Kol Nidre 5784 (2023)
Gut yuntif on this Kol Nidre night of Atonement, or at-one-ment, when Jews worldwide unite as one. We harness this sacred night’s power to inspire us, call us, urge us to change for good – to heed our highest aspirations for ourselves, our community and our world.
Tonight is the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. In 1973, Egypt and Syria led 11 countries in attacking Israeli positions along the Suez Canal, Lebanese border, Golan Heights, and East Bank of the Jordan River. Israeli analysts saw it coming and urged preemptive strikes, but Prime Minister Golda Meir reasoned that Israel would need international support and therefore couldn’t fire the first shot.
Israel prevailed in just 19 days. From Israel’s strength came the 1978 Camp David peace accords with Egypt, then peace with Jordan in 1994. History will record that the Yom Kippur War was the tipping point for the normalization trend now unfolding across the Mideast.
No Israeli family escaped grief. The nation grieved as one, much as they celebrated as one seven years before after the Six-Day War. In their bones Israelis knew that they shared a single fate and a single heart. Talmud’s maxim that כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה / ”All Israel are mixed together, responsible for each other” wasn’t aspirational but an intuitive and self-evident fact about existential inter-dependence.
We too have experienced pivotal moments when our shared bond and shared fate felt bone-deep. In the days after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, and after September 11, people sensed our shared humanity: there was more unity and kindness. In covid lockdown, folks checked on each other, applauded front-line workers, cared for delivery teams, and joked about toilet paper.
“[O]ur scientific and technological genius [has] made this world a neighborhood, yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make it a brotherhood. But somehow and in some way we’ve got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
Indeed. The pandemic proved it. Climate change proves it. The economy proves it. Social media’s flow of hate proves it. Such is the nature of life itself – as religion has taught since time immemorial.
Ten days ago on Erev Rosh Hashanah, we began our High Holy Day journey by discerning what we can rightly ask of our Judaism, and how well our Judaism answers. We floated six pairs of goals for a Judaism both timelessly ancient and vibrantly modern. So far we’ve explored hope and renewal, identity and empathy, ethics and morality.
Tonight we add community and connection, and there’s no better time for them than Kol Nidre night – this 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war, at a time so pivotal for our nation and our planet.
Judaism’s job to nourish community connection began as tribal but enfolds all humanity. Talmud’s teaching that we’re all “mixed together” – in it together, responsible for each other – asks us to know ourselves as more than just our own selves, more even than a fractal of the sacred. We’re to know ourselves as carrying a little bit of others within us, including those who hurt us or whom we hurt. So yes, what affects one directly affects us all: MLK was right.
These teachings would be easier to live if they didn’t offend the social and political ethos of Western rugged individualism. Empathy is good, laudable, generous, even holy, but Dr. King and Judaism call for more than empathy. They call for intuition, knowing others as our own selves, loosening rugged individualism’s hold on us. We might have learned that we’re fully autonomous masters of our own fate, but we are not: we are utterly part of each other.
That’s what community is about. That’s why we’re here on this special night. It is Yom Kippur that calls Jews most deeply into Jewish community. Some hear this call only on Yom Kippur – and not for the food. Some magnetic force, some deep intuition, pulls us together – hearts permeable, alone inadequate, together more whole.
And a good thing, for it is our interdependence in community that makes healing our lives and relationships possible. That is Judaism’s job. And whether we hear that call from God, conscience, morality, mortality, tradition or philosophy, it is only because we’re utterly connected – as Mario Cuomo put it, because we alone are not enough for us – that Yom Kippur makes any sense at all.
Community and connection are so core that in Pirkei Avot, key text of Jewish ethics, the great Rabbi Hillel says אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר / “Do not separate from community.” He means that we must not separate from community and also, in truth, we cannot – not really, at least not without losing part of own selves.
The U.S. Loneliness Epidemic
Blue Zones of Longevity and Connectivity
We know it because researchers identify so-called Blue Zones where lives are especially long. All are places with strong structure, function and quality of community connection, and they rate high on personal and collective agency: they’re places of “Yes, we can.” In Okinawa, childhood friends are expected to last a lifetime, come what may. Other Blue Zones are similar because they’re geographically isolated – Ikaria in Greece, Sardinia in Italy, and Nicoya in Costa Rica. Nobody can be voted off the island, so community especially matters.
Judaism as Community Connector?
Judaism has strong Blue Zone potential. Shabbat is one reason – and, it’s more than Shabbat. Pirkei Avot holds that our world stands on three things: Torah (learning), avodah (prayer) and gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness) – and all of these are team sports. Judaism’s ideal is that we learn together, pray together, and repair our world together. All three teach us how connected we truly are.
That’s why a synagogue is three things: a beit midrash (house of learning), beit tefilah (house of prayer) and beit knesset (house of assembly, or community center). All three functions reinforce each other, activate us in mind, heart and body, strengthen our felt sense of connectedness, refine our instincts for each other, and offer diverse on-ramps for diverse styles and interests.
This fall, I’ll offer learning (SoulSpa on Saturday mornings for the Torah cycle, a weekday course on Mitzvah and Mysticism: The Hidden Spirituality of Common Rituals), diverse prayer experiences, and social justice opportunities including travel next year.
Our world proves it every day. It will take all of us, in community, local and global, all of us knowing bone-deep how we’re in it together, to turn the tide of history. We will learn to live as sisters and brothers, or perish as fools. It will take all of us to fulfill the call to teshuvah on this sacred Kol Nidre night. We need each other for courage to face our flaws, safety so nobody is outed or shamed by confessing, and strength to know that, yes, we can repair our lives and relationships. We are not alone: at heart, we are parts of each other.
May our unity on this most holy night inspire us and transform us. May the One we call God harmonize us and strengthen us as one to raise ourselves and each other in collective holiness and renewal.