Kol Nidre 5778/2017: Getting to Know You

Rabbi Shohama Wiener

When I was a child I think I learned most about spirituality from Rodgers and Hammerstein, The King and I in particular. I can still recall Deborah Kerr singing to Yul Brynner, “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me.”

Of course, the King she was singing about was a human king, a kind of a bully with a good heart. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized the parallel with God and us. The love that we feel for other persons, whatever their gender, is a microcosm of what our Creator feels for us. Torah tells us we are “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of the Divine. As God loves, so do we. And the Divine is not gendered; to use the word King is just a metaphor; we might say Shechinah or Queen or Holy One, or even Higher Power or Higher Self.

On these High Holy Days we come face to face with our powerlessness, and our concerns with what the future year will bring. This can be both scary and hopeful. Our teachings ask us to be both judging and forgiving. As God, so are we. The Thirteen Attributes of God listed in our prayer book include “El rachum v’chanum. God of mercy and kindness. (Ex. 34:6)

The claims in our liturgy are powerful. We will soon read “Anu amecha v’atah Eloheynu. We are your people and you are our God…We are Your companion, and You our Beloved.”

But do we believe that and can we feel that? This is a huge challenge for those of us in the 21st century. How can we love and be loved by a Power who allows such suffering throughout the ages? The words of Kol Nidre were a response to the Spanish Inquisition. Many of us remember clearly the Holocaust, either because we have relatives who lived through it, or we heard their stories. And today, people everywhere are suffering during to war, hurricanes, earthquakes, and indifference.

To answer this question of how might we feel God’s love, we can look to the Hasidic movement, started by the Baal Shem Tov several hundred years ago. It showed us how to feel the joy of the Holy Ones’s presence and love through song, dance, and fervent prayer, both communal and personal. We in this congregation are descendants of this movement, modernized to meet our standards of egalitarianism, inclusion and honoring of all races, gender and sexual identities, and faith or secular backgrounds. We believe that God, or The Good with a capital “G” can be known in many ways, and all of these ways can be paths to experiencing the Divine.

First– the path of Form, of Action. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh. All Israel (that is all God-wrestlers) are responsible for each other’s welfare, and today we would add—responsible for the welfare of our bodies, and the home called Earth that we all share. We support each other through deeds of lovingkindess to individuals, and through tikkun olam, deeds of lovingkindness for the world. Together we can create shalom, wholeness in bodily comfort. This shalom we feel is the presence of God.

Second– the path of Heart, of Feelings. We come as community to share each other’s joys and sorrows, so that no one feels alone in their struggles. We ask each other’s forgiveness for inadvertent ways in which we may have hurt each other. Most important we aim to forgive ourselves for being less than our best. Together we can create shalom, wholeness in feeling cared for, despite our losses. This sense of being cared for is a sense of God’s presence.

Third—the path of Mind, of Thought. We commit ourselves to learning and questioning through study of Torah and texts, and the individual areas of knowledge and skill that each of us is drawn to explore. We can find shalom by engaging our minds in service of all life. That excitement and uplift we find in using our minds this way is a part of God.

Fourth—the path of the Soul, Spirit. Soul comes from Beyond, entering our bodies at birth and returning to Source when we die. When we connect with our soul we can feel elevated, expanded, and whole with the universe. We may have a sense of shleimut, wholeness, of merging with the all that is. All that is, is that which many call God.

These four paths are open to us, and each of us may have preferences for some over others. Yet none of us is shaleim, complete, without all four. We have an opportunity in these next 25 hours to assess where we are and where we want to be. Take a moment now—where are you in the path of Form or Action, Heart or Feelings, Mind or Thought, and Soul or Spirit? Where do you want to be? [PAUSE] Our prayer services include each of these paths; please make use of them.

On Yom Kippur we pray as a collective, for ourselves and for each other. My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, wrote this( The First Step, Bantam Books, NY, 1983, p. 63):

“You are the instrument on which God plays.” What an image! You are an instrument and God the musician who is making music through you. What would it be like to feel that you are the Creator’s instrument and that God is making holy music through your thoughts and deeds?  It is vital that you are tuned correctly. When you are, the Spirit of God can rest on you and the music will flow sweetly. If you’re out of tune when you present yourself to God, all the music that follows will be off-key, sour, and not quite right.”

