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Kol Nidre: the dark night of the soul

10/05/2022 09:06:39 PM


Rabbi Minster

I am wearing a kittel today because I am practicing for my physical death. 


When we fast on Yom Kippur, we do so to focus on our prayers and the contemplation they ideally invoke. We are acting like angels – trying to cast off the material realm and focusing solely on deep, authentic connection to the Eternal. This is what it means to practice for our physical deaths.


On another level, what we do during Yom Kippur is more than practice. When the liturgy works and the day’s themes work their magic on us, we have the opportunity to die and be reborn. 


Tonight we are in the dark night of the soul. Kol Nidre washed over us, pierced our defenses, and laid bare all that we’ve been hiding from. 


We’re pretty good people. 

Was there a day when we judged someone too quickly?

Did we spread rumors about someone, which we thought were true; but turned out to be tales we spun in our heads?


We’re pretty good people.

Was there a day when we blew up at our children?

Did we curse at the driver in front of us?

Did we curse at a beloved friend?


We’re pretty good people. 

Did we protect ourselves so much from being hurt that we left ourselves on the edges of community?

Were we so afraid of not having enough that we gave very little to tzedakah?

Did we not allow ourselves the opportunity to find a path of prayer that speaks to our souls?


We’re pretty good people. 


Kol Nidre is about facing the ways, big and small, that we don’t live up to the people we could be. It is not about promising to be perfect. The same legal dismissal of vows will come again at the beginning of next year’s Yom Kippur. We know that we will fail. 


Judaism is not a path to perfection.

We are the people who wrestle with the Divine.


In Genesis 32:29, Jacob is told:

וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי־שָׂרִיתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל׃ 

Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” 

שָׂרִיתָ you have striven

שָׂרָה from the root

contend with, persist, exert oneself, persevere


We are the descendants of Yisrael, the one who contends with El, with God. We are the God wrestlers. 


We do not get our name from Avraham, who followed every Divine call he heard and was willing to sacrifice his child for the sake of his belief in God. 


We do not get our name from Isaac, who was willing to be sacrificed. Isaac, whose wife and son had direct relationships with God.


Our forefathers were not perfect. And I do not say any of this to disparage them. I say this to help wake us up. 


We are Yisrael. We are the ones who wrestle with the beings divine and human. 


We wrestle with the meaning of Truth. We mostly agree on facts – at least in this building – but we wrestle with the deeper Truth. The Truth that it is not always easy to be kind and be true. The Truth that sometimes we must cover the full truth in order to create a more peaceful community. The Truth that while it is easy to tune out after a hard day of work, some of our time should be spent wrestling with the bigger issues in life. 


We wrestle with Justice, with Tzedek. We might disagree on the details about how to make a more peaceful world; but we do so respectfully. When we find common ground, we work together to live into the future we envision. 


So what is the vision we are living into? 

That’s not for me to decide. 


This dark night of the soul is about cracking open our hearts and discovering our souls, our Truth. 


Tonight is about reflecting on what is most meaningful to each of us. And how we make time for that every single day. 


Tonight is about the journey within. The journey that begins by acknowledging that no one is perfect. We are all guilty of cheit, of unintentional sins. We don’t mean to go astray, but sometimes we do. 


Tonight is about facing all the ways that we haven’t lived up to our vision for ourselves, and then letting it go. 


Yes, we will continue confessing our sins. At Shacharit in the morning and at Neilah, as the gates begin to close in the evening, we will confess. Each time we say the confession, perhaps a different episode in the past year will spring up in our mind’s eyes. Perhaps as we go through the journey of the Day of Atonement together, each repetition will allow us to become more honest with ourselves, while simultaneously feeling less bound by our past transgressions.


Admitting we are wrong is the first step to transformation. 


If life is to become a continuous transformation into the best people we can be, we must start by accepting that we have faults. 


We do not have to confess our sins to our rabbi. It is not necessary to admit the ways we fail to live up to our internal standards to anyone except to ourselves and to the Eternal. That is why we have time for personal confession during Yom Kippur.


If we have wronged another person, yes we should provide a proper apology. As importantly, we need to create wider definitions of what it means to live into our highest selves.


How do we speak about people who have hurt us without disparaging them?


How do we express ourselves in ways that take up enough room while leaving space for others?


Are we ready to accept that this Yom Kippur has the possibility to be more transformative than any other year? 


Can we suspend our disbelief long enough to participate in our own ritual deaths and rebirths?


Is our relationship with mortality too painful for us to go on this journey?


Have we lost people so dear to us that the fact that I’ve mentioned the word “death” so many times made you want to tune out?


I understand how painful the loss of our beloved family and friends is. Yet as my kids keep telling me, we’re all going to die. So let’s take some time tonight to really hone in on our own mortality. 


Jewish tradition teaches us to repent the day before we die. Since we never know what day we will die, we should repent on a daily basis. Even so, Yom Kippur is a unique moment to take our mortality seriously and repent wholeheartedly. 


We should remember that every existential crisis is an opportunity for growth. 


Not everything can be explained by science. The goal is not surface happiness, but deep-rootedness. A connection to meaning, community, and purpose. 


Meaning: articulating for ourselves the meaning of human existence.

Community: the community that supports us on our journeys through life.

Purpose: our individual life’s purpose as part of the wider community. 


Our job titles are not our purpose. 

Our bank accounts are not our purpose.

The size of our families is not our purpose.


Our purpose is the inner path we are each on towards our own depths. Our purpose is how we use our gifts in support of our communities. 

Our purpose is how we take each opportunity for human interaction as a gift; an opportunity to make space for the souls around us and the soul within us. 

Tonight is a night of heart break. A night to acknowledge that we have not lived up to the Truth inside ourselves. 


Our souls yearn to be expressed. 

Our souls yearn to swim in the pools of depth. 

Our souls want us to make space for the Eternal. 

To feel the light of the Eternal within and to connect that light with everyone around us. 


May we allow ourselves to connect to the depths within ourselves. 


May we know that underneath the pain of facing our own mortality, the joy of meaning awaits us. 


May this community hold space for our true selves.


Our liturgy says that to make life bearable, we should participate in teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. 


May this community be a place where teshuvah, returning to the path of Goodness & Love, is possible.


May this community be a place where all forms of tefillah, all forms of prayer are possible. 


Tefillah is a form of dialog with oneself that provides space for self-reflection. 


Tefillah creates space for the possibility that there is something beyond ourselves that we should align ourselves with.


Tefillah honors our spiritual journeys.


Tefillah creates space for the expression of our souls.


May we each find the form of tefillah that helps us live into ourselves.


May this community be strong enough to hold a multitude of  expressions of tzedakah: righteousness, which means our obligations towards one another. 


Tzedakah is our obligation to provide monetary aid to those in need.


Tzedakah is our obligation to provide funding to communal organizations.


Tzedakah is our obligation to provide mutual aid: food and clothing and housing and health care to every human being.


Tzedakah is our obligation to value the souls around us and the souls within us. 


May this community be a beacon of tzedakah. 


On this Day of Atonement, may we be filled with at one-ness. 


May the light of the Divine help clarify what is truly meaningful in our lives. And may we have the courage to live into that vision.


G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

May we be sealed into the vision we find today. May our lives in the coming year be fuller and more connected.


G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

Mon, May 29 2023 9 Sivan 5783