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Kol Nidre 2011/5752

09/10/2011 09:36:14 PM


Rabbi Jill Perlman

Shabbat shalom. Shanah tovah.

The very first question uttered by God in the Torah is Ayeka, Where are you?[1] This short one-worded question occurs just after Adam and Eve have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge and with their eyes now opened, they hide.

“Akeka?” God calls out into the garden.

And it’s a ridiculous question in one regard, right? A ridiculous question when we consider who is doing the asking. Certainly, God, the great omniscient God knows where Adam and Eve are hiding… So why then does God utter Ayeka?

Confronted, Adam responds, “I heard your voice… I was afraid… I hid myself.”[2]

And then the excuses begin.

“She made me do it,” he says.[3]

“The snake made me do it,” she says.[4]

Instead of owning up to their graven mistakes, excuses are all that the pair have to offer.

Ayeka is the first and I believe perhaps the most important question uttered in our entire Torah. A question to which God does not receive a proper response -- and that question is still reverberating out there, insistent upon receiving an answer.

We must hear that ayeka, that where-are-you addressed not only to the first souls that walked this earth, but also to the souls within each one of us.

Indeed… where are we?

If Ayeka is not a locational question, then what kind of question is it? God asked the question not for God’s sake for God already knew the answer; God asked the question for our sake because we needed to hear the question. Ayeka -- where are you… emotionally, spiritually, where are you in relation to the work of the world around you?

The High Holy Day season is the time for a heshbon nefesh, an accounting of the soul. It’s the time to take stock. As good as our intentions may be, we, too, need to be asked that question from time to time to make sure that we are on track.

The order of our two high holy days and the space in between offer us hints about how to answer that question.

Rosh HaShanah precedes Yom Kippur - but shouldn’t the logical order be the other way around? Rosh HaShanah is a new beginning. Yom Kippur is a reckoning. Shouldn’t we first wipe the slate clean and then move forward fresh into the new year with nothing hanging over our heads?

Perhaps God knows that we can never wipe the slate entirely clean. Perhaps God knows that there is no such thing as starting totally anew. We carry our baggage with us from year to year - and one day or one holiday season isn’t going to erase all that has come before. Even if we have poured our hearts and our efforts into the process of teshuvah, even if we have both properly asked for forgiveness and given forgiveness freely, we still are marked by those experiences. They are a part of us, the consequences of each of our actions and even our non-actions trailing us into the following year and maybe throughout our lifetimes.

Perhaps setting Yom Kippur, this day of atonement after Rosh HaShanah is meant to slip us a dose of reality. Lest we think Rosh HaShanah means that the past is only the past, Yom Kippur comes along to say that the past is a part of the present.

And then we have a second reason offered to us for consideration about the order of these holy days.

If Rosh Hashanah is to act for us as a metaphor for birth, then logically, Yom Kippur can act for us as a metaphor for death. The yamim noraim, those ten days of awe that occur between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur - well, they’re like a lifetime, albeit a condensed one. It’s as if we are in a great dress rehearsal for life and death. We get to play out our beginnings and our ends right here right now and in so doing, we are given a great gift: the gift of urgency, the urgency to get our spiritual and our emotional houses in order.

Would we indeed be ready if we were not playing merely in metaphor? How would we act? What would we change… if today was our last day on earth?

Our rehearsal takes on the theatrical as we play this metaphor out and internalize the external.

We fast. We deny ourselves food and drink as if we are no longer in need of it.

On our bodies, we traditionally wear white as a sign of mortality, linking us to the simple white shrouds in which Jews the world over are buried. By wearing white on Yom Kippur, we render ourselves vulnerable.

We reflect on life and death as we ponder the words of U’netaneh Tokef, words that have become embedded in our experience of these days. B’rosh hashanah yicateivun uv’yom tzom kippur yeichateimun. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed - how many shall pass on, how many shall come to be, who shall live and who shall die. As we read these words, we ponder if our time, too, is near and how we will best make our days count. Toward its end, the poem offers us some hope as to how to do just that: U’teshuvah, u’tzedakah, u’tefillah, through returning to God, through giving of ourselves, and through genuine, authentic connection, we make life matter.

And in what is perhaps the hardest metaphor to digest… When we emptied our torah scrolls out of our aron kodesh, our holy ark, earlier this evening, an empty ark stood before us. In Hebrew, the word, aron, is both the word for ark and for casket. An aron is where our most precious and sacred objects are kept, the vessels of life itself. And so as we stared upon the life-affirming scrolls that were held before us, we also stared into an empty aron almost as if we had to make a choice.

And what draws us out of this morbidity? What brings us back to life?

As the end was near for Isaac, as he lay strapped to the altar, he looked up and saw the knife his father, Abraham was holding, shining, glinting above him. And just then, in that very moment, a ram caught up in a thicket nearby was revealed to Abraham. That ram took Isaac’s place and therefore saved his life.[5]

When we blow the ram’s horn, the shofar, at the end of Yom Kippur tomorrow evening, we will be brought back to that lonely mountain top and we’ll be reminded of just how close death can be.

When we feel the dagger hanging above our own heads, when Yom Kippur is coming to a close, when we are weak with exhaustion, weak without food and drink, we hear the tekiah gadolah, the long blow of the ram’s horn, the shofar - and it saves us by reminding us that we are in no imminent danger. This is not an end. The sound of the shofar awakens us and we walk away in gratitude for the life that we still have ahead of us.

