Did you ever take a close look at Kol Nidrei, widely considered the most important prayer of Judaism? Read the translation and you might be quite puzzled as to why such a big deal is made out this particular piece of liturgy. It is a simple--albeit strong--statement of annulling vows. Is that the foremost thought on our minds as we enter the synagogue on the eve of the holiest day of the year?
Two Jews on an Airplane
After completing his morning prayers aboard the El Al flight en route to Tel Aviv, the elderly European Chassid turned to the American Jew sitting next to him and offered the use of his prayer shawl and tefillin. The problem was that a strong language barrier separated the two. The Chassid spoke only Yiddish and Russian, while our modern Jew was only able to converse in English. Even sign language didn't help facilitate communication between these two very different individuals. Finally, in frustration the Chassid blurted out the following--probably the extent of his English vocabulary: "I Jew--you Jew; I tefillin--you tefillin." There was no need to say another word. The man understood. Sure he'd put on tefillin aboard his first flight to Israel.
I love this story because it speaks volumes about the common Jewish spark that each of us possess, regardless of who we are and the extent of our Jewish observance. These two Jews had very little in common; they stemmed from different parts of the world, and didn't even share a common language. Yet, when
it came to the Jew within, they connected seamlessly; they were one and the same. Suddenly they understood each other perfectly. In truth, there was no barrier at all. Because after all--"I Jew, You Jew."
Another one of my favorites is the story of the poor, jobless man who came to the circus looking for work. The only available position was to fill in for a missing tiger. They gave him a tiger's costume and put him in the cage. All was well until Mr. Lion began strolling in his direction. Petrified, the tiger said what a Jew says when faced with imminent death: Shma Yisrael Ado-noi Elo-henu Ado-noi Echad ("Hear O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is one"). To which the lion answered: Baruch shem kevod malchuto leolam va'ed ("Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever"--the second verse of the Shema).
That's the story of the Jews: On the surface we might look very different from one another. Underneath, we're all the same.
Brand Name Judaism
The problem is the labels. Every Jew has a label!
Orthodox. Conservative. Reform. Reconstructionist. Modern. Traditional. Secular. Religious. The list goes on. Where did all these labels come from? Do you think for a moment that Moses organized the people of Israel around Mt Sinai in accordance with their denominational affiliations? Of course not. These labels are not rooted anywhere in Torah or classical Jewish literature. They are recent inventions that serve absolutely no purpose other than to divide our people. And this, at a time when we need each other more than ever. I think all agree more
unity is what we need. As for division amongst our people, we've got plenty of that...
When it comes to clothing I'd be the first to agree: labels serve an important purpose in helping us choose our preferred selections in terms of style, quality, etc. But who ever heard of labels for Jews?
Think about it. What use are these labels to the Jewish people other than to create partitions along denominational lines? Why can't we all just be "Jewish"? Why the need to label ourselves based on our level of observance?
It's true some of us are more religiously observant than others. Is that reason to categorically divide us into splintering groups? Let us each observe Judaism and its precepts to the best of our knowledge and ability, without the need of a name tag proclaiming ourselves a particular brand.
In addition to dividing us, the labels also limit our growth as Jews. Once we've been labeled, we no longer feel the need to learn more about our heritage than is typical for members of our particular group. Remove the label, and Judaism is yours to explore, completely and freely, without fear you might cross
the line and observe some tradition that's not for your type. See my point?
If I'm not Religious--Am I a Bad Jew?
Perhaps we subconsciously use labels to lower the bar so we can still feel good about ourselves as Jews even if we're not growing Jewishly. The truth is there's no need for that accommodation. G‑d loves us just the same--even if we're not "perfect" Jews.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe would always emphasize the value of performing even one single mitzvah (Jewish observance). He repeatedly proclaimed that Judaism is not an all-or-nothing religion as some might have you think ("Either observe all of Torah or don't bother with any of it 'cause you're a 'bad' Jew anyway"). This would be the case if G‑d were a tyrannical dictator whom we needed to placate. In truth, G‑d is a loving father. He asked us to fulfill the mitzvahs, not in
quest of power or control, but out of His deep love for each of us--His precious children. With children, it's not perfection you look for. A good parent wants each child to reach their best potential. It's not "all-or-nothing." It's
A man from the Lubavitch community in Brooklyn once complained to the Rebbe about one of his children who had "left the path" of Torah observance. "I raised
all of my children exactly the same way. I can't understand why this one veered away." Replied the Rebbe: "Therein lies the problem. You raised all of your children the same way. But they're not the same. Each child is unique and requires direction and guidance in accordance with his or her individual
G‑d is a loving, wise parent who has a personal and unique relationship with each of us. Sure, He'd like us all to "reach for the stars" and try to observe
Judaism fully in all of its beauty and depth. But that's for long term. For right now what is most important to G‑d is that we do our best and continue to grow. If we observe one more mitzvah this year than we did last year--we are making G‑d proud!
Annulling the Labels
So why the whole fuss around Kol Nidrei? On a deeper, mystical level it is much more than just the annulment of vows and promises. It is a powerful declaration of annulling and invalidating any and all labels, restrictions, demarcations, shackles, barriers and name tags that tend to obscure our
sparkling inherent Jewish essence. All of us share one single designer label: JEW! We are one very special, indivisible people; the family of G‑d's chosen nation. Sure, like any good family we have our share of sibling rivalry. But that doesn't change the fact that "I Jew--You Jew."