Kol Nidre Sermon 2018
Tuesday, Sep 18, 2018
I have a confession to make. But first I want to celebrate a beautiful
project that Makom and I had the privilege of participating in.
I didn’t expect to see a picture of me, my family and the Makom board
featured in a cover article of a section in the Chicago Tribune.
A few weeks ago, when South African artist James Webb came to my home to
record me praying I didn’t realize what a profound experience we would
have at the Art Institute of Chicago a couple of weeks later.
A few days before Rosh Hashana, the Makom Shalom board and I were
invited to an opening at the Art Institute. The exhibit is off the main
hallway of the Modern Wing. The concept is very simple. A large red
carpet about 30 feet by 10 fills most of the gallery’s floor. Visitors
are invited to remove their shoes and step on to the carpet. You
hear a hubbub of voices emanating from about a dozen low-profile
speakers spread at random across the carpet. Each speaker plays a
different selection from a random religious tradition. When one prayer
ends another one begins, chosen at random by an automated system.
Occasionally, a single voice will cut through. You are invited to get
close to the speakers and bend down as you would in prayer to focus in
on just one of the prayers. We Jews prostrate ourselves once a year on
Yom Kippur. Others at the exhibit who prostrate themselves more
regularly than that assumed that prayerful pose as they inclined their
heads down to the speakers.
In the Chicago Tribune article, you can see our Makom group seated next
to one such gentleman. As I watched this I was reminded of the ancient
Rabbinic description of worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. So many
people came to the Temple’s Yom Kippur services that it was standing
room only. And yet, when the High Priest called out God’s name, all had
enough room to bow down. This was a miracle. Standing - they were packed
but lying down there was room. The rabbis put it succinctly: “Standing,
tight; bowing down; spacious.” The contraction and expansion of physical
space is taken as a metaphor for how to live well with others. When they
stood on their pride it was congested but when they bowed down in
humility, they miraculously created enough space for everyone.
Being on that carpet among friends and among total strangers from
religions I don’t even know, was a truly expansive experience.
This is an art exhibit like none other that I have known before. As
Roberta Cohen noted: It is the gathering of people in it and on it that
complete it. She’s right. The Mona Lisa doesn’t need people looking at
it to be complete, neither does the Art Institute’s famous, large
masterpiece by George Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jaffe. But this
exhibit without people is just a big carpet with some speakers playing
over each other.
The religions are from all over the world; the voices are all Chicagoan.
This is a worldwide project. Chicago is the first North American city to
Mr Webb is a South African artist who travels around the world. Once he
identifies a city to host his project he partners with a major museum
there. The museum calls up as many local houses of worship as they can
identify. Mr. Webb invites them to record a prayer for his project. Just
the human voice. The prayer can be read or sung but without musical
News of the project spread through word of mouth. This is not an
official Interfaith forum but a snapshot of interfaith relationships as
they exist in Chicago right now. Our host Rev Alka put them in touch
with me. I, in turn, made the introduction to our Muslim friends at the
Bridgeview Mosque Foundation and a Greek Orthodox priest from Cicero
whom I had met a few years ago. I was gratified when I got confirmation
that the priest would participate in this project too. It also gave me
and the Greek Orthodox priest the opportunity to reconnect. If a rabbi
or an imam or a guru answered the phone the email or called back then
they are recorded too. Following this network of Interfaith friendships
James Webb amassed 9.5 hours of recorded prayers from over 200 houses of
worship across Chicago. He calls the compilation “God’s answering
machine in Chicago.”
Nobody is told what to sing and that information is not taken down by
the artist. When I received the call I was preparing for this holy day.
That guided me in choosing my two selections. The first was from our
Memorial Service which we will hold in the afternoon. I chanted Psalm
23. The Biblical Book of Psalms is our original prayerbook. No other
book of the Bible is so heavily used in our prayers. The entire opening
section of our Shabbat services whether the evening Kabbalat Shabbat or
the morning Shacharit are made up of Psalms. Michael Meltzer leads us
through 45 minutes of Psalms. One of the defining characteristics of the
Psalms is that they are very personal prayers that are said in
community. The prayers are in the first person singular. Psalm 23: “The
Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want….Yea though I walk in the valley
of shadow of death I will fear no evil.” The burdens we carry through
life are our own but we need not walk our path in isolation. We bring
our personal “joys and oys” to the community. I thought this was a good
metaphor for the project that upholds the unique voice of every
tradition while bringing them all together under one roof.
