Kol Nidre 2018: Falling Heroes, Finding Heroes




We have abused. We have betrayed. We have destroyed. Each year we stand up and pray these words, and we wonder,

What happens, when these things happen?

Tonight, Kol Nidre, I want us to think about what we can do when people abuse our trust in them. How can we respond when, someone we loop up to, often a role model, maybe even a hero of ours, falls. How can we process it when our role models and our heroes and our friends, who have betrayed us?

This is what we must grapple with, today, on Yom Kippur, as we confess in the plurals. We ask for forgiveness for a range of sins, and the first one, the ashamnu, is translated as abuse.

During this past year we watched as Hollywood moguls, to politicians, to journalists, to Jewish scholars, to philanthropists, to clergy fall….and I have become numb.

Why? Because I am once again remembering 13 years ago, I was 9 months pregnant with Jared, and my phone rang. It was one of my closest friends from growing up. Our Rabbi is going to be on TV that weekend. Why? He was caught on Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator,” a show that was catching people who were attempting to meet children, underage, for activities that were perverse. I couldn’t believe it. My rabbi. One of the inspirations in my life-one of the people to whom I turned when I thought about becoming a rabbi- was about to be on national TV. I couldn’t believe this. One of my inspirations, fell.

What does Judaism say about our fallen heroes?

What should the Jewish community be doing about it?

What can each of us do?

First, Judaism has different ways of looking at forgiveness and teshuvah. First, from the perspective of the offender:

LEAH VINCENT, a prolific author who grew up in an ultra-orthodox enclave wrote:

“Atonement in my ultra-Orthodox Jewish childhood was a white chicken, fat and stunned, gripped by the wings and swung above the head. This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. One person’s sins transferred to each chicken….Then, the chicken was slaughtered. The rabbis laid it all out, a neat equation: the chicken’s death stood in for your own and you were free to live.

But then, she bitingly, and sarcastically asks in her writings, what are the rituals of atonement in today’s world?

“I deeply apologize for my inappropriate behavior,”

“To the people I have hurt, I am truly sorry,”

Punishment follows this vague, emphatic public apology: jobs lost, gigs canceled, long weeks spent out of the spotlight.

This is their exchange

This is their substitute

This is their atonement.

This is their formulaic apology.

“Will that do it?” the people have begun to ask, impatient to return to their careers. Is this the equivalent of swinging a chicken over their heads? Is this enough?

Of course not.

And yet, there must be another way of thinking about how to do teshuva.


Maimonides a medieval Jewish scholar in his laws of Repentance writes that the first thing we must do is confess.  He even suggests language.  “I implore You, God, I sinned, I transgressed, I committed iniquity before You by doing the following. Behold, I regret and am embarrassed for my deeds. I promise never to repeat this act again.”

Maimonides said that we must make things right and seek forgiveness from our fellow person, and God, depending to which we failed.  We have not succeeded in our repentance until we are faced with the same situation and act differently.  Maimonides says for that to happen we must reject our sins, put them out of our hearts and resolve to never do them again.  And thankfully, there are key steps to achieving this difficult goal.

a) prayer- talking to God or reflecting or meditating on how to be better.

b) perform charity according to our potential because it focuses our energy on doing good for others.

c) separate ourselves far from the object of  sin;

d) change our name, as if to say “I am a different person and not the same one who sinned;”

e) change our behavior in its entirety to the good and the path of righteousness; and

f)travel in exile from his home. Exile atones for sin because it makes us vulnerable.

But to whom does this apply?

Does it apply to our fallen heroes? YES.

Maimonides suggests something much deeper than just the standard press conference or the carefully crafted statement to a national paper. Maimonides is imploring us to look deep and hard at these behaviors, and know that while forgiveness is possible, it will not be easily granted.

Hard work must be done first and even if we, as a community, want to welcome fallen heroes back to the fold, they need to demonstrate true teshuva, and in a way, that no longer poses any threat.

Rabbi Steven Bayer argues however that the issue of teshuva for the perpetrator isn’t relevant yet. He said “I have found that in our tradition we sometimes rush to hope that teshuva will be a factor – and are too willing to accept teshuva when offered by a perpetrator. He said

1.  These are crimes of power and control which present themselves in sexual predation.  Those in positions of power exert abusive behavior – and these perpetrators do not so easily reform.  A “mea culpa” and/or a psychological excuse for their behavior is no guarantee they will change. Remember, in our tradition teshuva is not accepted until the abuser finds themselves in the same situation and does not behave the way they have before.

Rabbi David Marcus reminds us though…

Justice isn’t easy. Our hearts might yearn to make it easy – maybe subconsciously we yearn to comfort our own hurts in a world so big and complicated that comfort seems illusive if not illusionary – but not at the expense of real justice.

Real justice means resisting the impulse to over-simplify.

Real justice needs to balance zeal with patience.

own facts: some things are worse than others.

And this is important because not all sins are created equal. There are the abusers-like Dr.  Larry Nasser, the doctor of the US gymnastics team, and then there are bosses who, deserve to be punished and reprimanded for inappropriate use of power, but didn’t sexually abuse people. All bad, but not equally bad. However, the question remains-how do we respond when those to whom we look up to, fall?

So how do we respond when we know the person and when we use their work?

