Kol Nidrei Sermon – the curious case of collective vows we made in error

L’italiano segue l’inglese

The Neder – The vow, is one of the earliest forms of prayer that we know, first recorded when Jacob speaks to God at Beit El, (Genesis 28)  though even by the time the bible was redacted  it was clearly something to be discouraged.  By the book of Deuteronomy we find “When you shall vow a vow to the Eternal God, do not be slow to pay it, for the Eternal God will certainly expect it from you and you will incur guilt. But if you have not vowed, there is no guilt upon you.” (Deut 23:21-23).

That biblical vow-maker par excellence – the nazir – must bring a sin offering and a guilt offering at the conclusion of his vow – indicating that the additional piety he has taken on himself has some negative aspects to it, and that by denying himself normal pleasures he is behaving wrongly. As the Babylonian Amora Shmuel (2nd/3rd century) said “even though he fulfils the vow, he is called wicked” (Nedarim 22a)

It is clear by the rabbinic period that taking upon oneself additional restrictions beyond those established by the Torah and the Sages is viewed with  extreme disfavour  -to the point of being called a sinner for doing so (Ned 77b) (see Rambam Hilchot De’ot 3:1)

Not surprising then that there is a habit in the orthodox world of adding “bli neder” to any promise or offer, thus ensuring that should it not happen they would not be guilty of an unfulfilled vow.

There are two Talmudic tractates (Nedarim and Shevuot) which are devoted to the complex legal and moral problems that arise when people make vows that cannot or will not be fulfilled, so while vow- making may be frowned upon, it clearly has a place in the heart of the person looking for tools of spiritual value in their lives, and remains a problematic habit in our world.

From the earliest rabbinic times, the annulling of the vows of an individual to another individual is done by a beit din, which must satisfy itself about the nature of the vow, its context, its probability of being able to be fulfilled and so on. And should a beit din act to annul any vow made between individuals, then both people involved must be examined by the court, and must be present for the annulment to take place. Whether they are Jew or gentile, their presence is necessary; no annulment can take place in secret or as a favour to an important person. This is a complex legal arrangement, with many safeguards and requirements in law, and it seems that the formulation of the beit din being asked to annul empty or unfillable vows began fairly early on in the rabbinic period, even while they knew explicitly that the annulment of vows has little basis in any text:  the Mishnah tells us “the rules about the absolution of vows hover in the air and have nothing to support them” (Hagigah 1:8).

But what of the Kol Nedarim prayer that names this service?  This prayer about all our vows was described by the Babylonian Geonim in the 7th Century as a minhag shtut – a foolish custom – but it was already clearly embedded in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah at that point, possibly as a way to begin a new year with a clean slate, or because it resonated with the magic of blessings and curses on incantation bowls from the sixth century – magic that would have been known to the community even if it was not supposed to form part of their world view, and so again promised some kind of supernatural cleansing of a problem at a critical time of the year.

Because it was so deeply ingrained in the customs and folk-understanding, the Babylonian sages compromised with the people, and turned the formula into a religious rather than legal one, seeking mechila, selicha v’kapparah – forgiveness, pardon and atonement – from God rather than from any human entity. They underpinned this text with one from bible – “And all the congregation of the children of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger that sojourns among them; for in respect of all the people it was done in error.” (Numbers 15:26)

וְנִסְלַח, לְכָל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלַגֵּר, הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם:  כִּי לְכָל-הָעָם, בִּשְׁגָגָה.

Bishgaga – as a collective we have vowed things to God in error.  It is an extraordinary statement, reaching well beyond both the laws of Nedarim and of the biblical verse. But it gives us the space to come together and make our teshuvah with the support of our community.

Even after the intervention of the geonim, changing the focus of the vows to those between us and God, changing the time frame of the vows and so on, here are so many problems still with the collective annulment we make each year. It is not really possible legally either to annul vows retroactively nor proactively, and yet a compromise was reached between the spiritual needs of the people and the carefully and closely read and understood legal texts of the rabbinate.   If only that were true today.