Almost as soon as the Makom group got there, removed our shoes and
walked on to the carpet we were fortunate to identify a speaker that was
playing my prayers. We gathered round the speaker, my family and the
Makom board and listened. That’s the Chicago Tribune picture. When my
prayer ended a different prayer began. The next prayer was in a foreign
language. I have no idea from what part of the world or what religion.
We talked among ourselves about how much more open we felt to this new
prayer for having just heard the Hebrew in my voice coming from the same
Later, I wanted a picture of the family so I looked around for someone I
could ask. The nearest person was a man wearing a large brown robe with
a wooden cross hanging from a chain around his neck. The religious
clothes looked familiar to me but something did not quite make sense.
Finally, it occurred to me. I had seen those robes and crosses before on
the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. That is where
the Ethiopian Copts have a compound. This man at the Art institute was a
Christian Orthodox Copt. But his features did not make sense. The Copts
in Jerusalem are Ethiopian and have African features. This man had
different features. He helped me out. He was an Egyptian Copt. I had
read about the ancient Christian community in Egypt but it took the Art
Institute of Chicago’s Prayer Exhibit to bring me face to face with an
Egyptian Copt for the first time. And so the picture of my family was
taken by a friendly Egyptian Coptic priest, Father James of Logan Square.
If you visit the exhibit you will see our name on the wall alongside the
other houses of worship. There are several synagogues and dozens of
others. This gathering of people from so many different religious
backgrounds and geographical locations gave me the idea for my second
The second selection I chose was the Torah reading we just read which I
chanted in the unique High Holyday mode. This is the only time in the
whole year when you can hear these verses chanted with the energy and
flavor of that haunting, majestic High Holyday melody.
The Art institute drew in communities that normally would not have
visited it by providing an important service to our city. Religion by
its nature is insular. Religion deals in the ultimate questions and
while it may not always have the ultimate answers, this still makes this
heady material. The essence of faith is deep, non-logical certainty. It
follows that if I am right, then you - whoever you are outside my faith
- is wrong.
I say this as one who is very active in interfaith and breaking down
boundaries using the tool of religion to do so. Religious communities
are insular. Particularly in relation to other houses of worship of the
same faith. You all know that old joke about the man who was stranded on
a desert island for many years. Like a Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family
Robinson he set about building a life for himself. The desert island was
blessed with resources as much as it was devoid of human company. After
20 years a passing ship spotted him and he was rescued. Before leaving
the island he showed the captain of the ship around. There were two
important looking structures in his compound.The captain pointed to one
and asked: what’s that? “That’s my synagogue.” So, what’s the other one?
“Oh, that’s the synagogue I’d never enter not even if you paid me a
How did the artist find us? Our hosts at Broadway United Methodist put
him in touch with us. If you happen to see Rev Alka in the hallways of
the building take a moment to say thank you for her gracious
hospitality. In many small and larger ways, this institution has
extended itself to make it easy for us to be here and to give us above
and beyond what we expected. This has long gone beyond a rental
agreement. We have been made to feel welcome here.
Our unique voice is honored in the Interfaith space just as all the
unique traditions are sharing space at the Art Institute and by sharing
space are creating space.
What a fitting way to enter into these High Holydays.
In our Yom Kippur there is one key prayer that is not set to music.
I’m talking about the Vidui, the Confessional. The Al Chet.
There is no grand arrangement of the Al Chet like Max Janowski’s Avinu
Malkeinu or the Kol Nidre we just prayed. If it is sung at all, it is a
simple unaccompanied chant, like the prayers at the Art Institute.
At Makom Shalom, we say the Vidui twice. Once at Kol Nidre and once in
the morning. This may seem like a lot but you need to know that this is
just 20% of the confessing our ancestors did. Traditionally, the Vidui
was said for the first time just after midday of Erev Yom Kippur, once
more at Kol Nidre, twice in the Shacharit service in the morning, twice
in the Mussaf service right after that, twice at Mincha after the break
and a final one at Ne’ilah. Over the course of Yom Kippur, the same
confessional text was read 10 times total. The is a key Yom Kippur prayer.
