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Kol Nidre Sermon

Rabbi Shahar Colt

“When a person departs from the world, all their deeds come and present themselves to him one by one, saying: “This is what you did on day X. Do you believe it?” The person responds: “Yes, I do.” The deed then says: “Sign!” — and the person signs. Then the person vindicates God’s judgment, saying: “You judge me correctly.”

This ancient midrash from the sifre, a rabbinic commentary on the book of Devarim, plays with central images of Yom Kippur- there’s judgement, self reflection, t’shuvah, and even writing one’s life in a book. But it’s a far cry from the image in the medieval unetane tokef prayer, which depicts all beings standing in judgement before a divine king. Though the opening of the unetane tokef prayer claims that “God’s throne, from which you rule in truth, is established with love,” the prayer continues with a description of angels alarmed and trembling as every being is reviewed.  It’s hard to keep track of that claim that the judgement process is rooted in love! In an effort to wrap my mind around how to approach the concept of judgement today, I find myself drawn to this older midrash.

What do “deeds” look like, all lined up?  I find myself imagining how memory is depicted in the  movie Inside Out. This pixar movie takes us inside the brain of an 11 year old girl, Riley. We see how her brain makes memories, each experience becomes encapsulated in a sphere, and these spheres are sent to storage- short term memory, long term memory…. There are zillions of them archived.  When held, the memory plays like a little movie inside the sphere. All together, they would tell the full story of the person’s life. In this midrash, I can imagine these spheres rolling one by one by the person… but then the deeds themselves speak!

How would a deed speak to me? How would a deed present itself?  In other words, when a person looks at their life, what are they called to respond to? Or, what are we responsible for? This question lies at the heart of teshuvah- where do I need to direct my attention, to make amends, to correct my actions?

As I try to understand this part of the midrash, where the deeds speak, I face several challenges.

Perhaps the deeds come from one’s own memory of her life, so this midrash presents an internal conversation. Setting aside the problem that we don’t remember everything, of the things we do remember, our memory is colored by our specific feelings and intentions about that moment. This aspect of our memory is poignantly depicted in Inside Out.  Riley’s sense of happiness picks up one golden memory ball, inside it we see Riley celebrating with her hockey team at the end of the game. Happiness was her dominant emotion in childhood. But when she looks more closely at this memory sphere, the memory turns back in time, and we see that shortly before this celebratory team moment, Riley was crying by herself for missing a final shot. This previously suppressed memory is tinged the blue of sadness, not the gold of happiness. It takes some internal work, so to speak, for Riley to acknowledge that her hockey memories were not all perfect and happy, but her sadness and disappointment of one moment led her parents to comfort her, and then find her teammates to celebrate with her. Perhaps we should understand this midrash as an invitation to explore our memories of ourselves with greater emotional complexity.

But this understanding of accounting our deeds via our own memories only takes us so far. What are the boundaries of a deed? We can have effects on others way beyond our intentions. One of my rabbinical school professors spoke of a time when a stranger came up to her, and thanked her for her powerful life changing wisdom and blessing at a Torah service she had led fifteen years previously. She couldn’t remember the instance, or the person, and certainly had not intended or expected to change that person’s life. It’s lovely when we unintentionally affect someone for the better. Those of us who are inclined to judge ourselves harshly especially need to take this to heart. When we engage in a Teshuva process, an honest evaluation of ourselves should absolutely include the ways we have brought good into the world.

On the other hand, the unintentional negative effects of our actions are much more difficult to understand and manage. We have to find out how others experience us, there are always effects of our deeds that we may never know. I find the process of Teshuva, reviewing my deeds, tends to be most relevant and challenging in contexts when my actions are perceived or experienced by others’ differently than I intended them.

Last October a friend of mine shared a story about this with me. She had been mentoring a diverse cohort of new professionals, and was planning with her colleagues a training on equity and identity.  She is white. As they were about to get started, another colleague, a woman of color with a different role in the organization asked to participate in the program. My friend didn’t feel comfortable making this decision without consulting the colleagues she planned with, and didn’t know how the participants’ relationship with this woman well enough to gage how they would feel about her joining in at that moment. Her intention was on the relationships with those she had been planning with and for. She asked the woman to join the next time. After the training, my friend found out how she had been perceived. She had enacted racism. The woman had felt excluded and embarrassed by white colleagues in front of the trainees, whom she definitely knew and worked with. Worse, they were leading a training on equity and identity, and had just asked a woman of color to leave the room.  

