KOL NIDRE 5778
On Kol Nidre night our focus is on doing teshuva (repentance). Tonight, instead of focusing on obvious sins like stealing, adultery, eating treif orlashon hara (gossip), I want to focus on a major sin that few of us even think of as a sin, but just about all of us need to atone for. I begin with a story about a man named Morty who takes his dog to a vet saying, “My dog has a problem.
The vet replies, “So tell me about it.”
“First you should know,” says Morty, “that he’s a Jewish dog. His name is Irving and he can talk.”
“He can talk?” the vet asks.
“Watch this!” Morty points to the dog and commands: “Irving, Fetch!”
Irving walks toward the door, turns around and demands, “So why are you talking to me like that? You order me around like I’m nothing. And you only call me when you want something. And then you make me sleep on the floor, with my arthritis. You give me this fahkahkta food with so much salt and fat. It tastes like dreck! You should eat it yourself! And do you ever take me for a decent walk? No, it’s out of the house, a short pish, and right back home. Maybe if could stretch out a little, my sciatica wouldn’t kill me so much! I should roll over and play dead for real for all that you care!”
The vet is amazed and asks. “This is remarkable! So what’s the problem?”
Morty says, “Obviously, he has a hearing problem! I said ‘Fetch,’ notkvetch!”
How many of you like to kvetch—you know, complain? Kvetching, for some, is one of the singular pleasures of life—and we Jews are especially good at it. While the Bible has but one word for snow, the Eskimos have 15—obviously because it’s very common in their environment. But no one comes close to us when it comes to kvetching. We Jews have more expressions than any other culture—kvetch, nudge, nudnick, and even phudnick. What’s a Phudnick? Anudnick with a Ph.D. Someone who complains is a grindge, a ferkrimte ponim, or an azus ponim. There are some who define a Jew as one who always sees a cloud behind the silver lining. You know the classic joke about a kosher caterer who walks around the Jewish community dinner he’s serving asking everyone: “Is anything ok?”
There’s an epidemic of kvetching in our world. Athletes kvetch about our country by taking a knee during the national anthem and others complain about those athletes disrespecting the flag. The right complains about the left and the left complains about the right and almost everyone complains about the president. And it’s not just politics. Pay attention to your own conversations. How much of what you say is kvetching, complaining?
The abundance of complaints feeds on itself. It disrupts families, creating friction between parents and children. If people would just hold their tongue and not complain so much, families would be much happier because when people get into the flow of kvetching, the complaints feed on themselves and create unhappiness.
We Jews are quite good at kvetching. Would it startle you to know that according to our Sages, kvetching is a sin—and not just a sin but a great sin?Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Yom Kippur 20:5-6) writes that it’s forbidden to complain too much. What sin does one violate when one complains? My vote would be the sin of choveyl b’atzmo, of causing injury to one’s self, because when you spend your time complaining you become pessimistic, unhappy and make yourself sick.
Rabbi Avraham Pam teaches we should learn this lesson from the 6th day of creation. Gd created the world in 6 days. When the end of the 6th day approached the Torah tells us: Vayar Hashem et kol asher asa, v’hiney tov m’od (Gd saw all that he created and behold—it was not good—it was very good—it was wonderful!).
Gd, it was wonderful? Do you know what happened on that day? If you understand the days of creation as periods of creation—not necessarily 24 hour days—it’ll be easier to understand the Midrash that teaches: “It was on the 6th day that Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit and were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Also on that day Cain killed his brother Abel”—the 1st murder on the 1st day! And yet the Torah tells us: Vayar Hashem et kol asher asa, v’hiney tov m’od, at the end of the day, “Gd saw all that He created and behold, it was wonderful!” What’s so wonderful? Gd, it doesn’t appear to be the script you wrote. Man messed things up. Nevertheless, Gd said, “V’hiney tov m’od (it was wonderful!). I could complain, but you don’t build a world by complaining. If you want to build a world you do it by v’hiney tov m’od, by recognizing the good, by recognizing how wonderful it is.”
