Melanie Landau's Kol Nidrei Drasha, 5774

It is wonderful to be here, in my home community, with family and friends, nothing replaces this feeling of being together. We have made another year, decorated it with our good deeds. We need each other. Its a big blessing.  What’s real? We are hungry for what is real. As I’m standing here now I want to acknowledge and bless the memory of our friend Devorah bat Hannah aleha shalom, it was she who was giving the Kol Nidre drasha the last time I was @ Shira Hadasha Melbourne. I have heard her say that what is real is how we touch people and how we make a difference to each other that outlives us. We carry around that difference that someone has made to our life, and it affects how we are to other people, and what matters thus spreads and its what we exchange with each other. Its actually the sacred fibre of the world, our relationships with each other. That’s what creates the world. We see it literally with children born into the matrix of their parents and that matrix creates the world for the child,  the child sees the world as mediated through the vessel the parents create and reflect.  And it is this fabric, this sacred fibre, that we are mending and darning and weaving through Yom Kippur.

As we enter Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidre service, we’ll begin with a verse “or zarua letzadik uleyishrei lev simcha” light is sowed for the righteous and joy for the straighthearted...In Jerusalem 12 years ago, I went in to labour to this tune. 

Almost immediately after this mention of righteous people, we ask permission from the heavenly and earthly courts to pray with transgressors, avaryanim. It’s this dynamic I want to look at, our capacity to access the transgressor (avaryan) in ourselves, and also our capacity to access the righteous (tzaddik) aspect of ourselves.

As you may well be aware, the foundational rabbinic text, the Mishnah in Yoma says that Yom Kippur (etzem hayom) provides atonement for the transgressions between you and God, but for the issues between you and other people you actually need to go up to the person. This requires us to be as specific as possible, and ask for forgiveness, and more than once, even up to 3 times if necessary-  and people have been known to ask for more.

I want to focus on what’s going on between people but I’ll just make a few comments about what’s going on with God, so to speak. When it says Yom Kippur itself releases things between us and God,  Emanuel Levinas understands that to mean that the spiritual state that YK brings about- through fasting and prayer- leads us to the state of being forgiven beings. When we approach another person they can refuse our request for forgiveness but between us and God, we are forgiven. It is as if the instrument of forgiveness is in our own hands.  You may think it is easier or less significant but Levinas argues it actually demands a lot from us: the ritual transgressions I want to erase without resorting to the help of others would be precisely the ones that demand all my personality: it is the work of teshuva- for which no one can take my place.  It is something we have to do inside ourselves. We repeat ‘salachti kidvarecha’ again and again. As if God is saying ‘I have forgiven you as you asked’. But we need to internalise it. This internalisation of deep forgiveness is  an inner rebirth we are granted in a communal delivery room which is right here!  This sense of harmony can only take place within the privacy of my interiority, and in a certain sense it is within my power. The Talmud tells the story of R. Elazar ben Dordai who called on the mountains and the sun and moon, to help him do teshuva and they were all busy with their own existence. And he sat between two mountains and put his head between his knees and he cried. And he took the power to make amends on his own life. It is within each of our powers to make amends on our life. Ein hadavar talui elah bi. It depends me alone, on no one else. It is one of the precious gifts that Yom Kippur bestows upon us.  Great . Done. We’ll all be having a busy 24 hours.

But that’s not the whole story, although it is sounding very sweet. Now I would like to move to fixing things between each other. Last Shabbat, in Jerusalem, Idan Dershowitz was saying that he doesn’t like how the requirement to ask for forgiveness from others has become a rudimentary task that does not necessarily function to get people to take responsibility nor to right wrongs in their relationships. To the contrary, it can stay really general, not facilitate any more sharing but simultaneously feign a kind of working things out while many things pass under the bridge undealt with.

I’m calling on another mishnah in Yoma to help us think about how to be with one another and how to facilitate this process between people. Somewhere inside this process is our inner tzaddik, our righteous person. In the first chapter of Yoma, in the description of the preparation of the High Priest- Cohen Gadol-  he is made to swear that he is not going to change any of the rituals.  Basically he is not trusted automatically. He is going to be alone in the holy of holies and carrying out the crucial temple service on behalf of the whole community. The mishnah goes on to say that he cries (because he is suspected) and the Priestly elders all cry because they had to suspect him. Bingo! The Priestly elders need to work in the best interests of everyone and they need to do their due diligence but at the same time- they are connected to their righteousness- even if they well know the reasons- it devastates them that they have to suspect the high priest about to perform the service on behalf of all of Israel. Basically we all have that place inside us where it actually pains us to do wrong- it may be under more or less layers of rationalizations, arguments, constrictions, other pain, but deep deep down- and even more- no joy is achieved through our misdeeds, and the separations they reflect and further create.  But it’s tricky because the way a lot of our systems work when someone does something wrong we punish that person usually, and don’t see his or her wrong as a cry for help. If a child has been hit we usually comfort that child or castigate the one who hit. I’m not saying that we don’t need to protect society, or that people don’t have responsibility for their actions- they surely do, but we can expand our vision.