The battle between the people’s love for Kol HaNedarim and the rabbinic uneasiness with the whole idea of collectively annulling vows is long standing and ongoing. Each strand of Judaism right up to the early Reform movement has tried to remove the formulation from the liturgy at various times, but always found they had to put it back. The power of the people’s needs and wants in this particular case is extraordinary, it stands out in our history and it begs the question – why do the people venerate this prayer so much?

Why is this prayer almost the only thing that the Jews have resisted the rabbinic rulings about? Across the generations, from the earliest liturgies for the Yamim Noraim till today, ordinary Jews demand the right as a community to convene a communal Beit Din, to remove the scrolls in the evening service from the Aron Kodesh – which we leave open and empty -, and in the presence of the community repeat this formulation three times, each time louder than the last.

We know how this prayer looks to the uninformed – the idea that we begin our service annulling any vows made retroactively or proactively does not play well to the outside world who would not understand that the vows in question are only those between us and God.  Many Jews listening to Kol HaNedarim would have had real lived experience of the anti-Semitic uses this prayer has been put to.  Christian Europe called us perfidious oath breakers precisely because they did not understand the limits of the Kol HaNedarim prayer, did not understand that it was framed in the relationship between us and God, not the relationships between human beings.  The More Judaico (Jewish Oath) was a special form of oath taken in the courtrooms of western Europe, rooted in antisemitism and accompanied by particularly unpleasant requirements such as making the Jew stand on the bloody skin of a pig to recite the words of the oath, or to stand bareheaded on a wobbly stool and beaten if he fell off. The intentionally humiliating, painful and dangerous More Judaico was required of Jews in some European courts of law until the 20th century.

So what is it about the Kol HaNedarim prayer that causes us to cling to a formulation of dubious wording, decried by the rabbis and used against us so cruelly and violently by the people among whom we lived? Why have the Jewish people so consistently and so determinedly fought for this prayer, even using it to describe the service that begins Yom Kippur? What is going on that across the generations, across geography, across every expression of the Jewish people, this formulation – the Kol HaNedarim is so cherished?

It is a question that cannot be definitively answered, but I think driving this determination to recite and to hear the words of this prayer – even for Jews who have little contact with the liturgy or with the community – are the twin ideas of our obligation and commitment to a relationship with something outside ourselves, and of a need for the connection and possibilities of being truly seen and understood, leading to deep forgiveness.

Were we not to consider ourselves somehow obligated to God – however distant this feeling might be in our ordinary daily lives, we would not need a ceremony to forgive us having failed in this obligation and help us to find a way back.  The need for relationship is primal; the connection to the divine giving meaning to our lives is somehow hard-wired into us.

Just as the vidui – the recitation of our sins, is a collective public confession that happens in each of the services of Yom Kippur, the Kol HaNedarim is a collective public statement. Both prayers work at a number of levels in the liturgy, but perhaps the most important is that they enable us to say out loud and within our community things that we might find almost impossible to say or do any other way. We have not all done all of the sins we publicly confess to, yet we join in with the recitation of them all, both to allow any individual to speak out without being noticed or judged, and also to create – and to return to -the community we are . The confessional prayers are written in a particular liturgical form which uses the whole alphabet to describe the sins – to show that we are, when reciting the sins on the page, also symbolically confessing to every other form of bad behaviour which is staining our souls and causing us spiritual discomfort or alienation.  The point of the vidui is to bring us together, into a collective, back to our moment of truth. It allows us to be the truth we seek. It reminds us of our commitments – the active obligations we took upon ourselves, and it allows us to be clear and honest, inside the protection of a community at prayer.

The sound of the shofar, which has been blown every weekday of Ellul, and which will be the last sound of the services of Yom Kippur, also calls us to our true selves.   The Tekiah Gedolah is the bookend to the Kol HaNedarim – alongside that opening ceremony,  it frames the journey we make and makes the space for us to be completely true, fully aware of the sacred within us, as we become part of our community.

