Kol Nidrei Sermon

Delivered by Rabbi Ben Weiner, October 8 2019

For my friend Jane, Hannah bat Shlomo, of blessed memory.

A few months later, I found, in the cup holder of my car, one of the cheap
blue surgical masks I put on when I came to visit her in the final weeks. I
spent a lot of that time talking to her with my mouth and nose covered.
Between the onset of fall and a six-year old at home, my nose was always
running, and even with what we knew was coming, we were concerned about germs. We usually sat in the living room, on the sofas, among the
knick-knacks and the piles of reading material, the sediment of her
creative life, though sometimes it was the little backroom, where,
eventually, the hospital bed came in. That was where I saw her living for
the last time, barely responsive. I chanted the vidui and the shema for her
and heard her whisper: thank you. She was in pain and she was ready to go.
When I came back on Shabbes afternoon, she had already been gone several hours, but Ken had spared me the news because I had my work to do. She was still there, but I wasn’t ready to see her. I went home for a while. It was the day of the Tree of Life shooting, and, despite it being Shabbes, I spent the afternoon making phone calls and drafting a statement. I came back after havdallah, back to that little room, and sat beside her, alone. I cried for a while, and thought about how strange it is to see a body that isn’t breathing, so much so that you find yourself almost breathing for it, or holding your own breath, or imagining you see the diaphragm rising and falling, because how can it not be? And I was there till the guys from
Wrisley’s came, and then I went over there, too, to the funeral home, the
first shomer, and sat in the room with the sink and the drain and a
flickering candle, and her clay feet sticking out a little from underneath
the modest sheet that was covering her.

That backroom of hers was a cozy nook, with a bookshelf and a daybed, and
light coming through the side window. It was where she stored her most
accomplished pieces, like the “Women of the Balcony” and that Sukkot
installation with all the little pigeonholes. It was where we had that long
sprawling conversation, too, taking its hairpin turns between mirth and
mortality. She had called me over for a short consultation. She wanted to
talk about how we would bury her, what I should and shouldn’t say, whether or not Wrisleys would be able to handle the tahara because they didn’t get much business from Jews. We talked about her corpse in the abstract, an object demanding logistical consideration. Then, somehow, things took off, and we were discussing her latest intellectual preoccupation, which was Winnicot and his theory of the “good enough mother”, and she was trying to explain something else he had said, something about arithmetic and calculus and how gifted children are traumatized when too much attention is laid on their gift, and not enough on their humanity. I meant to be there only for a little while and then go home, but the sun kept falling, and then it went away. Ken left on some errands, so I said goodbye, thinking I would be gone when he came back, but I was still there. We laughed a lot. I don’t remember what about. We often ended up laughing. She was one of the few people in my life of the cloth that I could be a little bit wicked with and sometimes we would egg each other on. But sometimes you could be a little too sharp. And sometimes I would say the wrong thing, like the day you and Ken drove me home from shul and told me the news, and I didn’t know what to say, so I said “bummer.” You got mad about that, though later, after all that time, all that time that you lived and lived and then realized that wasn’t going to work anymore, I heard you say it, too.

It wasn’t so far from Yom Kippur, that day. I told you I didn’t know what I was going to say, and you nagged me, once again, about the slippers. I should just talk about the slippers, Abu Kassem’s slippers. That was your thing for a while, after you read the story in the book by Zimmer, translated from the German. You even gave me the few relevant pages, photocopied and stapled together. I need to confess to you now, in front of all these people, that I didn’t read them till after you were dead. I’m sorry. There was always something.

But eventually I did, along with Zimmer’s introduction, which you included in the packet, in which he explained that it was a story about karma.  Really, in his telling it had all the trappings of Orientalist fantasy. I almost wondered if he’d made it up, till I found it in other versions, and concluded it was a legitimate folktale. It took place in a Baghdad of the imagination, not the one we think of now—bombed out and getting too hot to live—but a city of Arabian nights, redolent with saffron and the crying of exotic birds. Abu Kassem, the father of Kassem, was a wealthy merchant and a notorious miser. The epitome of his stinginess was worn on his feet, in the form of a dilapidated and patchworked pair of slippers, which he refused to part with, despite his obscene wealth. The incongruity was so absurd that, in the marketplace, it became something to conjure by. Anything ridiculous was said to be “like the slippers of Abu Kassem.” I can hear that phrase in your voice, which was precise and musical.

