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Kol Nidre 5782                     September 15, 2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Tzom Kal, May all of us have an easy Fast.
We have been fighting this Pandemic of COVID 19 for a year and a half. As we sit here with masks and socially distant, we wonder what has changed over the past 18 months? But if we pause to think about last Yom Kippur and this Yom Kippur, we can see that we have come a long way.
Last year, we had to blow the shofar in our parking lot, and we needed to do Yizkor online and in advance. We were all washing down our groceries before we brought them into the house, and we let our mail sit a few days before we would open it and read it. We not only wore a mask when we went outside but we wore gloves as well. We were debating how long COVID might continue to exist on a surface and if we could get COVID from touching something.
This year, things are very different. The most important fact is that we now have a vaccine that is 90% effective in preventing severe disease. We are able to now do many more things without the fear of illness and death. I know that the vaccine is not perfect, but it is doing its job about keeping those infected with the virus out of the hospital and out of an ICU bed. We have learned that COVID is not spread by touch rather through the air, so masks are a big help in stopping the spread and gloves are no longer really necessary (although washing hands is still a wise investment of time and energy.) We no longer worry about our groceries and our mail; shofar blowing and Yizkor, with some modifications, are once again part of the High Holy day services.
I also believe that COVID has pointed out to us some important Jewish concepts. Concepts that are a critical part of our battle against this disease as well as a critical part of the way we need to live our lives in general. 
The one book of the Bible that we rarely read is the book of Job. It is a hard book to read, an extended parable about the nature of evil and suffering. The suffering of Job is the stuff of legends, and it has made its way into many different stories of modern literature. But why does Job suffer? According to the story, the suffering is the result of a wager between Satan and God. Satan bets that the righteous Job would not be so righteous if he were suffering so God lets Satan inflict Job with wave after wave of suffering just to see if Job will get angry enough with God to curse God. 
That is the story, but the Rabbis who commented on the story could not conceive of suffering without any cause. Today, we think of it as a perversion of history to say that all who suffer must have sinned. We ourselves know that that there are plenty of people who suffer greatly and have performed no sin that makes such suffering just.  So, what sin did the Rabbis assign to Job? What made him liable for the punishments he endured? 
In a speech at Yeshiva University that was later collected into the book “Kol Dodi Dofek”, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik talked about Job’s sin in the form of a response of God to Job’s questions. He writes this speech and puts these words into God’s mouth, You were a sound and just man, God-fearing and avoiding of evil. ‎You did not use your power and wealth for ill. You gave much charity. You did not hesitate to offer assistance ‎and support to others, and you stood by them in their hour of peril and distress. However, you ‎were still short of attaining that great trait of loving-kindness in two respects: (a) never did you ‎bear the communal yoke, nor did you participate in the trouble and grief of the community, and (b) ‎you did not feel the pain of [i.e., empathize with] the individual sufferer. As a man blessed with a ‎good heart, you may have momentarily pitied the orphan. You had vast amounts of money and ‎you wanted for nothing, hence you gave a respectable amount of tzedakah [charity]. However, ‎loving-kindness encompasses more than fleeting sentiment and cheap sentimentality. Loving-‎kindness demands more than a momentary tear and a cold coin. Loving-kindness means ‎empathizing with one’s fellow man, identifying with his hurt and feeling responsibility for his fate. ‎You did not possess this attribute of overflowing loving-kindness [in imitation of the Creator], ‎neither in your public nor in your personal relationships.‎ 
I am not suggesting that Covid is a punishment to humanity by any means. I do not believe that this virus is the result of human sin, either individual or collective.  But I believe that one of the most important lessons this year of Covid has taught us is the importance of community. This disease tried to isolate us from family and friends. When we thought that the sickness would depart quickly, we did not worry too much about our isolation. As the pandemic became longer and longer, our discomfort grew. Elderly parents mourned the year that they were not able to see their children and grandchildren. A year that, at their age, is so very precious. 
Single young people could no longer gather with friends and to meet new friends. Social gatherings were gone and so were the opportunities to discover new relationships. Even gathering with co-workers around the water cooler had to end. Proximity to others could bring disease and death. People unhappy with their jobs had very limited chances to apply for new positions. We hunkered down in our homes and tried not to venture out at all. 
