Rabbi Heidi Cohen Kol Nidrei 5773 Sermon – Polishing the Tablets on our Hearts

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Rabbi Heidi Cohen
As I opened this evening’s service, standing before the open ark with the Torah scrolls before me, I am drawn to the beautiful silver that adorning each scroll.  I love to see how the silver glistens in the light and to examine the intricate etchings on each of the plates and crowns. I am also drawn to the imperfections in the silver. It’s soft, so some of the crowns are bent. The silver tarnishes easily, especially where the yad lays in the same spot on the front plate. And no amount of polishing will ever make the silver as perfect as the day it was first created. Eventually, rubbing it too hard leaves a darker mark or redipping too often fills in the intricacies of the design.

The S’fat Emet, a Chasidic work written by Rabbi Judah Alter of Gur in the 19th century, says that the human heart is the tablet on which God writes. Each of us has the word, “life” engraved in our hearts by God’s own hand. Over the course of the year, that engraving comes to be covered with grit. Our sins; our neglect of prayer and Torah study and our neglect of Social Justice, the very pace at which we live all conspire to blot out the “life” that lies written deep within our hearts. On Rosh Hashanah we come before God, having cleansed ourselves as best we can, and ask God to write that word, “life,” once again, and to seal it on Yom Kippur, so that the sensation of being truly alive that we experience in these great moments of prayer may not depart from us through the entire year.[1]

We try to cleanse ourselves the best way we can just like we try to polish our silver the best way we know how. But there is always a bit of grit that remains. We want to tackle the challenges in our lives as fast as we can in order to move on to the next challenge or task, but sometimes this attempt to move on too quickly or fix things in an instant leads only to more regrets, more challenges.

Hospice workers recently shared their observations of some of the regrets held by those who were dying. These top five regrets include wishing I didn’t work so hard; wishing I stayed in touch with friends; wishing I let myself be happier; wishing I had the courage to express my true self; and wishing I lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.

How many of us today already relate to these regrets? Our society teaches us that in order for us to be successful, we must work harder and longer. This means sacrificing time with family and friends, possibly taking on jobs that we are not happy in, being afraid to express our true selves and opinions for fear of losing a job, and wanting to please others while sacrificing our own true self. And in the end of our days will we too hold these five regrets?

It’s easy to throw our hands in the air and surrender to a feeling that we can never truly be happy because life must always be about sacrifices and compromise.

But I would like to suggest that instead of looking at the five great regrets plaguing our lives, let’s turn this around – consider these to be five human cravings.

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard can become a craving of spending more time with our family and friends. We watch our children grow so quickly before our very eyes that we wonder where the time went. We are faced with the sudden realization of how many years have passed since our high school or college years. Our work can overwhelm us and overtake our lives. But we can take opportunities to reclaim some of these moments devoted only to our work life and return it to ourselves and our family. In fact we have this opportunity each week. It’s called Shabbat. It is each of our obligations to hold on to it and observe it however we can, for surely we know, as Torah teaches, if we don’t we will surely die!

For many, Shabbat comes to life especially around Bar/Bat Mitzvah. That opportunity to celebrate with young men and women as they stand before the congregation and says, “It’s time for us to take our place amongst the people as responsible young adults. To still seek guidance yet also be allowed the opportunity to share our views and ideas for where we are going in the world and what we hope to offer.”

Our children and grandchildren begin to crave responsibility and independence. And we struggle with how much to give them, what to share with them and what to still try and shield them from. But we realize that at some point, no matter how long we try to hold on to their childhood, they must grow into adulthood. And eventually, we need to let them soar.

This past spring, Dahvi stood before all of you as a Bat Mitzvah and to be honest, I don’t know that I was really ready for it. While I’ve been teaching our B’nei Mitzvah students and guiding families through this process for 14 years, I don’t know that I was ready for my own daughter to stand here as an independent woman, no matter how often I told her I want her to be one. But then reality hit and here she stood – poised, confident and fiercely independent. She was ready. But I was shocked how time flew too quickly.  Here stood the little girl who loved to twirl in a new skirt and sing into a broom handle like it was a microphone. And now, here she is, almost as tall as I am, beautiful, bright, and articulate. I craved this moment – this moment of seeing her proudly express her own identity, beliefs and thoughts.

Is this not what we hope to give our children, the ability to express themselves and become thoughtful and informed citizens in our larger world? And in doing so, we pray, that as they who have mastered beyond our own ability, to effectively communicate in a world with instant communication at their fingers, will share their thoughts and beliefs in a way that is true to who they are. That each of us will express ourselves in our own voices and stand proudly, true to who we are.

How often do we feel we need to be something we’re not just to please another?  I know I’m a people pleaser and my goal is to do whatever I can to please someone else, and that can sometimes means suppressing my true self. But we should consider the beautiful midrash of Rabbi Zusya.

Rabbi Zusya loved God with all his heart and soul. He studied Torah, observed Shabbat and visited the sick. Rabbi Zusya gave to the poor even when he himself was not a rich man. And he would often tell his students, “Listen to the still small voice inside you. Your neshamah will tell you how you must live and what you must do.”

Rabbi Zusya’s life was coming to an end and his students came to visit him. They found him very upset and agitated. Rabbi Zusya shared with his students that he was afraid of dying. They tried to assure him that he led a good life with a strong belief in God like Abraham and followed the commandments like Moses.

But Rabbi Zusya explained that he was not afraid of these qualities in his life. He said, “For if God should ask me why I did not act like Abraham, I can say that I was not Abraham. And if God asks me why I did not act like Moses, I can also say I was not Moses. But if God should ask me to account for the times when I did not act like Zusya, what shall I say then?”

The students were silent, for they understood Rabbi Zusya’s final lesson. To do your best is to be yourself, to hear and follow the still, small voice of your own neshamah.”

What is our neshamah calling out for us to do? It is calling out for us to not focus on the regrets of the ‘would have, could have, and should haves,’ but rather on how we can polish the tablet in our hearts. How can we uncover the word “life” that has been tarnished over this year during which we might not have cared for ourselves in a way we deserve? How might we turn our regrets to cravings for living a fuller and more satisfying life?

Each of us wants to uncover the word ‘life’ God places on our tablets in our hearts. We want this word to shine throughout the entire year. Yet, as we might polish and try to remove every last speck of grit, we are aware that there is some remains. We can’t completely rid ourselves of our regrets, failings or shortcomings. But in many ways, these are pieces of grit that are important to remain. As we step back and examine our lives and the grit that remains, we are forced to identify where the grit comes from that covers up the ‘life’ on our heart. And then, after we identify what it is, we can then ask,  ‘how might we cleanse it for this coming year or how might we be comfortable in accepting this grit that remains?’

And as we identify the grit, we cannot ignore the shiny, holy elements on this tablet of our life. The shiny parts of our tablets reflect our accomplishments over this past year. It is easy to be self-deprecating, forgetting that we are entitled to be proud of all we accomplished this year.

Yes, we come before God, to cleanse ourselves the best way we know how. We come before God and we examine ourselves asking, how can we turn our regrets into cravings for a better year and a stronger life? And we pray that tonight, God will help us write the word, “life” on our heart so that we might seal it for a good year.


[1] Arthur Green. Forward to 1995 edition of Agnon’s Days of Awe.

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