We need to make v’hiney tov m’od (Behold, it is wonderful) a common phrase in our vocabulary—part of the way we speak. People come to the same shul for 10 years and they’re happy. Something happens and they have a complaint and they run to the hills to another shul. What about all the good during those 10 years? V’hiney tov m’od, there’s so much good. Why do we choose to focus on the negative? Because today, society tells us we have right to complain. There’s a complaint department everywhere. In my day the complaint department was a circular file—otherwise known as a trash can. But today it’s a right.
I’d like to focus on 2 kinds of complaints: complaints between people and complaints to Gd. There are many passages where the Talmud speaks about financial dealings between people, and it sometimes uses the expression “we can have complaints.” Now what does that mean? Rabbi Israel Salanter (Or Yisroel,Mesivas Or p. 173) teaches that having complaints against another is acheyt gadol (a great sin). He learns this from the rule that if you want to have a complaint against another Jew, it has to be a case of heter taarumot, one of the permissible categories of complaints—a case where one was wronged but not sufficient for a court case. The implication is…it’s forbidden to complain about someone.
The Malbim, on a verse in Proverbs (10:12): “Hatred arouses strife, but love covers all offenses” teaches: That what causes the argument is not the issue itself, it comes from something else. Either the complainer is unhappy about other things or the complainer is jealous of this person. The complainer has something else that makes him feel sad. And so when the opportunity to complain comes up, it comes out in a strongly expressed complaint. Often our complaining is really about ourselves.
The end of the verse is: “but love covers all offenses.” If you would have love for him, then you wouldn’t complain. Pessimism is pathetic because it destroys friendships; it destroys marriages; it destroys people.
Blessings are things we take for granted because we get used to them. We get used to the fact that someone is a friend, or a neighbor, or that someone cares about me. When we have the good fortune for having a blessing for a while, we take it for granted and hardly notice. When a husband or a wife acts with anger, it causes everything else to be forgotten—all the good, all the closeness, all the being there for each other over so many years. We should thank Gd we have a home and children. How could we get so angry—over what?
I once had a neighbor in Brooklyn whom I didn’t know until the last year of her life. She was an elderly woman who lived in a basement apartment. One time she spoke to me and told me she really messed up her life, that she was an angry person who always complained. She had become distant from her husband and children who no longer spoke to her. She asked me to try to get them to re-establish a connection. I called one of her children who said, “It’s too late. There’s too much.”
This woman passed away in her basement apartment. The body was not discovered for 2 weeks! That was the end complaining too much. That was the end of a life that began with the failure of realizing V’hiney tov m’od, that there’s so much good that must not be discarded. I don’t know the whole story, but we live in a society where this happens—more than you may think. I found myself repeating this story to a woman who came to me and I warned her, “If you continue on this path you’ll wind up old and alone, living in a basement. V’hiney tov m’od, appreciate what you have that’s good.”
Rabbi Hutner had an expression for people who walked around with a complaint. He would call them by the Yiddish word trugadiker. Trugadikerliterally means, “one who carries.” It could mean one who carries water or even a pregnant woman. He would call a complainer a trugadiker because he was carrying around his complaints. Rav Hutner would say, “Don’t be atrugakier, give birth already. You have a complaint, put it down.” V’hiney tov m’od, you can’t build with pessimism. You have to build with tov m’od, with appreciating the good.
A couple once asked me if I wanted to hear a funny story. “Of course I do,” I said. I can always use a good story for a sermon. And so here it is:
She said, “One night we were going to sleep and something my husband did that day upset me. I decided I didn’t want to go to sleep angry and so I turned to my husband and told him that something he did that day upset me.”
He said, “I’m sorry, tell me what it was.” I told him and he said, “Let me think for 2 minutes before I respond.”
