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Kami Knapp Schechter

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High Holidays Kol Nidre 5780- Rabbi Kami Knapp

Kol Nidre 5780- Rabbi Kami Knapp

Kol Nidre and the Power of Speech

Welcome to Congregation Or Shalom. I’m Rabbi Kami Knapp and I’m honored to be speaking with you tonight. Welcome to all of our guests, welcome back to all those who haven’t been here in a while, and welcome to all. 

“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it…

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” – John F. Kennedy Jr. Inauguration Speech

“I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire…

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!³- Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream” Speech

And most recently, Alex Bornstein’s emmy’s acceptance speech:

“I want to dedicate this to the strength of a womanto my mother … to my grandmother. They are immigrants. They are Holocaust survivors, My grandmother turned to a guard — she was in a line to be shot into a pit — and she said, ‘What happens if I step out of line?’ and he said, ‘I don’t have the heart to shoot you, but somebody will,”

And she stepped out of line. And for that I am here. And for that my children are here. So step out of line, ladies. Step out of line.”

Sing Kol Nidre:

כָּל נִדְרֵי

kol nidrei

וֶאֱסָרֵי

veh-essaray

וַחֲרָמֵי

vacharamay

וְקוֹנָמֵי

vih-konamay

וְכִנּוּיֵי

vih-cheenooyay

“All vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligation, pledges, and promises that we vow or promise to ourselves and to G-d from this Yom Kippur to the next- may it approach us for good- we hereby retract. May they all be undone, repealed, canceled, voided, annulled, and regarded as neither valid nor binding. Our vows shall not be considered vows; our renunciations shall not be considered renunciations, and our promises shall not be considered promises.”

What do all of these pieces have in common? They are all speeches and their words have power. As I read each piece and found myself naturally re-enacting the moment, the tone of voice, the electricity in the crowd, could you envision where you were, could you recall how you felt, could you remember the depth of it’s meaning, for you, for the nation, for the world? 

The power of speech. Ask not what your country can do you for, free at last, free at last, thank G-d Almighty we are free at last, step out of line, step out of line ladies, our vows shall not be considered vows…all of these lines exhibit the power of speech. All deeply resonate in our bodies, all evoke feelings of awe, all may produce tears because we cannot contain the feelings, all may give us hope, and all may free us. 

We come tonight to begin our 25 hour observance of Yom Kippur. A day in which we “act out our deaths.” But also a day in which we spend a lot of time in synagogue, praying. We begin the 25 hours with the famous and moving piece Kol Nidre. Commonly mistaken for a prayer, this piece is a legal formula which serves to annul all those vows, promises, pledges and renunciations that were left undone or violated within the past year. In other words, we use these deeply rich words to nullify the power of the words we spoke which we could not fulfill. This piece reminds us of the power of words to both create, nullify, or destroy.

Although written much earlier, around the 8th or 9th century, the ritual itself of singing Kol Nidre as we begin Yom Kippur is thought to have begun in the Middle Ages. Scholars believe that this legal formula was added to our liturgy as a response to the persecution of Jews during the Middle Ages. Rampant was the persecution of and the pressure to convert Jews which spread throughout the world: Europe, Russia, Spain. The recitation of the legal formula enabled Jews who may have taken vows of conversion or others vows denouncing their faith, to be nullified of these commitments. 

“An important alteration in the wording of “Kol Nidre” was made by Rashi’s son-in-law, Meïr ben Samuel (as noted by Rabbenu Tam in the 12th century), who changed the original phrase “from the last Day of Atonement until this one” to “from this Day of Atonement until the next.” “ Thus “Kol Nidre” was concerned with both, unfulfilled obligations of the past year, and also vows which one might not be able to fulfill or might forget to observe during the ensuing year… (quotes from jewishencyclopedia.com) On Kol Nidre we play out the scene of coming before the beit din to have our vows nullified. We, as a congregation, accept one’s annulment of vows by removing at least three Torahs and the scrolls serve as the bet din (court of judgement). 