The sage Hillel who famously stated that “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I?” also taught that Jews should never separate themselves from the community.  (Pirkei Avot 2:5)
When the Mishkan in the wilderness was being constructed, in Exodus chapter 35, verse 21 reports, “And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the LORD his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments.”  The late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book, Covenant & Conversation comments on this when he writes, there is only one solution: to make the people co-architects of their own destiny, to get them to build something together, to shape them into a team and show them that they are not helpless, that they are responsible and capable of collaborative action. Genesis begins with God creating the universe as a home for human beings. Exodus ends with human beings creating the Mishkan, as a ‘home’ for God. Hence the basic principle of Judaism, that we are called on to become co-creators with God. And hence, too, the corollary: that leaders do not do the work on behalf of the people. They teach people how to do the work themselves.
The Jewish people are at their best when we act together as a community. If we took our community for granted, COVID woke us up to see its importance again. At first, we tried to maintain our ties through phone calls and email. Then we discovered Zoom and WhatsApp. COVID made us look for ways to come together, to pray together and to spend some time with family and friends. When we were forced to close our building, we not only turned to Zoom for prayer and learning but we often kept the meeting open, after the lessons and service was over, so people could talk and share some moments with their friends. 
To be sure, there were some who were happy to be alone; there were some people who have never liked the conventions of having to be social and civil; those who used the time alone to shut out all the distractions that friendship requires. I once worked at a synagogue with a ritual director we called, Reverend A. He ran the daily minyan. He read the Torah every Monday, Thursday, and twice on Shabbat. He rarely had a vacation. When he retired, he said that he had enough of minyan. He would move away to a community where he was not known, so he could go to minyan only when he felt like it and not have the responsibility of the Torah Reading every other day. And so, he did. He told me how much he loved being alone with his wife and only responsible for spoiling his grandchildren … until his brother died. Now he had to attend minyan every day, and soon the minyan figured out he could read Torah and before he knew it, he was back in the community, attending minyan and helping with Torah readings. Judaism had brought him back to community and Reverend A quickly recognized once again its importance in his life. Judaism understands that sometimes we need to be alone, but we don’t get the opportunity to be alone for very long. 
The Midrash Tanhuma teaches about a verse from Exodus; Now these are the ordinances (Exod. 21:1). Scripture says in Proverbs: “The king by justice establishes the land, but the man who sets himself apart overthrows it (Prov. 29:4). This implies that if a man acts as though he were a portion set aside, for the priests by secluding himself in the corner of his home and declaring: “What concern are the problems of the community to me? What does their judgment mean to me? Why should I listen to them? I will do well (without them),” he helps to destroy the world. 
During the height of this pandemic, we did the best we could to be attached to others. We resorted to Drive By sightings, Driveway visits and talking through windows and glass doors. But we missed the contact, the holding of hands, the hugs that have always cemented our friendships. Zoom could only take us so far. In a public Zoom, you can’t share personal thoughts. On Zoom, we can’t even sing our prayers together. Without the contact, everything was just noise. I could read to my grandchildren, but it was not the same if they could not sit in my lap.
COVID has taught us to value our contacts with others. Even sitting here in synagogue, with masks and social distancing it is bearable because the vaccines have allowed us to sit in pods with our friends. Vaccines have removed much of the danger of proximity with people we know. While nothing seems to stop the spread of this plague, the vaccines have given us the capacity to hug once again the people we know. 
