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Kol Nidre 5782 ~ Fossil Memory

A little yiddle from Manchester, England invariably would go to Israel before Rosh Hashanah every year. He was an Orthodox Jew, an observant Jew. He had all the necessary baggage with him, his tallit and his tefillin. And he goes to the London airport and seated next to him on the plane is a fellow Jew-- who else would go to Israel before the holy days. They have a conversation and they got along wonderfully.

If you have ever flown to Israel, you know that inevitably people will go to the back of the plane at the appropriate time and pray together in a minyan.  It comes time on the flight from London that Shacharit, morning services are recited, our observant Jew takes out his tefillin and puts them on, and he notices that his new found friend doesn't put on tefillin, and doesn't pray. Being a person who does not impose his wishes upon others but being a Jew, he says to the man" You're going to Eretz Yisrael for the holidays would you like to borrow my tefillin" "It's none of your business." That's the answer. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to offend you." "Besides, he said, I burned my tefillin in Auschwitz! As our train arrived at the death camp, the SS officer sent me to the right. The youngest of my children was directed to the left. I don't need tefillin. I said 'Goodbye' to God."

They meet during the week and the little yiddle says: "By the way I don't mean to impose my ideas upon you, I am just very curious why you come to Eretz Yisrael and why you come specifically during this time of year?" "These are my people. Maybe he is not my God, but these are my people." Our religious Jew is pained by this conversation, not because there is a Jew who is not observing, but because of the pain that this fellow Jew has been experiencing for 40 some odd years.

Yom Kippur, he has forgotten his conversation. He goes to shul.  The break comes and Jews of this particular shul pile out onto the street in Yerushalayim, and he's looking. Something tells him he must see this other Jew because he didn't see him in shul. On the bench across the street from the shul our Jew from London who has no God is eating lunch. So, he goes over to him and says: "Look if you want to eat on Yom Kippur that's your business. You know something there is something wrong with you. You know what's wrong with you? All these years you have been crying about your lost son. Isn't it time that you said a prayer for him? Even to the God that you don't believe in. He deserves an 'Eyl Maley Rachamim.'"

He caught him right where it hurts, in his heart.  "Do you think we could...do you think we could go into a shul and say the prayer." And the little yiddle responds" Come with me, come inside this shul. I know this chazzan. He's such a wonderful chazzan. We'll go over to him."

They walk over to him; he says to the cantor: "I am wondering if you could do a special mitzvah. This gentleman lost his son many years ago, forty some years ago and he wants to make a "Maley." "Of course. What was your son’s name?" He says: My son’s name was Pinchas ben Shlomo. Okay." He's about to start. He sings:"Eyl maley rachamim." He stops. "What was his name?" "Pinchas ben Shlomo". The chazzan looks at the man. He pauses. He nearly faints on the spot. He cries "Tata," "Father! I've been looking for you."

Imagine, every year this man came to Israel. And he came to Israel because the people were his people. But the God was not his God. He had long ago abandoned God, just as God had abandoned him. I am not certain that there is anyone of us who do not understand this man’s rational. His story was no different than so many others.  Yet, his story is different. He came to Jerusalem every year around Rosh Hashanah, just as we come to synagogue on the High Holy Days, because he still felt that kinship to his people. And why did he sit outside the Great Synagogue on Yom Kippur? I believe that he hadn’t given up on God, but that he couldn’t face God or himself. He needed the compassion, the kindness of another to have him fulfill an obligation – to recite a prayer for his son. But he wasn’t sure anymore what to say, or how to say it. He needed someone to invite him to return into the synagogue – if not for himself, then for his son. For years, he sat outside and watched the people walk in and out of shul. He heard the familiar davening, the spiritual prayer of the people, the chanting of the Kol Nidre, as the beautiful and heart-wrenching melody crept out of open doors and windows onto the streets of Jerusalem. And he wanted to hear it. But it took one other soul, one other caring soul, to bring this man to find inside that synagogue, what had been the focus of his life from the outside.

Tonight, we have accepted that same invitation. We have chosen to join together virtually, to hear the words of the Kol Nidre, because there is something that calls us, and we have listened and responded. In many ways we are like Abraham, who heard the call of God and we too have responded. But what is it that we are responding to?

For the moment, I would like to reject the theory as proposed by our Machzor. Remember, it is just for this moment. I will return to this thought a little bit later. And what is that theory? We have come here on this evening because we have sinned and because we need to repent. Just perhaps, we have become too logical to believe that when we log out of the service, we will be cleansed from all our misdeeds during the past year. Heretical -- perhaps. But logically, since the Holocaust, we have had to reject the theory. We have had to look at God differently, if we were able to believe in Him, despite the Shoah. We have learned that Adonai is a caring and compassionate God. He could not change the world so that the man’s son, wasn’t forced to go the left at Auschwitz. That was man’s responsibility.  But he could reunite father and son through the compassion of one mensch.

As one reads over the Kol Nidre one might even be surprised to find out that we are not praying for last year’s mix-ups, but rather those that will happen in the year to come. “Dear God, if I make a mistake during the year ahead, if I make a vow, and I am unable to keep it, consider it as a vow that was null and void anyway, because I am making a disclaimer right now in front of the Torah to that effect.” Imagine if our kids were to have made such a statement! Would we have really believed them? Would we have accepted what they had said? It is like the child who turns to his or her parent before a test and says “Mom, I have a lousy teacher. I don’t understand one word that has been taught to me. I am not good in the subject. I didn’t study for the test because it wouldn’t make any difference. So, before I take the test, I just want you to know that if I fail, don’t get angry and don’t count the grade, even if the teacher does!”  How many of us accepted such an excuse from our child?  And, yet tonight we expect God to accept our disclaimer! I would venture to think that God is too smart and so too are we.  So, for the moment, let us reject that theory.