The formula is restricted to those vows which concern only man to his conscience or to G-d (see especially Tos. to Ned. 23b). In the opinion of Jewish teachers, therefore, the object of the “Kol Nidre” in declaring oaths null and void is to give protection from divine punishment in case of violation of the vow. No vow, promise, or oath, however, which concerns another person, a court of justice, or a community is implied in the “Kol Nidre.” (jewishencyclopedia.com)

I can gather that we have all made vows to G-d over the course of this year and will continue to do so into the next. How many times have we been in a state of deep despair and we plead with G-d: I will do anything if you take this pain away? How many times have we been afraid for our loved ones and said: I promise to…if you just keep them safe. This demonstrates that at our core we believe words have power. We believe speaking things into the world will affect our world, or at least we hope. And Kol Nidre reminds us of this power. Words can create change within our thoughts, within our feelings, and also within our actions. 

Without knowing at the time how to connect my message with the theme of Kol Nidre, I pursued my exploration of the power of speech because of recent moments and experiences in my life. Throughout my life things pop up that give me reason to pause and only later does it inspire me to create: to write a passionate sermon or to envision a changed future for myself. I have increasingly had these moments leading up to and during my transition into my role of rabbi here at Or Shalom. As I prepared to begin my work here a pit in my stomach seemed to deepen and an expansion of my mind began. I have always kept my words, that which I will say and not say, at the forefront of my mind. As I prepared to begin here I was overcome, and continue to be overcome at the enormity of the power of speech as a Rabbi, a rabbi who now has her own community. I realize that my words, no matter how small or big a sentence, can support people, they can soothe people, they can also insult or hurt people, they can cause chaos or calm. 

I believe that perhaps many people do not realize how deeply most rabbis think about how they express statements or conversations they have with their congregants. It is a constant in our mind and a constant readjustment as we deepen our relationships. And even then, even with the best of our intentions, with relationships flourishing and deepening, we can miss the mark. While this is all true for a rabbi, these consequences and implications also occur in everyone’s interactions, every single one of us in this room. 

Another inspiration for writing about the power of speech, is that I am witnessing our world losing its understanding that words have power. I see it on the micro and the macro scale. With technology we spout words but don’t feel the repercussions of how they impact people and the world. Hate speech is spreading because there is no accountability as to who said it, as to who it hurts. Bullying has increased with cyber bullying, another situation in which the perpetrators can remain anonymous or protected while the victim absorbs these words. In many cases this bullying has led to tragedy. False assumptions and lies being spouted from politician to politician because they won’t stand in the same room. This is our world and I don’t want us, the Jewish people, to forget that words have power. We, especially know both from our history and our present, that we have lost many from situations that began with words.

More Inspiration- I watched the Emmys and was moved to tears by Alex Bornstein’s speech, the speech I read earlier. I was amazed at how it personified my struggle and the challenges I face being a woman in the rabbinate. 

More inspiration, my preparation for the High Holidays and the enormity of writing High Holiday sermons. I understood that my words were to be heard by many, may resonate with many (hopefully), or may trigger people. I witnessed how the stress of the high holidays affected how I spoke to and connected with my partner. Through criticisms and perceived judgment preparing with others for the holidays, I experienced feelings of inadequacy, judgment, and you just aren’t good enough feelings. And I became more deeply aware of the power of positive speech. I experienced how speaking to myself with positivity and love, sparked calm and pride in myself. I saw how speaking to people from a place of support and encouragement could inspire others and show them that they are integral. I experienced how words shifted the energy in a room.

And finally I began to understand why I had to speak about the power of words on Kol Nidre. For the adult education Elul class here at Or Shalom, I taught from the book: This Is Real and you are completely unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew, who states: “Kol Nidre is about speaking true- about the power of speech. It is a gift to us from a time far back in our tribal consciousness when we seemed to understand these things better than we do now, when we seemed to understand the biblical warning that we are absolutely accountable for everything that comes out of our mouths…speech is one of our distinctive human attributes. It is through speech that we make the inner, outer; that we bring the metaphysical into the physical; that we make real the purely intellectual.”