I had another stellar example of this principle. A dear friend was being provoked by another friend , someone around her age, and she slapped him on the face. After he went home she burst out crying and was in shock that she could do such a thing, “I hit him”, she knew it wasn’t how she wanted to act and she acknowledged that she lost control of herself for those moments. It was incredible to see the natural regret process in play. I know some people are so wounded that it is near impossible for them to access their remorse. Tremendous healings are also possible.

In fact, Rabbi Steinsaltz interprets Kol Nidre- the nullification of past and future vows to be an invitation to ourselves not to get stuck in past patterns, and ideas of who we think we are but to continually renew ourselves with no prejudice.

If we take on board this idea that we really don’t want to hurt another person- the Priestly elders cried when they had to suspect the High Priest- and conversely that other people did not really want to hurt us (they need to go together), then that means that by being available to offer forgiveness for those who offended us, we restore their basic sense of goodness and integrity to those who wronged us. We give them back their righteousness. As a victim we move from woundedness to generosity in being able to offer up to the offender his or her righteousness. 

The rabbis took this idea of restoring someone’s righteousness back to them very seriously. For the sake of the offender they were known to appear before the person who offended them so that person could ask for forgiveness. In a reversal of obligation the offended party worries about the foregiveness that the wrongdoer has not concerned him or herself with.  Sometimes from that place of wrongdoing we isolate ourselves and hole ourselves up as part of self-blame and castigation. When the offended party pursues the wrongdoer so he or she can ask for forgiveness the offended party actually takes power and shifts from being a victim to being the one that can bestow and return the wrongdoer to his or her real state of goodness and righteousness.

So next time someone does you wrong, or if you are holding on to something that someone has done to you, try that shift in your mind, in your being, and see how you can be present for that person to give them the opportunity to connect to their own integrity and their own goodness. To see the hurt from which they are acting from. The readiness to make that shift is not something we can impose on someone. Each person or community needs to come to that realization in his or her own process. Because it is not only an individual matter, whole communities are tied up in the bonds of their woundedness. It’s a big part of the maintenance of protracted conflicts. People are not to blame that they get stuck and confused in their woundedness and pain.

I work in conflict transformation through an educational organization called Encounter, bringing Jewish leaders to meet with Palestinians and incorporate Palestinian perspectives in their nuanced understanding of Israel and of the conflict. We also create space for Jews to be able to dialogue with each other reducing the polarization that usually accompanies discussion about Israel.

I can’t think about personal hurts and loss without thinking about Syria at the moment (100,000 people killed and 2 million refugees) , and of course without thinking about Israelis and Palestinians.

On Monday I visited Shu’fat refugee camp as a briefing by UNRWA.  Less than 5 minutes away from Hebrew University. It brought up a lot. Even to hear from UNRWA and not from Palestinians themselves raised a myriad of difficulties for me. Shu’fat is within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. Within 2 square kms live 25,000 people. Lawlessness abounds. As we drove around the perimeters of the camp, we passed drug dealers who wait in their cars in broad daylight. It has its own self-regulating power structures.  The primary school of 2000 students (with shifts for girls and boys) had no running water until a few months ago. Sewerage runs through the camp and into the valley nearby. The camp and adjacent neighbourhoods are now totally surrounded by the security barrier with one entry and access point. There’s a lot more to be said. And of course nothing is black and white or straightforward. But for now, I wanted to say that one of the most important things in protracted conflict- even before questions of apology and forgiveness- is the acknowledgement of hurt wherever it may lie, by the one who has been hurt and by the offender.  And often all parties are wrapped up in and wrenched by their own hurt. When we’re hurting it’s hard to see a big picture. One positive image from the camp was the student government of the school deciding to plan not just for one year but for three and taking the lead in planning for environmental health.

I’m also mentioning something beyond the personal because I want our circle of acknowledgement of hurt, of pain, of making things right, and ultimately of forgiveness to be widened, even if for now this vision remains what seems like far away.

At the end of the mishnah of Yoma, it says that the Jewish people are joyous because God, so to speak, cleanses them and they can be cleansed- of the breaches between them and God- when they do the inner work as we said- because God is their mikveh.

Being in God’s image is serious business.  Just like God, so to speak, we can actually be the mikveh for each other, the tzaddik, the righteous one in you can be the mikveh for the transgressor in me, and the tzaddik  in me can be the mikveh for the transgressor in you- bathing you in waters that offer you cleansing and rebirth, that remind you who you are and that allow you to let go and start again. 

By allowing someone to ask our forgiveness we allow him or her to connect to that place of goodness before the wrongdoing.  We also strengthen our connection to that place of goodness inside ourselves. We all have that place of deep acceptance, pre-conditional, before the eating of the forbidden fruit, before we covered ourselves, before  we were ashamed. There is no short cut.  The only way back to gan eden  is the way of the revolving sword. We need to evoke enough self-compassion to bear the pain of seeing where we have transgressed- and then from that place we can move to freedom. And we can return and live the full big lives that emerge once we come out from under the heavy shadows under which many of us have known. We need each other.

May it be Your will. Ken yehi ratzon ve’haya.

Posted on October 1, 2013 .