Kol Nidrei, Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, and the power of vulnerability

Kol Nidre 5779 2018
Rabbi Philip Weintraub
September 18, 2018
Congregation B’nai Israel

(Beautiful note: During my delivery, the entire congregation joined me in an unplanned sing-a-long.  It added such incredible beauty and power to the sermon.)

Music transforms us. A few bars of a melody and we are transported in time and space to the place we first heard it. A lullaby turns us into children. The Shema wakes us up and puts us to sleep. Kol Nidrei means it is Yom Kippur. A simple, rabbinically reviled legal formulation has come to be the centerpiece of this evening. Some come to hear the melody and then sneak out. Even those who would not regularly come to shul feel drawn to the power of the melody. It resonates in our soul and is a “Mi-Sinai” tune, meaning it has no known modern composer. From cello to flute to a capella or choral arrangements, from Neil Diamond to Yitzhak Pearlman, it strikes the heart, and cries out that the time of repentance is here. While I wasn’t yet here for it, I heard that Joan Epstein has taught on the majesty of this melody.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “the words are prosaic, the music sublime.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hW-cSrxQ1IU

Why has such a text come to represent the holiday? To answer that question, I want to sing an entirely different melody.

I did my best; it wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch. I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you. And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah! (Hallelujah, Hallelujah…) Words and music by Leonard Cohen, taken from: Light, Alan. The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" . Atria Books. Kindle Edition. (Introduction)

This less popular verse of Leonard Cohen’s incomparable Hallelujah speaks so clearly of the Aseret Yamei Tshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance. We celebrated Rosh Hashanah. We celebrated the New Year, yet we know that we are still imperfect. We have so much work to do. Over the next twenty-four hours we come before God. We strip away our bodily needs and focus on our souls. We beat our chests, confessing to sins as individuals and as a community. Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu. We share with God our frailty, our pain, our challenges. We acknowledge our mistakes. We beg for forgiveness. Let us have the time to make things right. Let us see the errors of our ways. So how do we get there?

How do we accomplish our goals? Do we wake up one morning and waltz off into the beautiful St. Pete sunset or do we slowly and meticulously work our way? Is it a meteoric rise or two steps forward and one step back? Driving from Chapel Hill Memorial Park recently, I was listening to the Revisionist History podcast by Malcolm Gladwell. It has been an interesting ride, getting to know the area, visiting the places that are important to our community and our people--and it was an interesting podcast-looking back at key events from different perspectives.

In this particular podcast, Malcolm spoke about genius and creativity:

There’s a theory about creativity that I’ve always loved. It’s an idea that an economist named David Galenson came up with. Galenson is an art lover and it strikes him, when looking at modern art, that there are two very different trajectories that great artists seem to take. On the one hand, there are those who do their best work very early in their life. They tend to work quickly, they have very specific ideas that they want to communicate and they can articulate those ideas clearly. They plan precisely and meticulously then they execute, boom. Galenson calls them conceptual innovators; Picasso is a great example. He bursts on the scene in his early 20s and electrifies the art world at the turn of the last century. I think that someone like Picasso is who we have in mind when we think of that word “genius.”

But Galenson says, “Wait a minute, there’s another kind of creativity.” He calls it “Experimental Innovation.” Experimental innovators are people who never have a clear, easily articulated idea, they don’t work quickly. When they start off, they don’t really know where they’re going, they work by trial and error, they do endless drafts, they’re perpetually unsatisfied. It can take them a lifetime to figure out what they want to say. Who’s a good example? Cezanne. Every bit as famous and important a painter as Picasso, maybe the greatest of the impressionist, who reinvent modern art in Paris in the late 1800s, but Cezanne’s genius and Picasso’s genius, they could not be more different.


Gladwell went on to compare Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Quoting extensively from Alan Light’s: The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" I learned about the long journey of that moving song.

A story is told that in Paris, Dylan asked Cohen how long it took to write Hallelujah, he lied and said two years (even though it took five to get a produced version and he continued to change the lyrics for decades). Cohen asked Dylan how long it took to write I and I, to which Dylan said 15 minutes. Hallelujah took twenty years to gain popularity. Not twenty minutes, twenty years. Then comes Shrek in 2001 with Rufus Wainwright’s version and it has only grown from there. It is now a classic. It is a standard. It’s a song that everyone knows and yet no one REALLY knows. It’s everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. There are hundreds of millions of views on youtube of thousands of different covers. Cohen himself has sung dozens of different versions. It is iconic. For the cartoon lovers out there:

Shrek: Ogres are like onions.

