Here was one of my sermons from Yom Kippur.
Speech as the recipe for penance – Yom Kippur night – Kol Nidrei 2012
At the start of Yom Kippur, we recite the communal nullification of vows, Kol Nidrei. We ask the heavenly tribunal to release us from anything we have may purposefully or inadvertently vowed to do or to refrain from doing. It is difficult to understand why we need to go through this ceremonial annulment as we begin Yom Kippur. For those who have recited Hatarat Nedarim, the nullification of vows, as is customary to do before Rosh Hashanah, this seems to be superfluous. Besides, do we really mean that anything we ever say that might be construed as being an oath should be nullified, even for things we have yet to say?
Speech is a very slippery thing. We know how easy it is for us to slip into saying things we come to regret later. We don’t mean to say something obnoxious to others. We don’t mean to start things that seem impossible to complete. How do we see our speech as we begin Yom Kippur?
To start, we have to realize the severity of vow-taking. In the book of Genesis, when Jacob takes leave of his father in law Laban, we have an exchange of dire consequences. Laban accuses Jacob of having stolen his idols. Jacob denies these allegations and then says (30:32) that if the idols are found amongst his family, then that person will no longer live. The verse concludes by saying that Jacob didn’t know that it was Rachel who stole them. While Laban never finds out it is Rachel, we are told later that Rachel’s dying in childbirth was a direct result of this vow taken by Jacob. If Jacob would have known that Rachel had taken the idols, he would not have said such harsh words.
In the modern work, Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh, R. Itamar Schwartz explains how speech is the physical manifestation of the divine in the world. Speech is the conduit for the soul to interact with the physical world. He further discusses how speech is a way of expressing what is truly in our hearts. This he derives from the idea that the soul emerges from the world of truth, and as such is unable to express itself in any other way than through what it sees as true.
When we talk about humanity, the Biblical commentators define complex speech as the symbol of what makes human’s divine in relation to other living creatures. Yom Kippur is the culmination of this distinction. It is on Yom Kippur that we purify ourselves through prayer, that we are able to recite the words Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed (blessed is the Glorious Name, His Kingship should rule forever) in a loud, audible voice. The rabbis describe humanity as angelic on Yom Kippur, as we rise to the ultimate manifestation of divinity for the 25 hr. period. As such, there is no more fitting way to begin the fast day than to focus in our speech.
We ask the heavenly tribunal to recognize that through our physical imperfections, our speech often comes out in ways we, our soul, would not want to be shared. Our primary goal for the next 25 hours is to be cognizant of our prayers, recognizing in ourselves how sincere we really are. We need to strive for sincere prayer, one in which as we confess our sins gives us a sense of growth. May we have a meaningful Yom Kippur, one in which we strive to allow our soul to express itself from the world of truth, and with the power of Yom Kippur, may our high carry through the remainder of the holidays and throughout the rest of the year.