Night of Our Disavowal: A Sermon for Kol Nidre

Here’s an excerpt from the sermon I gave this past Friday on Erev Yom Kippur:

In the end, I believe the path set out for us by our tradition guides us still. The violence in our midst cannot be ignored or wished away. We must acknowledge it, we must face it, and yes, we must respond to it. For our own sake, for the sake of all who dwell on earth, we must disavow the use of violence to solve our conflicts. Whether it be the violence in our own homes, or the use of military force to address complex political situations, we must be ready to confront and repudiate the violent impulses that reside deep within each and every one of us if we are ever to find a way toward a truly just and peaceful world.

If you’d like to read the full text, click below:

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to God from the fruit of the soil, and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. God paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering God paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And God said to Cain: “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin couches at the door. Its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.”

Cain said to his brother Abel, (“Come let us go into the field.”) And when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. God said to Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?” And he said, “I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper?” Then (God) said, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.

Though there are a myriad of lessons we learn from this familiar little tale, perhaps the first lesson comes from where it is found in the Torah: in the very first parasha. The story of Cain and Abel is really part of the story of Creation itself. It’s powerful to contemplate: almost immediately after the creation of the world and the creation of humanity, we learn about the origins of human violence.

On some level, I believe the Torah is trying to tell us that our impulse for violence is somehow woven into the fabric of our creation; that this propensity comes from a very deep and elemental place from within the human psyche. And in truth, have we really come that far from the days of Cain and Abel? Our lives and our world, are suffused with violence of all kinds. Violence is a reality in our homes and on the streets of our communities; it’s an indelible part of the daily news and our entertainment; it’s evident in the way we set out to settle personal scores and political conflicts. In so many tragic ways, violence continues to be a hallmark of the human condition.

Last April, when a gunman killed 31 students and faculty at Virginia Tech, I was struck by how many reporters and commentators referred to this event as “senseless.” As I thought about it, it occurred to me that this term was somehow inappropriate. After all, we live in communities in which domestic violence and violent street crime are numbingly commonplace. We live in a country in which deadly firearms are plentiful and readily available to the public. We live in a world in nations and communities are increasingly resorting to violence to resolve their differences. We live within a culture that not only sanctions violence, but many cases glorifies and celebrates it. In such an environment, do we truly believe that what occurred in West Virginia last spring was “senseless?”

If we accept that acts of violence are an indelible part of the human condition, then I would suggest that considering them to be senseless is on some level an abdication of responsibility. If we are to deal honestly with the violent side of our natures – if we are to have any hope for lessening or eradicating the violence in our midst – then I believe we must commit to making sense of it. I’d like to begin to do this tonight. Rather than dismiss violence as senseless or irrational, I’d like to explore what Jewish tradition teaches us about our penchant for violence – where it comes from and the effect it has upon on us and upon our world. I’d like to explore violence not as some reality or force that exists “somewhere out there,” but rather as an impulse that exists within the heart of each and every one of us, within the heart of our communities and nations. And I hope my remarks tonight can at least be the beginning of a conversation about how we might respond – as Jews and as human beings – when violence inevitably occurs in our midst.

I’d like to return to the Cain and Abel story for just a moment. For me, one of the more truly poignant moments occurs after Cain is rejected and God speaks to him in an almost consoling way: “Its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” Commentators differ on the meaning of God’s words, but I understand them to be God’s encouragement to Cain to control the baser impulses that are welling up inside of him. In a sense, God tells Cain, “Yes, you have these violent impulses – for better or worse, they are part of your essential humanity. But you can master them. You can control them. You can rise above them.”

I’m also interested in what occurs after Cain murders Abel. The text describes it in what you might call cosmically environmental terms: “Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” In other words, the Torah seems to be teaching us that when blood is shed, a kind of “moral pollution” is unleashed into the world. Violent acts create an indelible stain and their impact is transformative. To me, the line, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” is one of the most powerful in the Torah. Bloodshed creates a force that cries out to be recognized and responded to: for the sake of the victim, for the perpetrator and perhaps even for the world large.

By the way, similar imagery is used to describe the generation of Noah: “Va’tishachet ha’aretz lifnei adonai, va’timaleh ha’artez chamas” – “and the earth was slaughtered before God, and the earth was filled with violence.” The Hebrew here again indicates that violence has a powerfully violent and polluting effect upon creation itself. Some commentators go as far as to say that God brings the flood in order to literally wash away the indelible moral pollution of Noah’s generation.

Another way of understanding these Biblical images is to say that acts of violence introduce a very palpable kind of rupture into the world – and most certainly into the psyches and spirit of its victims. Survivors of violence of any sort will attest that the acts create a deep and abiding sense of stain and violation – the likes of which that can rarely, if ever be completely expiated. The trauma of violence creates a lasting legacy – and we ignore it at our peril.