My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg writes of the shofar “I always think of the shofar as coming from the depths of creation. Formed from the horn of a ram or mountain goat, its rough, un-honed cry calls of the bond which unites all nature, animal and human. It speaks without words of our bare and basic togetherness in this world of cold and warmth, food and hunger, life and death. The breath which flows through the shofar resonates with the ruach, the breath or spirit which breathes through all life, the spirit of God which hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and which creates and sustains all living being. It calls us home to the sacred within ourselves, and in all life.”

Why have we Jews fought to keep Kol HaNedarim, both against the internal opposition and the external opprobrium it engenders? I think because it allows us access to what Jonathan calls “our bare and basic togetherness… it calls us home to the sacred.. to the bond of life… to the breath of {God}.” It engenders a place where we can be truly who we are, and where our souls can give our most authentic expression.

So as we begin the final services of this period of Yamim Noraim, of the Days of Awe, with the Kol HaNedarim still echoing in our hearts and minds, we journey together this evening and tomorrow in a space of truth, allowing our awareness of the sacred within ourselves and our world. And we hope that when the Tekiah Gedolah ends the services of Yom Kippur tomorrow evening, we can begin to move on in our lives with a renewed awareness of our purpose, and of the sacred tasks of being, and of becoming, bonded together and filled with the breath of God.

 

 

Il Neder, Il voto, è una delle prime forme di preghiera che conosciamo, registrata per la prima volta quando Giacobbe parla a Dio a Beit El (Genesi 28), sebbene, già quando la Bibbia fu redatta, il voto era chiaramente qualcosa da scoraggiare. Nel libro del Deuteronomio troviamo: “Quando farai un voto al Signore tuo Dio, non dovrai tardare ad adempierlo perché il Signore tuo Dio te lo richiederebbe ed in te si troverebbe il peccato. Se invece cesserai di far voti, non ci sarà in te peccato.”. (Deut 23: 22-23)

Quel creatore di voti biblici per eccellenza, il nazir, deve portare un’offerta per il peccato e un’offerta di colpa alla conclusione del suo voto, mostrando che la pietà aggiuntiva che ha preso su di sé ha alcuni aspetti negativi e che negando a se stesso normali piaceri si sta comportando in modo errato. Come disse il babilonese Amora Shmuel (II/III secolo) “anche se adempie al voto, viene chiamato malvagio”. (Nedarim 22a)

Dal periodo rabbinico è chiaro che chi si assume ulteriori restrizioni oltre a quelle stabilite dalla Torà e dai Saggi è visto con estremo sfavore, fino al punto di essere chiamato peccatore per averlo fatto. (Ned 77b) (vedi Rambam Hilchot De’ot 3:1)

Non sorprende quindi che nel mondo ortodosso vi sia l’abitudine di aggiungere “bli neder” a qualsiasi promessa o offerta, assicurando così che, se ciò non dovesse accadere, non si sarebbe colpevoli di un voto non realizzato.

Esistono due trattati talmudici (Nedarim e Shevuot) che si dedicano ai complessi problemi legali e morali che sorgono quando le persone fanno voti che non possono o non vogliono adempiere, quindi, mentre il voto può essere disapprovato, esso ha chiaramente un posto nel cuore della persona che cerca strumenti di valore spirituale nella propria vita e rimane un’abitudine problematica nel nostro mondo.

Fin dai primi tempi rabbinici, l’annullamento dei voti fatti da un individuo verso un altro individuo viene svolto da un beit din, che deve accertarsi sulla natura del voto, il suo contesto, la sua probabilità di poter essere adempiuto e così via. E in caso di annullamento di qualsiasi voto fatto tra singoli individui, entrambe le persone coinvolte devono essere esaminate dal tribunale e devono essere presenti affinché l’annullamento possa aver luogo. Che siano ebrei o gentili, la loro presenza è necessaria, nessun annullamento può aver luogo in segreto o come favore a una persona importante. Si tratta di un complesso accordo giuridico, con molte garanzie e requisiti di legge, e sembra che la formulazione del beit din cui viene chiesto di annullare i voti a vuoto o non adempibili sia iniziata abbastanza presto nel periodo rabbinico, anche se sapevano esplicitamente che l’annullamento di voti ha poche basi in qualsiasi testo: la Mishnà ci dice infatti: “le regole sull’assoluzione dei voti fluttuano nell’aria e non hanno nulla per essere sostenute”. (Hagigà 1:8)

