May 27, 2022 |

Hanging in the Air by a Thread

Kol Nidrei, 5770

As some of you might know by now, I drive a car that used to be a taxi and now has a menorah on top of the car. Last year at this time I told you a story about how this car was stolen and used to rob a bank. Boruch Hashem we were able to replace that car with another used taxi, a 1994 Chevy station wagon, and (miraculously) we went an entire year without anyone stealing it.

Not to say, that there weren’t any other sermonic incidents as a result of this “new” car. There were many. And I especially want to share one story with you.

One morning, I awoke and got in the car in order to come to shul. It was around 5:30 in the morning and I was driving from my house to the shul, which is around 5 blocks and a sixty second drive at that time of day.

Boruch Hashem, there was no one on the road that morning. For, as I came down 16th street driving slowly and carefully, I suddenly heard a loud noise and a pop. From out of nowhere my wheel (Not my tire, but my wheel!) fell off of the car and there I was driving on three wheels. For a split second I was literally hanging in the air and then the car flopped to the ground in a slanted manner. I had to pull over, run back and get my wheel from the middle of the road and bring it to the shul.

I didn’t know it was possible to lose a wheel, but there I was hanging in the air on 16th street without a wheel.

And that’s what I want to talk to you about tonight.

On Kol Nidrei night we gather together and the first thing we do is annul our vows. We say any promises that we made and which we cannot keep are null and void. This concept is called Heter Nedarim, which literally means, “the release from vows that we are unable to keep.”

This is a shockingly radical concept and it is at odds with modern norms of our society. Even though we have made a promise, or a commitment, that relates to a religious practice or an aspect of personal, pious behavior, we can gather on Yom Kippur and release ourselves from that commitment.

Although there is a smidgen of scriptural basis for this daring concept, it is really not well-rooted in the biblical text.

The Mishnah in Chagigah has this to say about it: Heter nedarim porchin be-avir, the laws allowing one to be released from a vow are literally hanging in the air. Ve-ein lahem al mah sheyismochu, and they have no real scriptural support.

These laws are considered to be hanging in the air. Ephemeral. Without basis. No scriptural support.

Yet, of all the holy ways in which we can begin our Yom Kippur, this is the rather esoteric way in which we choose to begin our repentance on Yom Kippur. We begin Yom Kippur service with the Kol Nidrei prayer—which literally means “ALL OUR VOWS; we begin by annulling our vows.

In doing so we are relying on a law that is literally hanging in the air.

When we annul our vows, we are taking a promise and erasing it just like that. Poof! This is a very controversial idea and throughout Jewish history, Jews were criticized and mocked for allowing this process of annulling vows. Indeed, Reform Judaism tried to annul the Kol Nidrei service itself in the 19th century.

But despite the opposition, Kol Nidrei remains strong. And it remains strong because of the symbolism of what the prayers represent.

As we stand here on Yom Kippur, with the Book of Life and Death open before God we are reminded that just like vows can be immediately and easily annulled and removed from the world, so too WE CAN BE EASILY AND IMMMEDIATELY ANNULLED and removed from the world. Just like our words are ephemeral and fleeting and are merely hanging in the air, so too our lives are ephemeral and fleeting and merely hanging in the air. At any second our lives can be reversed and overturned. At any second we can literally lose a wheel from our life.

The same Mishnah that teaches that the laws of vows are hanging in the air also reminds us that there are some areas of Jewish law which are like mountains hanging by a thread—keharrarim teluyin be-searah. This means that superficially there is a lot of intricacy and meat to the laws but the essential underpinnings of these laws are without a strong scriptural support.

This is a perfect metaphor for our lives. We build up our lives up and fill it with a lot of intricate details. But at a core level all our lives are like mountains hanging by a thread. And at any second that thread can unravel and the mountain can fall.

If we think back over the last year, I am sure many of us can remember moments where we realized that our lives are literally like mountains hanging by a thread.

