Thursday, July 12, 2007

JTS Torah Commentary: Are Words Important?

We are in the midst of the three weeks preceding the Ninth Day of Av, the day on which, tradition tells us, the first and second temples were destroyed. ... For many of us, whose feelings about the sacrificial cult are at best ambiguous, it is not clear that we have lost much, if anything. It is the Musaf service as it is formulated in the Reconstructionist siddur that helps us gain perspective on this loss. It may well be, say the authors of this siddur, that we find the sacrificial system foreign and even repulsive. We must not forget, however, that when our ancestors brought sacrifices they brought the sheep, cattle, wine, oil, and flour that they had so laboriously raised and produced over the course of the year and offered them as gifts to God. To use the contemporary vernacular, they put their money where their mouth was. We, the worshippers in modern synagogues, offer God only words. Of what value are these when compared to the actions of our ancestors? Recalling the sacrifices—a word that is meant here in the broadest sense—brought by them should spur us to turn our words into actions once we leave the synagogue.

And yet, despite the apparent poverty of our words—we pray nonetheless. Why? Let us turn to the opening moments of Yom Kippur. We begin with Kol Nidrei, an Aramaic formula for the annulment of vows made during the past year. Why was this, of all things, chosen to initiate our Yom Kippur prayers? Indeed, for centuries many rabbis tried, unsuccessfully, to remove Kol Nidrei from the liturgy. Why is it there nonetheless?

I would like to suggest a phenomenological explanation. At no time is the absence of the Temple felt more strongly than on Yom Kippur. On this day the sins of the people were mystically—some would say magically—forgiven through the rite of the scapegoat. A red thread would turn white as a sign that the people were forgiven. How can we possibly hope to obtain that kind of atonement without the Temple rite?

The Yom Kippur liturgy responds to this challenge in a number of ways. ...

And, finally, Kol Nidre. In the end, whether it is recollecting the Temple service, reciting the martyrology, or declaring the thirteen attributes of God’s merciful nature, we are still in the realm of words and words only. Is this nothing more than a pale reflection of the world of action and consequence? Hence, Kol Nidre. Before we recite the first word of prayer we are called to remember that words have substance. Kol Nidre reminds us that words bind, and words release bonds. The words that we are about to pray can inspire us or they can be insipid and meaningless. The choice is ours.

Are words important? The answer lies with those who use them; the answer lies with us.

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, Rabbi Judah A. Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics, JTS.

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