Kol Nidrei Sermon

by Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel, Lebanon

I’d like to tell you an Etgar Keret story.


Keret is a famous Israeli writer, born to Holocaust survivors, and a very decorated artist. His story, Only Through Death Will You Learn Your True Identity, is about a boy named A who is being raised in a mysterious orphanage for an unknown purpose. We sympathize with A. This boy grows up learning German, its history and art, and hates the orchestration of his childhood by the mysterious man (ironically named Goodman) running the orphanage.


A is pushed by Goodman to accomplish vast academic feats and finally, when A is ready, it is revealed to A that he is to be given to an owner named Mr. Klein, who can do whatever he wants to A. In the final scene, in which we are duped and committed to humanizing A’s struggle, we learn that A’s true identity is a clone of Adolf Hitler. And in the final scene, he is murdered by his new owner, Mr. Klein, a Holocaust survivor.


One of the teachings of the Holocaust by logotherapist Viktor Frankyl is that an irrational response to an irrational situation is, in fact, rational. For Mr. Klein - we see in real time how the cycle of violence continues from the Holocaust to a clone of Adolf Hitler. It’s dangerous to surreptitiously extend humanity to an individual who worked so hard to deny the humanity of others. Even in fiction - this story focuses on the dark human capacity of revenge and not forgiveness.


There’s so much pain and suffering going on in the world right now that it may seem odd I start Kol Nidre with my thoughts on revenge and the cycle of violence, but there’s a reason for it. That’s what we’re trying to break here tonight. That’s what Yom Kippur is about. Self reflection, apologizing, and teshuvah. Forgiveness and the hope for peace. A hope that may be all we have, sometimes clouded by the darkness of our most painful experiences.


Sunday night, I went to see Joker, the rated-R movie about the green-haired villain in Batman. Joker has been called a masterpiece and fantastic in one breath and terrifying and harrowing in the next. Some people even warn you to stay away.. I saw the film and left shook.


For starters, it’s a movie peripherally about “incel culture,” or involuntary celibates, people who have no intimacy in their life and who often resort to violence. I read a number of reports and learned a lot connecting this movie to a very at-risk demographic. The average Joker moviegoers, is male between teen and 40s. The Joker, like some of the individuals in the incel movement, might be unemployed or underemployed, or live at home. In one of the high points of the film, the protagonist sticks up for his decision to live at home and take care of his mother. We cheer him on. His benevolence is palpable and the Joker, as we know him, is doing something good.


But this story isn’t the usual bad guy epic. It’s not supposed to be the empathetic story of a person who lost his way, but who ultimately does something good. Rather, this is the humanizing tale of a mentally sick man who tried violence on for size and liked it too much.


It was the “origin story” of the most deranged comic book villain, and it opened the bag on America’s failure to reign in fundamentalism. Besides blowing box office expectations out of the water, it prompted the military to issue legitimate security concerns for its empathy towards people who have the capacity for grave violence. Unlike the original comics, created by descendants of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of NYC, who felt powerless to Nazi Germany and Fascism, these movies were created in a different cultural milieu. This is the incoherent emotional plea of a sick person who wants to see the system go down. It is selfish and dangerous to empathize with a character like The Joker. But even still, Hollywood makes it feel so real, and we may just do it anyway.



Whether it is this movie, or the hundred others that treat our world as an all or nothing, apocalyptic struggle, I want you to note that we are watching art that depicts the erosion of a civilized society. The missing ingredient to this film is exactly what our High Holidays is about, exactly what the rabbis warned us that humanity would be doomed without  - Teshuvah. Repentence. Self reflection, prayer, acts of lovingkindness. That’s why I left the movie shook.


If an individual paused for just one second to count their blessings and to harvest even one iota of gratitude, they could’ve derailed the chaos of Joker. And if this movie is a “mirror” for ourselves as Americans,that same iota of heart could’ve derailed violence in our own world. One good therapist or friend, one good home cooked bowl of matzoh ball soup, one smile and a hug and an “I am sorry,” an “I forgive you,” one “I love you,”  would have disarmed the violence and fundamentalism creeping around the dark corners of the web.


This movie teaches us the lesson we didn’t need to realize: that we can easily drown in a pit of self-loathing, and we can so easily lash out. For those who think I don't talk about God enough - That’s what God wants out of us. To forgive and heal. It’s atonement day for a reason.


Judaism forces us to be self-reflective and aware of our emotional state. We cannot medicate away our connection to God. Judaism charges us to be our brother or sister or sibling’s keeper. Mishnah Pirkei Avot warns us: by saying “Mine is mine, and yours is yours,” we fall for the same greedy deflection that destroyed Sodom. Even Maimonides, in his treatise on how to give charity requires eye contact and a touch of humanity. You are forbidden from giving tzedakah in a way that debases someone who requires it. You are forbidden from embarrassing someone no matter how pathetic they may appear to you. They are your sibling in the enterprise of humanity. They deserve appropriate patience and compassion and humanity. We must never forget to prioritize humanity in a cold world.


