The Great Helix of History - Kol Nidrei
I would like to ask you to remember something for me. If you are comfortable, I recommend that you close your eyes. Here is what I would like you to remember: this day, Yom Kippur evening, of last year. Where were you? In this room, or halfway around the world? How was life different this time last year? How was it the same? Do you remember what you hoped to change in the coming year? Did you succeed?
Before you open your eyes, I have one more memory to request of you: the earliest Yom Kippur evening that you can remember. Perhaps you came to shul to hear Kol Nidrei, or perhaps you didn’t. Where were you then? What was happening in your life? What were your priorities – what did you consider important?
And one last request, though this one you won’t be able to remember: imagine where you might be this time next Yom Kippur. What are you anticipating might change between now and then? How might you be different?
You can open your eyes. Thank you for bearing with me.
If I asked you to map out those three Yom Kippur evenings – the earliest you can remember, last year, and next year – you would probably draw me a straight line. Here is the deep past, here is the recent past, here we are right now – and there is the uncertain future. That is the model of time that is the most apparent to us. Time, after all, is linear. There is a past, which is over, and a future, which has yet to begin, and we are perched in the ever-moving present, filtering the future into the past to be gone forever.
However, this is not the model of time that was the most apparent to people in the ancient world. Many ancient cultures thought of the existence of time as a wheel. Everything that had happened would happen again, over and over, for all of eternity. This is a model that’s easy to see in nature: day becomes night becomes day, the tree gives a seed which grows into a tree which gives a seed, the seasons turn, and turn, and turn. Though the ancients might not have been acutely aware of this, it’s also a cosmic model: the planets rotate on their axes and around the stars, and the moons around the planets, and the stars around the centres of the galaxies, over and over. To see time as experienced by humans as being cyclical is to connect humanity deeply and profoundly with the universe. A universe that burst into being in a moment with a Big Bang, yes, but also a universe that some physicists theorise has been bursting into being every trillion or so years in an endless cycle.
Anthropologists have traditionally identified these concepts of time as originating in the pre-historic world – in the world before recorded history. Without a record of history, it is difficult to imagine a deep past that is significantly different from the world around us. This paradigm of time is also available within our own textual tradition: ‘That which has been is that which shall be,’ says Kohelet 1:9, ‘and all which has been done is that which shall be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.’
There is, of course, a problem with the wheel of time, which arises most prominently when history is recorded – and that is this: sometimes, there is something new under the sun. Humanity has undergone many revolutions – cognitive, agricultural, political, and so on – that have changed the course of human history. Our access to history’s greatest turning-points has caused us to abandon the paradigm of the wheel and embrace instead the paradigm of the line. Some scholars even suggest that time as linear was a revolution of Israelite thinking – we told our myths not just as cyclical natural occasions, but also as events that occurred in the past and changed the world forever. Our father Avram walked out into the wilderness, following the voice of the Divine, and the world was never again the same. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and then we were liberated from slavery and we marched to the Promised Land. This is not time as cyclical. We may or may not have actually been the first people to break the wheel, but our proposal that events can be unique and can affect the future has hugely influenced the Western World.
Today, the fast day of Yom Kippur, is deeply connected with the line of time. You will die one day. Your mortality is central to today’s themes. Our liturgy insists that you engage with the fact that there is something unpredictable about the future. This is not time as cyclical.
And yet, while we have indeed rejected the wheel, we have not fully embraced the line, either. Our tradition calls us to relive the stories of the ancestors. We come back to them, repeatedly, and when we have completed the stories we start all over again. On Pesaḥ, we are instructed to see ourselves as if we too were liberated from slavery in Egypt; in just a few short days, on Sukkot, we will recreate our ancestors’ experience in the wilderness by going outside and building ourselves temporary booths. We are not simply re-telling stories of a long-gone past – we are recreating them. We are bringing the past into the present. Even the rituals of Shabbat are examples of this – the Holy One created in six days and rested on the seventh, and even when we may have viewed this as an event of history, we have engaged with it cyclically through ceasing from creative labour on the seventh day of every week. And while Yom Kippur might demand that we are more conscious of the fragility of our lives and the unpredictability of the future – we did these same rituals last year, and those of us who survive the year will do it all again.
Kol Nidrei, too, is an exercise in non-linear time. Unlike our other festivals, in which we pull the past into the present - tonight, we pull the future into the present. Kol Nidrei, the annulment of vows, was originally written in the past tense. We would annul the vows that we made in the previous year, out of fear that we had forgotten some, or just failed at our promises. The medieval rabbis disliked this practice, largely because there is no mechanism for annulling vows already made in Jewish law. Instead, they played a game of time by switching the tense. We no longer retroactively annul the vows of our past. We annul the vows of our future. We go into our year knowing that we will, indeed, make vows that we will not keep. Sometimes we will do that because we make hasty promises. Sometimes we will forget our promises altogether. And sometimes, we will just fail. In what I think is a remarkable moment of emotional and spiritual honesty, we go into our Day of Atonement, our day of trying to become our best selves, with an admittance that we are going to fail. And in doing so, we pull our future selves into this moment.
Ours are not the traditions of a people who fully accept that time is linear. Our rejection of the idea of cyclical time made us an oddity in the Ancient World, and our rejection of the idea of linear time makes us an oddity in the Modern World. Our tradition sits somewhere between the wheel and the line. Our model of time is a spiral. It’s a helix. We return to the same moment, over and over again, but we are different this time to the last. The linear model portrays a past that has been and never will be again. The cyclical model depicts endless repetition. And the helix model reveals a past that we return to continuously, sometimes by nature, but mostly through engagement with our tradition. Because we believe in change, we believe that we are never in exactly the same place.
The Jewish People now – on Yom Kippur evening, listening to the beautiful and haunting melody of Kol Nidrei – are in a different place to the Jewish People of one hundred years ago, and of one thousand years ago. We have been changed by experiences, by geography, by technology, and so on. And due to that, we can offer new perspectives and shape the future. But we do that by returning to the past. The past is not over and done with. And the future may be mysterious, but it is not so far from us, either. We use the past and the future to shape the present. Much of Jewish tradition is a call to participate in the great helix of history. Our tradition calls us to engage with our own pasts, with the history of the Jewish people, and the story of the world around us.
Our time of atonement is linked to the New Year, to the anniversary of the birth of the world. And when this birth day comes around, we engage in the spiral of time through teshuvah. Teshuvah is itself an act of returning, of repenting, of becoming more like who we should be – but it is not only about the state of your own mind and soul, it is also about the world itself. Through doing teshuvah, through seeking atonement, through bettering ourselves, we are better able to build the world that should be. And when we do that we are acting as partners with God in the creation of the world. We pull creation into the present.
So here we are again. Another year, another Yom Kippur, another Kol Nidrei. The same and different.
G’mar ḥatimah tovah. May we all be sealed for a good year.