Kol Nidre 5777

As someone who spends more than little time on social media (maybe too much?!), one of the most fascinating elements of our virtual, on-line world is the hashtag.  Now some of you are experts at hashtags – I’ve seen you in action.  However, for those who are not there yet, let me quickly bring you up to speed.

A hashtag is a word or phrase introduced by a pound sign, which is also known as a number sign or hash sign – and thus, the term: hash tag.  That word or phrase is supposed to serve as a label or identifier for the comment that precedes it.  This idea first became popular on Twitter, but it has spread to other social media as well.

So, for example, this past Sunday night, if you wanted to comment about something Hillary or Donald said, you might have added the hashtag #debates.  Then, others who were searching to see what people were saying about the debates might come across your comment more easily.  If you were off work on Monday and wanted to join the debate as to what to call that day, you had your choice of hashtags – #columbusday or #indigenouspeoplesday.  In case you’re wondering, last time I checked, there were more tweets with the Indigenous People’s Day tag.

But, as Yom Kippur approached, I have to admit that one popular hash tag caught my attention more than any other – #sorrynotsorry.  Esther Kustanowitz – the editorial director of GrokNation, Mayim Bialik’s online community – whom I met at a conference a few years ago wrote a piece about this hash tag and it got me thinking.

In 13 characters (no spaces), it expresses the kind of apology we’d expect from a 4-year-old who won’t share a favorite toy with a 4 year old playmate.  It’s the same kind of apology we’d expect from that playmate for snatching said toy when the first 4-year-old wouldn’t willingly share.  It’s when you know an apology is expected, but you don’t really feel remorse.

I actually posted my very first #sorrynotsorry just this past Saturday evening.  As the University of Michigan’s football team raced out to a 43-0 halftime lead over Rutgers on the way to a 78-0 shellacking, I posted that I was beginning to feel sorry for the Rutgers players.  But then I added the hash tag #sorrynotsorry, because quite frankly a small part of me was enjoying Michigan’s performance.

So, hashtags can alert a reader to sarcasm in a format devoid of inflection and facial expression, but they can also give you a little more insight into why a person put out that particular post.  For example, if your cousin tweeted “We’re fine,” last Friday you might not know exactly what she meant.  If she added the hashtag #HurricaneMatthew and you remembered that she lives on the east coast of Florida, then the message is much clearer.

As I thought about the #sorrynotsorry hashtag, I realized that it would be an appropriate hashtag for our Yom Kippur liturgy.  Now, before I go any further, let me be clear, I am not suggesting that those of us who come to Yom Kippur services – the best attended services of the Jewish year – are somehow NOT genuine in our desire to be better people in the coming year.  I am trying to say that our liturgy presents us with some challenges as we seek to repent, atone and improve.

Let me explain…  The three best-known prayers associated with Yom Kippur are (probably) – Kol Nidre, Ashamnu and Al Chet.  Each is relevant to the conversation.  Let’s take just a moment to look at each of them.

Kol Nidre is actually a strange legal text.  Originally, it annulled vows that were made during the previous year because swearing a vow in God’s name and not fulfilling it was a grave sin in the eyes of our ancestors.  At some point the rabbis changed it to pre-nullify vows for the coming year because they didn’t like the idea of undoing vows that had already been made.

Either way, the prayer became popular in a world where Jews were forced to convert to other religions and vow allegiance to the Church or to Islam.  This gave those people an out.  The rabbis actually tried to get rid of Kol Nidre, but it was so popular that the people protested and insisted on preserving it.  To this day, it is the best attended service of the year.  We like the idea of a second chance – “I made the vow, but I didn’t make the vow,” or “I’m going to make a vow, but it’s not really going to be a vow.”

It sounds a lot like #sorrynotsorry

The Ashamnu –  is a prayer with a sin for each letter of the alef-bet and threee for the letter tav.  We stole, we did violence, we blasphemed, we were corrupt, we caused others to sin…. and pound our chest with each one.  What if we really didn’t do any of those things, though?

The fact that it is written in first person PLURAL allows us to say that we are praying as a community and not just for ourselves as individuals.  Thus, we must list the sins of the entire community.  Surely, SOMEone among us did each of these things, right?!  (Don’t worry – I’m not asking for a show of hands!)

Further, as a member of the community, we might take some responsibility for the collective sins of the community.  For example, I imagine that we are all wondering what we could have possibly done to deserve the election that we are all witnessing this year??  The result, though, is that we end up trying to apologize for some sins that we had no part in.

Therefore we might be thinking to ourselves: #sorrynotsorry.

The Al Chet is a second, longer alphabetical list.  Within the text itself we ask God to forgive us all of our sins – “those that are known to us and those that are not known to us.”  Perhaps the mentioning of many different possible sins will cause us to recognize a mistake that we made in the previous year that we had not really thought of or it will force to ask forgiveness for a sin that we actually committed, but we’re not aware that we did it.  Either way, we end up asking God to forgive us for a lot of things that we did not actually do as we try to jog our memories.

Therefore, we might be thinking to ourselves: #sorrynotsorry

So, it seems as though centuries ago, long before anyone imagined a hashtag or the social media that would be the homes to those hashtags, the rabbis created a liturgy that inherently had the concept of #sorrynotsorry built into it.  This just goes to show that social media really reflect who we are as people rather than social media shaping who are as people.

