With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts


15 September 2021
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
Sermon Kol Nidrei

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.

In darkening shade

Lies city street

In deepening shadow

Wood and meadow,

And barren and shallow

Our thoughts tonight.


Through blackened window

Through tight closed door

No wind can wander

No light can enter,

Empty our hearts

And fallow and blight.


Now do we ask of You

Deep in the universe

Far in Your wanderings,

Maker so merciful,

Open Your cloudbanks

To moon full and bright.


Let moonlight

Illumine us,

Night winds

Come brushing us,

Breath of Your presence

Be felt in our souls.

With such words expressing our emotions, Ruth Brin’s poem (p. 12 MRC), began our penitential season at our Selichot service. The desire to intuit for a moment the Divine Presence to reassure us, to grant us atonement, or just to be, (and) to be in that Presence. A moment so simple, fleeting, yet sublime.

The poem as all our petitions, is one full of gall. Just as on each occasion we open the Amidah with, “Eternal God, open up my lips that my mouth may declare Your praise.” We ask or perhaps demand God to be active for us, before we honour God, through word or deed; or in Ruth Brin’s words, to provide us something so that we have a spiritual experience, yet what do we offer?

Tonight, we offer ourselves. We have set aside this time to be present. That is why for some reason we understand or are subconsciously drawn to, we are here. It is never too late.

Claude G Montefiore, one of the founders of Liberal Judaism in his 1912, ‘Outlines of Liberal Judaism,’ made this statement concerning the activity of repentance – teshuvah – we are engaged in.

“To us there is but one atonement – the atonement wrought by human repentance and the divine forgiveness; by God’s grace and help on the one hand, by human remorse and effort on the other. The process is doubtless very subtle, but put into words, it is simple, and in practice it is efficacious and works. That is the Jewish atonement: we know no other (p. 214, MRC).”

Perhaps we have used this penitential season from the first of Elul and for others, from Selichot, hearing Ruth Brin’s words stir our souls. Maybe it was Erev or the Morning of Rosh Hashanah, at a body of flowing water for tashlich with friends or family, or hearing the Shofar Song at our children’s services or maybe the annual Memorial Service. If not, we are fortunate that our liturgy over Yom Kippur will constantly encourage and motivate us that it is not too late to begin, or merely to be awake to the momentary, “subtle” flicker of consciousness: “It is not the sinners death, that You seek, but that they turn from their ways and live. (Unetaneh Tokef, p. 142 MRC) “Seek the Eternal One at a favourable time; call out while God is near…” Isa 55:6

And right at the conclusion of the day the somewhat contradictory: “Open for us the Gates of Mercy, even now, when the gates are closing…” And all the words, the music and the choreography are mere means to lull us into that singular experience.

Does that speck precede or initiate the process of, in the words of Montefiore, “human remorse and effort…” The conversation with, in particular, those we love and who love us; who are most central to our lives, “is efficacious and works.” Opening up, to ourselves and then to them can be such a relief: For us, who have held back something that can fester; for those we love and who probably love us even more for having recognised a stumbling block, perhaps not big but silently real. The probability is heightened for reciprocation; an expression of mutual value and worth. In each engagement we are reminded if we need it – and so many of us do – that our lives matter.

Together, in the embrace of human love and connection, we perceive:


Illumine us,

Night winds

Come brushing us,

Breath of Your presence

Be felt in our souls.”

Or in Montefiore’s words, “God’s grace.”

Montefiore defines the process of Jewish atonement as “subtle.” There is nothing subtle about the concept of life and death that embellish the season. At least if we treat them literally. Rather, most Liberal Jews would view the terms to represent values and principles upon which we will build our new year.

We might thus view ‘death’ as the death of a year, one in which, at an extreme we experience utter stagnation, we continue to live but our souls are lifeless. At the other extreme, radical development that might bring incredible innovation and achievement. Yet at what cost for it is equally a position of imbalance.

Interestingly when we are talking all things sin and transgression, the rabbis had 7 different words for the inclination towards evil – yetzer hara (bSukkot 52). Reflecting their rancour towards those who threatened them physically or their way of life, these words encapsulate barriers to growth or living what the rabbis considered a holy life. At least there was the occupation of Torah study to form a protective wall. All well and good for the rabbis but what about the Jew in the pew?

There are always points in-between extreme positions, in which most of us seek to live fruitful, productive and loving lives. In Genesis Rabbah (9:7), a collection of rabbinic expositions on the Torah (midrashim) that was contemporary to the above understanding of the yetzer hara, we find a potentially more constructive approach.

Rabbi Seth Goren notes that, using God’s comment, that creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:3):

Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Shmuel’s name: “Behold, it was good” refers to the yetzer hatov, the good inclination; “And behold, it was very good” refers to the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.

“Rabbi Shmuel remarks that when God is creating the world in Genesis 1, after the creation of each element — light, dark, heavens, earth, plants, animals — God notes that each is “good.” But after creating humans, God says they are “very good.” Since only humans have the yetzer hara, the “very good,” … must be referring to that aspect of human nature … this interpretation is immediately questioned. The midrash continues:

Can then the evil inclination be “very good”? That would be extraordinary! But without the evil inclination, no one would build a house, take a wife or beget children; and thus said Solomon: Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a person’s rivalry with their neighbour. (Ecclesiastes 4:4)

Rabbi Shmuel and Rabbi Nachman agree that the evil inclination serves a purpose: Without it, no person would undertake endeavours to improve their own lives and the lives of their families. We would be satisfied, but listless and unproductive.”

We are bidden through the process of “Jewish atonement,” to check our balance. To ensure that our actions of the past year are accounted for. We should be content with what we have achieved as well as acknowledging our shortcomings. We also look forward and resolve to begin 5782 with balance. A life in which goodness improves our life and that of our families, with a dose of Liberal Jewish desire to make the world around us just a little more positive: Perhaps a touch of yetzer hara, employed with good intention, is “very good,” and our living, a form of praise for God.

This night:

“Let moonlight

Illumine us,

Night winds

Come brushing us,

Breath of Your presence

Be felt in our souls.”