Tonight is Kol Nidre. We like Jews around the world are gathering with solemn thoughts of the wrongs we did and the wrongs that others did to us during the past year. We are gathering with a country that seems to teeter on the edge of incivility and insolvency as the Washington elites of both parties pander and posture for re-election rather than take a serious look at the despair of the American people.
Despair is the word of our time. I see it in the faces of those in our own community who are unemployed for now multiple years. I see a growing anger and hopelessness in those who are underemployed stringing together minimal part time jobs so their employers can avoid paying costly benefits.
I hear despair in the voices of retirees on fixed incomes who worry whether they will have enough to maintain their way of life. And those on disability who are one budget veto away from homelessness.
I hear despair and worry in the stories of those who have had to sell their condos and houses for great losses.
I hear despair in the voices of parents who cannot provide for their children the same kind of education or summer camp that they went to. I see despair in the voices of recent college graduates who cannot repay their school loans because there are no jobs in their field.
I see despair on the streets of Los Angeles as there are more homeless than ever.
It is not a happy time in America. It is not a happy time in the world. Where did the pursuit of happiness go?
But this is not just an American despair. It is a difficult time all over the world. Europe’s financial system is in turmoil led by great debt in Greece and Spain. The Arab Spring is quickly turned into the Arab Morass-as Syrian President Bashir Assad mows down his citizens with little condemnation from the world. Libyan revolutionary forces have caused Ghaddafi to flee but the country is still in chaos. And the great country of Egypt is at an economic stand still. It is still controlled by military council—and even as elections looms- there is not a single emerging political party that supports the more than 30 year old peace treaty with Israel. Egyptians just recently stormed the Israeli Embassy and attacked the diplomats there. The security and safety of the border with Israel is now more in question that ever before. The last terror attack in Eilat-all the terrorists were Egyptians.
Turkey once Israel’s great ally has turned against her- and Europe looking more toward its fellow Islamic countries. Lebanon once a country with an active Christian population is now dominated in it Parliament by Hezbollah-a front for the real cause of much of the Middle East turmoil-Iran.
Iran marches toward nuclear capabilities each and every day that passes in spite of severe economic sanctions. But the Chinese continue to buy Iranian Oil to feed its burgeoning population. Iran already has nuclear power on line and also has developed long range missiles capable of carrying warheads more than 900 miles to downtown Tel Aviv.
And of course the Palestinian bid for statehood that would bypass direct negotiations and that wants to build on the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel. As Mahmoud Abbas came to the UN this past month talking about the holy land –mentioning the history of Islam and Christianity and conveniently ignoring the more than 3000 years of Jewish history in the land. There is despair in the Palestinian people as well as their leaders posture and prepare the youth for hating Israel rather than trying to make peace and live side by side with the Jewish State. The Palestinian people want peace with Israel-their leadership want the land Judenrein-free of Jews.
There is despair in the Israeli population as dissatisfaction with the government led more than 400,000 Israelis to march in peaceful protest of the increasing gap between the wealthiest and the middle class and the poor. Not to mention those that are on the streets of London and now the US as the Occupy Wall Street movement grows from city to city.
And we haven’t even discussed the effects of Global warming yet; of rising sea levels, changed weather patterns of drought and rainfall or the clear cutting of rainforests in South America or the militia violence in the Congo or drought and famine in Somalia. Yes there is much to despair this Kol Nidre eve.
And these are just the global issues. Each of us has tzoris-as we say in Yiddish. Personal pains and sadnesses. For some of us –it is our health. For others of us it is loneliness. For some of it is loss of our dreams-never being able to attain that which we had hoped. For some of it is grief at the death of loved ones.
We can look at the world through these bitter pills. Through the lens of bitter darkness. And we would be right to do so.
Despair is tricky. It is close to depression. Real depression. For some of us it goes hand in hand. Deep depression is a deep seated feeling of utter hopelessness and overwhelming fear. The inability to make a decision. To focus. To feel as if you can have an impact on the world. The despair of our neighbors can be contagious as a flu. According to government statistics, everyone is affected by depression. You are either one of three women, one in six men, or are close to someone who is clinically depressed ( “National Health Priority Areas Mental Health: A Report Focusing on Depression from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare”, 1998.) Depressive disorders affect approximately 18.8 million American adults or about 9.5% of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year.