Donkey: They stink?

Shrek: Yes. No.

Donkey: Oh, they make you cry.

Shrek: No.

Donkey: Oh, you leave em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin’ little white hairs.

Shrek: No. Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers. (Shrek, Dreamworks, 2001)

It is a story of faith. And doubt. Of hope. And loss. It is an essentially Jewish song. Cohen has confessed to writing as many as seventy verses, although there are a dozen that are most commonly used and only four of five of those make it into the covers. Why did he spent so much time on it? Why do we still listen to it? What resonates about it?

The answer is Kol Nidre. This song, like Kol Nidre, expresses our vulnerability. Ultimately, in order to do anything well, we must be vulnerable. We cannot love without the possibility of pain. We cannot grow without injury. We cannot do everything right. We must learn from our mistakes. We cannot gain forgiveness without offering our apologies to the one we harmed.

In every version of Leonard Cohen’s song, the vulnerability is ever present. It is the core. Every verse opens up the heart of the author, the singer, the poet and leaves us “tied to the kitchen chair.” “From my lips you drew a hallelujah.”

The same is true with Kol Nidre. Yes, it is a dry, legal formula, but its essence is the acknowledgement of wrongdoing or the potential for wrongdoing.

From our machzor:

(Machzor Lev Shalem, Rabbinical Assembly, 2010, p.205)

For generations, rabbis tried to remove Kol Nidre from the liturgy. How does the language of vows improve our capacity to change? How can we set up a court on the bimah and nullify vows?

The section of Talmud speaking about vows says:
Nedarim 60b:3 (Sefaria.org)
For it was taught in a Baraita: R. Nathan said: Whoever vows is as though he built a false altar, and who fulfils it, is as though he burnt incense upon it...
A vow is a spoken contract. Our legal-loving faith reminds us that we should not sign contracts we cannot keep!

Rabbis DO NOT LIKE VOWS. The origin of Kol Nidre may come from the Talmudic tractate which speaks so carefully about vows.

Nedarim 23b:1-5

And he who desires that none of his vows made during the year shall be valid, let him stand at the beginning of the year and declare, ‘Every vow which I may make in the future shall be null.

תוספות מסכת נדרים דף כג עמוד ב

Rabeinu Tam erased the text of Kol Nidre written in the Machzor that annul the vows from last Yom Kippur to this Yom Kippur. He changes it to cover vows taken from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur.
He raises 4 objections to the original text because it lacks the following critical components for Hatarat Nedarim(annulling vows):
1) There is no Beit Din
2)There is no regret
3)The particular vow needs to be specified
4)You can’t annul your own vows and the chazan is annulling his own vows

With all the rabbinic opposition, how did it survive? Vulnerability. Generations of Jews have lived with oppression, forced conversion from Muslims, Christians and others. The choice to convert or die was very real for many of our brothers and sisters. Kol Nidre was a time to return to the faith, it was an apology. It was saying, I did what I had to do, but I stand here, renewed, hopeful. I pray we should NEVER have to do this again!

Ultimately, whether we play the long game or the short, we have to be open to what comes next. We must admit we cannot control every outcome. We cannot control every person’s reaction. We can only choose to respond in the most positive and generous way. Whether our genius comes naturally and suddenly or whether we must work each step along the way, we CAN make a difference.

Hallelujah and Kol Nidrei. Two songs united by the power of their words, by the strength of their music and most of all, by their deep vulnerability.

I conclude this evening with a tribute to Leonard Cohen from Hazzan Ari Schwartz of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.  He sang the 150th Psalm to Hallelujah. (Congregation also sang along here!)
Hallelu El b’kodsho,
Halleluhu birkia uzo.
Halleluhu vig’vurotav,
Halleluhu k’rov gudlo.
Halleluhu b’teika shofar,
Halleluhu b’nevel v’khinor. (Hallelujah)
Halleluhu b’tof u-mahol,
Halleluhu b’minim v’ugav.
Halleluhu b’tziltz’lei shama, (2x)
Halleluhu b’tziltz’lei tru’ah.
Kol ha-n’shamah t’hallel Yah – Halleluyah!


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