Sermon for Kol Nidre Night 5778
September 29, 2017
Just before we sang Kol Nidre this evening, we included a short Hebrew paragraph (on p. 252 of our machzorim) to which the editors of our machzor have given the title “Permission.”
The key phrase in that “Permission” paragraph is “Anu matirin lehitpalel im avaryanim” -- which literally means “We grant permission to pray with transgressors.”
An old legend exists that claims that the word avaryanim/transgressors was code for Iberyanim – Iberians or Spaniards-- and that the idea was to permit the participation of those conversos during the Spanish Inquisition who had gotten baptized under duress but who still secretly identified as Jews.
As it turns out, that story is not historically true.
In fact, the paragraph was introduced into the High Holiday liturgy some two centuries before the start of the Spanish Inquisition by a German rabbi, Meir ben Barukh of Rothenburg
Scholars tell us that Rabbi Meir based his liturgical invitation to pray with transgressors on a Talmudic teaching found in Tractate Keritot, page 6b, where it says:
כל תענית שאין בה מפושעי ישראל אינה תענית שהרי חלבנה ריחה רע ומנאה הכתוב עם סממני קטרת
Any fast that doesn't include the sinners of Israel is not a true fast. For behold galbanum has a foul smell and yet the Scripture counts it among the ingredients of [the] incense [used in the Temple].
Or to put it another we --- We think you stink but you belong here together with us all the same.
The specific context for Rabbi Meir’s introductory paragraph before Kol Nidre was to invite back into the congregation any Jews who had been previously excommunicated by the local Jewish community for disobeying communal regulations.
As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman explains:
Such people, presumably, would already have been put into cherem (“excommunication”), declared outside the pale so that no one could have anything to do with them; [but] the Yom Kippur fast was declared an exception to that rule.
I have been thinking lately about how this principle might be applied to American society at large.
Rabbi Meir back in the 13th century was urging us to make our community open enough so that we could include even those who had violated communal norms.
But for us in the American society of the 21st century, it seems more and more difficult to engage with those of whom we disapprove. I cannot recall a time when our country has seemed so divided.
And that’s not just because Russian bots have been trolling Facebook and Twitter.
It seems like our political and cultural schisms are so sharp that we are unable to claim a common bond with those with whom we disagree. To those on one extreme of the political spectrum, those on the other extreme are avaryanim/transgressors beyond the pale.
The biggest shame of it all is that President Trump himself has gleefully sought to exacerbate these societal fissures.
The latest iteration of this trend came last Friday night when the President was in Alabama on a campaign swing on behalf of Alabama’s junior U.S. Senator Luther Strange. Sen. Strange had been appointed to his seat as a mid-term replacement for Sen. Jeff Sessions when Sessions became Attorney General. And now Strange was running for the Republican nomination for a term in his own right.
And the President chose this venue to talk about football.
I’ve seen the video clip. It looks like President Trump was just trying to entertain the crowd because, really, the state of professional football would not appear to be a relevant issue in the Alabama senatorial campaign.
But he chose this venue to complain that NFL players who were going down on one knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner should be fired. And he called them s.o.b’s. --- though he didn’t abbreviate that epithet as I did just now.
This for me was the last straw in my dogged attempts to cut him some slack.
For months I have been trying to focus on the things that President Trump has said and done that are not stupid and hateful.
For months I have been trying to focus on the times he did manage to seem presidential.
But how are we supposed to deal with a President who curses out and demeans thoughtful individuals who were peacefully and – yes – respectfully --demonstrating their concerns about American society. They were not interrupting the game. They were not interrupting the singing of the Anthem. They were showing their profound RESPECT for this country’s ideals of freedom, justice and equality but reminding us with their stance that our country is not living up to those ideals. They were showing RESPECT for the flag by bearing witness that they took the ideals that the flag stands for seriously.
But for Trump, the N.F.L. players’ kneeling was a transgression calling for communal ban – for cherem – for excommunication from the American quasi-religious spectacle of professional football.
I still tried to understand. Maybe there IS a reasonable argument to be made that the playing of the national anthem before the start of the game is not the appropriate time or place for protest – even for quiet, somber, respectful protest.
But no, I’m sad to say it, but this was about racism. Most of the NFL players are black. And the motivation of those who kneeled, following the example set last year by Colin Kaepernick, was specifically to protest the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers in recent months and years.
I know that one could still argue that this was about decorum and not about race.
But what clinched it for me was how Trump mixed in with those remarks another complaint about recent NFL rules designed to limit brain injuries.
Here’s what he said:
"Because you know, today if you hit too hard — 15 yards! Throw him out of the game. They had that last week, I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom! 15 yards. The referee goes on television, his wife's so proud of him. They're ruining the game! They're ruining the game," he said. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit? It is hurting the game.”
What these remarks tell me is that, for our President, the entertainment value of watching violent tackles is more important than the health and safety of the players. And what that tells me is that he sees those men, whether or not they are taking the knee during the National Anthem, as mere tools for the amusement of the spectators.
But the fact that the players are highly paid doesn’t mean that they forfeit their humanity.
The fact that the President saw fit to sneer at NFL rules designed to lessen the danger of C.T.E. -- chronic traumatic encephalopathy, was in my view of a piece with his remarks to police officers earlier this year that they shouldn’t try to keep criminal suspects from having their heads bashed in when being shoved into police cars.
And it reminded me of his encouragement at his campaign rallies for protesters to be beaten up.
And it reminded me of his encouragement of so-called “Second Amendment People” to take out Hillary Clinton.