Moses Maimonides – the Rambam, the great medieval rabbi and thinker – recognized that it is human nature to express remorse for our missteps but to, sometimes, find ourselves going down the same path again.

Maimonides wrote: “If a man transgresses, wittingly or unwittingly, any precept of the Torah… and repents and turns away from his wrongdoing, he is obliged to confess his sins to God… saying: ‘O God! I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed before You by doing such-and‑such. Behold now I am sorry for what I have done and am ashamed and I shall never do it again.’

That is the standing-on-one-foot version of our Yom Kippur liturgy.

However, Maimonides continued: “What constitutes true repentance? If the sinner has the opportunity of committing once again the sinful act and it is quite possible for him to repeat it and yet he refrains from so doing because he has repented….”

Now, that’s a FULL sorry.  If Rambam had posted that on social media, the hashtag would have had to be #sorrysorry!!  Maybe even in all caps.

But, sometimes, we can only express regret without being able to take that second step of avoiding the same action in the future.  That’s a half-sorry or partial-sorry.  That’s when the hashtag #sorrynotsorry comes into play.  In a sense we are saying – I’m sorry I did this, I’m sorry I had to do this, and I realize that I hurt or insulted some people.  However, I also realize that I was in a tough spot and under the same circumstances, I might have to do it again.

It’s a step below the Maimonidean ideal.

Let me give you an example from my own life.  For the first 18+ years of my career as a rabbi, I refused to make any kind of public statements about a candidate for any political office.  No signs.  No bumper stickers.  No mentions in sermons or newsletters or blogs.

In fact, during the 2012 election when the groups Rabbis for Obama and Rabbis for Romney were being formed – the first time in my memory that there were rabbinic groups supporting specific candidates – I was quoted in the New Jersey Jewish News as saying that rabbis shouldn’t be endorsing candidates (oy – what a picture!).

Rabbis need to be rabbis to ALL the members of our community regardless of political leanings and when we declare ourselves as part of one party or another, we inevitably put up a barrier between ourselves and at least a part of the community we serve.  I believed that then and I believe that now.

However, this past March, I set aside my strongly-held, long-standing belief and gave a sermon criticizing one candidate for president.  I even did it at a Bat Mitzvah.  Fortunately, we did not get any complaints from the parents – because, well, it was my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.  (Thank you, Jodi, for not filing a protest!)  All joking aside, it was no small decision.  It was not a quick decision.  It was something that had built up over months.

Since it is Yom Kippur, I feel obligated to look back at the decision and assess it.  Although I received many slaps on the back (figuratively speaking) and supportive comments, I know that there must have been some people disappointed in my decision.  And the fact that they have not come forward to say anything to me about it reinforces what I knew before I did it; namely, I may have turned some people away from me.

However, in my defense, I made the comments at a time when there were 4 other major party candidates still in the race – two from each party (plus the two third-party candidates that are still in the race today).  So, while I was vehement in my opposition to one candidate, I did not in any way endorse any of the remaining candidates.

Despite this nuance, I know that some people will now look at my sermons, blog posts and bulletin articles a little differently, wondering if I am being political rather than religious.  However, my objections were – and have always been – religious and in nature.

Let me explain….  If there is a debate about tax policy, I cannot stand here and say that Judaism has a view.  If there is a discussion about military spending, I cannot stand here and say that Judaism has a view.  If there is a conversation about the Fed and interest rates, I cannot stand here and say that Judaism has a view.  And I would never try to impose religion on an issue that the Torah and our tradition don’t really address.

However, there are a whole lot of religious and moral issues that have, sadly, become politicized.  So, when it comes to the treatment of other human beings such as refugees, minorities, women, children, the LGBTQ community, etc., Judaism speaks loudly and clearly.  When it comes to abortion, capital punishment, sexual ethics, medical ethics, business ethics and more, Judaism speaks loudly and clearly.  And as a representative and teacher of the Jewish tradition, I feel compelled to speak out on its behalf.

Similarly, when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head – whether thinly veiled as criticism of Israel or old-fashioned Jewish conspiracy theories – as a leader of the Jewish community, I feel compelled to speak out.

Those factors drove me to speak last March and they continue to move me.  I have not spoken about the election from the pulpit again since that day, but I have been more willing to discuss the election in person and via social media than I have ever been willing to do before.  And while I firmly believe that my actions were guided by my understanding of our religious tradition, I know that some people are skeptical.  It will take time for me to rebuild trust with some of those folks and that saddens me.

So, I come back to the teaching of Maimonides.  I’m truly sorry that for the first time in my now-nineteen years as a rabbi I have made public statements about politics.  I know that it compromised my relationships with some people.  I know that some people will now view my teaching of Torah through a political lens in a way that (I hope!) they didn’t before.

I also know that I never want to speak out about any specific candidate again.  I said it that morning and I say it again today.  However, given what I know about that person and what I know about our Jewish tradition, I also know that I did the right thing in that one instance.  And despite my desire to keep elections and the pulpit completely separate, it’s possible that another such person could arise who would deserve to be called out.  I don’t think that I would make the decision lightly or quickly, but it could happen.

So, I stand here on Yom Kippur and I say:  Kol Nidrei – forgive me for any vows I may have broken.  Ashamti – I have sinned.  Al Chet – for the sins which I have committed, please forgive me.

And I’m wondering if God somehow hears me thinking to myself hashtag #sorrynotsorry.

L’shanah Tovah,


About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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