Yom Sheini, 18 Av 5779
Monday, 19 August 2019
Yom Kippur 2014 5775

Yom Kippur - Failing Better, Rabbi Janet Burden
1st October 2014

While discussing our plans for the upcoming High Holy Days, one of my colleagues remarked on how she missed the traditional form of the Kol Nidrei passage in the Liberal liturgy.· Hearing her lament, I immediately assumed that what she was longing for was the sound and rhythm the Aramaic text. After all, some communities still use the original, which appears in the back of our machzor, because the words fit the familiar music so well.· Even rabbis who don’t like the idea of singing problematic words in the original language while reading a free interpretation in the English do so in the case of the Kol Nidrei.

“Yes, it’s hard to get the revised version to fit the melody if you’re not a professional musician, isn’t it?”· I said.· “Oh, that’s not my problem with it,” my colleague replied. “It’s just that I think that the words of the prayer are so important.”· This was a totally unexpected remark.· Even some of my most traditionally-minded colleagues would say that the idea of negating in advance any vows or pledges that we might make in the coming year is a nonsense we should do without.

“Now that’s a comment I’ve not heard before,” I exclaimed incredulously, the words escaping before better manners might have censored them. ·In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, and risked adding, “What on earth do you think it’s saying?”· She paused a moment before replying, “For me, it is acknowledging the futility of things like ‘New Year Resolutions’. The formula tacitly recognises that despite our best intentions, we will inevitably fail to live up to the standards we set ourselves.·· I think we need to own up to that.”

As I so often do when someone makes a comment which has surprised or troubled me, I replied, “I’ve never thought of it that way.· Thank you for giving me something new to think about.”· I admit that I say that sometimes when I simply want to avoid a political or religious argument. But in this case, I did indeed think about it; much more than I actually expected to when I muttered my polite words.

In recent years, I have been so concerned about the gradual, and often ill-considered, drift back into more traditional practices on the grounds of seeking authenticity; my brain seems to have developed a kind of Teflon coating that allows apologist arguments to slide from my consciousness. ··I had learned at Leo Baeck College how our rabbinic sages tried hard to get this nullification of future vows struck out of the evening service for Yom Kippur as early as the 10th Century, on the grounds that it was deeply flawed in its concept.· Thus I knew that the Liberal liturgical formulation was well grounded and frankly much more sensible.

And yet – my colleague is a thoughtful woman, someone I take quite seriously.· I could not just dismiss what she was saying.·· How could anyone argue with the assertion that we inevitably fail to achieve the best of which we are capable? Each and every one of us could be, and should do, better.· That is part of what we acknowledge collectively on Yom Kippur.· But does that necessarily imply that making resolutions is a futile activity?· That is where I beg to differ.· Not because we sometimes succeed in fulfilling our aspirations – though I remain enough of an optimist to assert that we do.· Still, even my Pollyanna side must admit that more often than not, my colleague would be proven right.· We fail and fail again.

But does that mean that, on reflection, we should we agree with my colleague that resolutions are futile? For all that I understand the sentiment, my heart cries out ‘no’ – no, no, NO.· I base my refutation not merely on my gut instinct, but also on what might seem an unusual source:· on Worstward Ho, one of the last prose pieces by Samuel Beckett, written in the early 1980’s.· Beckett, though a deeply moral man, was not known for his optimistic views of humanity.· How could he be, when he had experienced first-hand the rise of Nazism and witnessed the horrors which it spawned?· It is hardly surprising that he is best known for post-modern characters who strive and fail to make sense of the world.· In this short novella, written when Beckett was in his 70’s, an unnamed, first person narrator engages in a tortured interior monologue of choppy sentence fragments.·· Its pages are full of suffering and struggle – and haunting if harrowing beauty, as when·· Beckett’s anonymous narrator says through his pain, “All of old.·Nothing else ever.· Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. ·Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

For me, these simple, eloquent words encapsulate the message of this season perfectly.· Beckett had no illusions.·He knew that we inevitably fail, as my colleague rightly asserted.· ‘Worstward’ might indeed feel like the trajectory of life.··· But ultimately Beckett rejects, as I do, that it therefore follows that the effort we expend is futile.· The struggle itself, the enduring of pain and weakness – these have a greatness and a nobility about them that cannot be denied. ·I hope that we can all remember that, whichever form of the Kol Nidrei prayer you hear intoned at your community this year.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah