There was this Jew who was very … shall we say, they used to call his type a “Yekke“. Very particular about his preferences in life. He had a flight scheduled well in advance of his travel date with Swiss Air, and he phoned six months ahead to confirm that he has seat 38C, because he must sit in an aisle seat. (By the way, Rabbi Jacobson, not to ruin the punch line, but when you get a bit older you’ll understand why certain men are particular about aisle seats. It is thoughtful on their part, not wanting to disturb or having to climb over fellow passengers. Approximately one-third of these aisle dwellers have poor bladders and have to go frequently; another third have had DVTs and were instructed by their physicians to get up and walk the aisle as to safeguard against blood clots; and the final third have both limited bladder capacity and a history of DVTs. Don’t ask me how I know this.) The airline guarantees this man that he has seat 38C.
A month later he phones again, and again they reassure him he has seat 38C. Each month he calls, and they re-confirm that he has his aisle seat, 38C. A week before, then a day before, he calls yet again, and his seat remains confirmed. He arrives at the airport six hours ahead of his scheduled flight, and there is no seat assignment yet posted on the board. When he gets his boarding pass, to his horror he sees that he’s been assigned seat 38B. He’s sitting in a window seat, and he is outraged, to put it mildly. His wife calls him as soon as he lands, and asks how the flight was. “You call that a flight?” he says. “Six months in advance I call them that I want an aisle seat. Five months, four months, three months, two months, one month, each time they reassure me they have an aisle seat. And it turns out they lied! I’m going to sue them! I will close down this airline!” His wife says, my dear husband – if it’s so important for you to have an aisle seat, why didn’t you just ask the person sitting in the aisle seat to switch seats with you? He says: “Ask? What do you mean ask? There was nobody sitting there!!!”
The formal title of today’s talk, as Rabbi Jacobson announces, is “How to Discover Your Spark: The Process of Change.” I actually prefer the subtitle given on the YouTube video, which is: “The Secret of Kol Nidrei: How to Actualize Your Life’s Potential“. Rabbi Jacobson shares that on Yom Kippur there was a very interesting prayer that the כֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל, the High Priest, would make only on this day, and only in the holiest place in the בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, or hallowed edifice that was the Temple in Jerusalem. So you had this convergence of the holiest man in the holiest of spaces at the holiest of times. What was this comparatively brief prayer that he said which we recite on Yom Kippur? He beseeches G-d for adequate rain so that the land can provide enough produce for sustenance. He requests that the nation should have enough livelihood to support itself. He asks that their enemies should not be able to destroy the people. He asks that the people should not lose their sovereignty and independence; to be able to live in their homeland. And then he asks for one more thing. That this should be a year “Sheloh Tapil Ishah Pri Bitnah” – that no woman should have a miscarriage.
By all means, this is a wonderful thing that the Kohen Gadol is asking for. (In the old days when pregnancies were fragile, Kabbalistic tradition has it that women sometimes wore amulets with a similar prayer.) But why single out the idea of miscarriage? Why not make a request on behalf of women who are infertile to be able to get pregnant? Or that all children are born healthy. Or that no one dies prematurely that year. Any of these might be considered a vital blessing in their own right.
There’s something else that has always weighed heavily on Rabbi Jacobson’s mind. Many Jews will find their way to a synagogue this coming Tuesday evening to participate in the Kol Nidre prayer, the opening of the Yom Kippur service in every Jewish community the world over. The melody is heart-stirring, and triggers deep emotions among Jews.
The words are in Aramaic. But this year, Rabbi Jacobson implores, take a close look at the English translation. You’ll see that it’s a legal declaration about absolving vows.
Essentially on Yom Kippur we publicly declare that any promises or pledges we make should not be considered binding. Really? Do those words really warrant such a stirring and intense melody? Some people believe that the depth of emotion associated with this part of the Yom Kippur service stems from times when Jews had to take vows to literally save their lives. Such was the case in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews called Conversos or a less endearing term, Maranos were forced to convert to Christianity. They would get together once yearly in secrecy on Yom Kippur to annul these vows. But the truth is that the recitation of Kol Nidre has its origin centuries before the Spanish Inquisition, which took place in the 1400s.
