Leaving Perfect to God

Sermon by Rabbi Jill Rubin on Kol Nidre, 5783
October 4, 2022

Sermon Text:

“Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That is how the light gets in.”
–The Anthem, Leonard Cohen

Two years ago, my husband, Ryan and I were living with my parents in Northern California, as many people my age did during the worst of the pandemic. I was a 4th year rabbinical student at the time, arguably the most consequential year of the 5 year program. During our 4th year on the New York campus, we were finally allowed to take electives, we picked our topics for our 5th year theses, and we wrote and delivered our senior sermons.

It was meant to be a year full of great opportunity and growth. Instead, it was a year of isolation, loss, and exhaustion. Yes, I delivered a senior sermon that I was very proud of, but I was standing in my parent’s dining room instead of the bimah of the HUC chapel. I took fascinating courses on Reform Jewish halakha and Talmud, but I was waking up at 5 AM to make it to Zoom class. As many of us did during this time, I eventually hit a wall. Hard. And I realized that something had to change.

Throughout that year, my classmates and I spoke a great deal about Post Traumatic Growth, a concept that Rabbi Mosbacher preached about last Rosh Hashanah. We processed our grief by thinking together about what we had learned – how we had learned to comfort mourners from a distance, to lead prayer on Zoom, and to teach 7th graders online without them falling asleep.

During a supervision meeting, a professor challenged me to think personally rather than professionally. What had I learned from this time that would help me as an individual, not necessarily as a rabbi? How had I grown or changed?

“I have learned to leave perfect to God,” I told her with a smile on my face.

As someone who has always self-identified as a perfectionist, this was a huge deal for me. When I took a step back from the chaos and looked at myself in the mirror, I could see that I was suffering.

Over the course of the pandemic, I realized that I could no longer strive for perfection in everything I was doing; it was simply not sustainable for that moment in time. Sometimes the bare minimum was all I could accomplish on a given day, and I recognized that it was still better than nothing.

Tonight, on October 4, 2022, two years later, many of us are back in the sanctuary for the first or second time in 3 years. The worst of it is, we pray, behind us. For those who went remote, many of us are now back in our offices at least a couple times a week. Our children are back in school and our lives feel more “normal” than they have in a long time. And yet, we are still trudging through the muck. People continue to get sick, a war rages in Ukraine and there is little we can do about it, inflation is skyrocketing, the political divide is becoming more extreme, our world is on fire, and the Mets just got swept by the Braves.

If you’ve been feeling tired and defeated lately, I want you to know that you’re not alone. If you’ve been feeling less than yourself, troubled and anxious that you are not at your best, you are not alone.

The message I want to leave with you tonight is a simple one: This Yom Kippur, please give yourself grace.

As Jews, we don’t often speak about grace, but I assure you, it is a very Jewish concept. The word for grace in Hebrew is chen, and it is actually one of the 13 attributes that we use to describe God in our High Holiday liturgy. You’ll hear our Cantorial Intern, Ella Gladstone Martin, chant these beautiful words before we take the Torah out of the ark tomorrow morning. In the liturgy, God is called chanun, the grace giving one, along with other characteristics such as compassionate and slow to anger.

The word chen first appears in our Torah in the book of Genesis, when we are introduced to the character of Noah. As the story goes, God is unhappy with the wickedness of humankind on earth, and regrets having ever created human beings. With a “sorrowful heart,” God plans to blot out all living things, including humankind, from the face of the earth. But, the Torah tells us,

וְנֹ֕חַ מָ֥צָא חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י ה’׃; Noah found grace in the eyes of God.1

What does God do? God saves Noah’s life by commanding him to build an ark, while the rest of humankind is utterly destroyed by a flood. The Torah describes Noah as a righteous man, but adds that he is blameless or wholesome b’dorotav, in his generation. The biblical authors want us to understand that Noah may be righteous, but that his righteousness is relative to the people who live among him, an evil and greedy people according to the text. Therefore, we can understand God’s grace as a sign of acceptance. God knows that Noah is not perfect; he is not purely righteous. But he is righteous in his generation, and that merits grace from God.

