To not regret the past, nor close the door on it.
Rabbi Robert Tobin
Kol Nidrei 2018 5779
B’nai Shalom, West Orange NJ
Erev Tov. Kol Nidrei.
“God, forgive the promises we made but could never keep. Forgive the promises that were made under duress. We were forced. Or we were afraid. We were foolishly optimistic, or too trusting. We did it to make something better, or to stop it from getting worse. And it didn’t work. We became liars. We became promise breakers. We became disappointments. We became unreliable. Untrustworthy.”
Is that who we are? Is that all others will think or know or remember about us? Is that everything? Does it negate the good? Does it call in to question all the promises kept? The responsibilities met? The problems solved? The time spent? Does breaking a promise break a relationship? Does it end love?
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes no. Tonight we look in the mirror and know that we have not done not only everything we could have done or should have done. We have not done everything we promised to do.
We need kol nidrei for the ones beyond our control. We need yom kippur for the ones within our control.
Tonight I am not afraid of the year ahead. I am afraid of the year behind. It is not the future that we fear tonight. It is the past. Tomorrow, in the unetaneh tokef we will look to the future. For now, we pull the past into the room with us. And the goal tonight and tomorrow is not to close the door on the past, or to regret it. Tonight we come to terms with it.
There are so many ways that the past can continue to harm us. A grudge. A resentment. Guilt. Genuine guilt. Anger. Pain. What I didn’t do. What they didn’t do for me. What I did. What they did to me.
The most common is a bitter grudge. Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. [summarize story here, conclude how bitter grudges can destroy the world].
When Nathan said to David [summarize story here briefly w/o detail], “you are the man,” David accepted the accusation, the terrible losses that came from it, sat shiva and then… somehow… got up and returned to rule his kingdom. How? Surely David could have argued. He could have lawyered up. He could have claimed royal privilege and immunity from prosecution. But in fact, he couldn’t. It is because he was king that he couldn’t. The Torah commands that the king will make a copy of the torah himself, read from it every day and carry it with him on all journeys. Grudges only fester with their twin sin: evasion. Avoidance. Denial. If it needs to be addressed, address it. Some part of it needs to be owned. Own it. Some part is reparable. Fix it. Some part of it is educational. Name it. Some part of it may rise again one day in temptation to thwart you. Transcend it. Learn from it. The Torah contains not just the blessings, but the curses as well. Not just the victories against Moab, but the defeat under the King of Arad. The king brings all of this with him every day.
When Jacob wrestled with the Angel, he was intent on a blessing. He was afraid, as he prepared for what? To meet his estranged, powerful brother who had every reason to resent and hate him. Jacob had bought the birthright for a bowl of stew when Esau was hungry. He had dressed up as Esau to take the blessing from their father Isaac on his deathbed. What was Jacob feeling that night? Confidence? Vindication? Or fear? Guilt? Crossing the river and wrestling the angel in the dark of night. Yes, he acquires a blessing. But he is rendered lame for the rest of his life by the encounter. You may win, but become the walking wounded.
When King Hussein of Jordan came to Israel on March 16, 1997 to visit the shiva of a murdered Israeli girl… killed by a Jordanian soldier in a terrorist attack… what might he have felt? Guilt? Shame? Evasion? Blame the other? Could he have felt resentment for the loss in war in 1967? How do we move forward when such horrible things really do happen in our lives? He felt loss. He identified with the father and the mother who lost their child, and felt pain. He had come to a place, with Rabin and Israel, where the past was fact – not a battlefield to be fought over every day. He was not the walking wounded.
The worst pain that carries forward are the pains of betrayal or abuse. When we were victims to another’s sickness. Again, guilt, shame, complicity – self-accusation, self-debasement as a result. The inability to find joy in love or trust when those things are taken and the burden continues seemingly forever. But these too are pointers to truths beyond our control. The pain of betrayal shows the need for trust. The harm in intimacy points to the desire for caring. These take a lifetime not to forget, but to name and to transcend. I am not what anyone else has done to me. I am today, and today can be full and beautiful, safe and caring. I may have a limp, but darn it I can walk.
Think of a time of loss. When you sat by the one you loved as they died, or as you heard their eulogy. Were you at peace? Was everything said? Was what should be left behind learned from, named and carried forward?
Everything we have done, and that we have experienced, has made us who we are in this moment: a creation of God, taken from hope and love and given life and opportunity to pursue time. We are each of unique purpose, and seek that purpose in all that we have learned. Everything that has happened has given us something that we need and can use as we look to our own future, and share the present with those we are near. Your greatest pain and fear may help you to understand another. Your toughest diagnosis may help guide another being shocked by their own news.
Yes. Kol Nidrei. Forgive us what we could not fulfill. Let our guilt flow into our hearts, our hands, our minds as we seek to learn to love better, do better and understand more from what we have done. From what they did. From what was undone. From life.
Tonight we promise, We will not regret the past nor wish to close the door on it. We will know serenity and discover peace. God grant us full memory, whole hearts, and from time to time a limp that allows us to carry on.
L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’teichateimu.