Unexpected Joy: a sermon for Kol Nidre

(Also posted at Velveteen Rabbi.)

I’m going to let you in on a secret: this is one of my favorite days of the year.

It’s not that I enjoy being hungry, or standing up here at the front of a room as my body grows increasingly weary, or reminding myself of all the ways in which I’ve missed the mark over the year we’ve just completed. And yes, all of those are part of Yom Kippur.

But those aren’t what’s truly central to this holiday. Here’s what I love: Yom Kippur is the day when we get to focus most on being in connection with something beyond ourselves.

In my love of Yom Kippur, I’m in good company. We read in Mishna Ta’anit that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, “there were no yomim tovim (holidays) in Israel like the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.” On both of these days, the unmarried girls of Jerusalem would go out to the vineyards dressed in white, and call out to the unmarried men to join them.

What makes these two days special? Why were they days of dancing and courtship and joy? On each of these dates, God gave us clear signs that God had accepted our repentance. Yom Kippur is understood as the anniversary of the day when Moshe returned from atop Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets of the covenant, a sign that God had forgiven us for the idolatry which caused the first set to be shattered. On Yom Kippur, we experience our bond with God anew.

Most of the time, we have to balance the desire for spiritual life with the mundane realities of cooking, cleaning, taking the kids to daycare or school. Not today. Today, we only have one job: reaching out beyond ourselves to connect with the source of blessing. Jewish tradition, of course, names that source “God.”

The Jewish mystics teach that we connect with God all the time without even knowing it. God’s abundance flows down into creation all year long. Wisdom and understanding, mercy and judgement: we find all of these in God, and we find God in all of these. God is a fountain of blessing, and blessing flows from that divine spigot without ever stopping. Ideally, we receive that blessing every day in our ordinary lives.

But over the course of a year, the channel through which God’s blessings flow becomes shmutzdik. It gets clogged with our spiritual detritus. Our inattention, our frustrations, our mistakes, the hasty words we wish we could retract: everything we do wrong over the course of a year is spiritual sediment which blocks the conduit through which blessings are meant to flow. Our job today is to clean out those spiritual pipes so that divine abundance can flow freely into our lives again.


At this season we talk a lot about teshuvah, usually translated “repentance” or “return.” I like to think of it as a matter of alignment. If blessing flows from God into the world through us, and we get bent out of shape, then the flow doesn’t… flow. When we make teshuvah—when we “re/turn again”—abundance can flow into us and through us again. Today is a day for cosmic chiropractic work. Today, we get our spirits re-aligned.

One way that we do that, tradition teaches, is by asking for forgiveness: from our friends, and those who are not our friends; from ourselves; from God. And another way we do that is through reciting the prayers of today’s liturgy, beginning with Kol Nidre.

The machzor, the high holiday prayerbook, is a rich anthology of Jewish spiritual writing, from ancient to contemporary. But I know that for some of us, the words can be distancing. The Hebrew and Aramaic may not be comfortable. The metaphor of God as Father and King may not be comfortable. The language of relating to God through yirah, fear and awe, may not be comfortable.

(singing) B’rosh hashanah yikateivun, uvyom tzom kippur yechateimun…

Sound familiar? “On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” Who shall live and who shall die; who shall know abundance, and who shall know hardship… What can we do with these words? We’ve inherited these words from our ancestors, but are they an inheritance we really want?

Here’s one way to understand these words of prayer. Try this on: our futures are inscribed not on some cosmic parchment, but on our own hearts. The heart may be solid at Rosh Hashanah—indeed, it would have to be, in order for anything to be inscribed on it. But the heart must be soft like wax in order for it to be “sealed” on Yom Kippur.

It’s incumbent on us today to soften our hearts. Find the places where your heart has calcified, and massage those places gently until they become soft enough to change. Our fate is not written in stone on some cosmic tablets on high. Today is the day when we seal our intentions on our own beating hearts.

In every amidah during these Days of Awe we sing Cotveinu l’chayyim: “Inscribe us for life.” Usually we understand this to mean that we are asking God to inscribe our names in the Book of Life for the year to come. But the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet offers a different interpretation: God is inscribing us, our very selves, with life. God is inscribing life into us. Just as God’s words were once inscribed on the tablets which Moshe brought down from the mountain, God inscribes life-force upon and within us.

Or—here’s a very contemporary metaphor, courtesy of Reb Zalman—on Yom Kippur, we make ourselves available to God so that God can install new software on the hard drives of our hearts.