Here is another theory – it is called “fossil memory.” Perhaps it is what calls us here tonight. What is fossil memory? The basic assumption of this concept is that one can feel at home in any place where one’s genes, with a “g,” had been before.  So that if our parents or ancestors had a connection to some place, any place in the world, we would automatically sense that connection with our ancestors, if we visited there. If for example, our family was from Peoria, and we visited there, we would automatically feel a connection to our roots. We would be sensing our family’s presence there because we would connect through “fossil memory” that we have with an ancestor. 

A cousin sent me an article that appeared a few months ago in the Jewish Telegraphic Associations online paper. It brought that theory home. The article was about Jews from Northern Ontario. The reporter went to visit a cemetery in Krugerdorf, Ontario the most northern Jewish cemetery in the province. That town is where my father was born. It was where his parents were sent to help lay the tracks for the railroad while living and working in a one room farmhouse with almost as many children as the old lady who lived in a shoe. Then they moved to Ansonville where they were a part of a small Jewish community that established a shul in a home. Several years ago, the town renamed the street “Synagogue Street,” to honor the Jewish presence and their role in the community.  On the back of my dad’s memorial stone in Toronto, my mom had engraved his birthplace: “Krugerdorf.” Whenever I hear about “Synagogue Street,” Ansonville or Krugerdorf that fossil memory kicks in. I never lived there. Only visited a few times in my younger years. But it still has that same resonance that so many of us have when we return to visit our families roots in many parts of Europe. We still sense the presence of our ancestor’s Jewishness. 

Was it the fossil memory that brought the Holocaust survivor to Jerusalem every year on this day of Yom Kippur? Could he sense the generations past from outside the building? Could he find a spiritual connection to his lost son? Could that be the same for our being here today? Is it our fossil memory that unites us today? Are we at this moment connecting with previous generations who have heard the Kol Nidre prayer, and we are sensing the need for that comfort in our lives at this moment? We might not know the words, but we can sense the sensitivity of the melody. And when we do, we hear the voices that connect us to previous generations? Can we feel at home through our “fossil memory?” Is it “fossil memory” that allows us to feel a presence in shul, while we are joined together virtually?

Perhaps our “fossil memory” is experienced through the melody of our prayers. The familiar tunes make us feel at home and connect us back to this same service in any shul, in any generation or period of Jewish history.  It wouldn’t be hard for us to think of Jerusalem at this moment, and connect with the service of the Kohen HaGadol, the High Priest, as he brought the sin offering in Jerusalem in the Holy Temple.  It wouldn’t be difficult to sense Moses at this moment around Yom Kippur receiving the second set of the Ten Commandments carved into the stone on Mount Sinai. It wouldn’t be hard for us to connect with Abraham up on the Holy Temple Mount in Jerusalem, preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac, as part of a religious rite. And it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Jewish people standing right now in front of the Kotel, the Western Wall, and spiritually connecting with them. Perhaps we might even sense General Moshe Dayan leading Israeli troops to that site – the first Jewish people to daven there, as we reclaimed the holy sites of our people and reunited Yerushalayim. I do not know one individual who does not feel that fossil memory connection to Jerusalem, or to Moses at Mount Sinai, or Abraham and Isaac upon the mountain. And I am certain that even though we have never met that little yiddle from Manchester, England, we will think of him and connect with his story the next time we have the opportunity to visit the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem at the end of this pandemic.

“Fossil memory,” connects us. It provides us with that spiritual memory.  And that feeling becomes more than just an emotion. In some ways it has a tangible connection. Think about it in this way, you almost always feel at home in any synagogue you enter in.  And it is the added comfort of the familiarity of the prayer that justifies that connection. Not just “Kol Nidre” this evening, but the prayers that we remember from being in shul, at some point in our lives – the “Adon Olam,” “Alenu,”and the singing of “Oseh Shalom” enhance the “fossil memory.” It is our reconnecting with God. “Fossil memory is the chicken soup with kreplach, and the apples dipped with honey, that we eat in our homes. It is the remembering what it was like when we were growing up in our parents’ and grandparents’ homes.  I hope that we share that same feeling.

Then again, how can I not accept the truth in the words, “Umeepnay chata-eynu,” it is because of our sins, that we join virtually this Kol Nidre evening?

It is our standing up to be proud of our religious expression, and that wherever Jews are tonight, we all are joined together through the words and the melody of Kol Nidre.  And perhaps the call of the   the Kol Nidre, and the Al-Chet prayer, is our own personal call to understand our own less than perfection, in a world that seeks perfection. Dear God, I am here tonight, because my sin might just be that I am seeking perfection, and that is just not possible.  Could that not be the true meaning of the Kol Nidre? “I am who I am. And today let me accept that reality.” Yom Kippur allows me to continue to value the concept of that through cheshbon hanefesh, not only an accounting of my soul, but how have I not only adjusted my ways, but how I accept who I am, foibles and all. The Al Cheyt prayer, might be more than simply a prayer of requesting forgiveness, but actually accepting ourselves, just as we are. And with every al cheyt  and the clupping of our chest, we are opening our hearts to accept that reality. At the same time, it also provides us with a thought that perhaps we can find the way to make some adjustments.    And just as God states about Himself at the Burning Bush, we too can say אהיה אשר אהיה, “Eheyeh asher Eheye,” “I will be only what I can be!” Nothing more, and nothing less. I am just who I am. No pretensions. Perhaps, our Machzor, might just provide us with the right message, and it does so through the melodies of our fossil memory.

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784