Friday, October 3, 2014

Kol Nidrei: A Strange Beginning

We begin this holiday with a strange prayer. It concerns vows that we have illegitimately made and wish to annul. Over a thousand years ago in some of the siddurim published we find this prayer which when adorned with this hauntingly beautiful tune has become a mainstay of the Yom Kippur service in all denominations despite objections over the years.

The prayer is based on a section in the Torah, which speaks of the importance of our word—if we promise, we fulfill. But if there are special circumstances which prevent you from fulfilling this vow, you may under certain conditions, annul that vow.

We want to come to God on this day pure of blemished hearts, without unfinished business and tabula rasa (clean slate). Therefore we invoke the annulment of vows to intensely prepare ourselves…

Already at the turn of the millennium certain sects were uncomfortable with the idea that the Jewish way to begin the holiday is by revoking their previous vows. The Karaites said this was shameful and while the rabbis explained that this does not at all refer to obligations made to others but only to oneself, other rabbis called Geonim (9th and 10th centuries) tried to downplay the recitation of this prayer.

The popular reason this prayer became widespread has to do with Jews in Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries during the inquisition. Jews who lived like Christians and hid their secret Jewish beliefs suffered the guilt of their worshiping idolatry throughout the year.

Imagine living a lie, hiding your deepest secrets and only divulging them to God once a year, in a clandestine service in perilous conditions. All the lies pile up, your essence changes, you become another and only a faint spark represents the real you, the pintele yid, the pure unadulterated soul.

[I didn’t have to imagine that this week; living and working in Poland provides me with countless examples of real, modern day, ‘hidden Jews’. I participated in an interview of a remarkable man who lived this very experience. He and his family were saved by a Priest, who forged papers for them, turning them into good Aryan citizens. After the war, he managed to live a very productive life and today, at 83 years young, he is very active and was ready to spend hours with us, teaching us about his inspiring life. His Jewishness he expressed in more cultural ways and a strong connection to Israel but when I invited him for the meal before Yom Kippur and Kol Nidrei he said he is coming!]

Perhaps, though, this can be seen as a metaphor of our own ‘hidden lives’, the pure soul within each of us that we often hide to the outside world. Throughout our year we hide or cover up our pure soul, which is struggling to emerge. We serve our bodies, our desires and our physical needs to the expense of our spirits. In effect, we come to the holiest day with an unclean slate, sins un-repented for, character traits stained. We confess that our word, which we promised ourselves to fulfill last Yom Kippur has been violated.

For these and many more reasons we reject the protests against removing this prayer and begin our holiest of days with a chant of Kol Nidrei--quietly, humbly, but then louder and louder until we shout out to God and to ourselves that this year we will truly find our hidden souls, our pure spirits.

I have been very busy over the past month teaching Torah in Poland to many different groups. Coming off of the highly successful Torah lectures during the Jewish Festival I embarked on a year-long presentation called "The 24 Books of Avi", each class covering the major themes of one book of Tanach. Last class over 50 people attended!

As my Polish improves (thanks to my wonderful teacher Marlgozata Pytel) I am able to spend more time with the seniors conversing in their language and teaching Torah on their level.

Before each holiday we have a general lecture about the themes in the upcoming festival. My Rosh Hashana lecture titled "will the real Rosh Hashana please stand up!", was received by around 45 people at the JCC.

I am also invited to lecture on behalf of the Chief Rabbi in many locations in Lower Poland (MaƂopolska). Last week I was invited to Nowy Sacz, to lecture on the High Holidays. The thirst of the Nowy Sacz community (Not Jewish) was remarkable. I blew the shofar and explained to them about some of the practices.

Finally, I had a chance to meet with some fascinating people including Dr. Viktor Bodnar and hear his story of heroism, courage and survival.

These and other people inspire us to realize that the glorious story of the Jewish people marches on despite trials and tribulations, ultimately delivering a message of promise and hope.

Gmar chatima tova.