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Kol Nidre 5782/2021

09/15/2021 09:00:46 PM


Rabbi Jeffrey Brown

Good Yuntuf.

         1500 years ago, the rabbis of the Midrash told the story of a group of neighbors who went sailing.  One of the passengers unexpectedly picks up a blade, and begins carving a hole into the bottom of the boat, immediately underneath his seat. 

         The other passengers naturally became alarmed.

         “What concern is it of your’s?” the man replied.  It’s a hole under my seat – not your’s!”

         And of course the rest replied: “That may be so, but when the boat sinks, we too will drown.”

         I’ve been thinking a lot about that story.  Its implications are writ large in our current COVID context; and we also find it in the consequences of global warming that continue to engulf us.   In this moment…like the passengers in the story….we’re all in the same boat together.

Until now, I think most of us – myself included – went on auto-pilot, and have lived “me” focused lives.  Certainly that’s true economically, in that we’ve chosen to put our faith in the project known as capitalism. 

We strive to earn a living to support ourselves and our families.  We try to budget so there’s some resources leftover at the end of each month or year for charitable giving.  But by and large, we’re culturally programmed to think in terms of “me.”  What are the financial choices that are best for me and my family?  What choices should I be making so that mychildren are best served?

         There’s nothing inherently problematic to start there.  Indeed, 2000 years ago Hillel opened his famous proverb with the words Im ein ani li, mi li?  If I am not for myself, who am I?

         And he was right.  At the end of the day, we are the only ones who are going to be looking out for ourselves.  There’s nothing wrong with self-advocating.

         What we sometimes forget, though, is that Hillel’s words continue.  He said: וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי

  But if I am only for myself, what am I?

         Hillel’s words become a startling rebuke of the notion that we should live our lives onlythinking about how choices will affect us individually.

         On this Yom Kippur, we give thought to the collective responsibility we have for each other.  We no longer have the luxury of just paying lip service to the Talmud’s dictum that we are all responsible, one for the other.  In this present moment, we are called on to match those words with action.  Our very lives depend on it.

         I want to suggest, tonight, that we look at collective responsibility from three distinct vantage points.  To begin: let’s consider the question of universal human dignity.

According to our Tradition, I am not the only person who has value in the world.  Every single person is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  Even when they think differently from me.  Even when the color of their skin might be different.  Even when their gender identity is different.  Every single person is created in the image of God.  Every person has worth and value.

         From that standpoint, I have a Jewish legal and ethical obligation.  I am not permitted to turn my back on my fellow human beings.  No matter how different they might be from me: their right to live and thrive in the world is equal to mine.

         Tomorrow afternoon, we’ll again read from the Book of Jonah, which functions as a cautionary tale in this regard.

         God asks Jonah to travel to the capital city of the Israelites’ sworn enemies at that time: Nineveh.  Jonah is sent there to preach a message of repentance, as God desired to save the Ninevites.

         But Jonah refuses to acknowledge the self-worth of the Ninevites.  He cannot seem to see the shared spark of humanity inside of them.  So: he refuses to go.

         God punishes Jonah as a result.  He’s swallowed by the whale as God desperately tries to help Jonah understand this radical Jewish idea: that everyone is worthy of compassion and kindness.

         Rav Kook, of early 20th century Palestine, put it this way: “The love for people must be alive in the heart and soul, a love for all people and a love for all nations, expressing itself in a desire for their advancement.”

         But it’s not just on the basis of universal human dignity that we must reckon with a responsibility for the well-being of others.  There is also the question of meaning, and what our lives would amount to, if we were serious about not engaging with others.

Simon and Garfunkel famously sang in 1965: “I’ve built walls – a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate.  I have no need of friendship….friendship causes pains.  It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.  I am a rock, I am an island.”

         While that choice – to live as an island, disconnected from others – is theoretically available to us…I think we know that that is not a recipe for a meaningful life.

         Jewish sources insist, over and over again, that life is meant to be lived out in relationship with others.  From the Book of Genesis and God’s observation that Adam ought to have a partner or helpmate, to Martin Buber in the 20th century, who argued that we experience God when we are deeply connected to, and present with, others.  Our lives are meant to be lived in the company of others.

And that learning is reflected in secular wisdom as well.  We see it, for example, in the data of the Grant Study, which has been tracking the lives of 268 Harvard students over decades, trying to understand the characteristics that lead to success and happiness.  In 2017 project leaders concluded that “close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. […] Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of […] happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”

         This belief, of course, is at the heart of our congregation’s mission as well.  We invest in the notion of community-building, because we fundamentally believe that it is the primary vehicle for pursuing and finding meaning in the world.  Our lives are enriched with purpose when we are able to open ourselves up, and obligate ourselves to, the presence of others.


Beyond the notions of human dignity, and of living a life of meaning, a third argument for collective responsibility comes from the realization that we Jews are promise-makers, and promise-keepers.

         We are particularly conscious of that on this evening of Kol Nidre, when we open the most sacred service of the year by re-affirming the unwritten brit, or covenant, that we have with each other.  We acknowledge that we’ve inevitably fallen short of last year’s promises.  And we pledge to re-double our efforts to fulfill our word in the year ahead.

         It’s worth pointing out that the words of Kol Nidrei are intentionally written in the plural.  This is not a plea for forgiveness that is meant to be recited individually.  The very beginning of our Jewishness is rooted in the connectedness that binds us to each other.  We are responsible to one another, and for one another.

Shneur Zalman of Liadi, of 18th century Russia, wrote that we may all have separate bodies, but we are of one soul.  We are all interconnected.  Not just because we are all created in the image of God.  But because we are all one human family.  We share a single soul.

         The covenant we re-enter on Yom Kippur isn’t just about community.  It’s about the most intimate relationship we are a part of in our lives: it’s about reaffirming our place in a family, and the basic promises we make to help care for the other members of that family.

         Tonight, I ask us to seriously grapple with the way that our choices and actions affect others, near and far, particularly when it comes to our COVID health, and the health of our precious planet.  Our choices have consequences that will impact the lives of our next door neighbors and our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world.  We are all responsible for one another. 

         We are at a pivotal crossroads.  The world desperately needs what the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called a “cultural climate change” – a shift away from thinking and behaving primarily in terms of “me” or “I”, and move instead to a worldview that begins with “we” and “us.”

         We are in this boat together.  It is incumbent on each one of us to make sure that it stays afloat.

         We can no longer afford to ignore these communal responsibilities.  Indeed, as Hillel concluded his famous aphorism: im lo achshav, aimatai?  If we don’t start now, then – when?

Good Yuntuf

Thu, February 22 2024 13 Adar I 5784