Someone who is suffering without a community and without proper medication and without a spiritual mentor has neither the capacity, wherewithal, nor discipline to develop positive behavior patterns. Violence is never the answer and should never be entertained as a solution to the pain a person feels, but it seems to be endorsed by this movie. It seems to be endorsed by Etgar Keret. It seems to be the last action in a long line of failed Robin Hood-esque enterprises that I pray we don’t begin to glorify. If we go down that road, an “eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”


The Holocaust is the experience par excellence that posed to us the question, “can a moral man live by a moral code in an immoral world?” and the answer still remains elusive. We certainly have cases where the Jewish resistance units did use violence. We also have cases where Jews went to their deaths solemnly and steadfast in their belief.


Viktor Frankyl makes note of the sweetest souls, commenting to the effect of “We lost the best ones in the camps.” Even the famous pacifist Gandhi wrote to the leader of India’s Jewry in November 1938, saying, “My sympathies are all with the Jews … If there ever could be a justifiable war, in the name of and for humanity, war against Germany to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war.”


Not long before he was assassinated in January 1948, Gandhi called the Holocaust “the greatest crime of our time,” yet maintained that “… the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs … It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany … As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions.”


To Ghandi, it was the morality of pacifist offering - as Hasidic communities did give themselves up that way. Yet, the ones we look back proudly at are the resistance fighters who fought with courage and conviction. They stood in the way of the German military when they had to. They lived by a moral code in an immoral world, and that was how they connected with their God. And our God. There was no senseless violence to the resistance of the Holocaust. There was compassion and love and intimacy with every act of disobedience. Even on the brink of death, there was a witnessing community to promote love. “We will fight it righteously when fascist dictators overstep,” says the resistance.


And today, we live in a moral world - or do we? We have institutions - larger than life organizations with mission statements that seem to be composed of the loftiest aspirations. Yet they also seem to be breaking down quicker than cooperation and coalition building can remedy. Individuals are being shown to betray the trust of the many, and we watch as fundamentalism grows. That’s why the movie Joker is so scary, and why what we do publically is so important.


When you look at intimacy as Judaism does - intimacy being a crucial element to the human soul, you can easily connect the dots between action and reaction. A fundamentalist zealot is defined by that person's lack of integration into society. We need to open our doors when we can, to embrace love. To apologize with a full heart. To forgive with a whole heart. To call out when we need to. To invite people to warm themselves by the fire of our desire to do good, no matter where they come from.


A religious community is a witnessing community. That means we’re here for the good times and the bad times. That means we can see the ridiculous nature of the things that happen, not as isolated islands, but as a community of worshippers praying for a better world. That means when we beg God for forgiveness, as we do on Yom Kippur, we do so first as individuals, but also together, publically.


Here’s a fable about humanity.

When God was creating the world, God shared a secret with the angels, that human beings will be created in God’s own image.   The angels were jealous and outraged. Why should humans be entrusted with such a precious gift when they are flawed mortals? Surely, if humans find out their true power they will abuse it. If humans discover they are created in God’s image, they will learn to surpass us!

So the angels decided to steal God’s image and planned on hiding it so that we would never find it.  They held a meeting and brainstormed. The angel, Gabriel, suggested hiding it at the top of the highest mountain. The other angels, objected, “one day humans will learn to climb and they will find it there.”

The angel, Michael said, let’s hide it at the bottom of the sea.”  “No,” the other angels chimed in ‘humans will find a way to dive to the bottom of the sea and they’ll find it there.”

One by one, the angels suggested hiding places, but they were all rejected.

And then Uriel, the wisest angel of all, stepped forward and said. “I know a place where man will never look for it.”

So the angels hid the precious holy image of God deep within the human soul. And to this day, God’s image lies hidden in the very place we are least likely to search for it. Lying there, it is farthest away from you than you ever imagine. Lying there, it is closer to you than you will ever know.

We gathered on Kol Nidre to annul the vows we could not possibly make happen. The ways we’ve fallen short and failed. And we gather here tonight to understand that it’s OK. It’s OK we didn’t match up exactly as we wanted to. If we look deep within ourselves for the mark of humanity that God placed us - If we removed ourselves from the violence that is becoming commonplace in our world. If we watch beautiful terrifying pieces of art and say “This challenges me to scream peace,” and not “This makes violence OK,” or even, “I can see why they would do it” we will have done as much as we can, we will have preserved our humanity in the face of crisis, and that is enough for God.


This year, let’s work really hard to humanize people who are downtrodden, to forgive people who are ready to apologize, and to take a stand when we need to. There are things worth dying for - to promote senseless incoherent violence is not one of them. As we annul our vows and pray to be written in the Book of Life, we also pray for compassion.


Avinu, our father, love us even when we feel unworthy. Malkeinu, our king, judge us even when fate deals us a poor hand. Imeinu, our mother, comfort us with understanding when judgement is rendered. Malkateinu, our queen, grant us intimacy in the rendering of the judgements that befall us.