Yom Kippur 5778 – Kol Nidrei

I want to read to you a letter, a letter that tells an amazing story.  The letter was personal, but made such an impression upon its recipient that he had it published in the Baltimore Jewish Times of April 27,1945.  Sidney Cohn – uncle of our own Jeffrey Cohn – wrote the letter to Ben Katzner, a leader of the Associated Charities and Sidney’s former employer.  At the time that Sidney Cohn wrote this letter – in December 1944 – he was serving in Germany as a Captain in the Ninth Armored Division of the United States Army.  A few months earlier – during the Yamim Noraim of 1944 – Sidney had sent Mr. Katzner a check to cover his annual contribution to the Associated for 1945. Ben Katzner had felt that a man who was risking his life for his country need not worry about also giving money and he returned the check.  This was Captain Cohn’s reply:

Dear Ben:

Your six-page letter written December 1 reached me today.  Belated as it was, I appreciated and enjoyed it immensely.

There was one big disappointment, however, and that was the fact that you returned my check.  However, since mailing you that check much water has rolled over the dam.  In the middle of December our outfit was hit head on by the Rundstedt offensive (aka the Battle of the Bulge) and we had a rough time for a while.  But, thank the Lord we got out of a trap and most of us came through okay.

The biggest thing, however occurred just a week ago when our outfit took the Remagen bridge (enabling Allied troops to travel into Germany)….  The courage displayed by our men could not be surpassed.  It seems funny to me that we were connected with an operation that actually turned the tide of the entire war.  I had some very close calls on this operation, but thank the Lord everything is okay up to this point.

In view of the above trials and tribulations, I cannot for a minute consider reducing my contribution to the charities.  Rather I’m increasing my donation to $50 in thanks to the One above for taking care of me.  If you remember in the prayers of the High Holidays one quotation says “Repentance, Prayer and Charity will abolish the evil decree.”

Sidney Cohn, Capt.

Ninth Armored Division

This is a remarkable letter.  It is outstanding in its demonstration of the pure faith – Emunah uBitachon – of the writer, unswervingly committed to his Tzeddakah, with the firm belief that its merit would grant him added protection from above.  But perhaps what is more striking is its apparent humility.  Here was a hero, a man who was putting his life on the line daily for the sake of his country and the free world, and instead of resting on his laurels he earnestly felt that he needed to do more.

Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato in Mesilas Yesharim (ch. 22) writes about the essential quality of humility.  As he describes it, the humble person understands that whatever his strengths, skills and wonderful qualities – he is still a work in progress, he still can be better.  The fundamental importance of that quality is that it opens the door to future growth, to learn and to change.

Yom Kippur is a perfect time to discuss humility.  At Maariv, following the Yom Tov Amidah, we will humbly bow and beat our chests, acknowledging our failings, our imperfections, and readily saying that we are not perfect, that we can be better.  We will do that twice tonight and eight times tomorrow, and – just to make sure – we already did it once at Mincha.

Bent, bowed, humbled.  We are not perfect, we can be better.

That is not a simple posture to adopt.  In fact, it may be the hardest thing in the world to acknowledge that we are not perfect, that we can improve, can do better.  We can do this on Yom Kippur by reading a prepared and standard script from the Machzor prayer book, but it is harder to do what we ought to do – to improvise, to use our own words and address our own personal, specific areas of improvement.  And just because we can do it today, when speaking privately to G-d, it does not mean we can do it as readily when speaking to a real person, to our parent or our child, to our spouse or our friend, to our employee or our boss, to our client or our neighbor.

It is hard to do this, but it is refreshing and liberating.  It is exciting and revitalizing.  Because if you cannot acknowledge imperfection, then you can never make things better.

As you know, the theme for this year’s Yamim Noraim discussions in shul has been “Making Things Better”.  You may think that coming up with these themes is a cinch; it’s not!  I played with various phrases to express the same idea, one of them: “Good to Great”.  That is actually the title of a book that I learned a lot from, a mega bestseller written by Jim Collins of MIT, analyzing where the difference lies between the good company and the great one.  It is a fascinating and instructive book, and what is most intriguing is that the idea that it comes back to, time and again in different ways, is the critical and practical value of humility.  Because to make the journey from good to great, to make yourself better, you have to begin by embracing the idea that you are not perfect, that you can be better.

Hence, for example, the concept of “windows and mirrors” (p 34):

The great leaders “look out the window” to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well, and they “look in the mirror” to apportion responsibility.  The other leaders did just the opposite.  They’d look out the window for something or someone outside themselves to blame for poor results, but would preen in front of the mirror and credit themselves when things went well. 

