God saw that he had turned and noticed, God called out to him,
“Moses, Moses.” And Moses answered,
“Hineini,” “I am here.” [Ex. 3:1-4].
This was Moses’ profound moment, the turning point in his life, when he
understood his purpose, but only after he saw something extraordinary in what
was an ordinary occurrence.
The lesson of this story is that we must be open to understanding
profound moments in our lives. The
burning bush is, of course, a metaphor that we must try to discover and feel
the burning desire within each of us to discover who we really are. What is our purpose? Why do I walk this earth? Why do I exist? How can we use our God-given talents to the
fullest extent possible, to fulfill our potential to be the best we can be.
Moses saw the fire within himself, and he went on to change the
world. He confronted Pharaoh, helped
free the Israelites, and led the people to the Promised Land.
Now, not many people have accomplished what Moses did, but what a role
model. He searched his soul, found that
he had a purpose in life, and he went on to change the world forever. On Yom
Kippur, we search our souls and examine our lives and we determine what is our
purpose in life. What can I do to
fulfill my promise to help others and to make a difference in this troubled
This search for meaning and purpose in life is one of the most important
recurring themes in the Torah and in Jewish tradition. But in today’s world, this search is often
confused with a search for “happiness.”
There is so much emphasis on being “happy.” There is no shortage of books, websites,
seminars and institutes that teach you how to be happy.
But the “happiness” journey is a trip to nowhere. We keep telling ourselves that it’s just over
the next hill, just a little more time or a little more money or a little more
struggle will get us there. [Golf in the
Kingdom, Michael Murphy, Open Road
But in the Torah, there is no word for “happiness.” Judaism emphasizes “purpose.” Our purpose is to enter into a covenant brit
with God, a partnership to repair the world.
[from a sermon by Rabbi Stephen Pearce, 2009].
What is the Jewish prescription for happiness? To be on a spiritual journey to find some
connection with others. And together we
search for profound moments which give meaning to our lives. We yearn to find something within ourselves
that gives us an understanding that we are part of something greater than
ourselves. We need to be part of a
sacred quest that transcends our isolation and helps our lives become part of
the lives of others.
This isolation is called the “bowling alone” syndrome, from the excellent book by Robert Putnam, [Bowling
Alone, N.Y. Simon & Schuster, 2000].
He describes how Americans are living lives more isolated from our
neighbors, retreating from friendships, neighborhoods, churches and
synagogues. People, if they go outside
at all, sit on their decks in the back yard, not in sight of neighbors, rather
than on the stoop or the front porch.
These are signs that our neighborhoods and our sense of community are in
The search for meaning can also help remove us from the solitary life
symbolized by the i-pod - Rabbi Michael
Holzman taught us a few years ago in a sermon:
small “i” (me) in a pod (alone – separated from the world – in my own
little pod). Who could perceive the
burning bush in our own lives in today’s world, set up to isolate us from each
This is the purpose of our congregation, to help everyone get out of our
own pod, and to create profound connections, to search for meaning and
connection to counter the feelings of loneliness, despair and dislocation in
And tonight, on Kol Nidre, we are certainly not alone. Our Prayer Book says, “we pray as one on this
Night of Repentance…saint and sinner alike communes with the Most High. We are at one.” [Gates of Repentance, p. 251…]. This is the night of ultimate community, as
we stand here together to experience the magical moment of the Kol Nidre
prayer. We ask God to forgive us for our
sins, our vows not kept, but this prayer is much more than words. It is about the power of the music, the
haunting melody of Kol Nidre, the rhyming words, which come in an ancient
mysterious rhythm – the prayer is like a magical incantation. There is nothing rational about it, which is
why the founders of the Reform Movement tried to take it out of the service,
but the people wouldn’t let them. The
mystery of the experience, the magic of the moment expresses feelings that cannot
be put into words. We lose ourselves in
the music and in the spirit of the experience, and we become at one with each
other and with God.
And we all become connected here, profoundly. Connected with each other in this sacred
sanctuary. Connected with our family who
could not be here. They are all in our
hearts tonight. As are our parents and
grandparents who are no longer with us, but we tenderly recall the many times
we stood at their side and were deeply moved by the haunting melody of Kol
Nidre, just as Jews have done for so many centuries.
We are also connected to Jews everywhere in the world tonight. Kol Nidre, a whisper of wings, whether in the
land of Israel, or anywhere else on this
globe. Tonight we are as one.
No solitary i-pod or isolated Bowling Alone syndrome tonight. We are community, we are connected
profoundly, we are family. We are as
ONE. And as I stand before the open ark
during the singing of Kol Nidre, I look out at all of you and I see how deeply
moved you are by this awesome and magical moment, and I am inspired by your
faith and your strength, and I am lifted up by the power of the spirit of our
community. We stand on holy
ground. [Rabbi David Stern, All These
Vows, Jewish Lights Publishing]
In the darkness of this night, we search for light within. This is the meaning of the Psalm we sing just
before the Kol Nidre prayer, from Ps. 97, Or zarua la’tzaddik… “Light is sown for the righteous…” (Ps. 97:11).
For in this light we try to “see ourselves more clearly…this night,
unlike any other, will bring both the freedom of darkness and the capacity for
illumination, the urgent insistence upon seeing.” [David Stern, ibid]. In this light, we do the hard work of Yom
Kippur. We shine a light upon the inner
recesses of our soul, as we examine our lives, and we engage in the ancient
Jewish tradition of cheshbon ha nefesh
“taking an accounting of our soul.”
And instead of pursuing happiness all the time, we should seek to find
the real purpose of our lives. And when
we take an honest accounting of our soul, may we find our purpose, the meaning
of our lives. May we find the bush,
which burns unconsumed – waiting for us to notice it.