Ma che dire della preghiera di Kol Nedarim che dà il nome a questo servizio? Questa preghiera, che riguarda tutti i nostri voti è stata descritta dai Geonim babilonesi nel VII secolo come un minhag shtut, un’usanza folle, ma a quel punto era già chiaramente inserita nella liturgia di Rosh HaShanà, forse come un modo per iniziare un nuovo anno con una tabula rasa, o perché risuonava con la magia delle benedizioni e delle maledizioni sulle coppe incantatorie del sesto secolo (oggetti rituali apotropaici con la funzione di trappole per demoni), magia che sarebbe stata conosciuta alla comunità, nonostante non avrebbe dovuto far parte della loro visione del mondo, e così da promettere una sorta di pulizia soprannaturale di un problema in un momento critico dell’anno.

Poiché era così profondamente radicata nelle usanze e nella comprensione popolare, i saggi babilonesi scesero a compromessi con il popolo e diedero alla formula aspetto religioso invece che legale, cercando mehilà, selichà ve kapparà, perdono, assoluzione ed espiazione, da Dio piuttosto che da qualsiasi entità umana. Avvalorarono questo testo con uno tratto dalla Bibbia: “E verrà perdonato a tutta la comunità dei figli di Israele e allo straniero dimorante fra essi, perché tutto il popolo ha parte nell’errore.”. (Numeri 15:26)

וְנִסְלַח, לְכָל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלַגֵּר, הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם:  כִּי לְכָל-הָעָם, בִּשְׁגָגָה.

Bishgaga: collettivamente abbiamo promesso delle cose a Dio per errore. È un’affermazione straordinaria, che va ben oltre le leggi di Nedarim e del versetto biblico. Ma ci dà lo spazio per riunirci e fare la nostra teshuvà con il sostegno della nostra comunità.

Anche dopo l’intervento dei geonim, cambiando l’obiettivo dei voti a quelli tra noi e Dio, cambiando l’intervallo di tempo dei voti e così via, abbiamo ancora tanti problemi con l’annullamento collettivo che facciamo ogni anno. Non è davvero possibile legalmente né annullare i voti retroattivamente né proattivamente, eppure è stato raggiunto un compromesso tra i bisogni spirituali delle persone e i testi legali del rabbinato attentamente e minuziosamente letti. Se solo fosse vero oggi.

La battaglia tra l’amore del popolo verso Kol HaNedarim e il disagio rabbinico con l’idea di annullare collettivamente i voti è lunga ed è in corso.

Ogni filone dell’ebraismo fino al primo movimento della Riforma ha cercato di rimuovere la formulazione dalla liturgia in varie occasioni, ma si è sempre trovato a doverla reinserire. Il potere dei bisogni e dei desideri delle persone in questo caso particolare è straordinario, si distingue nella nostra storia e pone la domanda: perché le persone venerano così tanto questa preghiera?

Perché questa preghiera è quasi l’unica cosa per cui gli ebrei hanno opposto resistenza alle sentenze rabbiniche? Attraverso le generazioni, dalle prime liturgie per gli Yamim Noraim fino ad oggi, gli ebrei ordinari chiedono il diritto come comunità di convocare un Beit Din comune, per rimuovere le pergamene nel servizio serale dall’Aron HaKodesh, che lasciamo aperte e vuote, e in presenza della comunità ripetere questa formulazione tre volte, ogni volta più forte della precedente.