Strangely, the window and the mirror do not reflect objective reality.  Everyone outside the window points inside, directly at the great leader, saying, “He was the key; without his leadership and guidance we would not have a great company.”  And the leader points out the window and says, “Look at all the great people and good fortune that made this possible.  I’m a lucky guy.”

Or, another example (p. 74-75):

Leadership is about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted… Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with the answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision.  It means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not understand enough to have the answers and then to ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights.

Or another example (p. 97-98):

Great companies stick with what they understand and let their abilities – not their egos – determine what they attempt…  They did not have a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best.  They had an understanding of what they could be the best at.  The distinction is absolutely critical.

Do we hear what the research of the MIT teams discovers?  That the key to becoming better, to becoming great, is to be humble, to be open to the ideas and critiques of others, to confront the realities of our weaknesses and strengths and to proceed with a sharp understanding of both.

For this reason, the hope for the future of our people and of our world – for the ultimate leadership from Good to Great – rests on King David, and the eventual Moshiach that will arise from amongst his descendants.

We had two models of kings within the Jewish people, Yehuda and Yosef.  Both were tested in the area of their personal morality.  Yosef Hatzaddik resisted and overcame the temptation.  He did not sin.  Yehuda sinned.  You might think that Yosef should be crowned the eternal king of Israel, that from him should come the one who would lead us to the perfect world.  But no, it is to Yehuda and to his descendant David that we turn.  Because while Yehuda sinned, he – like his grandson, David – הודה ולא בוש, unflinchingly and unhesitatingly acknowledged that sin.  He faced it, and he was committed to fix it.  He was humble; he acknowledged his weaknesses and addressed them.

That is the power that we need to lead us.  If we were perfect, we could turn to Yosef to led us on in perfection.  But we are not.  And therefore, the leadership we need is one that will acknowledge our imperfection, that can readily say חטאתי, “I have failed”, and just as readily fix it.  That is the kind of leadership that can improve an ailing world.

And thus, wrote Rabbenu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuva 2:12), the ear is described in the Talmud as the most critical limb, חרשו נותן לו דמי כולו, because it is through our ability to listen that we learn and improve, as the Proverb (15:31) says, אוזן שומעת תוכחת חיים בקרב חכמים תלין, “The ear that hears the lessons of life resides amongst the wise.”

And it is in the same vein that the Talmud (TB Sanhedrin 24a) describes the difference between the sages of Eretz Yisrael and those of Bavel, that the Babylonian sages were more arrogant and argued aggressively, leading to impasses and unclear conclusions.  Whereas the sages of Eretz Yisrael argued pleasantly, hearing each other out and sharpening each other’s ideas, thus reaching true conclusions.

The greatest Sages, the most accurate and trusted teachers of Torah, from Moshe to Hillel and beyond, were always those who were the humblest people, and were thus open to really hear the truth, hear the other side, not allowing their defenses and their need to prevail or to preserve their position to block the light of truth, of what had to be done.  Indeed, איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם, the wisest man is not the know-it-all but the one who is open to learn from everyone.  And one of the ways Torah is gained, the מ”ח קנינים, is to love constructive criticism, אוהב את התוכחות.

Love criticism?!  Does anyone even like criticism?  Even when welcomed…?!

A few years ago, someone shared with me a fascinating and inspiring article from the New Yorker magazine titled “Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches.  Should you?”  The article is by Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon, and he wrote about how at a certain point in his career he was doing very well, with success rates well above the national averages and complication rates well below.  But he had plateaued, stopped improving.  He wondered if he could be better.

Interestingly, what pushed him along was an afternoon visit to a tennis club while he was on a business trip.  He had played competitive tennis when he was younger, and would often travel with his racquet, just in case he would have some time to catch a game.  On this afternoon, he showed up at a tennis club, and was looking for anyone who wanted to play.  There was nobody available, but one of the club pros said that if he wanted to pay him the hourly coaching rate, he could play him.  He agreed, and they began to play, when after a few minutes the pro shifted into his usual mode of guiding his partner.  He made a suggestion for a foot adjustment that he felt would enhance his serve.  Dr. Gawande was skeptical and uninterested in the unsolicited advice, as his serve was the best part of his game.  But he tried it, and – lo and behold – the minor adjustment of foot position recommended by the coach added some 10 MPH to his serve.

Evidently, even if we are pretty good – we can be better.  Evidently, if we let others watch what we do, and we invite their critique of what we do with a welcoming ear, we can do better.  If we have the humility to welcome hearing how we can do better, we will do better.