And for those of us here for Kol Nidre and for the Yom Kippur service, I share with you the teachings of Maimonides from the Mishna Torah: Congregational prayer is always heard [by the Almighty]. Even if there are sinners among them, the Holy One, blessed be He, does not reject the prayer of a multitude. Hence, a person should associate himself with the congregation, and never recite his prayers in private when he is able to pray with the congregation. One should always attend Synagogue, morning and evening; for only if recited in a synagogue, are one's prayers heard at all times… 
I know that it is easier to sit at home, in sweatpants and t-shirts, with a cup of coffee by our sides when we open our siddur to pray. On the other hand, some people create a special place where they go with their laptop when they go online to pray, creating a location that makes the moment more spiritual. Prayer is never about the building in which we pray, but it is about creating a proper space for prayer. That is what was created when this congregation built this sanctuary. I know it is easier, and a lot less hassle, to pray in a quiet room at home than to get dressed and travel, sometimes through rain and snow, to attend synagogue in person. Rambam reminds us that there is something special about praying as a community and communal prayers are always answered. How could it be possible for us to pray as a community if we were not in physical proximity? We needed special permission to create a minyan in the virtual world to accommodate this Covid crisis. Today people may still be uncomfortable gathering indoors during a pandemic. I don’t fault them their being cautious. I just know that eventually, this congregation will gladly gather in person. Someday when the threat of this disease is over, we will gather together and fill our sanctuary, especially if that service is followed by a Kiddush Luncheon!
The other important lesson we are still learning from COVID is a lesson we learn from the Kol Nidre prayer itself. The Kol Nidre teaches us that our words matter. What we say makes a difference. Our words define who we are and what we consider important, and it defines the way we see our world. How we say each word is important. How we write them is also important. The actions that we commit to with our words, will define the very essence of who we are
Some people take their words too literally.  They sometimes take hold of a Machzor on Yom Kippur and set their minds to getting every word right. Some people sit down in shul or in front of the livestream with the determination that if they get every word pronounced correctly, we will be blessed with a happy and healthy year. But that is not praying; that is magical thinking. In magic we say some “magic words” and presto we get whatever we ask for. Except magic is not real and behind the words is the “trick” that makes the observer think that you have done magic; but actually, the magician has done nothing at all. 
We could recite every word in our Machzor correctly and still never pray. We could recite every word three times over the course of the day and still we would not have prayed. On the other hand, we could skip every word in our Machzor and pour our hearts out to God and have offered the greatest of prayers. What matters is not what we say but what we mean.
The great Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev once was looking for a new Baal Tekiah, a new shofar blower for the holidays. It was a great honor to blow shofar in the master’s synagogue and so many Baalai Tekiah came to try out for the job. One man worked very hard to prepare for his audition. He studied the laws of shofar. He read about different ways to blow shofar and the different kinds of shofarot. He even read the mystical books to learn all the secret prayers to be offered when blowing the shofar. When he stood up for his audition, however, he was so anxious that he forgot all he had learned, and though he blew the shofar well enough he was so upset that he cried while he sounded his notes. 
After he was done, the Rebbe put his hand on his shoulder and said, “All the mystical incantations that are applied to the blowing of the shofar are like keys that open up the doors to repentance. But there is one key that opens every door. That is the ax. The ax cuts down every barrier that stands in our way. The words of our prayers are like keys in the lock. But tears are like an ax, destroying all the barriers that stand between us and God. I would be honored to have you blow shofar in my shul.”
This pandemic taught us that words are not enough. Everything we built in our lives around us, our homes, our jobs, our status, our friends, all of that can be taken away. We felt alone, afraid even to go to the store for our food. And so, we came to understand the cries of those in the world who had always felt alone. Our own pain helped us feel the pain of the refugees who have left their homes out of duress Our pain helped us feel the pain of the homeless and hungry, who live this kind of insecurity all the time. Our pain helped us feel the pain of those affected by fire, storm, and flood when climate change takes away all that they own. This pandemic has made it impossible to turn the page and ignore the suffering of others. Like Job, we have noticed the suffering and sent a coin or two to help their cause. But that was not enough. That is not enough. The pandemic has helped us feel the pain of others and has inspired us to work together to help ease the immense pain in this world. Since our words were not enough, we learned that we need to put our hands behind our words. 
This pandemic has also shown us to be careful with our words. There is a story of Hannah the gossip. She made up stories about everyone in her small village and shared them with anyone who would listen. It did not matter how true the story was, she just enjoyed telling the stories no matter how much it angered or embarrassed the subjects of her creativity. When people saw her coming, they crossed the street. They didn’t want to hear the stories or become a part of her stories. The anger she caused was so bad, that the people of the village came to the Rabbi to ask him to get Hannah to stop. The Rabbi called Hannah to his office.