One day, at a tremendous bargain, he came into possession of an array of
crystal bottles and a quantity of attar of roses. Am I pronouncing that right? To celebrate, he took himself to the public baths, where, in the changing room, a friend berated him over the condition of his slippers. While Abu Kassem was immersing, the Qadi of Baghdad—an exalted judge—also entered the bathhouse, leaving his own beautiful and well-appointed footwear in the changing area. Departing first, Abu Kassem allowed himself to believe that his friend had surreptitiously replaced his slippers with this elegant pair. As it was of no expense to him, he accepted the gift. But when the Qadi found his slippers gone, and the pair that everyone knew to belong to Abu Kassem in their place, he had the miser arrested, and was further affronted to find his bejewelled shoes brazenly adorning Abu Kassem’s feet. Abu Kassem had to pay a hefty ransom for his release, and was sent away with his tattered slippers restored to their time-worn place. But he was still so angry when he got home that he cursed them and threw them into the muddy Tigris River. A few days later, they were found by some fisherman, who, irate at the false catch, and recognizing them for whose they were, threw the dirty slippers back through Abu Kassem’s window, thereby shattering the crystal bottles, and laying waste to their content of attar of roses. Next he decided to bury them in his backyard, but a nosy neighbor saw him and, assuming the miser was hiding some secret treasure from the authorities, informed the caliph, who had Abu Kassem arrested. Nobody believed the miser’s version of the story, so Abu Kassem had to part with even more of his fortune to secure his release. And so it goes. When Abu Kassem dumps the slippers in a reservoir outside the city, they clog the drain. When, intending to burn them, he leaves them to dry on the balcony, a dog pushes them over the edge, on to the head of a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry. Each attempt to alienate himself from his totemic shoes results in a misadventure, a fine, and their return, till, finally, he cries out before the court: “These cursed slippers have reduced me to beggary! May I never be held responsible for them again!” Caught between laughter and pity, the judge accepts Abu Kassem’s plea, and releases him in perpetuity from any damage the shoes may cause. “Abu Kassem” Zimmer concludes with a wink, “had learned, at enormous cost, the evil that can come of not changing one’s slippers often enough.”

I bet you enjoyed the giddiness of that last line. You liked to tell stories like this, especially to children, always as if you were attempting to impart some deeper life wisdom through the levity and false simplicity of a fairy tale. You made that coat for yourself, too, plain, off-white, but painted with images from your favorite kids’ books, like Babar and the Little Prince. You adorned your clothing. You had that famous aunt, the designer, you told me, who had said: when you feel blue, wear red. Were you ever one of those people who made fun of my meager wardrobe? Like my sister, who, when I accidentally left a pair of pants at her house after a visit said to her husband: oh my god, he’s walking around naked! I’ve worn the same belt for ten years, almost a quarter of my life. You must have noticed that I have only this one rabbi suit, which I’m wearing tonight under my wrinkled kittel, and which I also got married in. Is that what this is about? Were you sending a message to Abu Efraim about his “frugality”? You would have said that to me outright, and you probably did. No, I think maybe you agreed with what Zimmer said about karma, and thought of this as a perfect Kol Nidrei story. We become entangled in our habits, like Abu Kassem and his slippers, till they acquire their own inertia, and get us into all kinds of trouble. What a relief to abject ourselves before the judge and declare: all of my vows are null and void. I am released from all that binds me! We do our tshuva, rebalance our karma, and move into the new life that awaits us free and clean, or at least with a new pair of shoes.

I looked Zimmer up on Wikipedia, though, and found out he was the missing link between Jung and Joseph Campbell, those audacious gentiles with their archetypes and heroic journeys, and it got me thinking: what if the story isn’t about karma at all, but the unconscious? What would our interpreter of dreams say about it? You know who I mean, though I don’t know if he was really your style. I never heard you talk about him. But what if the whole thing was a somnolent fantasy and it wasn’t the cosmos bringing Abu Kassem back his slippers, but the manifestation of his own longing? What if they kept coming back to him because he never really wanted to let them go? All the shame and humiliation, even the loss of his fortune, on some deep level, was intentional, a subconscious ruse meant to express just how ashamed he was of the fact that he still needed them so much—a self-punishment, a public ritual of self-mortification, whittling him down to the absurdity of his destitute longing, and then leaving him no choice but to renounce it. All this for a pair of old slippers? Ah, but sometimes slippers are more than just slippers. But maybe that is a little far-fetched. Let me try it another way. What if he held on to the old slippers for so long because he was afraid of the new ones, not their price but how they would make him feel, knowing their radiance and beauty would only be his for a short time, a little shard of delight, unbearably brief, and would soon wear down to cold clay. He already knew that the loss of something beautiful never really leaves you. It shows up everywhere you turn: coming through the window to shatter your crystal jars and spill their perfume. Clogging the flow of fresh water from your reservoir. We catch it at the end of the line where our fish should be. It falls from the mouth of a dog, bringing to an end the stirring of new life. How hard it is to love something wonderful and then to have to let it go. Maybe “miser” is just the slanderous name for a man who’s afraid of having his heart broken.

One night, she called me over unexpectedly. I was at home, eating dinner with my family, and said I would get there as soon as I could. We sat in the living room, that time. I think it was the only time I was ever frightened to be with her, harder even than the afternoon I found her skin beginning to yellow. She was distraught that night, crying, she said, because it wasn’t going as she had anticipated. Dying wasn’t proving the process she planned it to be. It was discomforting to be evicted day-by-day from your own body, and unpredictable–keeping its own time. It was beyond her control. She was afraid. As I listened, behind my surgical protection, I felt myself fighting back a panic attack, a sensation like drowning. The ocean rises up around you. You have it in your ears, swallow gulps of water, and grasp at nothing. All along, I had found it reassuring to hear her say she wasn’t afraid, and now she was. There is something to the act of letting go beyond the ability of any of us to choose or foresee, though, in the end, she got to die peacefully in that backroom, among her works of art. But still, it isn’t like changing a pair of shoes, and neither is grieving. There is no magic proclamation you can recite before the judge to release you, once and for all, from your bondage. You will still find, in the most unusual places, the mask you wore as you watched someone you love pass away from you. You might even try the old thing on again, from time to time, to continue the conversation. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? You know what I’m going to say. Like the slippers of Abu Kassem.