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Forget Your Perfect Offering

09/27/2020 05:55:31 PM


Jesse Davis

“Forget your perfect offering.

 There is a crack, a crack in everything.

 That’s how the light gets in.”


Here we are on the day of Atonement, and it’s hard to imagine a more iconic Jewish service than Kol Nidre.  The very name instantly conjures the image of a hazzan in a darkened synagogue, solemnly intoning Aramaic in melodies both haunting and familiar. It is, without a doubt, the best-attended service of the year.  We need hardly guess why.   Kol Nidre’s magic lies in its ability to reawaken and connect us to our Neshama.  Kol Nidre transports us to another world and then has the power to somehow make that other world feel like home.


It might surprise you then, to learn that this service that we see as the quintessentially Jewish service has been a major point of contention throughout our history. The earliest evidence for Kol Nidre comes from the Gaonic period in the Siddur of Amram Gaon, who implies that its recitation is widespread, but also tells us that the Academy in Sura called it foolish and forbade it.  Letters from the Cairo Geniza tell us, however, that the longing of the Jewish people for Kol Nidre led to it being reinstated by the Academy on account of unyielding public demand.  


The Karaites condemned us for Kol Nidre.  Antisemites used it as fuel for the accusation that Jews couldn’t be trusted. Even numerous Rabbis condemned and creatively interpreted its sweeping language.  At one point, both Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and the leaders of the early Reform movement omitted Kol Nidre from Yom Kippur services.  It was, of course, to no avail.  Rabbi Hirsch recanted his position, while Reform services formally reinstated Kol Nidre in the middle of the last century.  No matter how prestigious the critic or well-argued the criticism, opposition to Kol Nidre was overwhelmed by the sheer hunger of the Jewish soul.


And all of this for a legal formula.

With the consent of the Almighty,

and consent of this congregation,

By the authority of the heavenly court,

and the authority of the earthly court.

we hereby grant permission

to pray with transgressors.

All vows that we have vowed,

From last Yom Kippur to this Yom Kippur

May they all be annulled.

May we be absolved and released from them.  

May they not be considered vows or oaths or promises.

This is hardly the aspirational vision of the prophets, nor is it the soaring poetry of David and Solomon.  Why would we be willing to give antisemites something to attack us with?  Why would we willingly give substance to the criticism of dissidents or even stand against our own Sages for the sake of these words?

There’s a famous story that I think might offer some insight.  

A wealthy father once had two sons.  The older son was highly responsible.  He learned the family business from a young age and was trusted by the father to stand in for him in his absence.  Meanwhile, the younger son was entitled and lazy. Sure, he cared about the success of his family, but only because it gave him rich foods to eat and clothes to wear.  He carefully judged and criticized every decision made by the father and the elder brother, but contributed nothing to their success.

And as the inexperienced often do, one day he decided that he could succeed in life much better without his father or his brother to get in his way. The younger brother was tired of the way that they dismissed his criticism.  He knew that it didn’t take much to succeed.  Everything came easy for his older brother.   The younger brother went to his father and even though the father had not died, demanded half of the inheritance. 

Surprisingly, the father agreed.  I suspect the elder brother was livid.  With reduced capital, their ability to invest in trading caravans was drastically diminished.  Meanwhile, his younger brother was definitely going to waste the money.  Surely his father knew that.

Still, the father sold half of his fortune and traded it in for coins and jewels, and gave it to the younger brother.  In a matter of just a few years, through wine, parties, and entertaining momentary friends - and one expects a bad business deal or two - the younger brother found himself destitute. One night out of drunken desperation, he breaks into a pig barn and lowers himself to eating out of the pig’s trough.  He doesn’t care.  All he knows is that he’s hungry and cold.  He eats his fill and passes out.  In the morning he comes to, realizes where he is and how far he’s fallen and all he can do is sob.  He abandoned his family, he sees just how much he took everyone who truly cared for him for granted.  Meanwhile, all of his friends who loved his money have abandoned him to the street where he’s fallen so far as to be stealing scraps from animals in a barn.