So, he asked a retired surgeon, a mentor of his from his residency, to watch him operate and provide feedback.  The feedback taught him things that only another surgeon could notice, and when he incorporated the suggestions, his complication rate went down and his success rate climbed.

But who welcomes criticism?  I read this article, I thought – that is great.  I will ask someone to critique my work, tell me what I can do better.  Then I realized that I already have that.  Hundreds of people do that, even without me asking.

And I cringe at criticism, even when I ask for it.  Don’t you?  It is hard to be truly humble, to truly feel that we want more than anything else – more than feeling that we are great, that we are right – to actually be greater, to be better.

I wonder why I am so weak.  Rabbenu Yonah in his commentary to Avos (1:6) -where we are taught קנה לך חבר, that we must acquire a friend, notes that one of the essential benefits of a good friend is that friends can rebuke and correct each other, can provide that outside pair of eyes that can guide us and keep us honest.  That is what friends are for.

That is what he said.  But what we experience is that criticism may in fact be the best way to lose a friend!

Nevertheless, without question, that is where the action is, that is where success lies.  Humility, the ability to acknowledge our faults, that we can be better, to hear and accept constructive criticism – these are the openings, the portals to growth and greatness.

What I would like to suggest to each of us tonight, however, is not that we go home and criticize each other.  I am not even suggesting that we go home and ask each other for coaching, for the guidance of how we can be better.  Because it does remain the case that criticism hurts us, even when we “welcome” it.  And even more so, when it comes to what we say to each other about the other, what we really need to do is more affirmative, to notice and to compliment each other on the good things that we are doing.  That is the 21st century version of Rabbenu Yonah’s advice regarding “acquiring a friend”, even if it might be called “friendship for wimps”.

But there is something else that I would suggest we all consider doing.  As we said earlier, Yom Kippur is about bowing, humbling ourselves and saying we are not perfect and we are sorry and want to do better.  And this may be the hardest thing in the world.  Yes, we can do this on Yom Kippur, reading a prepared script from the Machzor prayer book, but it is harder to do what we ought to do – to improvise, to use our own words and address our own personal, specific areas of improvement.  And it is even harder to do it when speaking to a real person, to our parent or child, to our spouse or friend.

So, this is the idea:  Don’t criticize; apologize.  Open wide that exciting door to making things better, to making a more perfect world for yourself and for those around you.  Listen, look at yourself, and express yourself.  When you say all these Viduyim, these confessions, take some time to speak for yourself.  Speak about what you want to fix.  If you are walking home with someone, or if you are going home to someone, or if you can think of someone you will be calling or seeing right after Yom Kippur or on Monday morning, think about what you can acknowledge to them, about what you can do better.

And the best thing about it is that it is contagious.  It works SO MUCH BETTER than criticism.  Just try it, work on yourself, be apologetic and sincerely work to make yourself better, and those around you will – not definitely but most likely – follow your lead.

This week we showed the film Screenagers, about internet addiction issues.  One of the scenes had a group of young teens standing around being asked questions about their own internet use.  When asked if they thought they were addicted to the screen, they all raised their hands, except for one brown-haired girl right in the middle.  Her friends confronted her, and she adamantly maintained that she was not lying.

A later scene in the film brings us to the same girl’s home, and her parents’ discussion of their habits.  Each of the parents – comically and sadly – was busy asserting how the other was addicted to the phone.  They were looking at the other, not at themselves, and they were criticizing, not apologizing.  And while they failed at improving themselves, they did succeed at transmitting their values to their daughter.  She too refused to acknowledge her failings, her weakness.

But there is an opposite model, and it is much more exciting.  How about a world where children see their parents apologizing to each other?  Where children will even see a parent apologize to them?  Where the atmosphere is one of growth, of always trying to do better, to be better, to go from good to great?  To not being taken with our self-image as a hero for what we have done but rather as someone always striving – like Capt. Cohn – to do more?

Rav Yisrael Salanter (see Shaarei Ohr in Ohr Yisrael 11), wanted every community to have a Bais Mussar, a place where people would come to work on making themselves better.  The presence of such a place would announce to one and all the obligation – the need – to work on ourselves.  Its open doors would invite others to join, and even those who would not enter its doors would know: There is a place, and there are people, who are trying to improve.  And this will inspire them to push themselves a bit harder, to make themselves a bit better.

That place can be your home, or your shul.

There is nothing as joyous or as exciting, nothing that opens the door wide to a world of possibility of making things better, as our own humility.  We need not criticize; but we can apologize.  And from there, things can truly get so much better.