Kol Nidrei – thoughts | Adath Israel

Main idea: the greatest thing in the world is to do someone else a little favor / the power of words

Welcome everyone to our Kol Nidrei Services.
I want to thank everyone who has been instrumental on giving us this possibility. Even though we are socially distanced and are wearing masks, we are spiritually and emotionally close. Here we can feel the presence of community, of the many women and men that made Adath Israel become what it is, and we, ourselves, are here, making community happen in times that are difficult and strange, even though not unprecedented. Our people has survived many plagues, in different times and places, and – the moment is ours, to paraphrase the Fiddler on the Roof – maybe that’s why we always wear our masks.
We are all here with one goal – to get through Yom Kippur. Many people prefer to focus on the fact that they won’t be eating or drinking for the next 25 or so hours.
For most, that is an accomplishment on its own, and I am not diminishing it. It is hard. But that is not the essence of YK. YK is all about working – hard – on ourselves and on the power of our words, and our small actions.
One of the most repeated prayers of YK is the confession [sing]… ai, ai, aii…ashamnu, bagadnu… we will say it ten times during those 25 hours. We all know the tune. But have you stopped and paid attention to the words? It’s almost all about the use of speech and words – we betrayed, spoke slander and ugly words, gave bad advice, lied, made fun, made up falsehoods, blasphemed, swore falsely, oppressed, corrupted, cheated and mislead.
Words, in Judaism, are seen to have an immense power. We all know, we all have felt this in the deepest of our beings: words can sap someone else’s strength and self confidence like that [snap of fingers]. Words also can build up someone like that [snap of fingers].  The right words, said at the right time, said enough times, can give someone strength to go through the most hellish of all experiences, and still come back whole. We are rarely aware of the power we have.
One of my favorite stores about words is one I heard from Reb Mimi Feigelson, who heard it from Reb Shlomo Carlebach z”tzl. It is also the story about one of my favorite sources of wisdom, Reb Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaczeczna.
When the Nazis got to Poland, the rebbe and his followers ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto. Now, Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman wrote several books, and one of them while in the Ghetto. It is called Esh Kodesh – the Holy Fire. He knew that he would not survive so he buried all the manuscripts of his books in the ghetto where they were found after the war.
Before the war and during the Ghetto years, he had a yeshiva. But in his yeshiva you did not find young adults – you’d find children. He used to say, “My followers eat on Yom Kippur. You know why – they are not bar mitzvah yet.” A great Rabbi would come to him accompanied by a boy, or an older man bringing in tow a little girl of four or five. He would say to the older person, “You’ll make it without me. This child needs me.”
With older people he would spend five minutes; with children all night. And he had thousands of kids that he taught and guided and helped. He was their father, their mother, their best friend. After the war, there was nobody left.
Now, Reb Shlomo Carlebach is probably the responsible for Reb Kalonymus Kalman Shapira’s books being translated into English, since he talked about them a lot with his many followers. But his whole life Shlomo Carlebach dreamt and hoped to meet one of the children that studied with Reb Kalonymus Kalman Shapira.
You, reading this online, can hear Reb Shlomo tell the story here: https://www.youtube.com/embed/KQwksf6ZslY
And once he was walking on the Yarkon in Tel Aviv and he saw a hunchback – a street cleaner. Reb Shlomo had a feeling this person was special. He was a real hunchback, in that his face was very handsome, but every part of his body was disfigured. And Reb Shlomo said to him. “Hey, shalom aleichem my friend.” And he answered Reb Shlomo in a very heavy Polish-Yiddish Hebrew, “Aleichem shoolum.” Reb Shlomo said to him in Yiddish, “Mein zeisse yid, my sweet Jew, where are you from?” He said, “I’m from Piaseczna.” Reb Shlomo said “Piaseczna. Gevalt! Did you ever see Reb Klonymus Kalman?”
“What do you mean, did I ever see him? I was a student in his yeshiva from the age of five to eleven. I was in Auschwitz for five years. I was eleven when I got there. They thought I was seventeen; I was so strong. They beat me up so much I never healed. That’s why I look this way.
I have nobody in the whole world, really nobody.” Reb Shlomo said to him, “You know something – my whole life I have been waiting to meet one of the students of Reb Klonimus Kalman. Would you be so kind to give me over one of his teachings?”
He kept on sweeping the street, “You really think that after five years in Auschwitz, I remember any teaching?”
Reb Shlomo said, “Yes – the words of the heileger Rebbe penetrated you forever.” He stopped sweeping. He looked at me and said, “Do you really want to know?”
He touched Reb Shlomo so deeply and although you shouldn’t swear, Reb Shlomo said to him “I swear to you, and I mean it with all my heart, that whatever you tell me I shall tell all over the world.” You know he was a real chasidisher Yid. He put the broom against a wall and went to wash his hands.
When he came back, this is what he said: “There will never be a Shabbos as by my holy master, my heiliger Rebbe. Can you imagine – hundreds, sometimes thousands of young people dancing with the holy rebbe in the middle. What a sight! Not until Moshiach is coming. Can you imagine the Rebbe making kiddush sitting with hundreds of children, with so much holiness? He gave over teachings between the fish and the soup, between the soup and the meat, between the meat and the dessert and after every teaching, he would always say, “Kinderlach, taire kinderlach, my most precious children, gedenkst shon, please remember, die greste sach in die velt ist, tun emetzin a tova, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor. ”
When I came to Auschwitz, I knew my whole family had been killed and I wanted to kill myself.
