Words Create (Kol Nidre 5781)

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Kol Nidre 5781

Most services don’t have names.

Last night, Kol Nidre “All Vows,” is named for the words and accompanying haunting tune

which pleads with God: “if after honest effort we fail to keep our vows, promises and oaths, may we be freed of them.” Its language comes in part from Numbers 30:1 (Matot): “If a householder makes a vow (neder) to Adonai or takes an oath (shavuah) imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests (Essays on Ethics, Matot) that there in the book of Numbers, the details of vows seem oddly placed. We would have just read about the last stages of the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land; how to divide that land once we’ve arrived; Moses would have just been told to prepare for his death and appoint Joshua as his successor.

There is a calendar of sacrifices – all preparation for entering the land. And then… vows??

Rabbi Sacks suggests that this placement is because “the problem, to which the Torah is an answer is: “Can freedom and order coexist in the human sphere?” In other words, how will they actually live in the land?That problem cries out to us now. We who long to go out, to exercise our freedoms to gather and pursue life, liberty and happiness, even to be together in our own sanctuary on Yom Kippur wrestle with the constraints under which we now live. How do we have online school and go to work? How do we go to work and keep our families safe? How do we follow conflicting government messages? What do we do about a state of affairs that leave the minimum-wagers to keep out the mask-non-wearers? How do we ensure that our vote is counted? Freedom and chaos.

Sacks contrasts pre-flood freedom and chaos – think Noah – and Egyptian order without freedom – think Pharaoh. Someday, we may contrast pre and post-Covid – whether there is a vaccine as for polio or a treatment as for AIDS. Someday, but not yet. Freedom and chaos.

So can freedom and order coexist? The answer is: Yes, if we take control where we can. And where we can start is with our language.

Rabbi Sacks quotes a philosopher named J.L. Austin who uses the term “performative utterance” – to indicate using language not to describe something but to do something. Just as God spoke and the world came to be: “Let there be light and there was light.” That is so important that it is prayed each morning: “Blessed is the One Who spoke and the world came to be. Blessed is God!”

We too have the power of performative utterances: “Behold you are betrothed to me” – causes two to be married. After study and rituals, “I accept Judaism to the exclusion of all other religions” makes one a Jew. “I am sorry” repairs a relationship.

Adding two more verses of that morning prayer: “Blessed is the One Who spoke and the world came to be. Blessed is God! Blessed is the One Who maintains creation. Blessed is the One Whose words are deeds; Whose decrees are fulfillments.”

So too, a promise. If I make a promise to you to do something, I am creating something that did not exist before: an obligation, a vow, a commitment. My words become deeds, godlike.

Per Sacks: That is where the balance of freedom and order coexist: when a promise is made. When I promise, I freely place myself under an obligation and if I keep that promise and develop the reputation of promise-keeper, I have removed a bit of unpredictability/chaos from the world. When human beings make commitments, the result is order not chaos. As Rabbi Sacks says, “Freedom depends on people keeping their word.” We are free to make promises and in turn freedom depends on us keeping our promises.

Per Rabbi Sacks (p. 267): “If trust breaks down, social relationships break down.  Society will then depend on law enforcement agencies or some other use of force. When force is widely used, society is no longer free.”

This sounds eerily like the America we are living in. The more force, the less freedom, not the other way around.

He continues: “The only way free human beings can form collaborative and cooperative relationships without recourse to force is by the use of verbal undertakings honoured by those who make them.”

Our country is at a sore loss of trust. But each of us can make a difference.

Sacks writes: “A free society depends on trust.  Trust depends on keeping your word. That is how humans imitate God – by using language to create.  Words create moral obligations, and moral obligations, undertaken responsibly and honoured faithfully,  create the possibility of a free society.”

Sometimes it is hard to keep our word. That is where Kol Nidre comes in: “if, after honest effort…” The problem is more when we promise but we don’t really mean it. We vow but we know our words are like mist…

Commandment #3 says: “You shall not take God’s name in vain.” What does that mean? It is not about swearing when you stub your toe, it is about abusing God’s sacred name. There should be a caption before God’s name: Use with caution.

So: if you make a promise and don’t keep it, is that taking God’s name in vain… even if you didn’t include God’s name in the promise? I believe the answer is a clear “yes.” An unkept promise takes God’s name in vain.

But we must dig deeper. Beyond breaking promises, when we uses words that hurt and incite we are taking God’s name in vain because we are most probably saying things we don’t mean.

From the National Museum of African American History and Culture: “Everything we see, hear, or feel is affected by our biases. We all have unique experiences that have shaped our version of the truth and created the lens through which we see the world. Humans operate on bias, either consciously or subconsciously.

Explicit Bias are biases that you are consciously aware of, and that you admit to yourself and potentially others.

Implicit Bias is biases that are subtly expressed. We don’t initially detect or intend implicit biases, but they can become more apparent with tools and careful self-introspection.”

Let us think about the words and expressions that come out of our mouths.

“I heard Dr. Kristen Syrett, a Rutgers University linguist speak of systemic bias. Think of the words that have come into our common language…

Peanut gallery – where Blacks were forced to sit in the back of the theater. Master bedroom.

Blacklisted. Just take that last one: think of what it must feel like for an African American to hear non-African Americans say: blacklisted.

Language can include – or exclude.

Dr. Syrett invites us to think about pronouns: If you stick to using expressions that you know convey a particular way of thinking about people then you’re really conveying something else which is that I don’t care enough about what matters to you to change the way I’m speaking.

For us women, what do we feel when we hear “manning the booth,” grandfathered in, congressman, hysterical?

Or for those of us who are against gun violence: Expressions like “pull the trigger,” “shoot down the ideas” and “ I have set my sights on you” make our skin crawl and weaponize society.

We are made in the image of God,  God who uses words to create. If using hurtful words isn’t breaking the third commandment, isn’t breaking our promise to love our neighbor as ourselves, I don’t know what is.

Words count. Words set expectations and continue stereotypes, perpetrate systemic racism weaponize society and ultimately take God’s name in vain.

Here’s an easy fix: Say: “please don’t use that phrase.” You have the power to infuse respect. You have the power to create something out of nothing: You can create a promise or make a commitment. You can bring order to chaos, trust to relationships. You are creating freedom through order.

Kol Nidre: All vows is a message, a warning, an invitation: be intentional about what your words create.

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