Sappiamo come questa preghiera appaia ai non informati. L’idea che iniziamo il nostro servizio annullando qualsiasi voto fatto retroattivamente o proattivamente non suona bene al mondo esterno che non capirebbe che i voti in questione sono solo quelli tra noi e Dio. Molti ebrei che ascoltano Kol HaNedarim hanno avuto una vera esperienza vissuta degli usi antisemiti per cui questa preghiera è stata utilizzata. L’Europa cristiana ci ha chiamato perfidi interruttori di giuramenti proprio perché non capiva i limiti della preghiera di Kol HaNedarim, non capiva che era inquadrata nella relazione tra noi e Dio, non nelle relazioni tra esseri umani. Il More Judaico (giuramento ebraico) era una forma speciale di giuramento prestata nelle aule dei tribunali dell’Europa occidentale, radicata nell’antisemitismo e accompagnata da requisiti particolarmente spiacevoli come far stare l’ebreo sulla pelle insanguinata di un maiale per recitare le parole del giuramento o stare a testa nuda su uno sgabello traballante e picchiato qualora fosse caduto. Il More Judaico, umiliante, doloroso e ed intenzionalmente pericoloso era richiesto agli ebrei in alcuni tribunali europei fino al XX secolo.

Allora, che cosa c’è nella preghiera di Kol HaNedarim che ci induce ad aggrapparci a un enunciato di dubbia formulazione, denigrata dai rabbini e usata contro di noi in modo così crudele e violento dalle persone tra le quali abbiamo vissuto? Perché il popolo ebraico ha combattuto così costantemente e con determinazione per questa preghiera, arrivando a usarla per descrivere il servizio con cui ha inizio Yom Kippur? Per quale motivo attraverso le generazioni, attraverso i continenti, attraverso ogni espressione del popolo ebraico, questa formulazione: il Kol HaNedarim è così amata?

È una domanda cui non è possibile dare una risposta definitiva, ma penso che guidare questa determinazione a recitare e ascoltare le parole di questa preghiera, anche per gli ebrei che hanno pochi contatti con la liturgia o con la comunità, siano le idee gemelle del nostro obbligo e l’impegno per una relazione con qualcosa al di fuori di noi stessi e per il bisogno di connessione e possibilità di essere veramente visti e compresi, portando a un profondo perdono.

Se non dovessimo considerarci in qualche modo in obbligo verso Dio, per quanto distante possa essere questo sentimento nella nostra vita quotidiana ordinaria, non avremmo bisogno di una cerimonia per perdonarci di aver fallito in questo obbligo e aiutarci per trovare una via di ritorno. Il bisogno di relazione è fondamentale; la connessione col divino dà significato alla nostra vita, è in qualche modo connaturata in noi.

Proprio come il vidui, la recitazione dei nostri peccati, è una confessione pubblica collettiva che accade in ciascuno dei servizi di Yom Kippur, il Kol HaNedarim è una dichiarazione pubblica collettiva. Entrambe le preghiere lavorano a vari livelli nella liturgia, ma forse la più importante è quella di consentirci di dire, ad alta voce e all’interno della nostra comunità, cose che potremmo trovare quasi impossibili da dire o fare in altro modo. Non tutti abbiamo commesso tutti i peccati che confessiamo pubblicamente, eppure ci uniamo nella recitazione di tutti, sia per consentire a qualsiasi individuo di parlare senza essere notato o giudicato, sia per creare, e tornare ad essere, la  comunità che siamo. Le preghiere confessionali sono scritte in una particolare forma liturgica che usa l’intero alfabeto per descrivere i peccati, per mostrare che, quando recitiamo i peccati sulla pagina, stiamo anche confessando simbolicamente ogni altra forma di cattivo comportamento che sta macchiando le nostre anime, causandoci disagio spirituale o alienazione. Il punto del vidui è riportarci insieme, in maniera collettiva, al nostro momento di verità. Ci permette di essere la verità che cerchiamo. Ci ricorda i nostri impegni, gli obblighi attivi che ci siamo assunti e ci consente di essere chiari e onesti, all’interno della protezione di una comunità in preghiera.