And he realizes,” In my father’s house, he made sure that the servants had food to eat and a warm place to sleep.  I don’t deserve my father’s love, but perhaps he’ll take pity and offer me a job.”  With that, he sets out for home.  As he approaches his hometown, he sees the familiar sights and smells.  The arguing of noisy neighbors, the sounds of braying donkeys, the trees that he and his brother climbed as kids.  He starts to grow happy for the first time in a long time.  He stops at a well to have a drink and sees his filthy reflection and takes a bit of water to clean his face.  He can’t meet his father looking like a complete mess.  As he approaches the gate, he sees his father.  They lock eyes and for a moment, he has no idea what his father will do.  Will he scream at him, bar him from the house and chase him from the town?  Would he hate him and refuse to speak to him?  Would his father even recognize him?  The younger son winced.

The father, for his part, had no such thoughts.  He dropped the package in his hands, ran to his son, and embraced him.  The remaining dirt on his son’s face he washed with his own tears and he immediately removed his own cloak and wrapped it around his younger son.  Without even a mention of the time that had passed or the fortune that had been lost, he sent his son inside to be washed and cared for.  He immediately ordered that a fattened calf be slaughtered and prepared for a feast to welcome his younger son home.

Meanwhile, the elder son watched it all.  The son who had stuck by his father, who had learned his every lesson and valued his father’s guidance and wisdom.  The son who showed his father that he loved him each and every day through his care and consideration.  For the first time in his life, the elder brother grew furious with the father. 

“My brother has done nothing to help you all of these years.  Our entire youth, he would only stop ignoring us to criticize us.  Then he demands half of our wealth.  He blows it on wine and women and God knows what else.  And he comes back home and you immediately welcome him back.  After all of that, you wrap him in your own cloak and throw him a feast fit for a king.  But I’ve been here with you this whole time.  I’ve done everything you’ve asked and more.  I’ve asked you, I’ve begged you to throw a party to entertain my friends.  Never once suggesting that I should leave your side.  Even that you denied me.  But HIM… you give him everything just for being here.”

The father realizes that the elder son is right.  The younger son’s feeling sorry doesn’t undo years of hurt and resentment by the elder son.  Feeling sorry doesn’t restore the lost and wasted wealth.  But right now, that’s not the point.  “You have stood beside me and grown up into the person who I trust with everything that I am,” he tells the elder son.  “All that is mine is yours.  But your brother was dead and now he’s returned from the grave.  He was lost and now he is found.”  I can’t make you forgive your brother, but I’m begging you to see that there will be a time for your brother to make amends, to grow into a person capable of repairing the damage that he’s wrought.  It’s just not right now.  Take heart and know that I know your love and trustworthiness.  Before anything else, first, he had to come home.  

During the month of Elul, as a preparation to face the judgment of God, we are told to seek out the forgiveness of those we have wronged.  God can’t forgive the wrongs we do to others.  To seek the forgiveness of God, first, we need to seek the forgiveness of those we’ve hurt.  Then we can, in good conscience, seek out God’s forgiveness.  

But the reality is that we should be doing the work of repentance all year long.  If we neglect this the whole year, then Elul is a wake-up call.  If we neglect Elul, then we have Rosh Hashanah, where we face the judgment seat of God.  If we amble through Rosh Hashanah, then we have all of the days up to Yom Kippur to atone for our sins.  We have last chance after last chance, wake up call after wake up call. 

But what if we are so mired in isolation that we only “wake up” to the pain we’ve caused just before Yom Kippur?  What if we wasted the last year, the month of Elul, and even Rosh Hashanah only to realize at the last moment that all we want is to come home? What if we even realize while reflecting over the course of the coming day that we haven’t truly made amends?  Is there still a place for us?  Are we still welcome?

Kol Nidre comes like the father to us, announcing “permission is granted to pray with the sinners”.  Even those deserving of ex-communication are welcome.  Perhaps you didn’t atone yesterday, perhaps you haven’t fixed the wrong you did today.  But you came home today. 

Yom Kippur is the remarkable news that mistakes don’t make us broken, that imperfection has always been part of the plan. There are no perfect offerings.  There is a crack, a crack in everything, a crack in you and me.  That’s how the light gets in and once it’s in there, it shines.  It becomes a part of us.  We own it. And then our imperfections become our greatest strength because they become the cracks through which our light shines into the world. 

The time for repentance is always NOW.  May God helps us to face who we’ve been so that we might become who we are meant to be.  

Fri, September 17 2021 11 Tishrei 5782