At selichot, almost two weeks ago, we sang Ana b’koakh, Holy One of Blessing, please untie our tangles! Today, on Yom Kippur, we ask again: please, God, help us untie the places where we are bound.

Today is a day for taking stock of an intimately personal kind of debt. Not whatever you may owe the bank or Citicard, but what you owe to friends and loved ones…and what they owe to you. Did someone make you a meal when you were sick, or take care of you when you were struggling? Do you have spiritual debts you’re not sure you can repay? Or: did you have a need which went unmet, leaving you bound to your perfectly reasonable resentment that no one stepped in to take care of you? Either way—a sweet debt or a bitter one—those feelings can bind you. On this day, with the Kol Nidre prayer, we let those bindings go.

There’s deep vulnerability in admitting that we can’t always keep the vows we make. Who am I if I can’t keep my promises? But once a year it’s spiritually important to acknowledge that we don’t always live up to our aspirations…and to meet that reality with compassion for ourselves, and for each other too.

All of our unkept promises, and our resentments of the places where others have let us down, are a karmic snarl of tangled connections. “I should have…” “He should have…” “Why didn’t they…” It’s not good for us to tie ourselves in knots over unmet expectations.

Today we get to experience the joy of untying those knots. Today we relax our physical and spiritual muscles. We prepare to begin again, our spiritual slates clean and ready for something new.

This is a day of tikkun, healing and repair. On the day when we are most willing to face our shortcomings, to own up to what has disappointed us and how we have disappointed others, we are most able to find healing for the places where we are broken. It’s a beautiful paradox. Only through acknowledging our baggage, our frustrations, our habitual patterns of inattention and anxiety and overwhelm, may we find ourselves able to let that baggage go.

It’s a pretty common rabbinic gesture to parse today’s name—the Day of Atonement—as the Day of At/One/Ment. This is our day to remember that we are always, truly, deep down, At One with God.

Are you starting to see why I think of this as a day of joy?


At the end of the Kol Nidre prayer, as the sun is just beginning to set, we recite the words “vayomer Adonai, salachti kidvarecha.” “And God said, I have forgiven you, as I have promised.”

We’re always already forgiven. But because we’re human, we won’t be able to feel that we’ve been forgiven until we go through this day of fasting and prayer. We need the experience in order to really assimilate the knowledge.

In my early 20s I studied a martial art called Isshin-Ryu, which means “One heart, one mind.” The purpose of karate, our sensei taught, was not learning to kick and punch, nor attaining whatever level of physical fitness might be desirable, but rather the perfection of one’s character.

I remember that whenever anyone in our dojo approached a belt test, there was never any question about whether or not we would pass. But we still had to do the work of showing that we had mastered kata, sparring opponents, answering questions, and demonstrating that we had done the work which merited the reward of moving up in rank. We needed the belt test not to prove to sensei that we were ready for a new level of rank, but to prove it to ourselves.

The same thing, I believe, is true of Yom Kippur. God knows we are already forgiven. But we need the experience of Yom Kippur in order to know it for ourselves.

Once upon a time, Yom Kippur was the one day of the year when the High Priest entered into the Holy of Holies, the empty space at the heart of the Temple sanctuary in Jerusalem. In that place, we’re told, the Kohen Gadol would receive a new name for God.

The Temple no longer stands, and Kohen Gadol is no longer a viable job description. Today each of us engages in the sacred work of avodah, service, which we enact now through prayer instead of sacrifice. Tomorrow evening at Ne’ilah we’ll open the ark for anyone who wants to stand before it in silence. To say what you need to say to God, and to seek a new way of understanding, a new “name for God.”

Between now, and that moment about 23 hours away, we download a year’s worth of blessing in one dense spiritual package, which we’ll spend the whole next year unpacking and making real. Once we have sluiced our spiritual pathways clean, blessing can flow into us—and through us, into the world. We’re here tonight not only for our own spiritual benefit, but also because we’re called to take the spiritual gifts we receive during these Days of Awe and share them with everyone we meet.

One of my regular blog-readers, a woman I know only as “A.M.,” left a comment recently which contained a deep spiritual insight. She deconstructed the name “Days of Awe” into “Days of a ‘We’”—days when we and God are in conversation and connection. These are our Days of a ‘We,’ of being part of an “us” which includes each of us and God, whatever we understand that name to mean. And today is the last of those days.

I want to bless us that we might each experience a Yom Kippur full of connection—real prayer—soft hearts—true release—and at/one/ment. May this be a day when new life is inscribed in each of us. May this be, for each of us, a Yom Kippur of being part of a “We,” and in that “We,” may we each find joy.

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