As Jane Eisner wrote in a piece late this summer called “My Personal and Professional Reckoning with Steven Cohen’s #MeToo Moment”

The news that the respected sociologist Steven M. Cohen had repeatedly sexually harassed numerous women in his field left me completely stunned. … The Jewish communal organizations that employed him, especially if they knew of his behavior and did not act to stop it, have serious reckoning to do.

It is a reckoning both personal and professional.

EISNER WRITES: Personally, I am grappling with the emotional and cognitive dissonance of being forced to look at someone in a new, unflattering light.

We must figure out how to separate the misdeeds of individuals from the work they have accomplished or we will have dangerously thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

SHE WRITES: I’m not convinced that we should silence Shlomo Carlebach’s songs. Or banish Ari Shavit’s book. Or disregard Steven Cohen’s work.

Rather, we should view these contributions for what they do to illuminate and enrich our lives — even if the people behind them did some reprehensible things, for which they must be punished.

And then we need to struggle with the following: Once we have named the abusers, those who have failed…. Once they apologize and we debate the merits of their work…must we forgive them?

So maybe we need to determine what forgiveness is, or isn’t, in order to deal with these situations.

A friend of mine, a therapist, Jeanette Powell, once shared the following:

Forgiveness is not.

1.   excusing or condoning a wrong.  It never approves or justifies behavior that is evil, wrong or reprehensible

2.   It is not
a pardon.

3.   It is not
denial or treating a wrong as if it did not matter or denying that you have
been hurt.

4.   It is not

5.   Forgiveness is not
given because the offender deserves or has earned it by repenting.
Forgiveness depends not on the offenders behavior but on the desire of victim
to heal.

The gift of forgiveness
is for ourselves, not the person who caused us pain.

takes time and effort and learning to let go.

1.   It is not
allowing the wrongdoer to have a hold on our lives and our
emotions.   In fact, by forgiving we are regaining power that we may
have lost to the wrongdoer

And this is
important-because not everyone is ready to forgive. In fact, a prayer was
written this year called:

Prayer For Those Not Ready To Forgive (Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman)

The design of this season compels us to forgive,

to open our hearts, and sometimes to re-experience wounds.

Some of us have suffered profound trauma,

at the hand of parents, partners, or friends,

They might be fresh bruises

or from many years ago –

They bubble below the surface, having been pushed away,

but now re-emerge,

in the quiet or the music or the prayers.

Amidst the urgent pleadings of these days,

to wipe the slate clean and start anew,

some of us are not sure of the path forward.

To the woman who has been violated

and to the man whose spirit has been beaten down,

And to anyone with a broken heart or a crushed soul

who might not be quite ready to forgive:

It’s ok.

Take your time.

Sometimes the timetable of these holy days

doesn’t match the rhythm of your heart and soul.

Sometimes our devoted prayers get intermingled with inner voices not quite

“maybe it wasn’t all that bad”

“just let go”

“let bygones be bygones”

“be the bigger person” or

“maybe I’m being too sensitive.”

This year,

love yourself enough

to trust

your own timing.

Be patient enough to

stay in the place of

“not yet.”

Trust that you will find your way,

that you will come to a time

where holding on

hurts more than letting go.

Forgive yourself for not being ready – yet.

Give yourself the time and space

to go at your own pace,

to love yourself right where you are and as you are.

From that place of acceptance,

May you have faith that the path forward will open up.


So as we get ready for a New Year, how do we respond?

It isn’t only about focusing on fallen heroes, but it is about finding new heroes that we can hold up so that we can regain faith in humanity, in the human spirit and becoming heroes ourselves.

One hero is:

Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of Pennsylvania.

“This past month, Shapiro made a name for himself nationally, compiling the extensive report on sex abuse in Pennsylvania’s Catholic churches. The 18-month investigation names at least 300 priests accused of child sex abuse, includes testimony by more than 1,000 victims, and accuses senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican of a “systematic cover-up.”

But even as the national and even global spotlight has swung his way, he remains rooted in a Jewish community that helped shape his values and sense of service.

As he said in an interview “For me, when you boil down all the teachings and all the rituals, fundamentally, Judaism is teaching that none of us is required to complete the task, but neither is any of us free to refrain from it.” If this isn’t what the high holidays is about, I don’t know what is…

As his childhood classmate said, “Saying how proud I am of Josh Shapiro never gets old. Privileged to have gone to middle school & high school with him. Josh has taught me so much about giving back to the community and about just being a mensch. ….It’s nice to know that there are still great heroes out there for our youth of today and in the future to emulate.”

 So maybe, just maybe, as we find ourselves disappointed in people-people from our past, and people in our present, we can look more closely to find the heroes in our midst, AND,  we can be heroes ourselves, by using this time to recognize where we missed the mark:

We need to be, and we can be heroes, this year. We can be aware of our behaviors. And we can be aware of other’s behaviors. We can know the difference between that which is right and that which is wrong, and just as we vow to do better on this Kol Nidre, we can hold ourselves, and others, accountable. So when we come together next year, what we are celebrating are the heroes in our midst.

Last weekend we observed shabbat shuva. We were reminded that we have the chance to return. If we are going to do the hard work. Let us begin, now. Let us do this-for our people for our community, and for ourselves.

I hope that we can all do this-for our people, for our community, for ourselves. Shana Tova. May you have an easy fast.