Kol Nidre: Being Right

A rabbi, hearing both sides of a domestic argument, tells the husband, ‘You are right.’ And he tells the wife, ‘You are right’; When his disciple says to him, ‘They can’t both be right,’ the rabbi simply replies, ‘You too are also right.’

Psychotherapist and marriage counselor, Mel Schwartz, explains in his article "Why Is It So Important to Be Right?: “I often ask people if they'd rather be right or they'd rather be happy. Although nearly everyone says they would prefer happiness, the battle enjoins over right or wrong. If you pause and consider it, it's really insane, isn't it? The very fact that we'd mindlessly choose to win an argument at the cost of damaging our relationships points to something terribly amiss...It's curious how mightily our thoughts and beliefs defend their territory.”

I think one of the most challenging things to do on Yom Kippur is to admit that we were, in fact, not right – That we’ve messed up somewhere along the way. But it’s not easy. It’s not comfortable to reconcile ourselves to the repentant liturgy we espouse. But why is so difficult to admit wrongdoing? Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu  – We betray. We steal. We scorn. We scheme. We slander – ּAnd my first reaction when these words leave my lips is to amend them: “You see God, it’s not me exactly, who does those things. Because I myself, I would never do such things. I’m actually here on behalf of a friend, you see... But as Rambam explains, “It’s the totality of the congregation's sins” we say during the Vidui.  

‘Not I,’ said the cat.
’Not I,’ said the goose.
’Not I,’ said the rat.
— Little Red Hen

As if somehow my yearly confession takes the shape of the stories and games from my childhood – all of us standing around in a circle asking:

“‘Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?’
Aaron stole the cookie from the cookie jar’
’Who, me???’
’Yes, you!’
’It couldn't be! It Wasn't me!’
’Then who?’
Charlie (my dog) stole the cookie from the cookie jar!’ (most likely because I left them out in the kitchen. and it was probably more than one cookie )

Schwartz asks, “Why is it so vital to be right? Well, to begin with, if you're not right, then you are indeed wrong, with all the accompanying sense of humiliation and failure. But is this a given? Does it have to be this way?”

Well, maybe it does. Maybe that’s just the way we’re programmed to think. Programmed to behave. Maybe that’s why all of our children’s stories center on responsibility – or rather, the avoidance of it. Because evading our previous mistakes so intrinsic to our nature.

According to bestselling author Michael A. Singer in his book, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself: “The psyche is built upon avoiding pain – [humiliation, sadness, fear, imperfection or rejection] – even our patterns of behavior are based upon the avoidance of pain. It’s a basic human tendency. If something disturbing is touching [your psyche], its tendency is to withdraw, to pull back, and to protect itself. Somebody says something displeasing, and you feel some disturbance in your heart. Then your mind starts talking: “I don’t have to put up with this. I’ll just walk away and never talk to them again. They’ll be sorry.”  You do this because you can’t handle the pain you’re feeling. As long as you can’t handle the pain, you will react by closing in order to protect yourself – your thoughts will try to rationalize why you’re right, why the other person is wrong, and what you should do about it.”

Further, this issue of being right is connected to the all–too–often feeling of buyer's remorse. Our initial response to insecurity is to do one of two things: fight or flight (1) Avoid the pain altogether or (2) Fabricate excuses for them. Because, as Dr. Harold Sigall explains, “social science research reveals that we are actually psychologically motivated to be satisfied with our decisions.”

On the simplest level, if our choices are informed by trustworthy data we increase the chances of good outcomes. That’s why we hear parents and teachers emphasizing to kids the importance of ‘making good decisions.’ But beyond that, psychological processes, frequently active without our awareness, promote decision satisfaction

“According to a well–known theory, cognitive dissonance arises when an individual experiences psychologically inconsistent (dissonant) thoughts [or] (cognitions). For example, the [thought] ‘I am a competent decision maker’ is inconsistent with the [thought] ‘I made a bad decision.’ Cognitive dissonance is psychologically uncomfortable. And that discomfort motivates the individual to mitigate that discomfort. To reduce the dissonance a person might decide that the decision isn’t so bad, that alternative choices would have created worse consequences, that the good consequences of the choice are so good that they far outweigh its bad aspects. Such dissonance [can] sometimes lead us to repurpose our buyer’s remorse for defensive purposes. For example, if you can avoid responsibility for the decision (‘I was lied to or cheated,’ or ‘Anyone would have made the same choice’) – A bad decision can be reconciled to your belief that you are a good decision maker.”

But here’s the strange part about “being right” – and possibly what makes Yom Kippur either ironic, purposeful or simply a conditional aspect of our existential composition. Because it could be said that God may have made the tiniest, most minuscule of mistakes – and unfortunately, that mistake was us – human beings. Traditionally speaking, God doesn’t make mistakes, but it could be said that God came pretty close.

After the Adam and Eve debacle and the death of Abel at the hands of Cain, the earth and all that crept and crawled upon it, seemed to be spinning out of control. God had formed beauty and performed wonders – God even gives humanity God’s greatest gift - that of freedom itself. But the laws that affixed the sun moon and stars in order, could not compete with the utter chaos of human life. Human life and the conscious birth of freedom appeared incompatible with an omnipotent, omnipresent, immortal God. And so, God says,

“My spirit shall not contend evermore concerning Man since he is but flesh.” [1]

Rashi emphasizes that “Mankind had not lived up to His aspirations. God resolved that He would not wait much longer, debating with Himself, as it were, whether to destroy it because of its sins or to show mercy.”

So it very well could be that human beings are just the reason God can’t have nice things. Because, if we’re being honest: Human life, at this point, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We’ve abused our powers and mishandled gods beautiful creatures. For God, we’re basically unsupervised grubby toddlers on a sugar high – Running around God’s perfect Manhattan skyrise apartment –  our little greasy hands smudging glass windows and sneezing on all the imported Italian leather sofas. All the while, God watches as we rip down the Rembrandt painting off the wall, layering it with scribbles of red Crayola wax.

And so, as it turns out, God had seen enough. The experiment was a disaster and indeed there wasn’t much that could be done with it. The text reveals, in explicit terms no less:

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted (וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם) that he had made human beings on the earth, and His heart was saddened [2] (וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ)  

But what does that mean that God regretted making human life? That his heart was saddened? Medieval commentator Rabbi David Kimhi (1160–1235) known by the Hebrew acronym as the RaDaK, explains thus:

“The expression, (וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם הי), ‘He was sorry, He regretted,’ has been chosen by the Torah in order for human beings to have at least an inkling of what God's feelings were when He faced destroying His handiwork. Clearly, such emotions as ‘regret’ are not part of God's vocabulary. We have it on the authority (Samuel I 15:29) that human feelings such as regret, frustration, are not feelings which can be attributed To Him.”

Another French commentator Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040 –1105), otherwise known as Rashi, has this to say about God’s feelings:

“(וַיִּתְעַצֵּב) ‘...and He became grieved’: [God] mourned over the destruction of His handiwork, like in (II Sam. 19:3): “[King David] was saddened (נֶעֱצַב) over his [murdered] son [Absolom].” And you might ask yourself the all–to–reasonable question: “How could it be that God would mourn, given that God is omnipotent. After all, why create human life to being with if this was the inevitable outcome?”

“[Rashi explains,] this I wrote to refute the heretics: A gentile asked Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha, “Do you not admit that the Holy One, blessed be He, foresees the future?” [Rabbi Joshua] replied to him, “Yes.” He retorted, “But it is written: and He became grieved in His heart!” [Rabbi Joshua] replied, “Was a son ever born to you?” “Yes,” [the gentile] replied. “And what did you do?” [Rabbi Joshua] asked. He replied, “I rejoiced and made everyone rejoice.” “But did you not know that he was destined to die?” [Joshua] asked. [The man] replied, “At the time of joy, joy; at the time of mourning, mourning.” [Rabbi Joshua] said to him, “So is it with the work of the Holy One, blessed be He; even though it was revealed before Him that they would ultimately sin, and He would destroy them, He did not refrain from creating them, for the sake of the righteous who were destined to arise from them.” [3]

One could say that God was experiencing buyers remorse. Or to put it technically – cognitive dissonance. And this discomfort motivated either God, Rashi, or the Jewish people as a whole, to mitigate that discomfort. To reduce the dissonance, it was posited that, “the decision isn’t so bad; that the good consequences of the choice are so good that they far outweigh its bad aspects.”

But unfortunately, the earth and the Human creatures that inhabited its space didn’t get much better after the flood. Not in my opinion at least. Take Noah for example. A man, whom the Rabbis always castigate for simply being, “righteous only in his generation – Rashi insists, “If [Noah] had lived in the time of Abraham he would have been insignificant.” As if to say, that Noah was considered the runt of the patriarchal litter. God simply settled for Noah because it was the best God could do at the time. Keep in mind that God is going through a tough divorce. ּBut this catastrophic disappointment forces God to seek out Noah – the one saving grace. Except that didn’t work out either. Here’s how it plays out in my head. Again. This is just me…

God calls out to Noah and says, “I am about the destroy all flesh from the earth. Make for yourself an Ark of gopher wood – three hundred cubits the length” Noah, a bit startled and befuddled, says, “Hey…Hey God...What’s a cubit?” God says, “Noah, just make an Ark. Okay? Is that so hard…” Noah, the kvetchy 600–year old says to God, “Okay, okay, okay. I’ll do it.” And God says, “Noah, I am blotting out all of existence.” Says it to Noah three different times. And Noah’s response? Nothing. “God wants to wipe the earth, fine with me,” he mutters to himself: “Meh. It’s a bad neighborhood anyways, this earth. Be done with it if that’s what God wants.”

