Rosh Hashanah 5773

This week's commentary was written by Professor Arnold M. Eisen, Chancellor, JTS.

The high point of the Kol Nidrei service comes at its beginning, as the haunting melody and incantatory language of the Kol Nidrei prayer ushers us dramatically into the solemnity and consequence of the Day of Atonement. Dusk is falling outside the synagogue and, within, all stands in readiness. The gates of forgiveness stand open, but the following evening, at Ne‘ilah, they may close. It is a time of reckoning.

"By the authority of the court on high and by the authority of this court below, with divine consent and with the consent of this congregation, we grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed. Kol Nidrei . . . "

I want to focus my reflections on this remarkable declaration, and particularly on one implication that seems especially relevant at this High Holiday season. The importance of "permission to pray with those who have transgressed," recited immediately before chanting Kol Nidrei, is underlined in some congregations by the practice of repeating the words three times for added emphasis. The declaration clearly has enormous rhetorical power. But what does it mean? How can these words, this claim, help propel us forward into Kol Nidrei and beyond?

I'd like to suggest that they affirm a basic truth that is not only essential to the Kol Nidrei service that follows, but crucial to the work of self-examination and amends to which we dedicate ourselves on Yom Kippur. We are not without faults, and we belong to a community of people who in that fundamental respect are just like us. Reminding ourselves that this is the case, we direct the search-light of scrutiny upon ourselves rather than focusing it on the shortcomings of others. Members in good standing of the community, we do the intensely personal work required on Yom Kippur without being distracted by the divisiveness of class, race, ideology, or party that is all too common at other times. We forego the pleasure of feeling superior to our neighbors. And—the aspect of communal membership that seems especially relevant this High Holiday season—we abjure the verbal signals and building blocks of self-righteousness: incivility, name-calling, insult, condescension, scoring points at each other's expense, and reveling in the game of "gotcha."

The liturgy, by beginning with the recognition that we all have weaknesses, teaches an indispensable lesson about making teshuvah and extending the change in us beyond Yom Kippur and beyond ourselves. Changing the way we regard and speak to one another is a prerequisite to changing society and the world.

There is yet another reason why this change in attitude and speech—so difficult to attempt, let alone to achieve—is so essential to our prayer and our community. Each of us has to be able to keep the promises we make to do better, pivoting on the part of ourselves that is good and trustworthy despite our failings, and shine a ray of truth strong enough to penetrate our self-deceptions. We rely upon other people to help us accomplish this, especially those closest to us, and we do so despite the fact that God knows, and so do we, how unreliable and imperfect we all are. If we cannot depend upon one another in this way, the whole project of Yom Kippur falls to the ground and with it any chance of a more decent society or better world.

I gained further insight into the societal aspect of the heavenly court's permission to pray with transgressors from a recent and brief experience of jury duty in a court of New York State. One by one, prospective jurors answered questions designed to weed out unsuitable "judges of fact." Many gave reasons why they should be excused from jury service. Every person had a story, a face marked by family origin and life's vicissitudes, and an attitude. We sat just a few feet from the defendant, whose future would lie in the hands of the 12 members selected from our assemblage to judge his guilt. (I was not selected.) By the authority of the "court below" (which through the words on the wall, "In God we Trust," claimed authority from "the court on high"), permission was granted to a group of fellow human beings ("peers" in the language of the law)—people who, each in their own way, lead imperfect lives—to find the defendant guilty or pronounce him innocent.

The Rabbis who composed the Yom Kippur liturgy believed that the consequences of prayer could be every bit as real and direct. They based themselves on the Torah, which (Lev. 16:31) commands the Children of Israel to afflict our souls on Yom Kippur and assures us (Num. 15:26) that "the entire congregation of Israel shall be forgiven." The Rabbis also instituted communal fasts to petition God for rain at times of severe drought, and taught in that connection (Tractate Keritut 6b) that "any fast that does not include the transgressors of Israel is no fast." One might wish that our prayers for rain or forgiveness could be carried to God by angels or tzadikim. But it is you and me saying Kol Nidrei—not angels, not ancestors, just us. So we had better say those prayers together (positioning them for maximum effectiveness) with hearts open rather than closed.

Togetherness is not exactly the first word that comes to mind when describing the United States or the Jewish People this fall. Mutual respect is often lacking in many contexts and civility difficult to find. Some will say it has always been this way in politics. A commentator I heard on the radio assured his listeners that lies and name-calling have been staples of US presidential campaigns for as long as there have been US presidential campaigns. Nevertheless, I was raised not SO very long ago, and distinctly remember television talk shows on which politicians and pundits, before mounting critiques of their opponents, would take care to note the latter's patriotism and character. There was cooperation and friendship across partisan aisles of Congress and between Congress and the White House. One could admit to right and wisdom in an opponent's stance. My uncles modeled proper speech and behavior at the dining room table, arguing vociferously but respectfully about US politics and Israel before adjourning to play pinochle. Even radio talk show hosts took care to be civil when I was a boy. They elevated rather than demeaned the airwaves. This has become rare.

Jews should know better, given the Yom Kippur liturgy, and sometimes we do; but often Jews too give way to name-calling and character assassination. Perhaps this is so because the Jewish situation seems so perilous despite our evident strengths and achievements, and because the dangers that threaten us may well be matters of life and death. The rebirth of the State of Israel arguably provides Jews with the greatest opportunity to observe God's commandments, safeguard Jewish welfare, and do good in the world that we have had for over two millennia. We do not want to "blow it" or fritter that opportunity away through government policy, civic intolerance, or inadequate vigilance. "Left" and "right" routinely accuse each other of blindness, treason, cowardice, or naïveté. Candid conversation about Israel in the Jewish community has almost ceased. Criticism of the State or its government is denounced in some quarters as subversion. In others, the prime minister gets no respect and the State no credence. Both "sides" seem to think the other has cornered the market on fallacy.

I tremble to think of the hate and insult that will assault us between now and Election Day, as the candidates spend millions of dollars on negative advertising. The Yom Kippur liturgy seeks to inculcate a different, more humbling lesson. It won't let us forget that each of us transgresses and falls short at one time or another. Pointing the finger at our neighbors ultimately undermines personal growth. We need the community—including members with whom we strongly disagree—to do better and be better, and so should speak and act accordingly.

I love Yom Kippur, and not only because of the music—at once familiar and deeply moving—and the liturgy, so direct and so profound. I treasure the proven ability of the congregation to come together year after year, speak kindly and respectfully for 25 hours, and resolve to do good the next day and the day after that. Kol Nidrei prefigures a moment when "all the congregation of Israel" will be forgiven as one community. It also helps us to arrive at that moment. We can accomplish this together despite our transgressions—the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur assures us—even at times of peril for Jews like this one, even during an election season.

May each of us confront our faults honestly during this High Holiday season, take our places within the community, and allow the words of Kol Nidrei to open our hearts and soften our speech throughout the new year.


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.