Kol Nidrey Sermon: From the Bottom Up

Kol Nidrey Sermon, Sinai Synagogue Leeds
Esther Hugenholtz

From the Bottom Up

“”Why have we fasted if God does not see?
Why afflict ourselves if God does not pay heed?”
Because on the day of our fast we put our business first and force our workers to labour”.
- Adaption of Isaiah 57:3

Alessio Rastani got what he wanted; his proverbial ‘fifteen minutes of fame’. And like most instant-celebrities, all he had to do was appear on national television.
Rastani is nobody particularly remarkable. He is a minor City trader who emerged from oblivion through a well-timed and intelligent use of sound bites. Rastani’s main achievement was his ability to address the confusion about the current economic Crisis. Dressed in a slick grey suit and a too-fashionable pink tie, the well-groomed trader seemed to enjoy his place in the spotlight when interviewed by the BBC.

What was especially striking about Rastani’s account was not his articulate summary of the current malaise but his own glib, nihilistic commentary.

Riding on the back off financial fall-out that affects millions of people’s lives the world over, he candidly states “if I see an opportunity to make money, I’ll go with that... For most traders, we do not care that much about how they are going to fix the economy. Our job is to make money from it. I dream about the recession and making money from it.”

Whether these statements reflect his intentions accurately or not, they have consequences. Whether Rastani is or isn’t what he claims to be, he did pointedly sum up what is troubling today’s economic and moral system.

Now, I might have broken my own rule and may have stumbled into a ‘political sermon’. I usually try to avoid this. I celebrate human diversity, including political opinions. The bimah is not an appropriate place for partisan politics.

Yet to keep silent in the face of an unprecedented Crisis would be just as political.
If we can pretend that Judaism, Torah and these High Holy Days are somehow detached from reality, then we do our Judaism a grave disservice. Prompting people into thinking about issues that may make us uncomfortable is sometimes the only appropriate religious response. The purpose of religion, after all is, quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

It’s Kol Nidrey, the entrance gate to 25 hours of fasting, prayer and introspection. Yom Kippur may be a lot of things: meaningful, transformative, challenging. But ‘comfortable’ is not one of them.

The Rabbis of the Talmud already understood this juxtaposition well. While organising the liturgy for a day that seems to be all about the ritual observance of ‘afflicting one’s soul’ through fasting and other prohibitions, they had the moral courage to choose a Haftarah reading from Isaiah that calls people out on ritualistic behaviour that is morally void. It is important that we think about the ethics that drive our world and that decide, in a cruel and ironic rephrasing of the Unetaneh Tokef, who dies ‘by fire or water, by the violence of man... by hunger of thirst, by disaster and plague, who become poor and who become rich’. It is almost as if the Haftarah cautions us to not fulfil our own ‘evil decree’ but rather to transform it, as the Machzor states, by turning towards goodness and justice.

Is not this the fast I have chosen;
To loosen the fetters of evil, to untie the straps of the yoke,
To let the oppressed go free, and whatever the yoke, to break it?

Is it not sharing your food with the hungry and bringing the homeless into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe them, never hiding from your own flesh and blood.”
- Isaiah 58:5 – 7

As morally resonant as this citation is, it also presents a risk. There is a danger that in exposing our inadequacies and highlighting our flaws, we come to feel immobilised in the face of them. Truthfully, how many of us – myself included – engage regularly in acts to ‘loosen the fetters of evil and to feed the hungry’? Most of us are wrapped up in the business of providing for our own and our family’s direct needs.

It is tempting to point the finger at Alessio Rastani, but that is not the point. Rather, we should use his example to reflect both on our own roles and on the greater questions at hand.
How do we balance changing the world and changing ourselves?

What can we do ‘feed the hungry and let the oppressed go free?’

It is actually the model of mitzvot that may provide us with a strategy for change that will not paralyse us. Small but meaningful steps that can transform our lives and our world.
It is our system of mitzvot that bolsters us in the face of cynicism and our Torah delivers us a message that runs counter to the overwhelming anonymity of our world. What we do matters. Our actions are neither trite nor futile, no matter how small they seem in the grand scheme of things. If anything, our Torah empowers us. We can change things, from the bottom up.

Consider, then, in small but important ways in which we can both be a witness to the larger perspective and an agent for change. How can we reform our choices to conform to our ethical standards? How do we choose to invest our money? To buy organic and fair trade food? What can we do to tread the Earth lighter? Can we make a small commitment to consume less? To give charity to poverty and hunger relief? Perhaps, from this Kol Nidrey to the next, we can make a neder, a vow, to implement a small change that may accumulate to become a bigger change.

But it does not end here. Questioning is just as much part of transformation as change is. How do we, as individuals, enable corruption and injustice in our world? What are the power dynamics that ensnare us and dehumanise us? How can we hold our political and economic leaders accountable? Is there a way in which we can reverse cynicism back to righteous indignation? How can we model healthy and ethical relationships with other human beings in our own lives?

The answers are varied and fluid. We do not have to be perfect; but holiness is about meeting God halfway.
It is both logical and remarkable that if we pursue justice, our Haftarah promises us the following:

“Then shall your light break through like dawn and your healing quickly spring up...
Then if you call, the Eternal will answer, if you cry out to Him, He will say, HINENI, ‘Here I am’.”
- Isaiah 58: 8-9

We cannot ‘change the world’ without being solidly rooted in our own Jewish values and spirituality. Usually, it is the prophet who is called by God who answers ‘Hineni’, ‘here I am’. But in this case, by holding fast to what is just and right, it is us who God will answer. Transcendence may be elusive but can inspire us to do good.
Perhaps we can and must believe that the Shechinah dwells wherever we act to repair the world. For sure, we can emulate the Divine, ‘imitatio Dei’, by ‘clothing the naked and feeding the hungry’. There is no better answer to glib cynicism and moral recession.

Let us bring our world a little closer to Redemption – from the bottom up.
May the work of our hands be blessed. G’mar chatimah tovah.

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