Il suono dello shofar, che è stato suonato ogni giorno della settimana di Elul, e che sarà l’ultimo suono dei servizi di Yom Kippur, ci chiama anche a noi stessi. Il Tekià Gedolà è un po’ il corrispettivo del Kol HaNedarim, insieme a quella cerimonia di apertura, incornicia il viaggio che facciamo e rende lo spazio per noi completamente vero, pienamente consapevole del sacro dentro di noi, mentre entriamo a far parte della nostra comunità.

Il mio collega Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg scrive dello shofar Penso sempre allo shofar come proveniente dal profondo della creazione. Formato dal corno di un ariete o di una capra di montagna, il suo grido aspro e scabro richiama il legame che unisce tutta la natura, animale e umano. Parla senza parole della nostra nuda ed essenziale unione in questo mondo di freddo e calore, cibo e fame, vita e morte. Il respiro che fluisce attraverso lo shofar risuona con il ruach, il respiro o lo spirito che respira attraverso tutta la vita, lo spirito di Dio che aleggiava all’inizio del profondo e che crea e sostiene tutto l’essere vivente. Ci chiama alla casa del sacro in noi stessi e in tutta la vita.

Perché noi ebrei abbiamo combattuto per mantenere Kol HaNedarim, sia contro l’opposizione interna che contro l’obbrobrio che genera all’esterno? Penso perché ci consente di accedere a ciò che Jonathan chiama “il nostro nudo e fondamentale insieme … ci chiama alla casa del sacro … al legame della vita … al respiro di {Dio}”. Crea un luogo dove possiamo essere veramente chi siamo e dove le nostre anime possono dare la nostra espressione più autentica.

Così, quando iniziamo i servizi finali di questo periodo di Yamim Noraim, dei Giorni del timore reverenziale, con il Kol HaNedarim che riecheggia ancora nei nostri cuori e nelle nostre menti, viaggiamo insieme questa sera e domani in uno spazio di verità, consentendo la nostra consapevolezza del sacro in noi stessi e nel nostro mondo. E speriamo che quando domani sera Tekià Gedolà terminerà i servizi di Yom Kippur, potremo iniziare ad andare avanti nella nostra vita con una rinnovata consapevolezza del nostro scopo e dei sacri compiti dell’essere e del divenire, uniti e riempiti con il respiro di Dio.

 

 

 

Traduzione di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

26th Ellul- learning to forgive ourselves as God forgives

In the Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) we have the origin of the great confessional prayer of the Yamim Noraim, the Avinu Malkeinu.  “Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos, the great teacher and pious scholar descended before the Ark in order to serve as prayer leader on a fast day because of a terrible and prolonged drought.  He recited 24 blessings but was not answered. Then his student, Rabbi Akiva descended before the Ark and simply said “Avinu Malkeinu, Ein lanu melech ele atah, Avinu Malkeinu lema’an’cha rachem Aleinu: (Our Father, our Ruler, we have no sovereign other than You. Our Father, our Ruler, for Your sake, have mercy on us.”

Immediately the rains fell. The Sages began whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not. A Divine Voice emerged and said: It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”

Rabbi Eliezer was known for his fierce temper, and indeed was excommunicated when his colleagues could no longer deal with his domineering and strict viewpoints – though interestingly both he and his learning were always held in great respect and he is one of the most quoted rabbis in Talmud. But he was not a person who found forgiveness easy to do, nor did he find it easy to let go of his anger – indeed the story of his wife Ima Shalom who supervised his prayers after the excommunication in order to prevent his anger overtaking the world is a powerful end to the story of the oven of Achnai, and a reminder that when someone is so certain of the rightness of their view that there is danger for us all.

But Akiva, the one who could forgive others, had a simple prayer answered;  a prayer that did not even mention the desperate need for rain, but asked God for mercy for God’s own sake.

This is the origin of Avinu Malkeinu – and also of the extraordinary – and powerfully resonant – last lines of the prayer.

Over the year many additions have been made to this prayer. Sephardi machzorim generally have 32 petitions, the Ashkenazi ones can go up to 44. Some requests are particular and some are universal, some ask directly for favours, others remind God of the vulnerability of the people. But the last lines are different, they special and are specially loved – so much so that we have changed the longstanding tradition of saying them quietly but instead lustily and happily remind God to be merciful as is God’s nature, because we have no good deeds to bring. All this to a joyful tune, quite different from the solemn and rather serious tune of the rest of the prayer.