This President is a thug.
I cringe at saying this.
Indeed, I have felt annoyed and even disgusted for months at those who have gone around saying that Trump is “not my President” and who have termed opposition to his politics as “the Resistance” – as if we were under foreign military occupation. No, to the contrary, although I voted for Hillary Clinton (in case you were wondering…), and although I was sad that she lost the election, I still feel that it’s part of being a good citizen to accept the results of the election, to continue to advocate for one’s preferred policy positions, and to pray for the health of our elected leaders and representatives including this President.
And I do.
Yes, Donald Trump is still “my President” because I’m an American and he won the election.
And yet, I cringe at the harm he has done and is continuing to do to this country.
I knew we had turned a corner when even my father, who is sometimes on some issues more conservative than me, posted the following on Facebook earlier this week (and I did get my Dad’s permission to quote him here):
[I] AM COMPLETELY DISGUSTED WITH TRUMP DIVIDING THIS COUNTRY RATHER THAN UNITING IT. I TRULY HOPE WE DON'T HAVE A REVOLUTION BECAUSE OF HIS IRRATIONAL THINKING AND ACTIONS, LET ALONE A WAR. TIME FOR IMPEACHMENT IS NOW!!!!!!!!!.
To which I responded:
Dad, I knew that Trump had really gone over the deep end when I saw your post. Like you, I have definitely been trying hard to give Trump the benefit of the doubt even though I disagree with most of what he stands for and even though I find most of his actions and statements to be insensitive and foolish. And even then, I have tried to temper my expressions of disgust with some sense of respect for the office he represents even when I couldn't respect him as the person filling that office. But it ain't easy! And I think with his attacks on serious-minded concerned citizens as S.O.B.'s, he has really gone too far. I don't think we have yet seen grounds for impeachment. But I hope […] in the interim, [that those] in Congress will develop enough backbone to oppose Trump when he pursues policies that are stupid and unjust.
So, that’s (a somewhat edited version of) what I replied on my Dad’s facebook page.
I’ll tell you – when I was in Israel earlier this year one of the weirdest things to contemplate was that Israeli society seemed calmer than American society when it’s usually the other way around.
As a rabbi, I’ve generally tried not to be overly partisan on the bima.
But when “my President” --- “our President” --- goes after thoughtful protesters as S.O.B’s --- he shows me that he just doesn’t get it about what being an American really is all about.
And for us, as American Jews, it’s especially important for us to remember from whence we come. We are spiritual descendants of Avram Ha-Ivri --- Abra[ha]m the Hebrew. Why was he called “Hebrew” (or “Ivri”) in Hebrew?
I’ll tell you why – because he was an iconoclast.
The word “Ivri”/ “Hebrew” comes from the same root as “Avaryanim” – The “Transgressors” whom we invite to pray together with us on Yom Kippur.
Abraham was an idol smasher. He transgressed from the status quo. And God approved.
Abraham, in the words of the classic midrash, was called “ha-ivri”, the Hebrew, because he stood “meyever”/ “on the opposite side”.
As it says in Bereshit Rabbah:
רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד וְהוּא מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד.
“Rabbi Yehudah says, all the world [stood] on one side while [Abraham stood] on the opposite side.”
Whatever our own individual politics are, as Jews we respect the value of principled dissent – a tradition that goes all the way back to Avraham Avinu, Avraham Ha-Ivri.
Whatever our own individual politics are, as Americans we respect the value of principled dissent – a tradition that goes all the way back to the Boston Tea Party.
You don’t have to agree with our President that there were ANY fine individuals among the fans of Confederate statues who marched in Charlottesville.
And you don’t have to agree with our President that the football players who have taken the knee are s.o.b.’s.
There are people in this society whose morals, whose beliefs, whose behaviors stink like the galbanum of the Temple incense.
Some (including me) would include in that group the Tiki-Torch carrying white nationalists in Charlottesville.
Some (not including me) would include in that group those who take a knee when the national anthem is played.
But, our challenge, our calling, our mission, is to find a way to coexist in one nation.
As the Talmud teaches: “Any fast that doesn't include the sinners of Israel is not a true fast.”
And as the Machzor beseeches: “Beshivah shel malah, uvishivah shel matah, al da’at hamakom, v’al da’at hakahal anu matirin l’hitpalel im ha'avaryanim.
By the authority of the heavenly court, and by the authority of the earthly court , with the permission of God the Ever-Present, and with the permission of the congregation, we grant permission to pray alongside the transgressors of this world.
Tzom Kal/ May our Yom Kippur fast be an easy one.
Because our tasks ahead as a society sure aren’t easy.
And yet, may we be grateful for the progress that has been made, hopeful for the progress that can be made, forgiving of ourselves, and forgiving of one another --just as God is forgiving of us all.
© Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2017/ Tishri 5778)
 Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, PhD, “Kol Nidre: Translation and Commentary,” in All These Vows: Kol Nidre, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, editor (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011), p. 92
 Gen. 14:13: וַיָּבֹא֙ הַפָּלִ֔יט וַיַּגֵּ֖ד לְאַבְרָ֣ם הָעִבְרִ֑י וְהוּא֩ שֹׁכֵ֨ן בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֜י מַמְרֵ֣א הָאֱמֹרִ֗י אֲחִ֤י אֶשְׁכֹּל֙ וַאֲחִ֣י עָנֵ֔ר וְהֵ֖ם בַּעֲלֵ֥י בְרִית־אַבְרָֽם׃
 Bereshit Rabbah 42:8 רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד וְהוּא מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד.