I don’t go to shule because it does nothing for me. What advice, if any, can you give me?

September 29, 2022 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple

The words of Kol Nidrei are rather technical, even banal. It’s the melody that counts. A melody that tells a story. The story is that of our endless pain in the pogroms, our hurting soul in countless calamities wherever suffering was imposed by apostles of evil.

But these are not the main thoughts of the Kol Nidrei moment. The main thoughts are of our yearning to be free of the shackles of sin. Kol Nidrei draws us along as we sigh, as we weep, as we wail and whimper.

Every cantor works on his Kol Nidrei because he knows that it must speak to and of the Jewish heart – including his own.

Kol Nidrei is based on the Biblical command that a person must honour his word. Better not to promise than to promise and not fulfil.

Kol Nidrei knows that human beings are not perfect. Yet it is fundamentally optimistic about man’s ability to transform himself.

Milton Steinberg wrote that though our tradition finds Man “capable of abysmal evil, it insists that he is equally capable of dazzling good. It holds that he is born not pre-damned but with a clean slate; that he has the power to keep himself righteous, or, having sinned, to recapture his righteousness; that his salvation is up to him.”


Dear Rabbi: My wife and I get on well (we’ve been married for 25 years) but have never been able to agree about going to shule on Yom Kippur. She will never stay away unless there is an emergency. I don’t go to shule because it does nothing for me. What advice, if any, can you give me? I like you very much and would value your counsel. Best wishes… Steven.

Dear Steven: Even though you don’t think shule services can do anything for you, I think your wife has discovered something valuable and you should share it with her. Not just because the shule needs support, not just because you might enjoy the musical side of the service, not just because you might find something worthwhile in my sermons, not just because it would make your wife happy… but because you are likely to derive some benefit from going.

Golda Meir said in Moscow soon after the establishment of Israel, “I am not so religious, but on Yom Kippur when the Jews go to synagogue, my place is with the Jews”. Anyone can meditate at the water’s edge or under a tree but there are times to be “with the Jews”.

Nobody has to daven when they go to shule: anyone can take a book and read and think. Nobody has to be a believer when they are in shule. Belief cannot be foisted upon anyone. Everyone has times or lifetimes of doubt: some work their way through but not all. Maybe you can give God the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you can find God: maybe you will let Him find you. Best wishes… Rabbi.


Fasting is the best known of the five Yom Kippur deprivations. Why we don’t eat or drink for 25 hours is that many sins happen because we give in to bodily desires; we do penance by bodily denial.

There are at least three other reasons:
– On this day, we reach a high spiritual level and almost become like angels. Angels can manage without food and drink. So can we.
– On Yom Kippur, we should be too preoccupied to eat.
– By being hungry, we feel for other people who go hungry every day.


Jewish leaders tend to seize on slogans – sometimes negative ones like antisemitism and assimilation – that pinpoint problems, sometimes positive ones like survival and revival that call for commitment and constructive effort.

One of the most common phrases in the second category, especially in the United States, is “Tikkun Olam”, “mending the world”.

Emil Fackenheim used it as a title for one of his books. Jonathan Sacks did the same thing, calling the book “To Heal a Fractured World”. Both books imply that there are great gaps and massive defects in contemporary society, and “Tikkun Olam” is the Jewish buzzword for what to do about them.

It’s an exciting, colourful phrase but though it regularly hits the headlines it is neither old nor new. In the Mishnah (Gittin Chapter 4) it indicated a set of legal enactments designed to make the world function well. Maimonides broadened the notion into a combination of Torah study and observance that enhanced the quality of society (Avot 1:2).

In the sense in which Fackenheim and Sacks and many others use the phrase it is not novel but is an interpretation of a key phrase in “Alenu”, “l’takken olam b’malchut Shaddai”, the obligation to build the world into God’s Kingdom. In the Alenu sense it does not speak of repairing defects but of establishing order.

The idea of mending derives from Jewish mysticism, which argued that soon after Creation, “the vessels were shattered” and fragments went everywhere. Man’s historical task was to rediscover, recapture and reconnect the broken shards. The way of achieving this is social action which works on those parts of the world which are broken.

This gives us two ways of understanding “Tikkun Olam”. I believe there is a third, suggested by the Chassidic story of a cobbler who was still at work at night when his candle was almost out, and he said, “There is still time for more mending”.

What the story tells us is that “Olam” is not just the world around us but the personal world of the individual. Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity of transforming “Tikkun Olam” into the personal task of attending to the defects in ourselves, and whilst the day lasts there is still time for mending.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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