Words are Wind?

Southport Reform Community 
Kol Nidré Sermon 

Words are Wind? 

“I’ll begin from the moment I got you, the moment I saw you lying on the table among my other birthday presents... on Friday, June 12, I was awake at six o ‘clock, which isn’t surprising, since it was my birthday. But I’m, not allowed to get up at that hour, so I had to control my curiosity, until quarter to seven... A little after seven I went to Daddy and Mama and then to the living room to open my presents, and you were the first thing I saw, maybe one of my nicest presents...’ 

When she started scribbling her thoughts in her checkered blue-and-red diary, on that fateful 12th of June, 1942, did she know her words were eternal? That they would change the world – both hers and ours? 

Words bind our fate and shape worlds, as my fellow Dutchwoman and co-religionist Anne Frank would intuit. Words, words, words. Yom Kippur is heavy with them. Prayers that are given wings through our sacred intentions. Words that indict us and defend us. Words that praise and words that ring with the empty chime of our mortality. Ancient words from the Torah, Prophets and Sages and contemporary words from our Progressive rabbis. Words that speak of vows, of repentance, of prayer and charity. Words that condemn our abuse of words: of slander, of lying, of judgment. Words that ring true and words that ring hollow. Words that move us and words that leave us cold. 

Between now and Ne’ilah, many words will be spoken, too many perhaps. Even, or especially on Yom Kippur, there is a danger that words become wind. The machzor brims with them. It is a document that shows our struggle with God and ourselves, that maps our gratitude and exposes our weakness. It disseminates the mayor themes of our tradition, provides us with the roadmap into life’s most profound questions. It is a distillation of our Jewish tradition’s wisdom and theology, a rallying cry to justice and a whisper to bring the heart to contrition. The machzor is a beautiful document to be sure, but in many ways it is not ours. We might struggle with finding God on those pages that are so God-heavy, we might not recognise ourselves in the ‘Al Chets’, we might not be moved by the imagery of ‘Ki Anu Amecha’ and do we really need to ponder the want of our actions in ‘Avinu Malkeinu’? Even the Kol Nidré, the convergence point of many a Jewish community, may be rendered meaningless in our experience. What vows have we broken? What obligations have we forsaken? For what must we atone? 

As important as breaking down our ego is during these Days of Awe, it is equally important to build up our values, our intentions, our promises. From this Kol Nidré to the next. 

If Kol Nidré is about annulling and excusing the vows we’ve made between God and ourselves, from this past year to this present moment, then can we perhaps do the reverse? Can we bequeath a heritage of words that is lasting, positive and compelling in our lives? We know that Anne Frank did even in the darkest and direst of circumstances. Her diary encouraged her to see pinpoints of light in the midnight of the century. I can only stand in awe of what her spirit accomplished but it does prove the power of words. 

Words matter, for better and worse. Then how can we make our words count? In a way, Anne Frank’s diary is a complex and beautiful example of an ‘ethical will’. The ethical will is one of those wonderful concepts that the Torah bequeathed on humankind (together with monotheism and the weekend!) and that made its way in both the Jewish and Christian tradition. There are two important ethical wills mentioned in Torah: Jacob’s blessing of his children in Genesis chapter 49 and Moses’ song in Deuteronomy chapter 32 (yes, you can go home and read these and be inspired). 

Speaking words of wisdom and blessing to one’s progeny does seem very Biblical indeed. Not many of us may be granted that dignity, calm and lucidity when at death’s door. Hence, during the Middle Ages, rabbis developed the ethical will as a written document that could be written when the individual was still of sound body and mind. An ethical will grants us an opportunity to impart our values both to ourselves and to the next generation. It is a valiant storming of the gates of Eternity, to make sure that we are indeed inscribed in the Book of Life. I would invite you, then, to complement the fleeting words of the Kol Nidré and words of urgent morality from the machzor with writing your own ethical will – you can glean inspiration and tips from the website ethicalwill.com. 

For those of you who do not write on Shabbat and Yom Tov; this is a project that can be done right up till Hoshanah Rabbah, when the Gates of Repentance really close for the year. For those Progressive Jews who do choose to write on holy days, I invite you to consider taking up pen and paper when you come home tonight after services. You might even use the machzor as a source of inspiration. Consider the question you would like to ask yourself. If the machzor represents a meeting between God and the individual, then maybe you can see yourself from the God’s eye perspective. See yourself with both chesed and din, loving-kindness and judgment. What things did you get right this year and what things did you get wrong? Who is this person you are trying to become? Who are the people you want to honour, love and cherish in your lives? What are the timeless values you want to impart on family and friends? And how do you wish to be remembered? Write these words with tenderness – they can truly be a gift. 

It seems indeed that the ethical will can be an excellent metaphor and tool for the transformative experience of Yom Kippur. We can seal ourselves in the Book of Life; not out of presumption and arrogance but out of contrition and quiet dignity. 

This moral profundity is reflected in the first written ethical will known to us, from Eleazar, the son of the famous 11th century Ashkenazi rabbi Isaac of Worms. In this document, Eleazar writes advice fitting for this time of year: 
 “Think not of evil, for evil thinking leads to evil doing.... Purify your body, the dwelling-place of your soul.... Give of all your food a portion to God. Let God’s portion be the best, and give it to the poor.” 

Another scholar, Asher, the son of Yechiel, writes in the 14th century, leaving us with another appropriate set of values: “Do not obey the Law for reward, nor avoid sin from fear of punishment, but serve God from love.” 

I would like to close with the wisdom of our beloved Anne Frank - even the young can share transformative and prophetic insights. Allow me to read some snippets of the ‘ethical will’ she left the world, through the words of her diary. Consider these words alongside with the themes of the machzor:

“The final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands.” Pair this with “Hachayim v’hamavet natati lefanecha, hab’racha v’hak’lalah, uv’acharta bachayim - I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse... choose life!” (Deut. 30:19) 

Or, “No one has ever become poor by giving”, which can be read in conjunction with, “al chet shechatanu lefanecha b’neshech uv’marbit – for the sin we have committed before You by financial greed.’ (Liturgy) 

Or, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart” with “Elohai, neshamah shenatata bi, tehorah hi – my God, the soul You have given me is pure.” (Liturgy) 

And finally, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world” with “Limdu heitiv, darshu mishpat – learn to do good, seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17). 

The key word here is limdu, the imperative to learn. We are our own books, the stories of our own lives. It is never too late to write them, to be inscribed for goodness and eternity, in the reflections we share and the love we transmit, from one day to the next, from Rosh haShanah when we are written to Yom Kippur when we are sealed. The gates and the pages of our ethical wills are open. 

Give yourself and your loved ones this gift. G’mar chatimah tovah!

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