All vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligation, pledges, and promises that we vow or promise to ourselves and to God from this Yom Kippur to the next - may it approach us for good - we hereby retract. May they all be undone, repealed, cancelled, voided, annulled, and regarded as neither valid nor binding. Our vows shall not be considered vows; our renunciations shall not be considered renunciations; and our promises shall not be considered promises. - the Kol Nidrei prayer, translation per Machzor Lev Shalem
The most solemn service of the Jewish year takes place at the start of the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) holiday at sunset... and it begins with the above liturgy: Kol Nidrei.
Kol Nidrei is not so much a prayer as a legal formula, with the congregation standing in for the Beit Din, the panel of judges that, in the Old Days, would render legal decisions on all manner of cases affecting the Jewish community. It is nothing more or less than the annulment of vows.
On the surface, one could see it as a troubling idea. If you can renounce all your promises simply by reciting a legal formula, why, then, your sworn word is worthless. You cannot be trusted. And this, indeed, is an interpretation given free rein over the centuries by various and sundry Jew-haters.
But Kol Nidrei was never intended, nor was it ever used, as a means to escape from one’s obligations to one’s fellow human beings. You could not make a promise or incur a debt and then use Kol Nidrei as a way to escape performance or repayment. Kol Nidrei, rather, is a way for us to walk back a rashly made promise or vow made to ourselves or to God.
How often do we make those sorts of promises? It’s certainly a popular enough pastime around the turn of the secular year... all of those resolutions that we know, deep in our hearts, that we have little or no intention of keeping. “I’m going to go to the gym more often.” “I’m going to lose ten pounds.” “I’m going to go to shul more than three times a year.” “I’m going to give more to United Way this year.” “This year, I’m finally going to get organized.”
In the Scriptures, we are commanded that “...if a man will take a vow to the Lord or will swear an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.” (Numbers 30:3) Promises, in other words, are not something to be taken lightly, and when we break them, we are doing a Bad Thing... even if the only entities affected by our nonperformance are ourselves and God. Especially if... because pledges or vows made to others can be enforced by society, but only we know what we have promised to ourselves or God.
Who among us has not made a rash promise that we wish we could take back? In the heat of the moment we make all kinds of stupid vows, never thinking overmuch about the moral consequences of simply pretending we never made them.
That’s where Kol Nidrei comes in. It is our chance to admit that we got in a little bit over our heads. Bit off more than we could chew. Made promises to ourselves that we could not keep, deals we could not carry out.
It is, after all, part of the Human Condition, this need for the Do-Over.
Tuesday evening, as our Hazzan stands before our congregation surrounded by a solemn assemblage of our community’s leaders - each carrying a Torah scroll in its silver adornments and snow-white mantle - to chant those ancient words, I will be thinking of all those promises, vows, and deals. And I will be comforted in knowing that, when we are in over our heads, the Eternal One always offers us a life-preserver.
גמר חתימה טובה - g’mar chatimah tovah - may the next year be a good one for you - signed, sealed, and delivered.