Perhaps the most vivid and powerful treatment of human violence in the Torah occurs later in Genesis, during the story of story of Dinah. As many of you may remember, Dinah, the daughter of Jacob is raped by Shechem, the son of a Hittite chieftain. Shechem then asks Jacob and his sons for Dinah’s hand in marriage, and her brother’s tell him that this can only happen if the entire male community of Shechem becomes “like them” – in other words, become circumcised. A few days later, after the mass circumcision occurs and the men of Shechem are recovering, two of Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, come upon the city, kill all the males, take Dinah from Shechem’s house, and completely plunder the town, taking the women and children as captives.

It is interesting that the original victim of violence in this episode – Dinah herself – has no voice in this story. The only responses to this initial event come from men – and there is much more, obviously to be said about that. For his part, Jacob excoriates Shimon and Levi’s violent actions, although it is a somewhat tepid and self-serving criticism. But later on, when Jacob offers his final blessing over each of his sons, Jacob makes a much more powerful rebuke. He says:

Shimon and Levi are a pair/Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council/Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men/And when pleased, they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce/And their wrath so relentless.

Jacob’s final words to Shimon and Levi are so extraordinary for a few reasons. The first is his unabashed, unmitigated acknowledgment of his sons’ violence. It is also interesting that again, he uses the same Hebrew term that was used to describe the generation of Noah: “Klei chamas m’cheyroteyhem” – “Their weapons are tools of violence.” Again, this suggests that their violent actions have created a profound imbalance or violation upon the world. Jacob’s words are additionally powerful in their utter disavowal of Shimon and Levi’s actions. In fact, he goes as far as to virtually disown his sons. Here, Jacob is modeling for us another necessary element of our response to destructive violence. It must be utterly rejected and disavowed in no uncertain terms, at all costs.

Now I know what many of you are probably saying to yourselves right now. You’re saying, “Say what, Rabbi Rosen?” The Torah tells us to repudiate violence? What about all of those horrible passages in which God tells the Israelites to go into the land of Canaan and wipe out all the inhabitants? What about the part when God threatens to wipe out the Israelite nation after the sin of the Golden Calf? What about the poor guy who is stoned to death for the heinous crime of collecting sticks on Shabbat?

I’m familiar with these questions. I get asked them every week in Torah Study. And here’s my answer: It’s true – I won’t even try to claim that the Torah is a bastion of non-violence. Torah contains a spectrum of voices and, yes, often these voices do invariably contradict one another. And as a Reconstructionist Jew, my response is not to try to unify all of these disparate voices into the one singular voice of God, but rather to recognize that Torah, like all of Jewish tradition, is essentially a mosaic of spiritual points of view. These voices do not always agree, and we may not always agree with all of them. Our job as Jews, it seems to me, it to take responsibility for the sum total of these voices, to own them honestly as part of our inherited tradition – but then, ultimately, to be mindful and upfront about which voices that we will affirm, and which we will reject as irrelevant, anachronistic, or yes, even morally repugnant to us.

In a world beset with growing violence committed in the name of God, I believe this imperative is more critical than ever. Do we believe in a religion that calls us to violence, or will we affirm a religion that demands us to seek peace above all else? Will we affirm a religion that views violence as holy, or will we affirm a religion that views it as an impulse that too often unleashes polluting and uncontrollable forces into our lives and our world?

I do believe that the spiritual heart of Judaism itself actually hinges on this very question. After all, Jewish tradition as we know it emerged in the aftermath of a violent and deeply traumatic act: namely the destruction of the Second Temple. In a very real sense, our spiritual system is a very direct response to the truth of this one violent moment in our mythic history. Since then, the central Jewish questions have been, “How can we make sense of this trauma?” “How can we keep it from consuming us?” “How can we bear witness to this painful moment?” “How can we transform it, ultimately, for healing?”

For 20th and 21st century Jews, of course, these are more than just academic questions. The Holocaust is for us – for better and for worse – one of the defining moments for our community. And for better or worse, as Jews and as human beings we must be prepared to face honestly the effects this ultimate act of violence has had upon us as a people. Whether we want to or not, we must be mindful of the healthy and not so healthy ways we integrate the Holocaust into our spiritual narrative.

I’d like to suggest further that as Americans we are currently confronted with similar kinds of questions – that we are being called to a similar kind of reckoning as Jews have been for centuries. I think it is safe to say that 9/11 was a violent and traumatizing event for our nation – and I believe that the violence of this act has affected our collective psyche that we have not nearly begun to fully understand.