Just before Kol Nidre services I called my friend, Kiah Johns, the wife of Officer Stephen Johns, who was killed defending the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I will never forget holding Kiah’s hand at the funeral for her husband and then again several weeks later holding her hand while we prayed together.

Kiah knows better than all of us how a wheel can be pulled away, and how a mountain of strength can just collapse in a moment. How she can go from celebrating her one year anniversary to mourning for her husband.

I told Kiah that I was dedicating my prayers to Stephen’s family and to Kiah and her children.

On Yom Kippur we are all reminded that our lives literally hang on a thread.

In our liturgy for Yom Kippur, during Mussaf service, we tell the story of how the High Priest conducted the Yom Kippur services in the Holy Temple. As part of this story we will recite the words, “Ashrei ayin raatah shani hameluban misair hakorban, fortunate is they eye that was able to witness in the Temple the red thread turning white.”

This liturgical line refers to the ritual in which the Priests of the Holy Temple literally took a red thread on Yom Kippur and hung it in the Temple. When the scapegoat was sent into the wilderness, if the Jewish people were forgiven for their sins, then the Talmud tells us that the red thread would miraculously turn to white.

The Talmud tells us that the people became fixated on this thread. It overwhelmed them and so the priests kept moving the thread farther and farther away from the people until the practice was eventually discontinued. The tension of being reminded that our lives hang by a thread, and the possibility that the thread would not turn white, was too great for the people to handle.

So on Yom Kippur we are reminded that our lives are hanging in the air and are like mountains hanging by a thread.

But if that was all that Yom Kippur was about, then it would be a depressing holiday. In fact, Yom Kippur is a joyous holiday because it gives us the strength to deal with the tenuous reality of our lives.

On Yom Kippur we recommit to Hashem. We strengthen our spiritual connection to our creator. We renew our covenant with Hashem Yisboroch.

We renew our relationship with Hashem so that when that moment comes, when the thread is pulled away, when the wheel comes off, God will walk with us and hold our hands and help us. We pray for a relationship with Hashem to get us through to the next step until we can rebuild that mountain.

Such a relationship is overwhelmingly powerful and its strength is eternal.

In the 18th century the following story happened in Vilna.

There was a man who got married and then two weeks after the marriage he disappeared without giving his wife a Get, a religious divorce. His wife was thus an Agunah, a chained woman and unable to remarry.

No one knew what happened to this man. Then suddenly, after ten years, a man showed up and said, “I am this woman’s husband.”

The wife was doubtful and questioned the man. Her memory of him was vague and there were no photographs and people change over ten years. So she couldn’t be sure. She asked him all sorts of intimate questions and he knew all the answers. But she was still doubtful.

So she took him to the local Beit Din. They too asked him an array of questions and the man answered everything correctly. They said to the woman, “We believe he is your husband.” But she still doubted his story.

So the Beit Din went to the Vilna Gaon. The Vilna Gaon heard the story and he said: “Go back and ask this man one question. Where did you sit in shul the Shabbat after you got married?” The Beit Din was perplexed, but they followed the direction of the Vilna Gaon. Sure enough the man confessed when confronted with this question. He had and the real husband had hatched upon this plot in order to steal the woman’s money.

The Beit Din returned to the Vilna Gaon and asked him how he knew that the man would not know the answer to this specific question.

The Vilna Gaon explained: When it comes to matter relating to our mundane lives, those facts can be easily transmitted. But when it comes to the spiritual questions, that is an area that can not easily be transmitted and yet the memory is eternally strong.

When it comes to the spiritual, the power generated is eternally strong and it can shepherd us through the most difficult times. Even when things are physically difficult, the spiritual reminds us to cling to the eternal and not the ephemeral.

And ultimately this is the point of Yom Kippur: it is to remind us to forge a close relationship with Hashem. For such a relationship is eternal. And if we take advantage of this gift of Yom Kippur to forge a relationship with Hashem, then we will have true strength, a spiritual strength which will guide us firmly through the air and over the mountains.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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