If there is one prayer that resonates in the heart of every Jew it is Kol Nidrei. The very tune is haunting yet enchanting, saddening yet uplifting. Yet, when one looks at the words – they seem to be anything but inspirational. Kol Nidrei is a form of Hataras Nedorim, revocation of vows. We begin the holiest day of the year by releasing ourselves from the vows of the past and proactively annulling the vows of the future. On a legal level this is very important as violating one’s vow is considered a severe transgression. We do whatever we can to repent and absolve ourselves of sin as we enter this sacred day. And still, we find ourselves confounded by a basic question: of all the beautiful prayers we have in our liturgy, why begin the holiest day of the year with revocation of vows? There are many prayers with moving words, prayers that capture the true essence of Yom Kippur; prayers that speak to the theme of purity and repentance. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to use some of these prayers as the liturgical introduction to this holy day? Why do we begin with Kol Nidrei? What is the message?
Perhaps, to answer this question we must strive to understand the purpose and power of a neder (vow). The paradigmatic neder is the Nazirite vow. A person takes a vow to abstain from wine and cutting his hair. The Nazir is forgoing certain physical pleasures and choosing to place less emphasis on his “self.” Why would a person do such a thing? The Rabbis explain – because deep down he knows he can be something more, deep down he knows he possesses greatness within but needs the proper framework to extract it. He needs to shift the focus from pleasure seeking to purpose seeking. Sometimes in life we need a push; we need some level of tension to actualize our potential. This is the neder – the binding promise which creates the framework to allow the individual to access his internal reservoir of potential.
To take this one step further, perhaps, the neder can be viewed as a personal aspiration or dream. I know where I am now, and I know where I need to be; the neder is the vehicle to help me bridge the gap. The neder creates a legal reality in which I must actively work to actualize my dream/aspiration. But there is a danger in dreaming – many dreams fail to materialize, many dreams come crashing down, many dreams end in disappointment. When one experiences too many failed dreams, one loses his resolve and courage to dream any more. It is too hard to leave oneself open to hurt and feelings of failure; better to live without dreams than to dream and fail.
This coming Tuesday night when we enter the hallowed sanctity of Yom Kippur, we reflect on last year and realize that many of the things we wanted to do, we didn’t. Many of the dreams we had remain unrealized or worse, ended in failure. And so, the first thing we do on this sacred day is revocation of vows, Hataras Nedorim – we let go of our failed dreams. We let go of the unrealized dreams of last year. We let go because we will not allow ourselves to be burdened by the yolk of failed dreams. Carrying around these failures can be stifling. We let go in order to dream anew.
This is our mandate over Yom Kippur – dream a new dream! Ask yourself, who do I want to be? What do I want my life to look like? What do I need to accomplish? We unburden ourselves in order to fill our hearts and souls with new, magnificent and holy dreams for the coming year. There is no better, more appropriate way to start this special day than with the recitation of Kol Nidrei.
I hope and pray that we will each find the courage to dream a new dream. Let us hope that God sees the beauty in our dreams and gives us the strength to make them come true.
G’mar Chasima Tova and Good Shabbos
We experience a flurry of emotions. On one hand, there is incredible excitement for the new year and new beginnings. Yet, we simultaneously experience feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, not knowing what the coming year will bring. We feel confident in our ability to accomplish incredible things; yet, we feel pain over the failures and missed opportunities of the past. How should we enter into this great and awesome day of Yom Kippur? What thoughts should occupy our racing minds and illuminated souls?
I would like to share with you a truly moving idea culled from the annals of halachik literature. There is an interesting sefer, titled “Chukos HaGer” which discusses many intricate and fascinating ideas and questions related to the complicated topic of conversion (I want to thank Rabbi JJ Schacter for sharing this responsa with me). Rabbi Moshe HaLevi Shteinberg (1909-1993) one of the premier experts on conversion dealt with the following situation (original responsa is attached below). A man walked into the Beis Din (religious court) and expressed his desire to convert. Upon inquiring about his background, this young man revealed that he was German and had been a Nazi soldier during the war and was involved in the round up and execution of Jews. The young man felt terrible remorse for his crimes, had repented for his sins and now wanted to convert and become a Jew. Rav Shteinberg was asked this most profound question, “Can we accept this man as part of our people after all he has done?”
Rav Shteinberg begins by looking at the question from multiple angles:
From a personal and national perspective, the answer must be a resounding “no.” A person with so much Jewish blood on his hands has no place in the camp of Israel. He must be kept far away. How can we ever call him our brother after what he has done?
But Rav Shteinberg continues:
“However, from a strict legal perspective (halacha yiveysha), I can’t see any reason to block his conversion (he then quotes a number of examples of wicked people who repented and either converted or had descendants who converted)… The gates of Teshuva are never closed and God never turns away the sincere penitent… Whoever, wants to enter these gates is given license to do so… Therefore, if the religious court feels that he is truly penitent and his motivations are pure… there is no reason to prevent him from joining the collective embrace of the Jewish people.”
We learn about the power of Teshuva, we believe in the power of Teshuva, but we never truly comprehend the overwhelmingly cathartic nature of this great gift. Even the Nazi can return. This is of course the extreme, but we must understand the message. If the most barbaric, cruel and evil individual can access the power of Teshuva, there is no telling what we can accomplish.
We often think change is impossible. We assume that “who we are” is exactly “who we will be.” But that need not be the case. If there are things within us which are broken, we can fix them. If there are parts of my life in a state of disrepair, there is an opportunity to address the deficiencies. If there are character traits which are holding me back, I hold the keys to a personalistic overhaul. Over the course of the year we do things to alienate ourselves from God and from our true selves. The gates of Teshuva, the gates of change, the gates of return to God and to ourselves are always open.
This is the power of Yom Kippur. Over the course of this sacred day we will pray for many things. We will pray for health, children, livelihood and life itself. We will pray for our personal and collective needs. But let us not forget the true purpose of this day: to return. The gates are open, and they will remain open no matter what we have or have not done. May we find the courage to enter and the strength to return.
I take this opportunity to wish you and your family a Gmar Chasima Tova and ah gutten Shabbos.
A beautiful new understanding of שמה תטרוף דעתו בתוך הסעודה.
The shiur is dedicated by Eli and Rikki Klein in memory of Eli’s father, Yechiel Michel Yehuda ben Aryeh, z’l.
Shiur given לז״נ יחיאל מיכל יהודה בן אריה by Rabbi Silber at Mercaz Torah U’tefillah in preparation for Yom Kippur