PARASHAT VAYELECH, KOL NIDRE & YOM KIPPUR, BY RABBI STANLEY M. DAVIDS
Shana Tova, to my friends across the globe. Shana Metukah – a sweet year. And G’mar Chatimah Tova – may you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year. And Tzom Kal – Have an easy fast.
All ways to indicate that on this coming Tuesday evening, Jews everywhere will be gathering in unprecedented numbers to listen to, to resonate with, the sounds of KOL NIDRE, and thus begin the observance of that annual SHABBAT SHABBATON, that Sabbath of Sabbaths, known as Yom Kippur.
There have been many studies that have explored the musical settings of Kol Nidre. We are told that, “it belongs to the mi-sinai tune tradition – a group of fixed seasonal leitmotifs and melodies whose origin dates to the medieval Rhineland communities, and which constitutes a bedrock layer of Minhag Ashkenaz, or Ashkenazi custom. It combines syllabic chanting with melismatic passages.”
Fine. But many Jews live within the embrace of the Eyodt HaMizrach/Mizrachi or the Sefardi traditions – with their own, wondrous melodies. And some Jews, such as those in Mumbai, have a musical tradition that is a unique blend of the Mizrachi and of traditional Indian music.
And of course none of those melodies was actually heard at Mt Sinai – but that’s just a rabbinic way of indicating that the melody is old, very, very old. And as authentic as things can get.
None of that explains why Kol Nidre grabs our souls and lifts us heavenwards even when we might not even believe in heaven. It just does.
Whether we are listening to the Bruch composition for cello played by a member of the local symphony, or to a magnificent formal choir accompanied by a pipe organ, or to a volunteer gathering of talented and caring people or to a cantor alone on the Bimah, wrapped in her Tallit, wearing white sneakers and a white robe – the sounds of Kol Nidre don’t need us to comprehend or to even consider the accompanying words – since truth be told, those words have very little relevance today, despite the myriad of sermons that earnestly seek to claim otherwise. Kol Nidre is just – Kol Nidre. And in its presence, as it is repeated three times, we know who we are and before Whom we stand. And that’s more than enough to justify its power.
Our Sedra is VAYELECH. The entire Sedra runs just a few verses, Deuteronomy: 31:1-30. Usually, this Sedra is combined with another one – but not this year. Moses’s last day on earth is coming to an end. He has come to terms with God’s refusal to allow him to enter the Promised Land. So: VAYELECH – Moses went out to the people, and spoke words that poured from his heart. The late Alvin Fine wrote these magnificent words: “Birth is a beginning and death a destination, but life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage, made stage by stage, from birth to death to life everlasting.” VAYELECH. This is the last time before Moses undertakes the longest journey of all.
Ibn Ezra says that Moses chose to visit each of the 12 tribes separately, one by one, to speak with as much intimacy as possible his words of encouragement, of hope, and of warning. By visiting each tribe in such a fashion, Moses demonstrated that all of that which links the Israelites to God – the complex history, the Covenants, the commandments the praise and the cautions – none of that was intended just for the few, for the elite – but for each one of them, for everyone, woman, man, child. Each of us matters. Torat Moshe, the Torah of Moses, is my Morasha and your Morasha – my inheritance even as it is the inheritance of each one of you.
Ramban added that Moses was also teaching each of us how to die. If we are granted the time and the circumstances to have some control at that moment, then we should do as Moses did: To speak intimately with those whom we love the most, to bless them, and then to humbly request their permission for our departure.
Torah teaches us how to live, so it makes sense that Torah would also teach us how to die.
And perhaps most important of all, say other commentators, was that Moses wanted to lift his people’s spirits. A great adventure, a new adventure, begins the moment that they cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Their hearts should be filled with hope and with joy. Mourning for the loss of Moses should not drag down their spirits. Joshua will lead them; he will march before them. After all, they are carrying the Tablets of Stone in their midst. Their minds must be on the future as their own sacred pilgrimage continues.
There is a recurrent phrase in our very short Sedra: CHAZAK V’AMATZ in the singular and CHIZKU V’IMTZU in the plural. Be strong and of good courage. “Be strong and resolute. I am not indispensible. Joshua will lead you.” CHAZAK V’AMATZ. “You will confront ferocious enemies. “ CHIZKU V’IMTZU. “You can turn the tide of history if you hold fast to your mission. You are not helpless. You are not trapped by fate. You have agency. Shape your own future.”
And to Joshua. “Joshua, my disciple. Joshua, my anointed successor. Don’t worry that YOU are not ME. Just BE YOU. I confronted my challenges. And now you must confront yours. Don’t be crippled by my past achievements. Don’t waste a lot of time trying to figure out if you are doing what I would have done. I am me, but only YOU are YOU. Be the kind of the leader that the people needs now.” CHAZAK V’AMATZ.
So what’s the difference between CHAZAK and AMATZ? Both carry the meaning of ‘Be Strong.’ Pinchas Peli offers a keen insight. CHAZAK is a call to be physically prepared. You will need an army. You will need weapons for your soldiers. You will need a chain of command as well as organized supply chains. You soldiers will need to be well trained. Your commanders will have to understand their particular tasks. CHAZAK. Be ready for any challenge that comes your way.
And what then is AMATZ? An army confronting a physical challenge and a family confronting a relational challenge and a person confronting an ethical challenge must be more than physically prepared. The IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, operates with a mission statement that includes what is called TOHAR HA-NESHEK, the purity of arms. True victory is won by a well-prepared military operating with a clearly defined code of conduct. Israelis know and understand that each time they fail that litmus test, they are failing to defend their people’s future, no matter how glorious a battlefield victory might appear.
It is no different in a relational struggle. Relationships are never zero sum games. Healthy relationships are never power struggles. Healthy relationships are founded upon a commitment to see the other as a DEMUT ELOHIM, an image of God – no more and no less than we are.
And as we struggle to chart our own, personal, individual ways into the Promised Lands of our own choosing, CHAZK is never enough. AMATZ is required of us as well, as we are expected to see ourselves securing our successes in a way that never violates those moral and ethical standards by which we would like everyone to be guided.
YOM KIPPUR. Is almost here. Kol Nidre’s ancient and diverse sounds will penetrate our souls. CHAZAK V’AMATZ, my friends. Be physically strong and be of strong moral courage in all of your undertakings. G’MAR CHATIMAH TOVA and Shabbat Shalom.
About the author:
Rabbi Stanley M. Davids, D.D., was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and is rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, GA. A member of the Board of Overseers of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and an honorary life member of NFTY, the Reform Movement’s youth organization, he previously held leadership posts with the Association of Reform Zionists of America(ARZA), the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the World Zionist Organization.