Kol Nidre 5779 – Those Who Know

September 20, 2018

(With thankfulness to Rabbi Leonel Levy who told me this story 20 years ago.)

The synagogue was filled and silent. Children and elders; rich and poor; believers and agnostics; men and women, those who were happy and those who were distressed; those who were joyous and those who were depressed; cynics and idealists; people without faith and those who love every instant of life.

They all had congregated but without knowing why, on the most sacred night of the year to intone the mysterious words and touching melodies of Kol Nidrei.

Or at least, to listen to them.

Tears were moistening cheeks and emotion was knotting many throats when Rabbi Eleazar went towards the bimah to direct his message to the community. Rabbi Eleazar was a man who, for some mysterious reason, had the reputation of being a mekkubal, a mystic, an illuminated one. Someone who had  acquired knowledge about puzzling questions, important and transcendent questions. Someone who had approached the mystery of G-d and of life itself.

Nevertheless Rabbi Eleazar’s reputation was false, because he knew, that indeed everything that others thought that he knew was a false belief. He himself believed, that he did not have big things to say or to teach. Nevertheless, whenever he came to a city or to a village the people listened to him, believing that he had important and mysterious things to say. But he knew that he didn’t.

It was the night of Kol Nidrei. Reb Eleazar looked around at each of those present with his intense glance and began with a tenuous but passionate voice his drashá, his sermon.

“I suppose,” the rabbi said, “that if you are here on the night of Kol Nidrei, you already know what it is that I have to say to you.”

The people, the mitpalelim, the congregants said: “No!!!… What is it that you have to say to us? We do not know! Tell us! Speak to us!!”

Rabbi Eleazar answered:

“If you came here on this Night of Kol Nidrei without knowing what I come to say to you; then you are not prepared to listen to it.”

Saying this he rose and walked away.

The people were surprised. They had all prepared themselves on this Yom Kippur to receive a special message and this Rabbi was saying to them only these words. The occasion would have been a total disaster if it was not for one of those present in the synagogue who said loudly:

“What an intelligent sage! What a brilliant man!”

And others, since it always happens in the case in which nobody understands anything, began to repeat: “of course, what an intelligent sage!!”

Until another one added:

“Yes, very intelligent, but … very brief.”

And another one added:

“He has the briefness and the clarity of a wise person.”

Rabbi Eleazar is right. How are we going to come to listen to his words in the synagogue if we do not know what we come to listen to? We have lost a wonderful opportunity. What mysticism, such wisdom.!!! We are going to ask this holy man to give a second derashá, tomorrow morning, before Yizkor.

The people were so surprised that they began to say that the Rabbi’s wisdom was so big and so deep that it could not be taught during one service.

The congregants asked Rabbi Eleazar to return to the synagogue in the morning to deliver a few words before Yizkor.

Rabbi Eleazar said to them that his knowledge scarcely was barely enough for one sermon, and he could never give two sermons, and especially one right before Yizkor.

The people began to say:

“How humble!”

The more the Rabbi insisted that he did not have anything to teach, the more the people needed his words.

Finally the supposed mystical one, this Rabbi Eleazar, agreed to say a few words on the morning of Yom Kippur.

In the morning the synagogue was packed. For the prayer of Yizkor there were even more people than the previous night of Kol Nidrei.

Rabbi Eleazar came to the bima, looked at the people and repeated his formula.

“I suppose that you know what I have come to say to you,” he said with firm voice.

The people had been warned to be careful not to offend the teacher with their previous response, so they all said:

“Yes, of course, certainly we know it. Because of it we have come.”

The rabbi nodded his head and added:

“Good if you already know what I come to say to you, I do not see the need to repeat it.”

He got up and turned to go.

The people were paralyzed. But somebody shouted: “Brilliant!!”

And when they all heard that somebody had said brilliant, the rest began to say:

“Wonderful!! The complement to yesterday’s words!! The Jewish Ying Yang. What wisdom!!”

Until somebody said:

“Yes but … very brief.”

“The ability to clarify”, the third one added. Immediately voices were heard: “we want to listen to more. We want this man to give us more of his wisdom!!”

A delegation of notables went to see the Rabbi in order to ask that a third and definitive derashá would be given in the moments before Neilá before Yom Kippur’s ending.

Rabbi Eleazar, said that by no means, did he have enough knowledge for three sermons, and by that time of the day he was going to be fatigued because of fasting on this day of prayer and repentance.

The people implored him, begged him, asked him again and again: for his teachers, for the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel, for the holiness of this day….

That persistence persuaded him and finally this fraudulent sage agreed to say his derashá before Neilá.