To prepare this sermon I delved deeper into our tradition regarding the power of speech. A rabbinic story from Vayikra Raba tells how Rabbi Shimon ben Gameliel once told his servant Tevi to buy the best food in the market. The servant bought tongue. The rabbi then instructed Tevi to buy the worst food in the market. Tevi bought tongue again. Rabbi Shimon said to him, “What is this? When I asked you to get the best food, you bought me tongue. When I asked you to buy me the worst food, you bought me tongue again!” Tevi replied, “Both good and bad come through the tongue. When the tongue is good, nothing is better. When it is bad, there is nothing worse.”

And our tradition teaches of two important themes when it comes to speech. Lashon Hara (bad speech) opposed to Lashon Tov (good speech) and Yetzer Hara (bad inclination) opposed to Yetzer Hatov (good inclination). Yetzer Hara and Yetzer HaTov  is the internal dialogue we have with ourselves. It is the dialogue in which we decipher how to act in different situations, how to respond to others, how we think about ourselves, etc. 

Lashon Hara and Lashon Tov is our external dialogue with others. As any community understands, lashon hara can cripple a community. Gossip about others, rumors, assumptions, criticism, all of this we have experienced. It causes pain, isolation, and resentment. I won’t hold back and I speak from a place of love when I say I have seen it here. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that lashon hara is such a great offence that it takes the holy and makes it unholy: “Judaism, like other religions, has holy places, holy people, sacred times, and consecrated rituals. What made Judaism different, however, is that it is supremely a religion of holy words. With words God created the universe: “And God said, Let there be…and there was.” Through words He communicated with humankind. In Judaism, language itself is holy. That is why lashon hara, the use of language to harm, is not merely a minor offence. It involves taking something that is holy and using it for purposes that are unholy. It is a kind of desecration.” (http://rabbisacks.org/the-power-of-speech-metzora-5779/)

But just as we have bad speech and bad inclination, in our tradition we also have yetzer hatov and lashon kodesh, good inclination and holy speech. Yetzer hatov can lead us to make great change within ourselves, to repair and grow relationships, to act justly in the world, to be kind to ourselves. And lashon kodesh is well, holy. Speech that can lift others up, words that can bring comfort to those in deep pain, words of gratitude to one another, inspiration for the future, and words of love. And this I have witnessed and experienced even more so here in this community. Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher of the 20th century speaks of the I and Thou relationship, seeing another not as a thing but as an equal, in which we forge a connection. We understand that one another are equal and have our own unique essence. Buber argues that G-d resides in this connection. I see this connection here and I feel G-d in our midst.

Therefore, I had to talk about the power of speech on Kol Nidre. Kol Nidre speaks to our ability to nullify that which we cannot fulfill. It sets the tone and beginning to a day of speech: Yom Kippur. It even speaks to our hearts through it’s melody. On Yom Kippur we come together as a community and speak to each other, speak to G-d, speak to our souls, and by the end of Yom Kippur we speak to the future. Yom Kippur is a day, the day of speech.

And then we come to my message for us all. What I hope all will take away from this sermon.

Your words have the ability to crush someone or to save someone. Yes, it sounds dramatic but it’s true. Our words have the power to affect another person. I remind us of this not to scare people into not speaking or meticulously analyzing each word you will say, but to remind us that we must put thought and energy into which words we use and how we use them. 

I conclude with one final Jewish teaching: Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha once said to his students: “Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: ‘For my sake was the world created,’ and in his left: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ “

Let our words and our actions demonstrate this balance. Let us lift one another up with support and encouragement. Let’s show the world that we know the danger of words and let us hold the world accountable to the power of speech.

Shana Tova and Gmar Chatimah Tovah!