The word chen is also used throughout the Torah to describe one person extending grace, or acceptance, to another. When Joseph is taken as a slave in the Egyptian officer Potiphar’s home, we read that “Joseph found grace in Potiphar’s eyes.”2 Because of this, the Egyptian officer elevates Joseph’s status, making Joseph his personal attendant in charge of all of his possessions. Again, this grace is a type of acceptance in spite of Joseph’s identity as an Israelite man. Joseph is flawed in Potiphar’s eyes, simply by nature of who his family is and where he is from, but Potiphar still offers him grace by elevating his status.

You may be wondering, what does any of this have to do with Yom Kippur? How can we talk about grace on a day when we are supposed to be confessing our sins and depriving ourselves of the things that we need to survive?

Well, I would argue that the central liturgy of tonight’s service, Kol Nidre, is the most radical form of grace and compassion that we can give ourselves. Let me explain why.

Kol Nidre is one of the most well known pieces of liturgy in our tradition. As Rabbi Alan Lew, alav hashalom, writes: “When we recite the Kol Nidre, God calls out to the soul, in a voice the soul recognizes instantly because it is the soul’s own cry.”3

The music of Kol Nidre is hauntingly beautiful. Its melody speaks to us in a way that very few prayers do, on a night when many of us have just begun a 25 hour fast. An entire service, Erev Yom Kippur, is named after it. And yet, we don’t often speak about what it says, what it means.

The text of Kol Nidre is written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Jewish people beginning with the Babylonian Exile. It is, according to Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, both more and less than a prayer. More than a prayer in that it is an entire ritual in and of itself, and less than a prayer in that it is actually a legal formula.4

This legal formula, for all of our attorneys in the sanctuary, is a long, comprehensive list that outlines all of the different types of vows and oaths and promises that a person could make in a year. It then declares that those vows and oaths and promises that we made to God, the vows which we took upon ourselves with the best possible intent to fulfill but were not able to, are now null and void.

When I was preparing to preach on Kol Nidre this year, I immediately went to our machzor to read the text. I normally feel a sense of discomfort when reading this prayer. I don’t like the idea that our vows can be voided so easily, especially when Judaism emphasizes that our words matter, that our words carry great weight. After all, God created the world simply with words.

But this time as I read the prayer, I felt something different. This time, when I read the text of Kol Nidre, I read a piece of liturgy that accepts me for my flaws and my imperfection. I read a piece of liturgy that gives me permission to make a mistake because I can try again next year as a changed person. This, I believe, is radical grace.

Over the course of Jewish history, rabbis have been hesitant to include Kol Nidre in the Erev Yom Kippur service. The geonim, the rabbinic heads of the Talmudic assemblies in Babylonia in the 8th and 9th centuries, claimed that Kol Nidre contradicted Jewish law. And centuries of rabbinic figures have argued that Kol Nidre feeds the fire of antisemitism, afraid that it would validate the bigoted viewpoint that Jews are not trustworthy and cannot keep their commitments. Even our predecessors, the early Reformers, tried to cut it from the machzor because, as enlightened rationalists, they did not like the message that it conveyed.

And yet, Kol Nidre remains in our liturgy, as one of the first sounds we hear on one of the holiest nights of the Jewish calendar.

Our machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, addresses vows made “miyom kippurim zeh ad yom kippurim ha’bah,” from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement. However, the original words of the prayer forgave vows made in the past year. The shift to forgive vows made in the future, as is written in our machzor, only came about in the 13th century.5

Rabbi Aaron Panken, zichrono livracha, teaches that these words of Kol Nidre in our machzor come from the Rabbinic rules of hatarat nedarim – the releasing of vows.6 The rabbinic sages of old held the power to release individuals from vows they had made to God if those vows were unfulfilled, so this annual blanket statement allowed the sages to release the vows of the future should the need arise. On the one hand, the rabbis deeply hoped that the Jewish people would follow through with their vows. On the other hand, they knew they had to make room for error, that human beings could not be expected to be perfect.