I’m glad we’ve come down from 10 to 2 confessions. It’s not because our
grandparents had more to confess than us. Or that we are less aware of
our shortfallings than they were of theirs. If anything, we beat
ourselves up just as hard of not harder.
Yom Kippur is the Day of Judgement. It is the day when we say the
Vidui/confessional, that lengthy list of sins, sins of commission and
omission. Things I did that I shouldn’t have and other things I should
have done that I missed.
It’s a long list and it hasn’t been updated in many years.
If we really wanted to compile a list of our sins, even if we just
stayed with sins of omission it would stretch out quite long. I didn’t
want to add even more Vidui/confession to the service so here’s a list
of sins of omission. Cheryl Wheeler put it together and I tweaked it to
make it my personal confession. And seeing that it’s not been set to
music I thought I’d try to sing it. Sometimes it’s easier to hear things
in song that you can’t hear as well when they are just read.
I’m Unworthy by Cheryl Wheeler (edited)
I'm unworthy, and no matter what I'm doing
I should certainly be doing something else
And it's selfish to be thinking I'm unworthy
All this me, me, me, me, self, self, self, self, self
If I'm talking on the phone I should be working on the yard
Which looks disgraceful from the things I haven't done
If I'm working on the yard I should be listening to
Those podcasts I downloaded, since I have not heard one
I should learn how to meditate and sow and bake
And dance and paint and sail and make gazpacho
I should turn my attention to repairing
All those forty year old socks there in that bureau
I should let someone teach me to write code
And learn Spanish that I can read and write and speak
I should get life in prison for how I treated my parents
From third grade until last week
And I should spend more time playing with my dog
And much less money on this needless junk I buy
And I should write tweets or texts to everyone
Who's emailed, phoned or facebooked since junior high
I should sit with a therapist until I understand
The way I felt back in my mom
I should quit smoking, drinking, eating, thinking
Sleeping, watching Netflix, singing stupid songs
And I should be less impatient when the line just takes forever
'Cause the two cashiers are talking
And I should see what it's like to get up really early rain or shine
And spend three hours walking
I should know CPR and deep massage and Braille
And sign language and how to change my oil
I should go where the situation's desperate
And build and paint and trudge and tote and toil
And I should chant in impossible positions
Till my legs appear to not have any bones
And I should rant at the cops and politicians
And the corporations in indignant tones
And I should save lots of money to leave Amnesty,
Planned Parenthood and fighting Muslim bans
I should brave possibilities for plotting plums of problems
Prob'ly blossomed, plausibly from
Blah, blah, blah,… I'm unworthy
I don’t think we need any more judgement!
But it’s human nature to judge. We judge constantly. It’s what our
brains do. We judge others. We judge ourselves perhaps harsher than we
judge anybody else. We judge ourselves certainly more harshly than what
most people see.
The Confessional - that is, the one in the prayerbook, is one of two
liturgical texts that run as a repetitive theme throughout Yom Kippur
services. The other is the 13 Divine attributes of God. These are two
verses from Chapter 34 of the Book of Exodus. Following the catastrophe
of the Golden Calf, Moses steps forward to assuage God’s wrath. Moses
calls forward God’s merciful attributes. The ancient Rabbis in the
Talmud find 13 of them in these verses. I spoke about one of them
“truth” on Rosh Hashanah. And God relents from destroying the entire
People of Israel. And thus the 13 attributes became a central part of
Yom Kippur liturgy. After listing our sins we invoke God’s merciful
qualities over and over again like a mantra. Dozens of times.
Here’s the interesting part. The liturgy does not quote the second of
the two Biblical verses in its entirety. There’s more in the Torah that
was not included. Even more curiously, the final merciful attribute “God
cleanses us from our sins” is a deliberate misquote that reversed the
Torah’s meaning. The ancient rabbis cleverly attributed to the Torah the
opposite of what the Torah actually says. They did this not by changing
anything but by making the cut in a grammatically non-kosher place. In
the Torah, this attribute is the exact opposite. “God will certainly not
cleanse.” Through a formulation unique to Biblical Hebrew, it is
possible to flip the meaning just by cutting short the phrase. The verse
that follows continues: God visits the sins of the fathers on the sons,
on grandchildren and great-grandchildren for those who hate Him”
The upshot of this is the God of the Torah is not as compassionate as
the God of the Rabbis. That is certainly what the ancient Rabbis thought.
