Kol Nidre 5778, Shabbat PM, September 29, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland, Sinai Synagogue
On August 8 this year 5 weddings took place in a small village in Uganda which were attended by over 1500 people. The event gathered politicians from the local council, government officials, and family and friends of all five couples who arrived from all over the country. What was so special about this wedding that so many distinguished visitors came? It was the first Jewish weddings in Uganda in anyone’s memory.
The Jewish community of Uganda is called the Abuyudaya. They grew as a break away movement from Christianity that missionaries brought to Uganda. In the early 20th century, their leaders’ reading of the Bible led them to believe that the Hebrew Testament was correct. Within a hundred years, rabbis from the Conservative movement oversaw a formal conversion of the community and one of their members Gershom Sizomu was ordained from the Ziegler Rabbinical School in LA. Another member of the Abuyudaya Shadrach Mugoya Levi is studying for the rabbinate at the Aleph Institute. It was his wedding that instigated the grand celebration.
Mr. Levi’s village was a serene place days before the wedding. The town is off the grid, with little electricity and, for many, little food. Children have died in recent months because of famine, and many families subsist on a single meal a day. The water comes from a pump, the movie theater is a mud hut with wooden benches and a 1980s television blasting 1970s films. There is nothing showy about this village.
Until this wedding.
The ceremony was conducted in Luganda, English and Hebrew by Rabbis Sizomu and Rabbi Yafa Chase, a friend that Shadrach met while studying at the Aleph Institute. Because such rituals are rare and preparations are dear to the impoverished community, they took the opportunity to celebrate the five weddings at the same time.
The celebrations began the night before. All night long, while the music bumped outside the courtyard walls, inside the Levi family compound dozens of relatives gathered around hundreds of sweet potatoes, bananas, yucca and russet potatoes, all to be peeled, sliced and sorted in preparation to feed 1,500 people.
Mr. Levi said that this wedding was an offering to his community. “The life I went through was not good at all,” he said of his childhood. “So whenever I see someone suffering, I really remember.”
A wedding in and of itself is a statement of optimism and confidence in the future. But for a Ugandan Jewish community suffering from famine, and not free from prejudices of Muslim and Christian neighbors and a repressive government, the act of marriage is a true sign of faith. And no moment of the wedding is more symbolic of optimism and hope in the future than the conclusion of the wedding when the groom breaks the glass.
Why do we break a glass at the end of a wedding. The origin appears to come from a Talmudic passage in which the scholar Mar Bar Rabina made a wedding feast for his son. The crowd was getting overly boisterous, so he shattered a glass to shock them into calming down. The explanation for his insistent that the community limit their jubilation was because we live in a world that is yet to be redeemed, the Temple has not been rebuilt and our joys must be tempered with appropriate sadness. But if that is the reason for breaking a glass at a wedding, why does everyone shout ‘mazel tov’ after the glass is broken? My personal interpretation is that we yes, we do break the glass to acknowledge that the world as we know it is broken. But the act of marriage is an act of defiance in the face of that shattering. It is an act of faith and confidence, it is an acknowledgment that despite the pain and suffering in the world as it is, the willingness of these two people to face the brokenness of the world without fear, to engage in the holy act of matrimony, is a statement of confidence and optimism that this act of love will be the first step in healing and repairing the world. And to that we say mazel tov.
Tonight our worship began with the recitation of Kol Nidre. And in some ways Kol Nidre functions similarly. It states, “By the authority of the heavenly court and the by the authority of earthly court, with Divine consent and with the consent of this congregation, we hereby declare it permissible “L’hitpallel im ha-avaryanim” – to pray with those who have transgressed.
Despite the acknowledgement in this opening statement that we are all sinners, we give ourselves permission to enter into worship as a Holy community. If we believed that our sinful condition was permanent, unchangeable, there would be no point in granting permission. An obstinate sinner has placed him or herself outside the bounds of community. But we have confidence, we trust that we each have been working on our teshuvah and will be cleansed of misdeeds.
But why do we need to call on the Heavenly court? Couldn’t we just invoke a human court and make the same pronouncement? According to the Zohar and kabbalistic sources, Kol Nidre is not only for us. It is also a necessary formula for God.
Kol Nidre is a very strange prayer, for despite its haunting melody, the words of this prayer are dry, technical and legalistic. The Kol Nidre formula cancels vows. Verbal vows are sacred in Jewish tradition. In Jewish law, vows to other people are enforceable contracts. Vows to God were sacred obligations. Kol Nidre cancels only these vows to God. The problem is that in the corpus of Jewish law, the only legal way to extract oneself from a vow is by a ruling of a rabbinic court, and only than it is vows made to other people.
And so we invoke a heavenly court to exempt us of any vows made to God. But the mystics tell us that God also wishes to be released from any vows God might make in the coming year that could affect God’s mortal creation. God also wants absolution.
