Rabbi Cohen Kol Nidre Sermon – “The New White”

Kol Nidre Sermon 5775
October 3, 2014
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen


The New White

Rabbi Heidi Cohen

The sands of time seem to slip by more quickly than the year before. Even with the High Holy Days later on the secular calendar, still it seems that time is slipping more quickly through our fingers. We see it in our children as every day they grow taller, wiser, and more independent. Some goals we established last year were fulfilled while others remain on the shelf of eternal procrastination.

Yom Kippur is the time during which we lay our full selves on a table before us and God. There for us to evaluate, scrutinize, celebrate, and acknowledge. The table before us is cluttered with words, deeds and moments. It is the desk of our year. For some, it is neatly organized with in and out boxes and files for each topic of our life and year. For others it is a mass of items in varying sizes of piles – but be careful not to move any of those piles for the owner knows exactly where everything is.

No matter what your desk of the year looks like, Yom Kippur is when we remove the piles, dust the furniture and begin again. Some may have hopes of a cleaner work space others celebrate the clutter as a sign of life and perpetual movement. No matter where you fall, it is your desk.

It can be overwhelming to think about starting over, about having a clean slate from which to begin again, but that is the gift of this day. It’s not to say that past experiences and moments are forgotten, rather we build the goals from that which we have already learned and experienced.

On Yom Kippur we not only express the new beginning through words but also through what we wear and how we present ourselves before God. It is traditional for us to wear white on Yom Kippur as the physical reminder that we begin anew tonight for this year.

White is an intimidating color. I know when I wear white I am especially careful about washing my hands a little longer so as not to rub in any food or makeup. When I prepare a couple for their wedding day, I strongly encourage them to use white wine or grape juice just in case one of them gets nervous and spills some on the brides beautiful white dress. White wine will show less than red and a red stain is not the way to start a new marriage.

A blank white page is intimidating. How often do we sit staring at the blank page or the blank screen wondering where to start? The white before us creates a mental block and until we start covering it with words or even doodles, we are frozen wondering where to begin.

Yet white can also be uplifting and inspiring. The potential of the clean space waiting for us to create, waiting for us to add our own color, our own mark, to make claim the space as ours.

The brightness of white calls us to wake up and draws our attention.

White is both hot and cold – white heat that can take the strongest of materials and bend them to the will of the creator and the cold to freeze a moment in time.

The rabbis were wise in suggesting our use of white for the High Holy Days. This blank slate waiting for us to add our own mark yet remembering that we are mortal and we are to acknowledge our own space between life and death.

At selichot we dress our Torah scrolls in white and we too wear white. Usually, Cantor and I are in large white robes, but as you may have noticed starting last week our garments are slightly different this year. No longer are we wearing the white robes originally found in the Protestant churches but rather, we reach into our own tradition of the kittel.

Kittel is a Yiddish word that means house or work coat. First, it serves as a burial shroud for Jewish men and a similarly simple garment is used for women as a reminder that we are all equal in death. Even the most affluent Jewish individual is to be buried in a shroud and simple wooden coffin as when we leave this world we carry nothing away with us except our life attributes.

The kittel is first worn by a man at his wedding just as a bride wears white, this is the beginning of their new lives together, a blank slate and a sense of purity.

It is also worn at Sukkot, Shavuot and Passover as during each of these holidays we recall the Exodus from Egypt and new beginnings.

Especially on Yom Kippur do we find wearing the kittel useful because it is on Yom Kippur that we experience a brush with our own mortality. We abstain from the routine physical activities that keep us alive. We don’t eat or drink as we confront the knowledge that some day, we will all die. But do not dwell on the sadness of death, rather use this as an opportunity to lead our lives more fully because we come face-to-face with death.

This year has been a year in which I am embracing new beginnings, not to say I have not found myself in the depths of sadness and frustration. It is too easy to see the bleakness found in our fire. To feel the sadness, uncertainty and discouragement of not being able to be in our own sanctuary; to easily be caught up in the victim mentality of “poor us, what will we do?” “How will we ever recover?” But as we heard last week, as we saw three weeks ago, we are recovering. And how can we dwell for too long in the “poor us” rhetoric before it overtakes our lives and we are paralyzed from being able to be productive? We are all sitting here tonight because we have not thrown our hands up in defeat; rather, we see the potential of what lies before.

How do we take challenging destructive moments and turn them around? We find the silver lining. I’ll be the first to admit, I was honestly not too sad about the loss of the robes. They are big, hot and overly cumbersome. The polyester was not breathable and while many sat with heavy jackets and blankets in the front of the sanctuary from the air conditioning in order to keep the cantor and I from sweating too much, we still had portable fans under the reading desks so we could stay cool. So honestly, I did not mourn the loss of the white robes. But I did take it as an opportunity to reclaim this Jewish tradition of wearing a kittel and especially make this tradition relevant for our modern sensibilities.

I called Shoshana Enosh, an amazing Jewish artist who specializes in textiles and creates some of the most beautiful talitot and designed our Torah mantles – for which I do mourn, but know we will have yet again. I went to her studio in Northridge and together we played with the concept of a woman’s kittel – how it would be cut, worn and designed. I did not want a man’s garment tailored so that it fit my body, I wanted a kittel meant for a woman to wear and feel like it was made for her…for me. It needed to be simple yet also carry the complexity that life offers.

As I started to create the garment in my mind’s eye I was drawn to the idea of creation. Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world during which we read the story of creation and in a little more than a week from now we will conclude our reading of Torah for the year and start again with Beresheit. Within that story we know that God created the world from nothing – Tohu va’vo’hoo. The first act of creation was to bring forth light. Not the sun, not the moon, but pure white light. The ultimate beginning.

Hence, a white garment yet with some form of white on white, images that start to emerge from nothing. Then to accompany the kittel is to fulfill the commandment of wearing tzitzit, fringes on the corner of our garments. And when Shoshanah asked if I wanted the blessing written on the edge I declined – I did not want any full form, no complete letters or words, this is the beginning. And I was careful when I chose the colors that accompanied the tallit. Yes, I could have stayed with just the pure white, but even creation is filled with movement. The fabric here reminded me of that first light in the heavens and in the waters. The flow of time and space that we are all floating in, even in our world that seems so fully formed. But it is not, we are still creating.

Tonight, our canvas is blank. Each of us hold the paint brush and each of us are capable of partnering with God and each other in creation. Our world is far from being fully formed. Our lives, no matter our age, is far from being fully realized. And even when the time comes that we are no more, the day we die, we are left wearing white, for all we create in this world is left in this world as we can’t take it with us.

The blank canvas, the white page is in your hands waiting for you to make your mark. Yes, it’s scary and we do not always know where to begin and we are afraid that the first mark on the page might not be as we envision in our mind. Embrace that. Embrace the opportunity that you have right now, the opportunity to begin anew. Chances are the mark you make on your canvas will inspire others and together, all of us will create something spectacular.


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