on Kol Nidrei 5778
My friend Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein, who visited from Long Island earlier this month, asked why I thought the death of my third grade teacher affected me so deeply. You may remember I spoke from this bimah two years ago about how Mrs. Dorros taught her third graders to keep our shoes pointed to the door. And I wrote about her passing this summer in the September Clarion.
Unsure of our place, we hide from the world in third grade. As a third grader, I loved writing. But I didn’t know how that skill could grow. Mrs. Dorros took the time to seek things and saw me before I could see myself. She sought the tools and spaces for them to come out, handing me a journal at the right moment, a journal I have by my side tonight. Likewise she set me up in just the right spot in our classroom to befriend a new kid in the school. I realized later she was teaching me how to welcome somebody who couldn’t yet see himself as part of the class. Mrs. Dorros didn’t hit me over the head with it or pat herself on the back with self-congratulations while she did it. Mrs. Dorros sought a true spark already inside us, a spark that needed the right kindling to be seen as a light in the world.
There is a beautiful story about Rebbe Barukh, a famous teacher who lived in Ukraine in the 1700s, and his grandson Yechiel. One day Yechiel came running into his grandfather’s study. He was in tears.
“Yechiel, Yechiel, why are you crying?” asked Rebbe Barukh.
His sobbing grandson explained, “I was playing hide and seek with my friend. But my friend stopped seeking and left me alone.” Rebbe Barukh caressed Yechiel’s face, and with tears welling up in his own eyes, he whispered softly to his grandson, “Yechiel, God is also crying. God has also been hiding and no one is seeking God.” (Adapted from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim I)
We learn the game of hide and seek as little kids. But as we grow older we perfect the hiding and stop the seeking. We stop hearing, “Ready or not, here I come!” Instead there is silence. We are left alone.
Many of us are grown-up versions of Yechiel. We are adults who are hiding, and those around us have stopped seeking. We hide from family and friends. We hide because we’re ashamed of a decision we made or a consequence we face. We hide because we’re scared that somebody will discover a truth about us that is deep and dark and secret. We hide because if we’re really seen the way we are, our world as we know it will crumble. We hide because we’re overwhelmed. The thought of confronting the challenges of the world or the challenges under our own roof seem too much to handle. We hide because we’re scared to imagine anything different and have come to accept the status quo. On the one hand it can be comforting to stay hidden, but on the other hand it can be painful, as it was for Yechiel, never to be sought.
We’re not alone in hiding, so we don’t have to be alone in seeking. As the story reminds us, we hide AND God hides. Tonight it’s finally time to say, “Ready or not, here we come.”
Last week on Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about a theology of such relationship, that our name Yisrael is linked to one of God’s names, el. That link commands us into relationship, to take responsibility for being God’s partners in Creation through repentance, prayer, and giving to those in need. I said then that when human beings choose to take responsibility for God’s world, God’s sovereignty comes into focus. Yes, we can throw our hands up in despair or we can put our hands to work, to open hearts and open minds and open doors to life that is intentionally lived, thoughtful, and grounded with purpose. Tonight is the time to decide how we will seek one another to do that work, and therefore see one another. And in seeing one another, we will see God’s sovereignty. We will see God’s sovereignty in the faces of people around us, those of humanity crying out but whose tears are lost to a sea of indifference. We will see God’s sovereignty in the faces of 800,000 dreamers who feel they must hide and not be sought, lest they are rounded up and deported from this country, despite bipartisan support for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that is being rescinded. A sea of indifference can only hold so many tears. While some push back and say, “it’s not my issue” many more drown in despair.
Big egos fill space but they do not always fill the need for compassion. The best teachers, the best family and friends, the best communities, and the best leaders are the ones that seek with compassion. When they don’t see you right away, they keep seeking out the best version of you AND they keep seeking alongside you. They seek a true spark already inside that needs the right kindling to be seen as a light in the world. Just as Mrs. Dorros did.
When we gather tonight, on the most solemn day of the year, you might think we would start our service with the most stirring words of the mahzor. But we don’t. The words Kol Nidrei simply mean “all vows.” The opening statement of the entire service is a plainspoken admission that we will mess up in the year to come. Kol Nidrei’s power is hidden on the page much like Yechiel was hidden and waiting to be sought. We have to seek out the prayer and see its potential when we move from the comfortably creased margins of the mahzor into the uncomfortably creased margins of life—and the world. When we refrain from food and from drink on Yom Kippur we make ourselves more visible and available. We strip away the layers keeping us concealed in whatever hiding place we occupy. Simply put: we make Kol Nidrei what it is; Kol Nidrei does not make us. We admit that we are going to keep seeking one another and as a result, that God’s sovereignty—expressed through our compassion—will be seen.
We will get lost. The path we thought was going to be ours, the partner, the friend, the job we thought was going to be ours for life—somehow that person or that path veered for better or for worse. We hide, but we also need to be sought, eventually, to be seen. This summer my friend Dahlia was willing to seek me in my grief and I was willing to be seen. Dahlia asked the right question before I could ask myself. She saw me before I could see myself, mourning such a special teacher in my life.
Louise Erdrich, a writer and owner of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, teaches: “Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.” (Erdrich, The Painted Drum)
On this night of Yom Kippur, we would do well to listen closely to Erdrich’s words.
Listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps-- just don’t eat them until tomorrow night! As we taste our mortality rather than our food, seek out the sweetness you can’t indulge in right now. Seek it by seeking somebody in need, a dreamer, a stranger, somebody who is hiding, alone. Mrs. Dorros could see me before I could see myself because she was willing to seek with compassion. In third grade, and surely as adults, we will hide like Yechiel. But we need one another to seek. May we risk our hearts to be swallowed up and to be lost. As we call out ourselves, may we hear others respond to us, “ready or not, here we come.” And let us say: Amen.