So Noah builds the ark, taking only his family. Sails for forty days and forty nights. Sends out the dove. Dove comes back because it has no resting place. After seven days, Noah sends out the dove again. Dove comes back that night with an olive branch. Noah waits another seven days, and then, finally, everything is dry. God tells Noah that “Everything living thing that moves on the earth, all the fish of the sea…are in your hand.” [4] Even makes a covenant with Noah, telling him that never again will God do such a thing and gives Noah quite possibly the most beautiful gift of all – A rainbow.

Yes. A rainbow. And for what?! Abraham is asked to sacrifice his one and only son - Even circumcises himself at the ripe age of 99. Jacob runs away from his vengeful brother, leaving his mother and father behind, only to work for a manipulative uncle for 14 years. Moses doesn’t even make it to the promised land! And what does Noah get? A rainbow! A brand new earth. Fresh sheets and all. A brand new start. And this time it’s going to be great – Except it’s not. It doesn’t go great. It doesn’t even go well.

The first thing Noah does when after debarking the “earth–cleansing carnival cruise” is Noah plants a vineyard. Noah gets drunk. And then Noah gets naked in his tent. And that’s when things get weird…

So no. If you ask me, this is not the second chance that God was looking for. Noah was not the ultimate savior of the human race. But how do we reconcile these actions as the same person we are told: “was a righteous man; [Noah] was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.” [5] How is it that a scantily clad man whose first thought was wine was the same man that “walked with God”?! The Keith Richards of biblical figures is a man we are told is “blameless in his age”? If this is the case, I am having some serious cognitive dissonance.

When God regretted that God formed man, God brought the flood. But when all was said and done, nothing had changed, but everything had changed. God removed all that God could from the earth. All that was abhorrent. All that was unclean. And yet, in the end, the earth is re-stained with the behaviors of human action. A continuous cycle, over and over again. Which is what brings us here. Why every year, year after year, we come, like God, feeling sorrow, regret, pain, and frustration, by the work of our very own hands. Disturbed by the forces, energies, and angels of Evil we created. Unable to avoid the accusatory words on the page. And we may, like God, attempt to fling responsibility upon simple human behavior – the freedoms possessed by humankind. We may attempt, like God, to wash away the distasteful sensations of immorality and the psychological consequences thereof. But in all our effort will we never truly achieve perfection. But frankly, I don’t perfection is the point. Because, if God couldn’t do it in two tries, what makes you think you could do it in one lifetime?

In many ways, the words of English author Mary Shelley’s The Modern Prometheus, encapsulate the feelings and actions of God, Noah, and our purpose on Kol Nidre, in better words that I have available. She writes:

“Believe me, Frankenstein, I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone?  Miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow creatures, who owe me nothing? They spurn and hate me. The desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge. I have wandered here many days; the caves of ice, which I only do not fear, are a dwelling to me, and the only one which man does not grudge...Let your compassion be moved, and do not disdain me. Listen to my tale; when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me. The guilty are allowed, by human laws, bloody as they are, to speak in their own defense before they are condemned. Listen to me, Frankenstein. You accuse me of murder, and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man! Yet I ask you not to spare me; listen to me, and then, if you can, and if you will, destroy the work of your hands.”

Once a year, we announce  to our creator, Kol Nidre: We say to God every single year:

“All Vows –
...we regret them and for all of them we repent.
Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone
Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves;
and our oaths – they shall not be oaths”

We announce as the gates are closing, with salty tears in our eyes,  “Please don’t take what I say too seriously, God. I am not built to make promises. I was fashioned to regret my actions. I was formed to feel sorrow and embarrassment for my behavior. Of which, I will repeat. Again, and again, and again.” But Kol Nidre – Listen to my tale God. And when you have heard it, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me...listen to me.”

Yom Kippur isn’t about being right. Instead, on these holiest of days, we are commanded to reveal the truth and face it. Face the stories we want hidden from the light. Face the tales about human nature that make us cringe. See ourselves in the shortcomings of our ancestors. Yom Kippur is a holiday in which we are unable to say, “I don’t have to put up with this. I’ll just walk away.” So instead we stay. We sit with our uncomfortable, growling stomachs. We spell out our alphabet of woes. Who choose not to withdraw. On this night, we choose not to win the argument. We choose not to let our thoughts and beliefs defend their territory. Instead, we choose discomfort. Tonight, we choose the truth.

“When God contemplated creating the human being, God consulted the angels of heaven.
The angels of compassion said, ‘Let him be created, for he will perform acts of loving-kindness.’
And the angels of peace said, ‘Don't create him! He will fill the world with conflict and strife.’
The angels of justice said, ‘Let him be created, for he will pursue the right.’
And the angels of truth said, ‘Don't create him! He will be false and deceitful.’
So what did God do?
God threw truth into the earth and created the human being.” [6]

[1] Gen 6:3
[2] ibid. 6:5–6
[3] Gen. Rabbah 27:4 (Rashi on Genesis 6:6)
[4] Gen. 9:2–3
[5] ibid. 6:9
[6] (Sefer Agadah)

Aaron Sataloff