“You wanted to see me Rabbi?” She asked. “Yes,” said the Rabbi, “Hannah, you have to stop telling stories about everyone. It is making everyone angry. It has to stop”. “But Rabbi,” Hannah protested, “they are just stories, I don’t see how they hurt anyone. In fact, I just heard a story about you the other day…” “HANNAH!” cried the Rabbi, “It has to stop! I want you to go across the street and bring me back all the pebbles you can find in the field there.” 
Now Hannah thought the Rabbi had lost his mind. But she did as she was told and filled her pockets with small pebbles and brought them back to the Rabbi and deposited them on his desk. The Rabbi looked at the pebbles and picked one up. “Hannah, take this pebble back and put it exactly where you found it.”  Now Hannah was sure the Rabbi had lost his mind. “Rabbi,” she said, “it is such a small pebble, why is it so important that it be put back right where I found it?” The Rabbi held up the pebble, “This is just a small insignificant pebble, is it?” Hannah nodded. The Rabbi took the pebble and flung it at the window that shattered into pieces. Now the Rabbi had her full attention.  “Such a small stone but look at the damage it has done! So are your stories, Hannah, they seem so insignificant, but they do plenty of damage.” He took some of the pebbles and put them in a small bag and hung it around Hannah’s neck. “Let these remind you of the damage your words can cause.” 
We are, all too often, not very careful with our words. We say things we don’t really mean. We are mean when we should be caring. We offer excuses when we should be helping. Our words can bring pain to those when we are showing off or bragging or embellishing our activities. Sometimes we are so busy talking that we don’t really hear what others are saying to us. We hear their words but not the pain, sorrow or fear that lies beneath them. Just a few careless words can shatter friendships. 
Now, more than ever, we need to pay attention to the meaning behind our words. Not just when we pray, but in all of our daily activities. Are we using our social media platforms to bully or shame other people? Are we jumping to conclusions based on an email that may have been sent in error, or may have been composed with an error? 
Are we guilty of not being able to communicate the real meaning behind what we are trying to say in our online world? How many times have we looked at a message sent to us, puzzled about what the sender really meant to say? In Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice in Wonderland, the March Hare argues with Alice: “Then you should say what you mean," the March Hare went on. "I do," Alice hastily replied; "at least-at least I mean what I say-that's the same thing, you know." "Not the same thing a bit!" said the Mad Hatter. "Why, you might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!"
On this night of Kol Nidre, we acknowledge that our words may have hurt others, may have insulted others, our words may not have done what we wanted them to do. So tonight, at Kol Nidre, we retract those words, we apologize for the hurt we may have caused and try to make right the promises that we meant to keep but somehow got away from us. This pandemic, by taking away our physical presence from our family and friends, showed us how important our words can be. Our words can be meaningful but only if we craft them with deliberation and care. Our sincerity and our intentions should drive all that we do and say. 
We should not have to suffer like Job to learn about our responsibilities to our community and the importance of the intentions behind our words. As this pandemic ends let us carry these lessons into our daily life. There will come a day when COVID will be under control, when we can welcome our friends into our homes and hug our family in joy. The pandemic will someday end, hopefully soon, but our responsibility for our community and the need to communicate with sincerity will go on. The lessons of COVID will linger on long after this disease is gone, the lesson of Kol Nidre is an eternal lesson. It is essential that we never forget; Our words and actions must always define the kind of a human being we desire to be. 
Rosh Hashana is about the past, what we have done and what we must do to repent, to do Teshuva. Yom Kippur, this holy day is about the future. What promises will we carry into the future? What vows do we promise to keep? How will we serve our community and how can our words reflect where we will set our full intentions? Do we say what we mean? Do we mean what we say? This is what we must reflect on as we spend this day in prayer. It is not about going through the Machzor; this day is about how much of the Machzor will go through us.
May our inward thoughts reflect how we must act and speak when we are in public.  May God help us, in the year ahead, to live the words we pray, to mean the words we pray, and to act on the words that we pray.  May this be God’s will as we say …
  Amen and Gemar Tov- May we be sealed for a blessing in this New Year.

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784