Despair often comes from a deep sense of loss. And it has at least four dimensions to it: Physical, Emotional, Intellectual and Spiritual. And yet all are intertwined. As Rabbi Elie Spitz describes in his book, “Healing from Despair”:
Despair is a whirlwind, a spiraling downward that we enter at the point of a diagnosis, a crisis, or a tragedy, and the cumulative impact is greater than the total weight of the individual burdens we carry. The spiral creates a momentum, so that we find our thoughts racing toward gloom and we can no longer sleep or eat or meet our needs. (p.36, Healing from Despair, Jewish Lights).
With the world so overwhelming at a global scale and for many of us at a personal level it is a wonder that we can get out of bed at all. The truth is many of us cannot. Many of us are deeply depressed, deeply and existentially sad, very lonely and feel hopeless to regain our footing.
We can cry with the Psalmist who said it best: O God, God of my deliverance. By day, I cried; at night, I stood before You. Let my prayers reach You. Incline your ear to my song. For my soul is filled with troubles and my life is at the brink of the grave. I am numbered with those who go down to the pit, I have become like a person without strength. I am considered among the dead who are free as the slain that lie in the grave, those You are no longer mindful of and who are cut off by Your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, into the darkest places into shadows. (Ps 88, 2-5)
The words of the Psalmist echo our individual and collective despair. The Psalmist
understood deep loneliness and pain. The Psalmist understands our feelings of
abandonment. The deep welling up of our melancholy.
But it is precisely out of this sense of darkness and deep discontent with the world and ourselves that Yom Kippur comes to lift us and purify us for the year ahead. Tonight on Kol Nidre we begin the process of purification. Of removing the dark bitter points within our souls and washing them clean. Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur can help us move that bitterness from our kishkes, from our psyches and renew us, help us atone and forgive ourselves and others.
It is often our own failures or perceived failures either spiritual or physical that lead us toward the gloom of despair. We feel utterly hopeless to overcome those flaws and those fears. And yet, what we do here tonight and tomorrow is a process of forgiveness. And this starts with forgiving not only others but first and foremost forgiving yourself.
Robert Karen writes in his book “The Forgiving Self” that when we are caught up in the negativity of regret and guilt “we deny ourselves the space to be. There is no right to explore, to struggle, to make mistakes, to not know. There is no forgiving voice that says, you were being you, and that was all you could be at the time. There is only bitterness and grudge. Obsessive regret is how we submit and get defeated. Often, it is little more than revenge against the self.” (p. 117-118)
On this Yom Kippur and this Kol Nidre eve our tradition teaches us that we must begin our souls rehabilitation with asking God to forgive our sins and freeing us from the regret, guilt and hopelessness that we blame ourselves for.
As our Tradition teaches in the commentary Shnei Luchot Habrit and the Talmud Yoma 20b (as quoted in Handbook of Jewish Thought, volume by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, ed by Abraham Sutton, 1992, Moznaim Press, p.244)
Yom Kippur is a day when the power of evil is diminished and God’s light shines into every soul….the power of holiness on Yom Kippur is required to cleanse it and restore it to its pristine purity.
Tonight your soul is in the process of taking out the gloom and sadness and let God’s holy light illuminate the recesses of your being and grant you atonement. Forgive yourself as you forgive others.
Judaism recognizes that in order to lift the despair and move toward a sense of hope and healing we have to engage in the process of repair. Of Tikkun. One of the steps of this tikkun and repair is to pick up the shards.
As many of you know I have explained time and again the mystics, the Lurianic, the Kabbalistic version of creation. The light of God came from a small point outward to be contained in seven sacred vessels, but the light was so powerful that it shattered the vessels sending the shards lined with the divine sparks through the heavens to the earth. Our task is to seek out the shards, the broken pieces, collect them and restore them.
This is the same with us. We must collect the broken pieces of ourselves, and restore our souls to wholeness. This was done at Mt. Sinai as well.
When Moses came down the Mountain with the first set of God written commandments and saw the great sin of idolatry as the Israelites danced and worshipped the Golden Calf, he smashed the stone covenant against the rocks-sending the Ten Commandments in shards of stone. According to tradition Yom Kippur is the commemoration of the day Moses came back with the second set of Tablets. The day God forgave the Israelites as they repented in love. Those tablets were placed in the Holy Ark of the covenant and carried through the wilderness to eventually generations later reside in the Holy of Holies in the ancient temple.
But what happened to the first set of commandments. Where did the shattered pieces of holy rock inscribed by the finger of God go? Were they left as debris on Mt. Sinai? According to tradition (Talmud Baba Batra 14b) the shards were picked up and placed alongside the second set in the Holy Ark. The shattered pieces exist side by side with those that are whole. Out of the shattering both of the original vessels of creation and the original tablets of the Covenant comes a renewed opportunity for healing and hope- a pathway to releasing the Divine light within. An opening for healing from the deepest despair whether collectively as the Jewish people did at Sinai or on an individual basis.
