Introduction to Kol Nidrei 5781

Shanah Tovah and welcome to Temple Beth-El’s first-ever virtual Kol Nidrei service. Whether your family has been part of this congregation for generations or this is your first time worshipping with us, we hope you are uplifted and inspired by being here.

Yom Kippur calls on us to candidly confront and acknowledge the brokenness in our lives and in the world — to see with clarity our own and our society’s faults and failures, shortcomings and wrongdoings, missteps and mistakes — and to commit ourselves, not only to repairing what has been broken, but to charting a better course moving forward. 

This sacred charge of Yom Kippur lands with special poignancy this year, as we wrestle with the moral and spiritual challenges surfaced by the pandemic, the recession, widespread social unrest, and natural disasters that have upended our lives and our world.

These past six months have been tumultuous, painful, and challenging, as we and our loved ones have struggled with vulnerability, instability, isolation and anxiety. This moment has exposed brokenness in our lives and in the world. And for some of us, confronting this brokenness has at times felt overwhelming. 

If I can be candid and personal for a moment, I want to acknowledge as we begin this holy day, that these past few months have challenged me in ways I never could have imagined. Few of us received any prior training about how to navigate life in a global pandemic. I certainly was never taught how to be a father for children who were sheltering in place or a rabbi of a virtual congregation. None of us were built to worship or grieve through a screen.

In some surprising ways, these challenges turned out to be gifts. I had opportunities, for example, to be far more present and involved as a father than would have normally been possible. I learned new skills — my bagel game is surprisingly strong — and was able to practice long-dormant ones — I hadn’t been a camp counselor in a while, but it turns out I’m pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. The challenges my family and I faced have pushed us to grow beyond what we were in the “Before Times.” 

Yet not all of our trials are welcome, and I know I did not successfully navigate all the tests of this difficult time. As I tried to work two full-time jobs as a father and as a rabbi, I am sure there were times that my kids, my wife, my co-workers, and/or my congregants felt neglected. On this night of all nights, I wanted to take an opportunity to apologize to all of you. 

I am sorry to my children — for not playing with you or paying attention to you when I was fulfilling my professional duties, and for the times I may have been short with you when my emotional bandwidth was stretched beyond capacity. 

I am sorry to Adira for times when I couldn’t split parental responsibilities equitably, and for your having to sacrifice professionally to shoulder more of the household burdens. 

I am sorry to my co-workers for times when I was not as present, available, and responsive as you needed me to be, for times when you had to pick up my slack, and for times when I may have lost my patience. 

And I’m sorry to my congregants for times I may have failed to meet your spiritual needs. I am sorry for failing to be in touch more consistently. I am sorry that I couldn’t be physically present for you when you needed me the most — when you were in the hospital, when a loved one lay dying, when you were in mourning. As a rabbi who has made it his life’s work to be present with and for people in their times of need, not being able to be with you physically in these moments has been agonizing for me; but that doesn’t take away your understandable feelings of disappointment or even betrayal. I’m sorry.

I am sorry for the times when I opted for the convenience of email, rather than calling you on the phone. I am sorry for the times when I did call, but I was distracted by my children and not as attentive to you as I should have been. I am sorry for trying to compensate for the challenges I faced in keeping in touch with each of you individually by trying to communicate with you collectively, through newspaper articles and public statements. True, communicating in that way has always been and will always be part of my rabbinate. I believe as a rabbi I am called to muster the wisdom of Torah and tradition to address our most pressing personal and social concerns, even when those issues are complex or controversial. Sometimes, this requires pushing people beyond their comfort zones. However, I also believe that as a rabbi I am called to be a healer of broken hearts and an organizer of sacred community. I am therefore deeply sorry if any of my public messages pushed you in ways that made you uncomfortable, or if my words, God-forbid, caused you pain.

I hope, if I’ve made a mistake in the past year that has hurt you in any way, that you will please make me aware of it and let me try to make amends for it. My door is always open to you. We may not walk away from any conversation agreeing with each other, but I am hopeful we can learn from one another, as well as better understand, respect, and even love each other. 

Over these past six months, we have all tried to figure out how to hold our lives, our families, and our community together when we had to be physically separate from one another. Some of us have done this better than others. All of us have made mistakes. It is my sincere hope that Yom Kippur inspires us all to make emotional and spiritual space to withstand the temptations to be harshly critical of ourselves and others, and that we can all, on this day especially, discern and cultivate ways to encounter our own and each other’s faults and failures with compassion, understanding, kindness, and forgiveness.

This, after all, is what Yom Kippur is about. Yes, we are called to take off our masks, to lay down our armor, and look at ourselves and each other honestly, confronting times we missed the mark or went astray, times we resolved to mend our ways and did not succeed. We are urged to consider who we actually are, and who we want to be, to reflect on the ways in which our lives as they are do not align with the way we believe they ought to be, and on the ways we have failed to repair our broken world. 

But it is also a time to see the good, or at least the capacity for good, in ourselves and each other; to recognize that none of us is perfect, that each of us is striving, and that all of us deserve a little grace, the chance to right our wrongs, the opportunity to try again to be better. 

We stand this day before God and each other acknowledging our pettiness and our greed, our selfishness and our weakness, our running to do evil and our limping to do good. But we also stand this day before God and each other acknowledging our longing and our love, our compassion and our caring, our inherent goodness and our yearning for transcendence. 

On this Eve of Atonement, I pray that God grants us all the courage take off our armor and the confidence to take off our masks, so that we may stand before God and each other openly and honestly; fearful, yes, of the faults that will inevitably be discovered, but faithful, too, that we are inherently worthy, loving, and loved. 

Infinite God, we pray that you help us return from our hiding places, from where we have hidden from each other, from our tradition, and from You. Enable us to hear Your voice, guiding us back toward paths of connection and compassion, righteousness and justice. Open our hearts to Your call on this sacred day, so that our thoughts, our words, and our deeds will make us worthy of your Divine assurance, “Salahti, I have forgiven,” and so that we will be moved to practice that godly forgiveness toward ourselves and each other as well.

Amen.

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