Our power is our unity - Sermon for Kol Nidre 5781 (2020)

Do you like watching Hollywood films where good overcomes evil?

Those films where evil forces commit evil against a good person, - as it seems, with impunity. The good person usually suffers a lot: physical injuries, imprisonment, loss of family, reputation, home, or all of these things. Even though you know what the end of this sort of commercial blockbuster will be, you still come away feeling good.

Why do we like films with good endings? We like films with happy endings for many reasons. Most importantly, they make us feel good because, for a short time, it gives us hope in the omnipresence of Goodness in the world, and we all need that reassurance from time to time, when the darkness around us seems darker than the light within us.

At the moment, we could all do with a few happy films, which would give us hope for a positive, comfortable and safe future.

The reason we are not sure about our future is that the news gives us little hope. Social media gives us too much choice in the world where almost no-one knows who is telling the truth and who is not, and what the truth is. We are living through times when politicians don't keep their promises and make promises they can't keep, and we, the general public, at times feel hopeless.

Why do people accept broken promises and lies from politicians? That is a very good question to ask - even if I do say so myself!

Research led by Oliver Hahl of Carnegie Mellon University has identified the specific circumstances in which people accept politicians who lie. It is only when people feel disenfranchised and excluded from a political system that they accept lies from a politician who claims to be a champion of the "people" against the "establishment" or "elite." Under those specific circumstances, flagrant violations of behaviour that is championed by this elite – such as honesty or fairness — can become a signal that a politician is an authentic champion of the "people" against the "establishment."

Other research done by a team from Bristol University led by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, found that corrections of Australian politicians' falsehoods made participants much less inclined to support them, unlike the false claims and promises of candidates in the USA. This effect occurred irrespective of partisanship - voters were intolerant of lies even if they came from their side of politics.

The team concluded that it is because, in Australia, voting is mandatory and preferential. Everyone must vote or risk being fined, and voters rank their preferences among all parties. These measures help contain political polarisation, underscoring how a political system's design can determine a country's welfare.
But another reason I think we accept people, including politicians, who make promises that they go on to break, is that we make and break promises ourselves. It is human nature to make mistakes.

Some of them are innocent, such as promising our friends to come to their party and not being able to; but some of them are not innocent - breaking life-long promises and hurting people around us, be it our business partners, our loved ones, people at work or our friends.

Our life is not black and white, as many of us believed when we were young. As the Talmud says, there is very little pure evil in the world or pure righteousness, but most humans are in-betweeners.

Being human means accepting responsibility for and acknowledging the broken promises, oaths, and commitments we have never fulfilled.

The work of our souls is never done. Without darkness, there would be no light. At times, our life goes in the cycle of darkness and light, of moral, ethical dilemmas against selfish, greedy or untruthful decisions.

Kol Nidrei, meaning “all our vows”, the prayer with which we started our service tonight, acknowledges our weakness in keeping vows, oaths, and promises.

As Rabbi Larry Hoffman puts it: "Kol Nidrei is a perfectly normal legal document like anything a lawyer might draw up today to protect a client from damages." So Kol Nidrei originally was a legal document, whose aim was to annul the vows, oaths, and promises our ancestors made but didn't fulfil.

Why would they want to annul them? Another good question to ask!

It is because our ancestors "lived in fear of forces beyond themselves who might punish moral failure by redirecting nature to cause them harm." As Rabbi Hoffman remarks: "It is hard for us to appreciate how seriously people took oaths in the days when they thought the universe was a moral, not a scientific, thing."

Did you know that many Rabbinic authorities, particularly at the period of the Babylonian Geonim, who were the leading rabbinic authorities in the early Medieval Period, tried "to eradicate" this liturgical tradition of reciting Kol Nidrei publicly on Yom Kippur? And rightly so! "The wholesale public annulment of all oaths as a matter of public ritual is recognised by neither Talmud nor Tanach!"

However, "by the 13th century, Kol Nidrei gained enough momentum to become a staple" of the Yom Kippur service.

The poignant tune, which deeply touches our souls and prepares us for the solemn decorum of Yom Kippur, was introduced in the 16th century, and no other attempts to remove Kol Nidrei from our Machzorim – our High Holidays prayer books – have been successful.

This is the only liturgical rebellion instigated by Jewish people, which the Rabbis in Late Antiquity and the Medieval Period had to accept and adapt to its presence in our High Holiday liturgy.

But why? Why would a legal, dry, and boring declaration of the annulments of all sorts of legal promises become so popular with our people?

And why today, when we have moved from a Moral to a Scientific view of the Universe, is Kol Nidrei still so dear to our hearts?

We no longer believe that our moral failure will always produce a drought or hurricane. Living in a Scientific Universe has bettered our lives. But It has also created a deficit of power in our words, the words we say and promises we give can be broken much more easily today without the fear of the outer punishment for them, and created a vacuum of sacred space for our souls.

As Rabbi Hoffman says "The communal worship of Yom Kippur establishes realities of which daily life is only dimly capable of grasping. For a very brief moment, we are in touch with the sacred, with our finitude, with those we love, with the broader human universe that calls us to our better selves and with God we are not even sure we believe in."

Once a year, we come together, as individuals and as a community, to accept our moral failures together and to recognise the power of our words over each other.

One of the most important lessons for us to learn from the history of the Kol Nidrei prayer is that people can make a difference when they are united and strongly believe in something; it means that if people are united they can stand together against damaged political systems and work towards repairing them too.

We are here tonight to share our weaknesses and recognise our failures. Without admitting our own mistakes, we cannot help others or make them accountable for their broken promises and the words they spoke to use and abuse others.

We are here tonight to start our journey from darkness to light through the strength of our spirit and our unity, which connects us to the Universe to and each other.

Repent well, and I will see you at the other end when we will rise like a phoenix from the depth of our weakness and darkness to our strength and light to face whatever challenges and tests life will throw at us as individuals, as families and as a community.

צום קל ותשובה טובה