For the third time he stepped in front the large congregation, who were also thirsty and hungry, but eager to listen to Rabbi Eleazar.

Trembling, the rabbi approached the bima and said: – I suppose that you know what I have come to say to you.

This time the people were in agreement: but this time only the leader of the Cheder, the teacher of the religious school, the most elderly man of the town, was going to answer. This man who sat in the first row said:

“Some know what you have to say to us, but others do not know”.

At this moment, a long silence came over the synagogue. All the congregants looked at Rabbi Eleazar.

Then the rabbi answered:

“In this case those who know … tell those who don’t know.”

And he got up and walked away.

Dear friends.

Do you know, why we meet this night?

Does anyone know the meaning of this day, this day filled with recollections of our infancy, with nostalgia, with images of the past, with dreams of the future?

Does anyone know, why this day resonates in the deepest parts of our being, discovering in us the dimension of the sacred, of the extraordinary of the spiritual and transcendent in our lives?

Why this day transports us in two dimensions? In the dimension of time we are transported to the past and the future. In the dimension of space we are transported to the places where we grew up and to the land of Israel.

We know that we are here because today it is Yom HaKippurim.

We know that the Jewish people for thousands of years have dedicated this day to prayer, to fasting, to reflection and to repentance. Jews everywhere in the world share almost the same ritual, the same language the same hope.

We know that on Yom Kippur we are aware of our dignity as creatures of God.

We know that Yom haKippurim is the time to understand that a full life is possible when we assume the holiness of the time, of the world, and especially of our human condition before G-d, “Lifnei Adonai.”

We are here because Yom Kippur is the day of Pardon the day of Reconciliation.

Why are we here tonight?

We are here for us, for our parents and for our children.

We are here.

A beautiful story in the Talmud (Baba Metziah 28b) tells us: “Our Rabbis taught: There was a Stone of losses in Jerusalem: whoever lost an article went there, and whoever found an article went there as well. The finder stood and proclaimed, and the one who lost the articles submitted the identification marks and received it back.”

What a beautiful story. That big stone located in Jerusalem sounds to me like very special and holy place.

Maybe a place like this place tonight.

A place where people lost not only tangible things, but main parts of their lives.

Some may have lost their passion for Judaism and they came here today to this special place to sit next to those who daven with passion and find the passion they’ve lost.

Some people are here because they’ve lost their relationships and came tonight to rebuild them and start them over.

Some of us came here to realize that we age and lose our strength and our youth, and we may discover that a new generation of young Bnai mitzvah are fasting for their first time today.

Some are here because they lost their jobs and come here to realize their lives are not defined by what your job is but for who you are as person. Not what you do for a living but how you live what you do.

Yom Kippur, though it is once a year, is the day when we come to try to rearrange the fragments of our lives and personal stories into a quiet coherent whole, to know who we are, what we want, and where we are going.

On Yom Kippur we come to the synagogue in search of a way that will lead us to finding this lost fullness.

We come to realize that a life without a loss is not a complete life.

Why are we here tonight?

We are here to be the finders. To open the eyes of those who have erred, those who lost their north, those who lost their guidance and bring them back.

We can be also on the other side of the rock and show what we have found.

We can share that with others, because ultimately the things we find do not belong to us.

On Yom Kippur we come to the special stone to realize that success, wealth, power, health, is not in our hands. It is only in God’s hands.

We come to this lost and found stone to give back.

We give back to Hashem by doing a real cheshvon hanefesh, a balance of the soul. We give back when we do Teshuva that in fact its real translation is return.

We are returning because we understand it really does not belong to us and we have to return.

The same question Rabbi Elazar asked: Why are we here tonight?

We are here searching. Searching for forgiveness, searching our souls, searching for our connection.

Searching for our past, searching for our tradition, searching for our way back.

We are here searching.

Because we are all searchers, we are all losers and we are all finders.

That is why we are here tonight.

There is a very interesting passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Brachot Perek 5 Daf 37b:

  1. Jeremiah in the name of R. Abahu,

דרשו את ה’ בהמצאו איכן הוא מצוי בבתי כנסיות ובבתי מדרשות

“‘Seek the Lord while God may be found’ [Isa. 55:6]. Where may God be found? In the synagogues and study halls. ‘Call upon Him while He is near’ [ibid.]. Where is he near? [In the synagogues and study halls.]”

We are here searching.

Because we are all searchers, we are all losers and we are all finders.

That is why we are here tonight.

So dear friends: Now, do you know why we are here this night?

Now that we know it is our responsibility to tell those who don’t know.


G’mar hatima tova.

May we be sealed in the book of Life.