The preamble to Kol Nidre asks permission of the heavenly court for us to pray with sinners. We are those sinners. And yet, Kol Nidre does not tell us we are damaged. It does not tell us that we are beyond help. Instead, it tells us that we should always do our best to keep our promises and fulfill our vows, but we also cannot predict the future, and we cannot control most of the circumstances of the past. No one in this room wanted to live through the historic event of the pandemic. And we cannot predict what is to come in the next year.

Kol Nidre tells us that we can withstand the unknown, and we can be forgiven for the errors we made in the past. Kol Nidre recognizes our imperfection and tells us that we can and should be gracious with ourselves; that as long as we keep trying with whatever we have, we are ok.

And Jewish tradition teaches that when we give ourselves grace, God does the same. There is a wonderful story in the midrash that plays with a verse in the book of Hosea, שׁ֚וּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל עַ֖ד ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ; Return, Israel, to the Eternal your God.7 The midrash, trying to explain this verse, compares God to a king and us, the Jews, to the king’s child. As the parable goes, the child of the king was far from his father, a distance of 100 days away. The people who loved him most begged him to return to his father, but he did not have the strength. “I cannot go,” he told them, and they relayed the message to the king. When the king received the message, he sent for his son, and said to him, “Journey what you can according to your strength, and I will come to you the rest of the way.” So, too, the Holy Blessed One said to the people of Israel, “Turn back to me and I will turn back to you.”8

I find this story truly extraordinary. For it shows that on any given journey, when we go the distance that we can, when we try our best, God will meet us the rest of the way. Our journey tonight is all about repentance and atonement, and some of us find ourselves with more strength than others.

If you are in the throes of mourning tonight, you might only be able to take one step on your journey. And if you are sick, or a loved one is sick, you might not be able to move at all. But if you feel good and healthy and strong, maybe you can go farther, do more, push yourself a little bit harder.

Wherever you find yourself tonight, you are only asked to journey according to your strength, to accept yourself as you are right now. God will meet you the rest of the way. This is divine grace, the chen that we speak about in God’s 13 attributes. And, it is only possible when we are compassionate enough with ourselves to know and accept our limits.

On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Mosbacher spoke beautifully about pressing on our souls gently, about doing the necessary work of repentance, but still being gentle with ourselves as we rebuild our inner mishkan. And I want to emphasize that this work should not end with the closing of the gates during Neilah this evening.

Offering ourselves grace means accepting ourselves for our flaws and imperfections. And it is much harder out there, in the real world. We all know that. Sometimes, too many people demand too many things from us. Sometimes, our transgressions, or the transgressions of others towards us, have caused damage beyond repair.

But chen is still something we can strive for as we wake up each morning and go to bed each night. When we can envelop ourselves in acceptance, when we can recognize that we’re already beautiful and whole, we are well on our way to becoming the best versions of ourselves. When we can accept ourselves for our imperfections, we know that God will, too.

Tonight, as we near the end of our Kol Nidre service, as we prepare for the soul-searching and chest-pounding of tomorrow, I want to bless you all with the priestly benediction. This is one of the oldest blessings in our tradition, and we find the words directly in our Torah. The benediction asks God for the most sacred things that we could want in our lives, and one of these things is grace – listen for chen, the word for grace, inside of the word vichuneka in the second line of the blessing.

יְבָרֶכְךָ ה’, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
May God bless you and keep you.
יָאֵר ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
May God’s face shine upon you, and may God offer you grace.

יִשָּׂא ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
May God lift God’s face to you, and may God give you the gift of peace.

This Yom Kippur, I pray that we learn to give ourselves grace. I pray that we heed the message of our Kol Nidre prayer and accept our imperfections as markers of our humanity. And most of all, I pray that our cracks let God’s light in, inviting God into our midst, now and always.

*I want to thank the following people who read and workshopped this sermon with me: Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, Rabbi Jerome Davidson, Lee Rubin, and Ryan Rakower.

1 Genesis 6:8

2 Genesis 39:4

3 Lew, Alan. This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (p. 178). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

4 Hoffman, All These Vows – Kol Nidre

5 Hoffman, All These Vows, Location 276, Kindle Edition.

6 Panken, All These Vows, Location 3534, Kindle Edition.

7 Hosea 14:2

8 Pesikta Rabbati Parasha 44