The Dubner Maggid tells the story of the person who goes shopping, excitedly adding more and more items to their “buy” list. All the petitions are in effect  us saying “I’ll take that, and that, and give me that too please”  And then when we get to the till, we find we cannot pay for everything we have taken, and in embarrassment have to say to the cashier – can you help me? Can you give me some credit and I will try to pay you in the coming year.  As long as I have a good year – please add a good year to my basket…

The embarrassment referred to in the story of the Dubner Maggid is all but disappeared today. Instead we proudly and clearly stand before an open Ark and list our requests to God. The Avinu Malkeinu is in each of the services; it is one of the last prayers in Neilah, the evening of Yom Kippur. We have spent the day reflecting, we have spent the month before on Heshbon Nefesh, considering our previous behaviour. And on Yom Kippur we may fast and afflict our souls, but we also know that if we are more like Rabbi Akiva, able to forgive others, God will forgive us. Yom Kippur is the white fast for a reason – the colour is both the colour of mourning and the colour of joy. We can have both serious reflection and happy anticipation in our lives – and both are deserved.

10th Elul – the sin of giving in to despair

In the vidui, the confession to be recited so many times at this season, we find the phrase “Al cheit she’chatanu lefanecha b’tim’hon ley’vav – For the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair.”   It slips by almost unnoticed most of the time as we recite a catalogue of misbehaviours by rote. But is despair really a sin and can we repent of it and actively change our attitudes? R. Nachman of Bratslav is credited with crystallising the concept, saying “there is no such thing as despair” and even, on his death bed: “Assur l’hit’ya-esh  – It is forbidden to despair – never give up hope” (Likutei Moharan ll.78).

In our machzor the phrase comes in a set which includes the sins of plotting against others, hard heartedness, arrogance, and giving in to our evil impulse and secrecy.   It is a strange positioning – The giving in to despair is sandwiched between a sense of our own arrogance– literally eynaim ramot – raised eyes, and our own yetzer ha’ra – our selfishness and base inclination.  This placing seems to suggest that when we choose not to engage with reality, either by refusing to see what is around us or by allowing our internally constructed world view to dominate us – that is when despair creeps in.

Nachman also wrote Im atta m’amim she’y’cholin lekalkeil, ta’amin she’y’cholim le’taken: – If you believe that it is possible to break things, you must also believe that it is possible to repair things”.   So whatever we have broken in the past year let’s not despair, but know that it is time to repair by really noticing what is happening around us rather than living in the bubble of our own self constructed realities.

 

 

 

 

 

Ki Tavo:

Parashat Ki Tavo opens with two commandments which are connected to the land.  Bringing the First Fruits (known as Bikkurim) (1-11) and the Elimination of Tithes (Biur Ma’asrot) (v12-15).

As one would expect, both of these commandments require action – the first fruits of the ground are to be taken in a basket to God’s designated place, and handed over to the priest there. In the third year the owner of the property must give a proportion of the produce as a tithe that will go to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow.  So far so normal.  But the bible goes on to require speeches to be made while these two  commandments are to be carried out, and, unusually for Torah, it gives the actual texts to be said.  Biblical prayer is usually spontaneous, rising out of the immediate needs of the moment, and rarely recorded in any detail at all, yet here we have two separate declarations given verbatim, and the recital of these two passages have become counted in rabbinic tradition as positive commandments in their own right.