As our rehearsal for death comes to a close, we are left with questions: How will we transform this awareness into a change in our everyday lives? Will we able to hold onto that gratitude? How do we keep perspective - how do we decide what is the important stuff of life?

As I am sure you are all aware, Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and a revolutionary passed away just two days ago. I’d like to share with you a small portion of the famous commencement speech he gave at Stanford University in 2005:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart… Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

Steve Jobs is challenging us on how we can live our lives as our most authentic selves - at our best - holding close only the most essential. To me, I hear an echo of that ancient, original question, Ayeka: where are you?

Even before God asked that question, Adam and Eve were cowering. They were hiding and ashamed of their mistakes. They hid from God, not the other way around. God was looking for them. We, too, are hiding and we are lost. We must search for a way back, a way to return, another chance to correct the mistakes of yesterday.

One of the most painful parts of Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur for many of us is that each and every year, we gather together, we come to this place and we find ourselves atoning for the same things that we tried to atone for and set right last year… and the year before… and the year before that. How futile it can all seem at times. We strive and we strain for growth, for a way out, for a way to indeed to reframe our lives and stop the painful patterns that our lives have taken on.

At times such as this, I think about… kashrut. That’s right, Kashrut, the rules of keeping kosher. According to the laws of kashrut, once an item has become treif, once it has become non-kosher, we usually go through some sort of process in order to rekasher it.

And that’s a nice Yom Kippur image, isn’t it? Something that was once treif has the possibility of becoming kosher again. It’s nice╔ but, frankly, it’s too simplistic. It’s not reality. Rarely do we get the opportunity in life to make up for our mistakes so easily.

Now chinaware… chinaware and kashrut have a more complicated relationship. China is particularly porous and so if, say, a china plate, becomes treif, if something that wasn’t kosher touches it, because of its porous nature, that china plate can never be kashered again.[6]

However, (and this is where things get interesting), if that china plate breaks and you glue it back together, by the laws of kashrut, it is to be viewed as a new vessel and as a new vessel, it can again become kosher and ready for use.[7]

This is the image from kashrut that is more readily applicable to our everyday lives. In this season of renewal, we too want to be made new again - but the truth is that our mistakes are embedded in us and we cannot nor are we expected to wipe the slate clean. Sometimes, we become broken.

We only have to remember the story of our original aron, our original ark of the covenant in the wilderness to be reminded of the utter normalcy and expectation of brokenness. When our first set of holy tablets shattered, God didn’t ask Moses and the Jewish people to throw them away and start over as if what had happened had never taken place.

No, God instructs the people to place these broken pieces into the aron, into the holy ark of the covenant alongside the new whole ones.[8] The Jewish people, as they made their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, carried those shards with them every step of the way. The broken pieces became an essential part of who they were, of who we are.

Is the purpose of atonement perfection? Are we praying to be perfect? Well, if we are, then Yom Kippur should come around a lot more often. The truth is: We are not perfect nor are we trying to be. We each are merely making our way through our own wilderness, carrying our broken pieces with us from stop to stop on our way to our own Promised Land.

Ayeka - where are you? Ayeka - where are we? Are we hiding? Are we ready with excuses or are we ready to own up to our mistakes? Are we in pieces, broken on the floor - or are we in the sacred process of gluing ourselves back together?

That ayeka - it traveled, it echoed, and it yearns for response. How will we answer the question?

Our tradition, Baruch HaShem, lovingly provides us with guidance. When a voice called out from the heavens above a lonely mountain top, we witnessed a response worthy of the call.[9] When a voice called out from a burning bush in the middle of a desert, we witnessed a response worthy of the call.[10] When a voice called out, “Abraham, Abraham!”, when a voice called out, “Moses, Moses!”, before even learning what God expected of them, they responded. They said simply Hineini - Here I am.

Ayeka was hanging, reverberating through the generations, the eternal question. Hineini is the eternal response.

There are two words for ‘here’ in Hebrew: There’s hinei and there’s po. Abraham and Moses don’t use the more locationally-based po because they weren’t responding to a locationally-based question. Hineini, Here I am, translates more fully to: I am present. I am available. I am open. I am ready.

We may have plenty of excuses for why we can’t respond with Hineini, why we can’t respond the way that Abraham and Moses did: I’m not Abraham. I’m not Moses. I’m not perfect. I’m not good enough. I’m not ready. I’m too lost. I’m too broken… Well, we are all broken… but that doesn’t mean that we are not whole.

When our great dress rehearsal for life and death comes to a close, when the shofar sounds tomorrow evening, we should hear God’s call in the tekiah gadolah. We should hear that Ayeka - that where-are-you spiritually and emotionally - pointed directly at each one of us - and instead of hiding away, cowering and ashamed, we should stand ready.

May we all be blessed to be receptive and to answer that call, as broken as we may be. May we all be blessed to open our hearts in this new year and say: Hineini. God… I am here and I am ready.

Shabbat shalom. Shanah tovah.


1          Genesis 2:9

2          Genesis 2:10

3          Genesis 2:12

4          Genesis 2:13                                                                         

5          Genesis 22

6          There  is some controversy when it comes to chinaware and kashrut. Whether or not an item of china can be koshered often depends on the thickness of its glaze.

7          Idea of broken china inspired by Harold Kushner in speech given to Massachusetts Board of Rabbis on June 16, 2011.

8          Tradition found in Bava Batra 14b

9          Genesis 22

10        Exodus 3

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782