Rabbi Kuhn Kol Nidre Sermon

By Rabbi Bill Kuhn, sermon delivered Kol Nidre evening 2011

A man was walking along, minding his own business, doing his job on a day just like any other ordinary day.  When out of the corner of his eye, he saw a fire.  He didn’t really think anything of it, as he sees little fires all the time in his line of work.  But this fire was different, it would not go out.  Eventually he turned and noticed this extraordinary fire, and his life was changed forever.  For the longest time, Moses stared at the bush that was burning unconsumed in the desert.  And when God saw that he had turned and noticed, God called out to him, “Moses, Moses.”  And Moses answered, “Hineini,”  “I am here.”  [Ex. 3:1-4].

This was Moses’ profound moment, the turning point in his life, when he understood his purpose, but only after he saw something extraordinary in what was an ordinary occurrence.

The lesson of this story is that we must be open to understanding profound moments in our lives.  The burning bush is, of course, a metaphor that we must try to discover and feel the burning desire within each of us to discover who we really are.  What is our purpose?  Why do I walk this earth?  Why do I exist?  How can we use our God-given talents to the fullest extent possible, to fulfill our potential to be the best we can be.

Moses saw the fire within himself, and he went on to change the world.   He confronted Pharaoh, helped free the Israelites, and led the people to the Promised Land.

Now, not many people have accomplished what Moses did, but what a role model.  He searched his soul, found that he had a purpose in life, and he went on to change the world forever. On Yom Kippur, we search our souls and examine our lives and we determine what is our purpose in life.  What can I do to fulfill my promise to help others and to make a difference in this troubled world.

This search for meaning and purpose in life is one of the most important recurring themes in the Torah and in Jewish tradition.  But in today’s world, this search is often confused with a search for “happiness.”  There is so much emphasis on being “happy.”  There is no shortage of books, websites, seminars and institutes that teach you how to be happy.

But the “happiness” journey is a trip to nowhere.  We keep telling ourselves that it’s just over the next hill, just a little more time or a little more money or a little more struggle will get us there.  [Golf in the Kingdom, Michael Murphy, Open Road Publishing, N.Y. 1972].

But in the Torah, there is no word for “happiness.”  Judaism emphasizes “purpose.”   Our purpose is to enter into a covenant brit with God, a partnership to repair the world.  [from a sermon by Rabbi Stephen Pearce, 2009].

What is the Jewish prescription for happiness?  To be on a spiritual journey to find some connection with others.  And together we search for profound moments which give meaning to our lives.  We yearn to find something within ourselves that gives us an understanding that we are part of something greater than ourselves.  We need to be part of a sacred quest that transcends our isolation and helps our lives become part of the lives of others.

This isolation is called the “bowling alone” syndrome, from the  excellent book by Robert Putnam, [Bowling Alone, N.Y. Simon & Schuster, 2000].  He describes how Americans are living lives more isolated from our neighbors, retreating from friendships, neighborhoods, churches and synagogues.  People, if they go outside at all, sit on their decks in the back yard, not in sight of neighbors, rather than on the stoop or the front porch.  These are signs that our neighborhoods and our sense of community are in decline.

The search for meaning can also help remove us from the solitary life symbolized by the i-pod  – Rabbi Michael Holzman taught us a few years ago in a sermon:  small “i” (me) in a pod (alone – separated from the world – in my own little pod).  Who could perceive the burning bush in our own lives in today’s world, set up to isolate us from each other?

This is the purpose of our congregation, to help everyone get out of our own pod, and to create profound connections, to search for meaning and connection to counter the feelings of loneliness, despair and dislocation in our world.