Tonight on this Kol Nidre eve out of your brokenness, out of your despair, let the light of community, the light of forgiveness, the light of atonement, the light of Shabbat, the light of healing, the light of God heal your gloom. Begin the process of lifting you out of the deep despair of our time toward a sense of gratitude for your life and gratitude at a second chance.
And this soul healing or soul repair work is the work of this Yom Kippur.
We need the vision of wholeness beside us, near us just as the whole tablets resided next to the shattered ones.
And for this we give thanks. Real gratitude to know that even the Commandments written by God, were given a second time. We were given a second chance at Sinai. And today we give thanks that we too will be given a second chance in forgiveness.
Gratitude is one of the ways we lift ourselves out of the despair and the gloom. At Passover the Talmud (Pesachim 10:4) teaches us “matchil b’ganut v’sayem b’shevach” -“ begin with degradation and end in praise.” We begin the story with our oppression and end the Seder with praise of God. This is a formula not only for spring time. It is for this season as well. We begin our stories with our tzoris, our despair, our sins, our errors, and move toward atonement and praise of God and life.
Gratitude helps lift us from the jaws of hopelessness when we can begin to see that there is still much to be thankful for. Gratitude even in the midst of such deep feelings of despair and self-ridicule can help reverse the tidal waves of regret within.
Hope builds through gratitude for our lives. And Hope in the future-your future comes when we face the past and move beyond it in forgiveness. . And Yom Kippur helps us focus on moving towards hope and praise from the depths of our disillusionments in ourselves and in others and in the world.
Our liturgy over the next day echos this idea as well. We begin with the Kol Nidre, asking God to forgive us, we recite the ashamnu, and the great al cheyt, the listing of the sins and transgressions and at the end of tomorrow, at Neilah we will recite the Viddui prayer that ends in praise.
The great Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov suffered from deep depression in his poverty stricken life in the Ukraine. He wrote the following as guidance for perceiving the light within:
When a person finds that he is utterly unable to pray or even to open his mouth on account of the greatness of his sadness and the bitterness of the darkness, he may perceive himself to be at an unfathomable distance from the Holy One. Even in this hopelessness he should search and seek within himself a point of merit. He should revive and rejoice through this because surely every person is worthy to grow in joy very greatly from each and every good point within himself. When we are in despair, we look at ourselves and see only unworthiness, but if we search within ourselves for one small point of light, that is good, that is worthy, we will find the one point and then we must search and find another, and then another. (Likutei Moharan 1 p.282)
Those connecting points of light within come directly from the Holy Sparks of Creation. They reside in you. And if nothing else give thanks for the holiness that still lives in you despite the sins, errors, or despair that also exists side by side. Give thanks for the light that emanates from your soul. This Yom Kippur raise up the sparks and combine your light with that of others. Into one shining force for transformation. For Healing and for Hope. Yom Kippur is here to help your inner light shine brighter and for this we give thanks now and for the future light.
Our hope comes from the assurance of God’s ultimate gifts bestowed upon us-the gift of spiritual renewal and healing that is the hallmark of Yom Kippur. The gift of forgiveness. We can heal from despair when we imagine a future free from the chains of gloom, freed from the enslavements of our transgressions. We can heal when we give thanks for our very lives. As the Psalmist says(34:19): “God is close to the broken hearted and those crushed in spirit God delivers.” We can heal from despair when we find the point of light within and fan the spark, the ember of hope into a full fledge-light of love, and peace.
Each night, Jewish Tradition teaches us that along with the Shema prayer we pray for a peaceful night. In Birchat Lishon is also this idea that God’s Divine light illumine our nights and our day. It says,
Praised are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the universe, who closes my eyes in sleep, my eyelids in slumber.
May it be Your will, Adonai, My God and the God of my ancestors,
to lie me down in peace and then to raise me up in peace.
Let no disturbing thoughts upset me, no evil dreams nor troubling fantasies.
May my bed be complete and whole in Your sight.
Grant me light so that I do not sleep the sleep of death,
for it is You who illumines and enlightens.
Praised are You, Adonai, whose majesty gives light to the universe.
Tonight on the Kol Nidre eve let the light of the Divine radiate down upon you. Lift you from the despair of these times and help you find the divine light within yourself-that will allow you to forgive others and forgive yourself.
For God’s majesty illumines the universe and will illumine your soul.
Ken Yehi Ratzon So May it be God’s will.