So, inspired by the ancient rabbis I want to push back against the other
central piece of Yom Kippur liturgy, the Vidui. This year at least,
despite the detailed personal confession I shared with you in song, I’d
like to not focus on what’s wrong. Don’t we do that enough already? What
is to be gained by forcing ourselves to consider a long list of sins
many, if not most of which, we don’t do?!
In fact, in the spirit of the Rabbinic flip of the Biblical 13
attributes, I’d like to flip the Day of Judgement this year. There’s
plenty of that all year round. Instead, let’s have a Day of Non-Judgement.
What would a Day of Non-Judgement look like? Non-judgement would take
place wherever judgement usually does.
Let’s start with groups that we tend to judge. And try a reversal.
Non-judging does not mean giving up what you know to be true or your
values and beliefs. You are still you. Non-judgement just means that I
approach others not judging them negatively but bringing to the fore
aspects of others that I know to be true but which often tend to play
second fiddle to the judgement tune.
Here’s one example. Take the Orthodox. They are very often the object of
criticism for liberal Jews. Their status of women in Orthodoxy, the
tensions between Orthodox and other Jews in Israel and so on. I have my
own disagreements with them. After all, I was raised modern Orthodox and
chose to leave that world. But, in the spirit of non-judging, today I’d
like to to put front and center not my disagreement but where I respect
and love the Orthodox. I think of my older brother who was given the
name David by my parents but gravitated away from Modern Orthodoxy to
the more isolationist Haredi Orthodox. David become Dovid. He married
the niece of the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva and they had six children. They
chose a simple life materially. A small house, very modest needs. He
really is a humble man. He travels all over Europe as a kashrut
supervisor. I think of his courage. He looks like an image from the
shtetl: black hat, untrimmed beard, dark suit. And yet he can talk to
the most remote of dairy farmers from Iceland to Ireland. When he shows
up at the farm, they must not know what to even think. He enjoys his
work. He loves connecting to people of all walks of life.
Since Orthodox Jews tend to stay in the city and continue to live an
immigrant lifestyle, the fellow Orthodox that he visits in other
European cities tend to live right next to other less affluent
immigrants and poorer native White populations. These are areas that are
rife for that toxic mix of race tensions, class struggles and
old-fashioned hatred of Jews. Yet he holds his head high and walks right
into it day after day. I’ve seen him stride up to a police officer and
strike up a friendly conversation and banter with rough types most of us
never encounter. Building bridges and holding his head up high. I
Another example. Rural America. The red states. The flyover states.
You drive around rural Wisonsin and see kids leaving their bikes out on
the front lawn because their parents know they wont be stolen. No need
to put a lock on them. And the campground owner in the middle of nowhere
who is a college grad but chose to come back to be with his folks. And
the fundamentalist Christian community where people really care about
And what of the judgements that dare not speak their name. Why the
unease most of us who are White often feel around people with darker
skin. What unspoken judgements fly through our brains before we even
catch ourselves rehearsing our pre-programmed judgements.
Not judging does not mean rejecting one of Yom Kippur’s central
messages. In our relationships with others, deferring judgement is
actually an affirmation that judgement is God’s. Or, if you prefer,
leaving judgement to God gets the job off our plate. We can devote
ourselves to non-judgement.
Of if you like, we can adopt a positive approach to judgement as in the
ancient rabbinic wisdom: “Always judge others favorably.”
Non-judgmental means that, in the absence of perfect knowledge, we judge
We can build our sense of self not on what we hate in others but on what
We can build our relationship with others not on what we denigrate in
them but what we value in them;
You remember our conversation about this world being a world of untruth
and the afterlife Olam Haba is oilom ho’emes, the World of Truth. Can we
really judge when truth is so elusive. Can we judge when our
self-interest, our flickering desire, our egos are always present if not
Judging presumes complete knowledge - which we lack;
Perspective - which we are too close to know;
Impartiality - which we lack;
So, the way to counter judgement is to practice non-judgement.
Praying here in the same space as a church is one way;
Listening to the prayers of our fellow Chicagoans at the Art Institute
and sharing that space is another;
In what other ways can we actively practice non-judgement on the Day of
Rabbi Michael E. Davis
An inclusive, Jewish community in Chicago