Consider another perspective. Rabbi Jacobson notes that after each blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana the same prayer is recited: היום הרת עולם, which means today is the birthday of the world, because Rosh Hashana celebrates the anniversary of creation.
It’s a curious phrase however, because the term הרת עולם stems from the book of Yirmiyahu, the prophet Jeremiah, Chapter 20, verse 17. And its origin has a very negative connotation. הרת literally means pregnant, and עולם means forever. He was wishing that his mother would have been pregnant with him forever, meaning that he wishes he had never been born. Yet the Rabbis turn this around and use it in a way so that הרת means birth and עולם means world – today is the birthday of the world. In one sense this is understandable, Rabbi Jacobson says. It’s hard to be born, to cut the umbilical chord so to speak. This is particularly true when the child is a boy. Mothers find it very hard to let go, prompting Rabbi Jacobson to share a couple of anecdotes.
A mother sent her son to pre-school the first day and says to him “My angel, my sweetheart, my neshamela, my zeeskeit, my piece of heaven — you’re going to go on the bus today but mommy is going to be right here waiting for you when you come home to hug you and kiss you mwa-mwa-mwa.” He comes home the first day, and after she smothers him with kisses she asks “So my little angel, what did you learn in school today my love?” And he replies: “For starters, I learned that I have a name. It’s Dovid.”
Last week it was Rosh Hashana and a mother walks into her son’s bedroom. She says “Samuel, Shmuel! It’s nine o’clock in the morning! You’ve got to go to shul!” He says no, I’m not going. “What? Why don’t you want to go to shul?” He says he’s not going because everyone in shul hates him. The congregants, the board of directors, the chazan, the gabbai – everyone hates him. Why should he go to shul? She says: “Two reasons you have to go. Number one you’re 49 years-old, and number two, you’re the Rabbi.”
So what do we really mean regarding this tension about being pregnant versus being born? Rabbi Jacobson explains this refers to the individual. Everyone is pregnant with potential. With dreams. With aspirations. We’re full of possibilities, especially when we’re young, and begin to explore life. Will we have the courage that it takes to give birth to our dreams? He notes that animals sometimes are easier to observe and take lessons from than our fellow human beings who aren’t always as intelligent as animals. Animals are primed to do three basic things: to live, to propagate, and to help their environment. He illustrates this point with a parable about an imagined conversation between a mother camel and her baby camel, widely used in various cultures.
This is the question of הרת עולם. If you’re capable of so much, why are you allowing your dreams and your potential to remain locked in a cage? Rabbi Jacobson relates an anecdote about one of the most prominent Rabbis of the preceding generation, the Netziv, an acronym for Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin in Belarus. Upon completion of one of his iconic works, the Yeshiva made a celebration for him, and he got up and said I want to tell you something about myself. When I was a child, I was a horrible student. I wasted my time all day. Came time for my bar mitzvah, and I couldn’t fall asleep one night. I overheard a conversation between my father and my mother in the kitchen. My father said you know, with his mind, I thought he might become a really great Torah giant. But it doesn’t look like it’s working out. So I made an appointment with a carpenter for tomorrow, and at least that way he’ll be able to get an apprenticeship and make a decent living to support himself. He’s good with his hands – he’ll be able to build beautiful mahogany book cases.
The young boy came out of his bed, went to the kitchen, and pleaded with his parents to give him another chance at succeeding at learning Torah. His father was reluctant, but seeing the boy crying said okay, we’ll send you to Yeshiva tomorrow and see what happens. And the rest, the Netziv told his students, is history. Here I am standing before you today, and do you know why I challenged my father when he wanted to make me a carpenter’s apprentice? I was thinking about the end of my days. When you go up to heaven after you die, G-d interviews you. And He would say “Naftali Zvi – Hershele (as they called him) – welcome. So tell me, what did you accomplish in the world? And I would say I was a great carpenter, and he would say: show me some samples. And I would answer: Look at the shtenders I crafted; look at the gorgeous mahogany bookcases; look at the chairs, the walls and all the structures I created. G-d would say: very impressive; I might have even become a customer myself. But I have a question for you. Where is your Imrei Shefer on the Hagadah? Your Ha’amek Davar on Chumash? And He started to list the all books of scholarship that the Netziv ultimately wrote. My biggest feat is that I wouldn’t have had an answer. All those seforim would have remained pregnant but stillborn if I were a carpenter. Not following my destiny would have been a miscarriage of justice – an injustice I did to myself.