She said, “Good answer…I waited one minute, 2 minutes, 4 minutes, 6 minutes…he’s snoring! He fell asleep!” The 2 of them were laughing like it was the most hysterical thing in the world.
I told her, “Gd bless you. In other homes this would be a reason for divorce.” Other wives would take a book and through it on his head…and they’re laughing, they’re happy. V’hiney tov m’od, they appreciated how much more good they have in each other than their complaints.
The Sages, based upon the recommendation of the Talmud, suggest that every night before you fall asleep—as part of the bedtime Shema—one should declare: “I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me, or who sinned against me.” Saying this allows you to put it down before you go to sleep and the next morning it’s behind you. Don’t do it for those who may have hurt you. Do it for yourself. Be one who lives a happy life—a life of optimism. Don’t be a trugakiker. Don’t be weighed down with bitterness. It’ll harm you and cause you pain. Put it down. Focus on the good.
What about complaints to Gd. There are plenty of people who are unhappy about their place in this world. They’d rather have more money, a happier family life, be healthier, have a life partner, have children. We know there’s no human being in this world that has everything. There’s no human being in this world that doesn’t have a direction in which he could point to and say, “If only.” And so people complain to Gd.
The Talmud elaborates on a verse from Lamentations (3:39): Ma yitoneyn adam (Why does a person complain?) and the text adds the word chai, “after I (Gd) gave him life and so much, why is he complaining?” I remember going to the bank years ago when people actually regularly went into a bank. There was a long line and everyone was complaining. One man on the line spoke up and said, “Stop complaining everyone. If you didn’t have money you wouldn’t be in the bank. At least we have money. There are people that have no money.” It made an impression upon me. Why are we complaining when we have money?
Our blessings we take for granted and the things we don’t have are the things we focus on. Pessimism is pathetic. Pessimism is also prophetic. We tend to create a truth. A person who is miserable over something and keeps telling Gd that he doesn’t have a good life…will not have a good life. It’s prophetic. It becomes true.
When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, hundreds of thousands of people would come for the holidays. The Talmud teaches it was so crowded in the Temple that it was a miracle that everyone found room to bow. However, another passage in the Talmud seems to contradict this by telling us that no one ever complained that there wasn’t enough room and everyone found a place to stay in Jerusalem. The Chasam Sofer (Yoreh Deyah 222-3) answers, “It was very crowded. The miracle, the blessing was that no one complained. No one said, ‘It’s terrible, there’s no room. It’s horrible, there are long lines; it’s squashed; it’s tight. Why don’t people shower more often.” No one spoke that way.
Chassidim go to their Rebbe and they’re squashed in along with so many people—but they’re delighted. It’s V’hiney tov m’od, it’s wonderful that so many Jews are together. 2 people could look at the same thing. One person sees brightness, happiness—a reason to be overjoyed—and the other sees what to kvetch about.
Sometimes people don’t realize that their complaint is someone else’s dream. People complain about their children—that they don’t listen to them or that they’re having a difficult time at school. I know people…for them just to have a child is a dream.
I once had a gentleman come to me and complain that he had money in the stock market and when the market tanked a few years ago he lost $750,000 in one week. I asked him, “Do you have $750,000 left.” And when he told me “yes” I told him, “I know of people who dream of being able to lose $750,000 in a week.” Your complaint is their dream. What are you complaining about?
My friends, good people take blessings for granted. They forget V’hiney tov m’od, that there’s so much good in their lives. Our job on Yom Kippur is to rid ourselves of the great sin of kvetching and to serve Gd without complaining. So let’s not hear any complaints about tonight’s service. Don’t be a trugadiker. Unload your complaints here tonight and leave them behind. Count your blessings.
Let’s do the work of teshuva tonight—of repentance for this great sin of complaining—and walk out with a resolve to always echo the words of Gd Who said, even when things were not perfect: V’hiney tov m’od, “How wonderful it is.” Amen!