But too often, the hard work of Yom Kippur gives us an
opportunity to beat ourselves up and tear ourselves down – to dwell only on our
sins. We recite the confessional prayer
of Al Cheyt… “For the sins we
have sinned against You O God…” In this
prayer is a recitation of 44 sins, as we beat our breast and take communal
responsibility for each others’sins.
This is an essential part of Yom Kippur and the process of tshuva,
However, this year, let us be more positive. Let us look at what we did right, and thank
God for the ability to do good work in the world, with the prayer that we may
be able to recognize the good in ourselves and do more of these acts in the
coming year. In addition to Al Cheyt
for our sins, let us also say:
Modim anachnu lach
Thank you O God:
For the good we have added to the world.
For the people we have helped.
For the peace we have made between people.
For the relationships we have repaired.
For the times we have stopped and noticed the beauty in this
For the times we have said I love you to those closest to
For the times we have lived up to our highest values.
For the times we have studied Torah and Jewish wisdom.
For the times we have made an effort to ensure the future of
the Jewish people.
For offering thanks for the many gifts of our lives
For coming together with our congregation to be a part of
this sacred community.
For working for a just and compassionate society.
For finding the good in every person.
For all these blessings, Eternal our God, we offer our
thanks to You.
In the dark of this night, with the haunting strains of Kol
Nidre still fresh in our hearts, we make these vows. We promise to improve ourselves in the coming
year. This is the meaning of our
lives. This is our purpose: to improve the world, one fulfilled promise
at a time.
Would that we could keep this magical spirit of Kol Nidre
with us always. All of us, no matter our backgrounds, we are all together as
one during the singing of Kol Nidre. We
eagerly anticipate its coming again each year.
It raises us to heights unattained all year long. And then we are saddened as it is over far
too soon. But while it lasts we are in
a heightened sense of awareness. I
imagine a world in which we would not save this feeling only for Kol
Nidre. A world in which we work to
recapture this sense of oneness and to make it a part of our everyday life –
where we plead with God to take us back in mercy and love. Asking for God to show us the Promise.
But we know that God has already shown us the Promise. Implanted deep within each one of us is the
bush that burns unconsumed. It is there
burning inside of all of us. I know, because
I have seen it. It is why I decided to
change careers at the age of 42. To
leave our life in Nashville
because something was missing. I knew
that I had something different to give, to the extent that I had any God-given
talents, I was not using them to the fullest extent possible. I saw the burning bush and I looked right
into it and said “Hineini.” “I am here.”
I tell you this personal story not because what I did was so
great, but because you can do it too. I
don’t mean you need to do anything quite so meshuggenah as I did. But you can find inside yourself many
God-given talents and gifts that you can develop and nurture no matter how old
or young you are. And you can do
something to improve our world, to get outside of your self and find a way to
help others and to give to society. To
think about the next generation and what sort of world you will be leaving
Let this be our work on this Yom Kippur. That each of us may open ourselves up to
understanding profound moments in our lives.
That each of us may say, like Moses said upon seeing the bush, “I must
now turn aside and see this miraculous sight.”
What would it take for each of us to notice what is most
important in our lives? To open our eyes
and be receptive to profound
moments. I have a friend who told
us her story this summer about a time she went on a routine shopping trip to
the local CVS drug store. She was in a
hurry, so she ran into the store and grabbed what she needed and she was on her
way to the checkout, when she encountered an old woman who looked like she was
in distress. My friend slowed down when
she saw the woman. She noticed her, she
stopped. She turned her head toward the woman.
And then she asked if she could help her. That simple act of reaching out, led the
woman to open up to my friend and tell her all about her problems with her
family and soon they were both in tears, and my friend helped her and hugged
her. What started out as an ordinary
errand turned into a profound moment for my friend as she was able to extend
her hand and an act of kindness to someone in need. She stopped and noticed the bush burning
unconsumed, and she said, “I must now turn aside to see this extraordinary
What would it take for us to notice what is most important
in our lives, to open our eyes to those who are in need. To be receptive to profound moments –
extraordinary occurrences in the ordinary acts of everyday life. How can we have a heightened sense of
awareness. We need to train ourselves to
open our eyes and to be turned on (naturally) to the world, every day. And if we do, we will see our neighbor or our
loved one who is in need. We will see a
world that needs our help.
On this sacred night, let us pray for the inner vision to
understand that God has given each of us talents, skills, understanding and
abilities to make the world better. The
bush does indeed burn unconsumed deep within each of our souls.
At the end of Moses’ life, knowing that he would not be
allowed to lead his people into the Promised Land, God grants Moses the great
gift of spiritual vision. God shows
Moses the Promised Land and Moses is able to see what his long life of struggle
and suffering was for. [Dennis Shulman,
Jewels of Elul, Craig & Co., 2011].
On this sacred night of Yom Kippur, may God grant each of us
the gift of spiritual vision, so that we may see what we do in this life
matters. How we choose to live our life
is important, and it is up to us to act in such a way that we can change the
Material gathered from:
Ex. 3:1-4. “The Pursuit of Happiness,” sermon by Rabbi Stephen Pearce,
2009, “The American Rabbi, 2010, Isaac Nathan Publishing, L.A., CA. Golf in the Kingdom, by Michael
Murphy, Open Road Publishing, N.Y.,
1972.Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam, N.Y. Simon & Schuster,
2000. Psalm 97:11. “Night Vision,” Rabbi David Stern, All
These Vows, Ed. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Woodstock, VT.
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011. “Seeing
the Bible,” Dennis Shulman, “Jewels of Elul,” Craig & Co. Elul, 5771.