KOL NIDREI SERMON
September 18, 2018
RABBI AMY B. BIGMAN
I want to tell you a story: a true story. A story about the power of words, the power of our Yom Kippur liturgy, the power of the prayers — even if you don’t understand the Hebrew or the Aramaic, even if you aren’t sure what or if to believe — the power of this moment of “Kol Nidrei.“
The Forest Cantor
Zalman Bronstein was drafted into the Russian army in 1942. As he noted in an interview much later in life, “Obviously, being in the Russian army wasn’t easy. Of those sent to the front, more than 50% did not return alive — and that’s where I was sent.”
“During hostilities I was in a bunker…very close to the German enemy. The bunker was like a small room in the ground, fortified and protected, from which extended long trenches that we walked in.”
One day Zalman was able to take a brief nap in the bunker before returning to his battle post. Suddenly, a Russian officer entered the bunker, humming an upbeat marching tune. Zalman opened his eyes, annoyed. The officer’s off-tune singing aggravated him… “Comrade Officer! Excuse me, but I have to tell you that in the original version, that song is sung differently.” The officer turned towards him with a look of surprise on his face. “You know this song? If so, you must sing it for me. I can’t get along without it.”
Zalman tried to refuse, insisting that in his present downtrodden state of mind, he couldn’t possibly sing a cheerful song, but the officer wouldn’t relent. With a shrug, Zalman began to sing. After a few bars, the officer’s face lit up with pleasure. When he finished singing, the officer’s expression became fierce. He began to rail against the Russian Army leadership. “How can it be that they sent such a gifted singer like you to the front? This is an unforgivable outrage. I shall raise this issue with headquarters as soon as possible, even today.”
A few days later, an announcement blared over the bunker’s loudspeaker system. “Paging the singer Bronstein. Report to headquarters immediately.” Zalman hurried to present himself before the commanding officer of the bunker. The latter told him, “I just received an order to transfer you to officers’ headquarters. Get your things right now and crawl out there. But be careful! One wrong move on the way could mean your doom.”
Zalman began his crawl along the muddy earth, his belongings on his back and his heart full of suspicion. What could possibly be the reason behind this incomprehensible transfer? Only when he reached his destination and was told to report to a high officer in the Culture Division who was in charge of the Army choir, did he realize the connection between what was happening and the words of that officer before whom he had sung the battle song.
The choir leader told him that he must now sing before a group of very high-ranking officers. Zalman well realized that his future depended on the success of his performance. He started by singing the same military marching tune, but this time with a lot more feeling.
The officers to a man reacted boisterously with excitement and appreciation. Each one wanted Zalman to be assigned to his own unit so that he could give a concert to the brigade under his command. So Zalman became the lead soloist in the Army choir and they traveled from base to base giving performances. Everywhere they went, the Russian officers in charge were very friendly to Zalman.
His performances and popularity became a particular source of pride for all the Jewish soldiers. At one of the concerts, a Jewish officer passed him a note requesting that he sing something in Yiddish. He complied, choosing a song that he felt would be sure to arouse in the Jewish soldiers memories of their religious roots.
The date for the next concert, the most important one on the itinerary, was already set. They were to perform before an audience of hundreds of commissioned military doctors. However, the date coincided with Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy occasions. Zalman was firm in his mind that no matter what the consequences, he could not and would not perform on the holy day.
On Yom Kippur morning, he informed the musical director that he had terrible pains in his head and throat and that it would be impossible for him to sing on stage. The director pressured him to change his mind, but Zalman was adamant; he could not possibly sing this day. The director had no choice but to accept that the choir would have to perform without its star soloist.
Zalman retired to his room, where he devoted himself to the Yom Kippur morning prayers, those which he was able to remember by heart. Afterwards he began reciting Psalms, while in the background he could hear strains of singing and musical instruments from the military concert that was proceeding without him.
Several sharp knocks on his door broke his concentration. Three officers, whose epaulets indicated very high rank, quickly entered the room. “Are you Zalman Bronstein?,” one of them queried. He nodded, whereupon one of the other officers demanded, “Do you know what day is today?” “Yes. It is Yom Kippur.” His guests’ faces softened visibly. “We too are Jews,” they said. “Please, could you sing for us a few sections of the holy day’s prayers?”
Zalman felt great relief upon hearing of their Jewish identity, and at the same time felt compassion for them. Nevertheless, he demurred, “How can I sing for you? In order to escape having to go on stage, I arranged to be officially registered on the sick list.”
The three officers did not give up. They presented a possible solution. “In back of the camp is a thick forest. Let’s go deep inside it; then we can hear you pray and sing without anyone around to bother us.”
They entered the forest. Under a tree with a thick trunk and large, draping branches, Zalman stood facing the three Jewish officers. He closed his eyes and began to intone softly “Kol Nidrei,” the opening prayer of Yom Kippur evening with its traditional, haunting melody. He repeated it a second and third time, following custom, each time successively louder.
Zalman continued with other music from the High Holy Days liturgy. As he finished, the three officers were bent over, eyes bulging, and sobbing like little children. In the midst of lethal war, their futures concealed in the smoke of daily battle, three Jewish souls became revealed in a forest, flaming brightly with Yom Kippur holiness.
“Who knows?” Zalman couldn’t help thinking to himself. “This could be the reason that God directed the steps of that non-Jewish officer to me that morning in the bunker.”
Found in The American Rabbi’s “Pearlson’s Pearls 5779.”
Source: Translated-adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the Hebrew weekly Sichat Shavua, #1081, with a few supplementary words of biography from the son of R. Zalman. Found in Tilles’ book Festivals of the Full Moon (Koren Publishing). Supplemented by Zalman Bronstein interview in “Beis Moshiach” magazine, April 15, 2016.