I fear that in large part, our nation has responded to violence with violence in a way that has itself unleashed a kind of “pollution” into the world, the effects of which, again, we cannot grasp and certainly cannot control. Regardless of our politics about our war in Iraq, none of us can afford to be sanguine about its profoundly tragic cost. At present, the American death count in the Iraq war is approaching 4,000 and the wounded number nearly 28,000. Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths range anywhere from 70,000 to 700,000. I don’t think we can even begin to fathom the human consequences that lay within these cold statistics, how many lives have been shattered, how many families have been destroyed, how much hatred and extremism has been engendered. And I don’t think we will ever truly comprehend the profound sense of violation we are introducing into the world, and how its legacy will invariably affect us all in the long run.

It often seems so very ironic that war, the most extreme and horrific manifestation of human violence, also tends to be the easiest for us to excuse, rationalize or explain away. Indeed, I do fear our nation’s efforts to inure ourselves to the horrible consequences of this war, our refusal to show ourselves the brutal truth of our violence as if it exists in another dimension, as some kind of video game or reality show. But in the end, by denying the reality of our actions we are only deepening its traumatic effects. We are allowing the effects of our nation’s violence to go unrecognized and unheeded – and I believe we truly have even begun to grapple with what this is doing to us as citizens and as a nation. Yes, in a very real sense, I believe we are all victims of this war, whether we are ready to recognize it or not.

In the end, I believe the path set out for us by our tradition guides us still. The violence in our midst cannot be ignored or wished away. We must acknowledge it, we must face it, and yes, we must respond to it. For our own sake, for the sake of all who dwell on earth, we must disavow the use of violence to solve our conflicts. Whether it be the violence in our own homes, or the use of military force to address complex political situations, we must be ready to confront and repudiate the violent impulses that reside deep within each and every one of us if we are ever to find a way toward a truly just and peaceful world.

I have no illusions about how difficult this work is. Contrary to some prevailing opinions, the work of non-violence is not a simplistic or naïve path. The kind of work I am suggesting involves serious and often painful struggle. It means to look deep within own souls as much as it does judging those around us. It means committing to transformation over the long haul. And it means the acceptance that this work will never truly be over.

But in the end, this seems an especially appropriate kavanah for Kol Nidre: Perhaps we might also call the “Night of Our Vows,” the “Night of Our Disavowal.” The night in which we disavow the parts of our own souls that inspire us to destruction and violence. The night in which we disavow the abuses we personally commit as well as those which are committed in our names. The night in which we disavow our impulse to inflict trauma in response to the traumas that are inflicted upon us.

Yes, I know: on Kol Nidre we make these vows, knowing full well that we many of them will yet be broken in the year to come. This work, this struggle will not come easily to us. But let us commit to it tonight. And let us commit to it together.

3 thoughts on “Night of Our Disavowal: A Sermon for Kol Nidre

  1. Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

    Dear Rabbi Brant Rosen,

    Shalom from Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb. I deeply enjoyed your sermon and found much to reflect upon. This past year I took a vow of non-violence which I call Shomeret Shalom. I disavow the use of all forms of violence, and follow the lineage which you articulate through the story of Cain and Able of those voices in our tradition that counsel turning away from violence as a spiritual practice. My use of the word Shomer comes from that story. Hashomer akhi becomes a positive statement, I am my fellow human being’s ‘keeper’ through stewardship of non-violence. Violence is akin to addiction, and we have to create spiritual community dedicated to non-violence or the disavowal of violence in order to refrain from turning to violence. I agree that violence is a form of pollutant and we need a lot of focus and intention to transform pollution into life giving waters. I joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation in my early twenties under the guidance of two remarkable rabbis: Rabbi Everett Gendler and Rabbi Michael Robinson, alav hashalom. I was brought to non-violence through the Civil Rights Movement and the Reform rabbis who participated and touched my soul. Many blessings to you this new year, may it be a year of increasing peace. Lynn

  2. Ross Hyman

    Brant, this is a profound sermon.

    I love your realization that the choice isn’t between a vow of nonviolence or no vow. The choice is between a vow of nonviolence or a vow of violence. We just don’t recognize that we have vowed ourselves to violence until we have disavowed ourselves of it by vowing ourselves to nonviolence. It is the same message as this verse from Chapter 3 of Pirkei Avot.

    Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah said: Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah (the vow of nonviolence and simple living) , from him will be taken away the yoke of government (that is Ceasar, the yoke of violence) and the yoke of worldly care (that is Mammon, the yoke of material possesions); but whoever throws off the yoke of Torah, upon him will be laid the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care.

  3. Ruth Rosen

    Thank you for the beautiful Kol Nidrei comments.

    I struggle with anger a lot, especially in traffic and the many daily inconveniences of modern life. I have violent thoughts when people disagree with me!

    So I completely relate to the violence inherent in the human psyche. It is a daily struggle.


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