This Holy Day, this Yom Kippur, is called the Day of Atonement. I invite you now to consider it the Day of Attunement. Just change one sound—make the “oh” an “ooh” and to atone becomes to attune. Perhaps our regrets are like strings out of tune; they make us resonate either sharp or flat. When we lose our temper or say unkind words, we might say our strings have gone sharp. When we fail to act according to our highest values we might say our strings have gone flat. When our thoughts and deeds are in beautiful harmony, then we are in tune, with ourselves, and with others who are also in tune. Together we make holy sounding harmonies. This is one way of conceptualizing shalom and shleimut, wholeness and completion within and without.

This brings us to the question of who or what is the Tuner with a capital T. We have many names for this Tuner, none of which can be fully true, but each a fractal reflection of the Holy One. Our prayer book calls God by many names–Adonai, Eloheynu, Creator, Beloved, Guide, Redeemer, Shepherd. We can add others—Mystery, Source, Higher Power, Comfort. None of these say it all. The Holy One revealed the Divine Name to Moses as Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh. I will be what I will be. Perhaps the Face of the Divine will be whatever each one of us needs in the moment.

Many who feel close to God use the name Hashem, which literally means The Name. Most often I address the Holy One as God spelled G-d, because that dash between G and d to me represents Spirit.

The aspect of God that created the Big Bang, and created us as well is so far beyond our comprehension that the Jewish mystics called it Ein Sof, Without End. An intelligence so beyond our grasp created the blueprint that took us from amoebae to human beings. Reason tells us that the Great Intelligence that is our Creator can’t possibly care about the details of our individual lives. And so our teachers of old imagined that Ein Sof had many emanations, messengers so to speak, that could relate to us on an individual level. Some of the emanations are names or qualities of God and some are called malachim, angels. Our Hasidic ancestors taught us that there is a dimension of God that is like the most caring of parents or friends. This conception of God is one we can chat with, cry out to, and cling to for love and support. This God can hear our anger, our frustration, and still be patient and loving. Today we sing longingly to “Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanum, erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet.” We sing to God, Holy One, Source of mercy and compassion, patient, loving and truthful.

My own practice for personal prayer is to speak to God both at fixed times, and whenever I feel the need… always before I start my day; sometimes sitting at my desk, driving in the car, or before a challenging meeting or task. Can I be sure God is listening? Of course not, but the love I often feel when I connect to God and the amazing way my life has unfolded seems to me evidence that God is real. God doesn’t always answer the way I want. Sometimes I feel the answer is “not yet,” and sometimes it seems the answer is “no.” Some prayers have taken more than 20 years before I received a positive answer.

How do we know the voice of God? The voice of God is rarely a booming voice like in the movie The Ten Commandments; most often it is our conscience speaking to us and guiding us, like “a still, small voice.” Sometimes the voice of God comes through our intuition. Always it counsels us to do good deeds and not harmful ones. Sometimes it comes through seemingly serendipitous events. As the theme for this holy day is forgiveness, we might think of God as both the voice and the power that helps us to forgive.

I have a lot of experience with forgiveness. My history with God and Judaism is a broken one—close as a child, distant as a young adult. I left after confirmation at age 15 and came back at age 36, having had a spiritual opening. But when I came back I carried anger for feeling deprived, for not having known that Judaism had a spiritual and mystical dimension somewhat similar to many other faith traditions. It was anger that I didn’t know how to direct or deal with. But with God’s help—and time— I realized that my loss had fueled a spiritual passion—to help others find God and follow a spiritual Jewish path. With that, I forgave my parents and my rabbis for not modeling for me what they themselves did not feel or know.

Let me conclude with an idea that helped me be brave enough to reach out to God lo those many years ago. To paraphrase the philosopher William James, “If I rely on God and God is not real, I have nothing to lose. If God is real, and I don’t turn to God for help, I have everything to lose.” Can we take a leap of faith and imagine that all the words we say and sing this Yom Kippur are messages to one or more of the emanations of God? This then is my prayer.

May God bring us strength to take this risk of imagination—claiming these images and words as our own– that together we may tune ourselves for our highest good, and the highest good of all. Then we will resonate in harmony. We will be attuned with shalom—and be instruments in a symphony for wholeness and peace. May it be.


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