And tonight, on Kol Nidre, we are certainly not alone.  Our Prayer Book says, “we pray as one on this Night of Repentance…saint and sinner alike communes with the Most High.  We are at one.”  [Gates of Repentance, p. 251…].  This is the night of ultimate community, as we stand here together to experience the magical moment of the Kol Nidre prayer.  We ask God to forgive us for our sins, our vows not kept, but this prayer is much more than words.  It is about the power of the music, the haunting melody of Kol Nidre, the rhyming words, which come in an ancient mysterious rhythm – the prayer is like a magical incantation.  There is nothing rational about it, which is why the founders of the Reform Movement tried to take it out of the service, but the people wouldn’t let them.  The mystery of the experience, the magic of the moment expresses feelings that cannot be put into words.  We lose ourselves in the music and in the spirit of the experience, and we become at one with each other and with God.

And we all become connected here, profoundly.  Connected with each other in this sacred sanctuary.  Connected with our family who could not be here.  They are all in our hearts tonight.  As are our parents and grandparents who are no longer with us, but we tenderly recall the many times we stood at their side and were deeply moved by the haunting melody of Kol Nidre, just as Jews have done for so many centuries.

We are also connected to Jews everywhere in the world tonight.  Kol Nidre, a whisper of wings, whether in the land of Israel, or anywhere else on this globe.  Tonight we are as one.

No solitary i-pod or isolated Bowling Alone syndrome tonight.  We are community, we are connected profoundly, we are family.  We are as ONE.  And as I stand before the open ark during the singing of Kol Nidre, I look out at all of you and I see how deeply moved you are by this awesome and magical moment, and I am inspired by your faith and your strength, and I am lifted up by the power of the spirit of our community.   We stand on holy ground.  [Rabbi David Stern, All These Vows, Jewish Lights Publishing]

In the darkness of this night, we search for light within.  This is the meaning of the Psalm we sing just before the Kol Nidre prayer, from Ps. 97, Or zarua la’tzaddik…  “Light is sown for the righteous…”  (Ps. 97:11).

For in this light we try to “see ourselves more clearly…this night, unlike any other, will bring both the freedom of darkness and the capacity for illumination, the urgent insistence upon seeing.”  [David Stern, ibid].  In this light, we do the hard work of Yom Kippur.  We shine a light upon the inner recesses of our soul, as we examine our lives, and we engage in the ancient Jewish tradition of cheshbon ha nefesh  “taking an accounting of our soul.”  And instead of pursuing happiness all the time, we should seek to find the real purpose of our lives.  And when we take an honest accounting of our soul, may we find our purpose, the meaning of our lives.  May we find the bush, which burns unconsumed – waiting for us to notice it.

But too often, the hard work of Yom Kippur gives us an opportunity to beat ourselves up and tear ourselves down – to dwell only on our sins.  We recite the confessional prayer of Al Cheyt…  “For the sins we have sinned against You O God…”  In this prayer is a recitation of 44 sins, as we beat our breast and take communal responsibility for each others’sins.  This is an essential part of Yom Kippur and the process of tshuva, repentance.

However, this year, let us be more positive.  Let us look at what we did right, and thank God for the ability to do good work in the world, with the prayer that we may be able to recognize the good in ourselves and do more of these acts in the coming year.  In addition to Al Cheyt for our sins, let us also say:

Modim anachnu lach  Thank you O God:

For the good we have added to the world.

For the people we have helped.

For the peace we have made between people.

For the relationships we have repaired.

For the times we have stopped and noticed the beauty in this world.

For the times we have said I love you to those closest to us.

For the times we have lived up to our highest values.

For the times we have studied Torah and Jewish wisdom.

For the times we have made an effort to ensure the future of the Jewish people.

For offering thanks for the many gifts of our lives

For coming together with our congregation to be a part of this sacred community.

For working for a just and compassionate society.

For finding the good in every person.

For all these blessings, Eternal our God, we offer our thanks to You.

In the dark of this night, with the haunting strains of Kol Nidre still fresh in our hearts, we make these vows.  We promise to improve ourselves in the coming year.  This is the meaning of our lives.  This is our purpose:  to improve the world, one fulfilled promise at a time.