One of the great theological dilemmas that Kabbalah sought to resolve was how does the ineffable, unknowable, incorporeal God enter and interact with God’s created corporeal and concrete world. The solution required the Divine energy, or effluence, to be distilled through a number of steps or flows into lessening divine manifestations. This is the concept of the 10 sefirot. [Think of it as a series of dams and channels that allow a flow of water from the farthest source to reach us in order to irrigate our fields.] One of the highest sefirot takes on a female characteristic, this is called Binah. Binah is known as the Upper Mother, the Divine sephirah that births and sustains the lower sefirot. Kol Nidrei is an invocation to Binah to release two lower sefirot, Tiferet and Malkhut from the bonds of Din, justice, in order to facilitate their union. Binah then releases and transmits the essence of the energy of the ineffable Divine source to the world which brings forgiveness, grace and illumination to us. In Zohar the entire liturgy of the day follows this pattern. “Today every joy, every light, and all forgiveness in the world depend on the divine mother, Binah. All the springs start and draw from there. All the lights are illuminated with joy and everything becomes fragrant. Even the forces of Din are consumed by light and extinguished.”
The forces of the Divine realm and the created realm, our world, are connected and interact with one another. God needs Kol Nidre to release God from vows God might make that would invoke Divine Justice and cause suffering to us and we need Kol Nidre to acknowledge that though we have transgressed we still belong to community and are confident we can correct those faults.
A Hasidic rebbe once told his followers that one can learn a Torah lesson from anything. What about a telephone? What one says here can be heard there.
The mutuality of this understanding of Kol Nidre reminds us that how we act and speak in this world impacts both here and there, the created world and the Divine realm.
Rabbi Haim of Volozhin, the primary student of the Gaon of Vilna, in his commentary on Kabbalistic concepts Nefesh HaChayim, explains that everything that comes out of one’s mouth impacts not only this world but the heavenly world as well. If it is positive speech it adds power to the power of holiness. “There is no word which comes out of a person’s mouth which has no voice and does not ascend upwards.. and one who utters a holy word from his mouth - a word of Torah - makes a sound with it which ascends upwards and arouses the holiness of the Supernal King and is crowned on God’s Head resulting in rejoicing in both the Upper and Lower worlds.” Obviously, according to Rabbi Hayim, the same impact occurs negatively with negative speech.
Rabbi Hayim informs us that the same is true for actions and even thoughts. But lest you think this is just the perception of a mystic, Rabbi Hayim offers us non- mystics a profound thought regarding the personal impact of our thoughts, speech and actions:
“The Sages teach us that ‘Kol Yisrael yesh lahem chelek l’Olam HaBa’. This is usually translated as ‘Each Jew has a portion in the world to come’. But Rabbi Hayim notes that this is not what the phrase actually says. Properly translated it says ‘each Jew has a portion TO the world to come’. What is the difference? If we say that every Jew has a portion in the world to come, it suggests that there is already a place, a future that already exists in time as an entity in its own right, and that if a person was worthy the individual would be afforded the opportunity of entering. But, no, he says in reality the future world, the world to come, is only generated by a person’s actual actions, whereby he extends, adds to, and rectifies his own portion through his deeds.
This is profound idea – the heavenly world to come, that we pray we are granted to transition to after our time in this world is over, does not exist until we make it so. We create the Paradise we will enter through our actions in this world.
How we treat fellow human beings, what activities we engage in, what words we use, what thoughts we think, these are all nesting materials for the next world. We create, as it were, mashiachzeit, the Messianic era, by what we do and say during our lifetimes in this world.
Maimonides teaches that each human being has free will, each of us can choose at any moment to do the right thing or the wrong thing, we can choose compassion or harshness, we can choose to love or to hate. Rabbi Hayim goes one step further – that free will determines not only how we will be judged in this world but also how we will create our world to come. Yom Kippur is about taking control of our lives not only in this world but the next.
There is a beautiful poem by the Jewish poet and professional doer of good deeds, Danny Siegal that states:
If you would just imagine that the person sitting next to you on the bus was the messiah
Waiting for some simple human kindness before he reveals himself
You would soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands
And if it so happened that in your life time he did not reveal himself
It would not matter.
It would not matter because you would have already created that heavenly world, the world of Messianic wholeness and goodness, through your actions. Whether it be Jewish weddings in a small village in Uganda or treating the person on the bus as if they were possibly the unrevealed Messiah we, through our own behaviors, have the chance to create the world to come in this world and the future world.
May we be create that future paradise through our interactions with all that we know and to all that we meet. May we see the Divine spirit in others and in ourselves. May we respond to every moment, every person with forgiveness, kindness and love. And in doing so may we merit Gods love and a world redeemed.