‘Mikkra Bikkurim’, the recital of the declaration of the first fruits, contains within it phrases that eventually were imported wholesale to become part of the Pesach Haggadah, going over the history of the exodus and the terrible painful situation that had preceded it, and personalising that history.  Vidui Ma’asrot, the Confession of Tithes, focuses on the completed observance of the mitzvah of giving tithes, but goes on to ask God ‘s help for the future. These two declarations begin with simple statements of action, but then move way beyond the actual observation of the commandments in the present moment to add meaning and weight.  They don’t stop with acknowledgement, but instead push the speaker and the hearer forward, beyond thanksgiving and into a place of deepened understanding.   Bikkurim takes the speaker into the past, the ancient ancestral past of a time when the land was not so settled and fruitful, of the time of Jewish suffering and slavery in Egypt, and of the redemption from that position.  It roots the speaker in history, and deliberately contrasts the situation of the speaker – their security in their own land, their economic and agricultural prosperity – with the insecurity, poverty and misery of the people in earlier times.

This then is followed by the Vidui Ma’asrot, which ends with the words “look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the land which you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey”

It is a prayer which notes the history – but only in terms of a passing nod to the ancestral promise that God would deliver to them a land fertile and prosperous. More than anything this is a petition for the future, a request for God to pay attention to the land and the people, a wish for a bright and untrammelled destiny.

Four mitzvot are contained in this section.  Two of them require the physical transference of the wealth of agricultural prosperity from their owner to others less economically secure – first the sacrifice of the first fruits of the ground, which is to be given to God via the priesthood of that time; secondly the giving of tithes to those who have no means of supporting themselves – the landless stranger, the ones who have no economic supporter to care for their produce, the Levites.  The food is to be shared out, no-one is to be hungry or uncared for in this system, and no one is to believe that they have absolute rights of ownership just because they are working this land at this time.

But the other two mitzvot are speeches, and they have become far more prominent in the text somehow than the actions to which they refer at the beginning.  The speeches provide a continuum of historical experience; they locate the actions of giving in a system of time and give meaning to the present in a religious dimension as well as a chronological one.  They provide a worship experience almost unprecedented in Torah. But they also provide a context and a philosophical understanding we can learn from today.

Taken together the two speeches trace time and interleave the lonely and painfilled vulnerability of the ‘arami oved avimy father was a wandering Aramean’ – into a world where God can be asked to look after, bless and care for Israel, both people and land.  Simultaneously wealth can be acknowledged and rejoiced over while the reminder of the fragility of any economic security is overtly stated.  A dialectic is set up between the history of Israel and the role of God.  It becomes clear that without full awareness of the history leading up to this moment there can be no understanding of the present, and certainly no awareness of what the future might hold.  Our history impacts upon us and informs our present.  Any awareness of future must be rooted in past as well as current experience.

At its most simple, the thanksgiving and joy for any prosperity of today can only be properly achieved when accompanied by an understanding of past sadness and pain; only by awareness of the depths of depression can one understand the heights of exaltation.  But there is much more to the two declarations than this.  They cry out for us to examine our lives and our history before beginning to draw conclusions about our present existence; to understand where we and others are rooted before making plans for the future.

We are approaching the last week of the month of Ellul, traditionally a time for examining our lives, for considering our situations and for trying to make changes for the better in our existence.  We cannot do this in a vacuum.  We have to take into account our history, all the experiences that have fed into who we are today, the sad as well as the happy, those that cause us pain as well as those of which we feel proud.  We have to accept the reality of what has been our own story, before we can begin to see where we might journey on towards. And like those who declared the Mikra Bikkurim and the Vidui Ma’asrot we have to see the place of other people in our story, and to look for the presence of God in it too, even if only to ask God to notice and pay some attention to our lives.

Looking at the texts of the two prayers, maybe we also have to be able to say that we have taken some action already, have recognised our responsibility to act in our world to make it a better place.  These prayers remind us that while we examine our lives, we must see ourselves as part of a whole greater than ourselves. What we do in the world out there has impact, how we behave towards others matters – and maybe most importantly how we see ourselves in relation to others – and them in relation to us – be it in an historical or a geographical perspective, in a theological or political or even a societal dimension, that is the essence of our understanding.  Our lives cannot be limited to here and now. Our existence cannot be so narrow as only to focus on those we know, or those we care about personally.  Judaism has always taught us to operate in the broader world and at this time, when we are liable to focus down into ourselves religiously we should remember the imperative built into the two declarations which begin the sidra of ki Tavo.