Each time I was about to, I suddenly heard the Rebbe’s voice saying to me, “Gedenkst shon, please remember the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.” Do you know how many favors you do in Auschwitz? People dying, people crying; nobody had the strength even to listen to their stories anymore. Someone drops a potato and you pick it up and give it back to them. Someone is crying, you give them a shoulder. A few weeks later I wanted to kill myself again but always at the last moment I’d hear my Rebbe’s voice “Gedenkst shon, please remember the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.” Now I’m here in Tel Aviv, but believe me, I’m all alone, there are moments when I decide to commit suicide. I go into the sea until the water reaches my nose. Then suddenly I hear my Rebbe’s voice again “Gedenkst shon, please remember the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.”
And I run back to the streets. Do you know how many favors you can do on the street? A little girl loses a ring, and she is crying, and I found the ring while I was sweeping the street, and I give it back. Someone is alone, and you ask them what time it is, and we begin talking. There are so many favors you can do on the street.”
This happened to Reb Shlomo before Rosh Hashana. After Succot he came back to Israel and the first morning he went to the Yarkon and asked the people on that street where the holy hunchback was. They said he died on the second day of Succot. And Reb Shlomo would finish this story by saying that when the Messianic times arrive, that holy hunchback, the holy street cleaner will come back. He will clean the streets of the world. Do you know how he will clean the world?
He will go from one corner of the world to the other and he will say, “Yiddelach, gedenkst shon, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.”
The impact of words cannot be stated more clearly. Did Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman know that one day, this one encounter with the holy hunchback would inspire Reb Shlomo to find and tell everyone about the teachings of Piaczeczna? Did he know that by reminding his students, his children, that the greatest thing in the world is to do someone else a little favor, he would actually pull out his student from the throes of despair and depression?
And we have to ask ourselves, after all, this is YK: What would have happened if Reb Shlomo was too late for something to give the kind words to the holy hunchback, or if he just saw what I imagine many people just saw – a poor hunchback sweeping the streets, a street cleaner that deserves none of your attention and even less of your time?
Now, on Yom Kippur we are supposed to remember the impact of our actions – and our words. And the impact of our lack of actions, and our lack of words.
When we say the Ashamnu, we are invited to actually review the small moments, those that might have been our smallness talking or behaving, too. We are asked to review not only actions, but words, and how our words made people feel.
Being aware, asking for forgiveness and giving forgiveness to others is the essence of Yom Kippur. We all want another chance – we need to give that to each other.
And how do we do that? How do we fix having diminished people during the year, or having allowed others to feel diminished without speaking up against whoever was diminishing them? After all, saying “I’m sorry” just goes so far. You can’t put the self esteem back in to the person just by saying I’m sorry – but it is a start.
The problem is that it is very easy to give up on others, and even easier to give up on ourselves. To have the guts to really begin again, THAT takes a lot of inner strength. And this strength can only be given and received as each and every one of us look for moments that can become great – even when they look small.
A smile. A “thank you”. A card. A call. All small actions that can make someone’s day. COVID has taken away the easiness with which we would walk around and smile, but it has not made it impossible. We have phones, cameras, Zoom, Skype and God knows how many platforms enabling a little bit of contact. We have masks but we still have our smiles. What COVID did not take is the ability of having an open heart to others, and a desire to make their burden a little lighter. That, nothing can take away – only us, ourselves, can do that.
Really meeting people, being open to their brokenness and being open about our own – that is what makes those small moments magical ones. We have an inordinate amount of possibilities to actually have encounters, to actually give the strength to each other to begin again.
So I’d like to ask that please, give your neighbor, your companion, your friend, your co-worker, you mate, your children – give them strength. A little hizzuk goes a long way. We rarely if ever offer compliments to our co-workers. Say nothing of thanking them.
Embedded as we are in individuality, in the race to prove ourselves better than others, in the despair to have more than what we need, in the desire to find meaning in possessions, we forget easily that none of our existence and our work in the world is accomplished alone.
Most of all, the ones who need us most – our children, our partners, our parents, our siblings – rarely receive enough words from us.
All of our prayers can be divided into three groups: thanks, I’m sorry and I love you. Whichever page you open in our machzor you will find one of those ideas: gratefulness, apology and need.
And why do we repeat that over and over? Maybe it is because if you really mean “thanks, God” – it will be easier to thank your coworkers, your spouse, your children, your siblings, your parents, your friends. Maybe if you say enough times “I’m sorry, God” you will eventually work up enough nerve to say “I’m sorry” your coworkers, your spouse, your children, your siblings, your parents, your friends. And maybe, just maybe, if you say “I need you, God” enough times, you will eventually get over your own vulnerability and say “I need you” to your coworkers, your spouse, your children, your siblings, your parents, your friends.
How many relationships would have been saved if people would say more to each other: Thanks. I’m Sorry. I need you.
This Yom Kippur, and this year of 5781, may we all be aware of the impact of our actions and words, and may we all give new chances, to ourselves and to others – and may we all give and receive back strength to do just that: actually take the new chances we are given to become more open and do to everyone little favors.
G’mar Chatima Tovah, may we all be inscribed in the good book, in the book of goodness and of little favors.