There is a huge gap here between my friend’s intentions and the effect of her deed. If this incident appeared in a memory sphere as her deed speaking back to her, what would it say? Which color would be clearer, the color of her intentions, or the color of the effect?

The rabbis confront this very problem. In the Talmud, Rabbis Yehudah and Shimon present two different understandings of the concept of responsibility. The conversation in massechet Pesachim is about unintentional sins. These are things you know are wrong, and didn’t mean to do. Rabbi Yehudah says that you are still culpable. You sinned, and it had an effect in the world. It’s on you to deal with it, to atone for it. Rabbi Shimon says, if it was unintentional, you are off the hook. If you didn’t mean for it to happen, what could you have done differently?  In other words, Rabbi Yehudah would urge my friend to understand this incident as an act of racism. She should understand herself as culpable for the racially charged embarrassment and exclusion. Rabbi Shimon would take a deep breath and say, yes, you did this. But you had very good intentions around creating and maintaining a safe space for your trainees and working in close collaboration with colleagues.

There are lessons to take from both perspectives. Indeed, my friend continues to wrestle with the fact that she caused this hurt.  Hearing this story, imagining myself in my friend’s position, I know that I would be drawn to Yehudah’s perspective. It would be very hard to let myself “off the hook.” And at the same time, being her friend, knowing how deeply she cares about racial justice- indeed, she was the force behind bringing about an equity training in the first place!- I find myself wanting to speak up with Rabbi Shimon’s perspective. Your intentions were good. This matters.   

Swinging between the harshness of Yehudah’s broad understanding of ethical responsibility and the up-for-interpretation nature of Shimon’s perspective leave me feeling somewhere between unmoored and hopeless.  How can I ever hope to become a better person when I can only act with my best intentions, and I’m still going to cause hurt?  Imagining my deeds coming in a line to speak to me, I’m overwhelmed by the possibility that they could encompass so much more than I ever knew about or intended.

In the midrash, the complexity and emotional weight of different understandings of our own deeds is not resolved. After reviewing each deed, the person simply answers “yes, I did that.” That is, the person recognizes and takes responsibility for all of the deeds as they are presented, and moves on to the next one. How?

Philosopher Alexis Shotwell talks about the folly of “purity politics.” She talks about the desire to get things right, to rectify our wrongs so we can be in the right. The main problem is that even if we don’t know the specifics, in our interconnected world, a world so deeply unjustly structured… it is impossible on an individual level to extricate one’s self from all forms of injustice.  In light of how we’re mixed up with everything, she suggests giving up the goal of personal purity. She says, “Giving up personal purity allows us to confront the possibility of being shamed and not have that destroy us.” She suggests an attitude of self-forgiveness. “That means recognizing that we’ve messed up in the past, we’ve made mistakes, and that we can still be of benefit.”  We have to learn to look at our deeds, as complex and messy as we are, and say, “yes, I did that.”  

Our original midrash begins, “when a person departs from the world.” Yom Kippur invites us to mirror our own death in certain ways- wearing white, refraining from key activities of life like eating, but a key difference is that we are also considering our future. On this day, we are not only learning to say, “yes, I did that.” We also get to say, “this year I am getting to work. I am going to improve myself or some part of my world.”

Our midrash concludes: after the person himself accepts his deeds and signs off on them, he vindicates God’s judgement, saying, “you judge me correctly.” Notably, as a character, God appears absent from this midrash. The action is between a person and his acceptance of his deeds. Through the experience of accepting our actions honestly, we honor and allow for holiness to fill the process of self examination.  As we move through the rest of this Yom Kippur, reading the list of sins in the Al Cheit section or the picture of judgement in the unetane tokef text, may we find the strength to examine our deeds through the lens of their effects, whether hurtful or redemptive. Simultaneously, may we remember that the divine throne of judgement is grounded in lovingkindness, so that we are able to acknowledge our best intentions, wishes and learnings with that same sense of generous love. G’mar Chatima Tova- may we each sign our names this year to acknowledge who we are, and where we hope to improve.

Rabbi Shahar Colt
Director of Congregational Learning
Congregation Dorshei Tzedek

Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783