Let me tell you about a different scenario, Rabbi Jacobson continued. The other day the head of a Yeshiva was talking to his students and was not very impressed with their diligence. He related the story of the Netziv and said, now let me tell you what’s going to happen when you guys die. You’re going to meet G-d and he’ll ask what you did with your life and you’ll say that you stayed in Kollel the entire time. And G-d will say: That’s wonderful, but I have a question. Where is the shtender? Where are the chairs? Where are the beautiful mahogany bookcases you were supposed to create?
You have to know who you are, and what you are capable of. You have to know what dreams to follow, and allow those dreams to be born. So on Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol went into the holiest of places, he prayed that the people would achieve their goals and maximize their potential. To follow your heart and allow your unique gifts to illuminate the world.
So what is it that prevents people from reaching for the stars? Is it fear? Insecurity? Scars or wounds from previous attempts? Perhaps it is the need for conformity that makes people complacent. Possibly a sense of wanting to please others, or a sense of inaction or paralysis that feels safer. And the famous quote by Thoreau that Rabbi Jacobson cited:
The secret of Kol Nidre resides is in the nature of what we are disavowing. There are two basic types of promises that people make. There are promises that I make to you, such as what I’m going to do for you, and there are promises that I make to myself, such as a pledge to lose a certain amount of weight. There are pledges that we make to ourselves that have much deeper implications, and show that we are resigned to what we feel our fate is. “My life is destined to be problematic. My mother and I will never get along. My spouse and I will never share the same interests. My father and I haven’t spoken for the last year and we probably won’t speak again for another year. And me and my brother?
We put ourselves into confined boxes, and convince ourselves that “I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to be”. The most important pledges you have to disavow yourself of on Yom Kippur are these vows that you have been making, and will be making to yourself during the coming year, about what you are capable of, and what you are not capable of. About what type of life you’re going to live – physically, financially, socially, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
There was an American family by the name of Smith that was very proud of their lineage because they could trace their ancestry back to people who arrived on these shores on the Mayflower. So proud were they of the chain that went all the way back to the pilgrims integral in establishing the United States of America that they hired a researcher to chronicle their family history
Of course whenever you research a project like this you inevitably come up with a skeleton or two in the closet, and to the family’s dismay the researcher came across the story of their great, great uncle Clarence Smith, who was put to death by electric chair for criminal activity. The Smith Family was so concerned about the stain on the family that they told the researcher then were going to scrap the project. “Don’t worry”, said the researcher. “I’ve handled situations like this before. I’ll do it in a way that the story will be true, but won’t embarrass your family.” The day of publication they run to the bookstore, open the book to its index, and find that Clarence Smith is on page 78. They turn to the page and this is what it says: “Great, great uncle Clarence Smith occupied an important chair in a governmental institution. He remained connected to his position until his last breath. His death came as a sudden shock.”
I can’t experience Kol Nidre if I’m tied down by self-imposed shackles. Kol Nidre is a declaration not that I don’t have any skeletons in the closet, or have no traumas, fears, or insecurities. We each battle these demons. In fact, Rabbi Jacobson confessed, he himself has significant insecurities. That’s why he’s a public speaker. The only people he’s aware of who are perfect are people that he hasn’t met yet.
Kol Nidre is our way of saying that I am more powerful than my pain; I am deeper than my frailties; I am larger than my insecurities. But as the Tanya says, our soul is as invincible as G-d because it stems from G-d. Our soul has the sacredness, the joy, the optimism, and the power of its Creator. As the verse in Psalms says, oz vechedvah bimkomo – there is confidence and joy in G-d’s space. All the negative messages we send ourselves during the year are superficial, self-imposed doubts. But Yom Kippur gives you the power to dig deeper, and Kol Nidre the is the moment when you absolve yourself of these shackles that you invariably bind yourself with.