Would that we could keep this magical spirit of Kol Nidre with us always. All of us, no matter our backgrounds, we are all together as one during the singing of Kol Nidre.   We eagerly anticipate its coming again each year.  It raises us to heights unattained all year long.  And then we are saddened as it is over far too soon.    But while it lasts we are in a heightened sense of awareness.  I imagine a world in which we would not save this feeling only for Kol Nidre.  A world in which we work to recapture this sense of oneness and to make it a part of our everyday life – where we plead with God to take us back in mercy and love.  Asking for God to show us the Promise.

But we know that God has already shown us the Promise.  Implanted deep within each one of us is the bush that burns unconsumed.  It is there burning inside of all of us.  I know, because I have seen it.  It is why I decided to change careers at the age of 42.  To leave our life in Nashville because something was missing.  I knew that I had something different to give, to the extent that I had any God-given talents, I was not using them to the fullest extent possible.  I saw the burning bush and I looked right into it and said “Hineini.”  “I am here.”

I tell you this personal story not because what I did was so great, but because you can do it too.  I don’t mean you need to do anything quite so meshuggenah as I did.  But you can find inside yourself many God-given talents and gifts that you can develop and nurture no matter how old or young you are.  And you can do something to improve our world, to get outside of your self and find a way to help others and to give to society.  To think about the next generation and what sort of world you will be leaving them.

Let this be our work on this Yom Kippur.  That each of us may open ourselves up to understanding profound moments in our lives.  That each of us may say, like Moses said upon seeing the bush, “I must now turn aside and see this miraculous sight.”

What would it take for each of us to notice what is most important in our lives?  To open our eyes and be receptive to profound  moments.  I have a friend who told us her story this summer about a time she went on a routine shopping trip to the local CVS drug store.  She was in a hurry, so she ran into the store and grabbed what she needed and she was on her way to the checkout, when she encountered an old woman who looked like she was in distress.  My friend slowed down when she saw the woman.  She noticed her, she stopped. She turned her head toward the woman.  And then she asked if she could help her.  That simple act of reaching out, led the woman to open up to my friend and tell her all about her problems with her family and soon they were both in tears, and my friend helped her and hugged her.  What started out as an ordinary errand turned into a profound moment for my friend as she was able to extend her hand and an act of kindness to someone in need.  She stopped and noticed the bush burning unconsumed, and she said, “I must now turn aside to see this extraordinary sight.”

What would it take for us to notice what is most important in our lives, to open our eyes to those who are in need.  To be receptive to profound moments – extraordinary occurrences in the ordinary acts of everyday life.  How can we have a heightened sense of awareness.  We need to train ourselves to open our eyes and to be turned on (naturally) to the world, every day.  And if we do, we will see our neighbor or our loved one who is in need.  We will see a world that needs our help.

On this sacred night, let us pray for the inner vision to understand that God has given each of us talents, skills, understanding and abilities to make the world better.  The bush does indeed burn unconsumed deep within each of our souls.

At the end of Moses’ life, knowing that he would not be allowed to lead his people into the Promised Land, God grants Moses the great gift of spiritual vision.  God shows Moses the Promised Land and Moses is able to see what his long life of struggle and suffering was for.  [Dennis Shulman, Jewels of Elul, Craig & Co., 2011].

On this sacred night of Yom Kippur, may God grant each of us the gift of spiritual vision, so that we may see what we do in this life matters.  How we choose to live our life is important, and it is up to us to act in such a way that we can change the world.


Material gathered from:  Ex. 3:1-4. “The Pursuit of Happiness,” sermon by Rabbi Stephen Pearce, 2009, “The American Rabbi, 2010, Isaac Nathan Publishing, L.A., CA.  Golf in the Kingdom, by Michael Murphy, Open Road Publishing, N.Y., 1972.Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam, N.Y. Simon & Schuster, 2000.  Psalm 97:11.  “Night Vision,” Rabbi David Stern, All These Vows, Ed. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Woodstock, VT. Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011.  “Seeing the Bible,” Dennis Shulman, “Jewels of Elul,” Craig & Co. Elul, 5771.