Ah … so now listen to the melody that goes along with plumbing the depths of these self-imposed shackles and breaking the ties that bind — and the crescendos of “ay-yah-yah-yay, yay, yay, yay” seem very well-suited to the emotions involved. It is the declaration of freeing one’s soul; of liberating and emancipating the spirit.
This also speaks to a fundamental question, which is how Adam and Eve were created on Rosh Hashanah in G-d’s image, when we say that G-d does not have an image. Yet when we say human beings were created in G-d’s image, and G-d has no image, that is precisely the point. We choose our own image, but the core of our being has no image. There is a default image humans create, and that is the self-view of victimhood. But in reality what we see when we look in the mirror is entirely of our own making. Which reminds Rabbi Jacobson of another story.
A boy is about to become bar-mitzvah and in preparing for his speech he comes to his mother and says that he wants to learn more about his ancestry. So she starts waxing eloquently about her mother and grandmother, and the boy says no mommy – I mean all the way back! Where do we come from? She says: “In the very beginning? In the very beginning there was Adam and Eve, and they had children though I’m not sure why, and those children had their own children, and the rest is history – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, and so on”. So the boy then goes to his father, who was very well-educated, with degrees from Columbia and Yale Universities, and poses the same question to him that he presented to his mother. His father tells him about the family lineage and the boy says no, Daddy – I mean the very beginning. The father says: “The very beginning? Well it all began with a primordial soup and a big bang some 15.3 billion years ago. And after many years of evolution the homo sapien emerged.
But I’m confused Daddy. What were we before we were humans? “Before that? We were apes”. And what about before apes? “We were monkeys.” And before that? “We were other primates.” But how did it all begin? “From a big explosion involving gas and bacteria.” Now the boy is really confused. He goes back to his mother and says Mommy, I’m not sure how I can give my Bar Mitzvah speech. You tell me we come from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Adam, Eve and G-d. Daddy tells me we come from apes, monkeys, and bacteria. So which is it? She says “Son, there’s no contradiction here. Your father was talking about his side of the family … and I’m talking about my side of the family.”
Kol Nidre. It’s about how we choose to see ourselves when we look in the mirror. Here’s an inspiring way to think about the potential to create your self-image. The funeral for Shimon Peres, the 9th President of Israel, took place three days before Rosh Hashana three years ago. Seventy world leaders came to his funeral in Jerusalem to bid him farewell, including the President of the United States and statesmen from Britain, Luxembourg, Spain and many other countries.
Very impressive for a Polish Jew who was born Szymon Perski, and whose grandfather was burned to death by the Nazis with a talis over his head. What is particularly interesting about Shimon Peres is that he never won an election in a race for public office. He kept on running and he kept on losing. By default, after Rabin was assassinated, he became acting Prime Minister but seven months later lost in the general election to Netanyahu. The Israeli newspapers referred to him as “the eternal loser”. You would think at some point he would get the message. You know, it’s time to retire to a farm, or to some nice condominium in Tel Aviv, and luxuriate on laffa. But at age 93 he still had plans for the future. Shortly before his death, his son Chemi asked his father what he would like to be written on his tombstone. And Peres responded: “You should write ‘he died prematurely‘.” What a profound lesson! Irrespective of political ideologies, Rabbi Jacobson noted that Shimon Peres went out feted in a way that accorded him more respect than any other previous Israeli leader, elected or otherwise. Although he could have easily and justifiably conceived of himself as a loser, instead he had the drive to give birth to his dreams; not to be pregnant with thought and remain paralyzed by inaction. And he ultimately became the President of Israel.
The High Priest asked on Yom Kippur that this be a year in which no person miscarries. Because every individual is filled with so much potential. That is why we become emotional during Kol Nidre, because it is such a tragedy when a person dies prematurely. And it is a particularly great tragedy when we die prematurely while we’re still alive.