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A Closer Look at the Kol Nidrei – Kol Nidrei

October 12, 2005

Of all the holy days on the Jewish calendar – from Rosh Hashanah through Shavuot – tonight is my favorite. Even more than Passover! How can that be? How can a service devoted to introspection, resolve and especially remorse, be my favorite service of the year? It is because of the Kol Nidrei. I am profoundly moved by it. Of all the Hebrew prayers with which I am familiar, I believe that there is only one that you could eliminate the words, retain the melody and still stand in awe, literally, at its beauty. The Avinu Malkaynu comes close, but even without a melody attached to it, you can read the words and still be inspired: “Avinu Malkaynu, hear our voice…Avinu Malkaynu, have compassion on us and on our children…Avinu Malkaynu, make an end to sickness, war and famine…Avinu Malkaynu, fill our hands with blessing.” But the Kol Nidrei is different. The melody of the Kol Nidrei conveys the awesome beauty of this prayer. The music invokes feelings in me that are among the most sublime I have throughout the year.

It is difficult to put words to this. It is the exquisite memory of sitting with my parents at Kol Nidrei services many years ago: the sure knowledge that I was protected in the cocoon of their love. Kol Nidrei also reminds us about marking points in our lives when we anticipated or experienced significant changes, suffered monumental losses, or discovered something about ourselves that was transforming. Memories suffuse us. The melody of the Kol Nidrei carries us to barely imagined heights. I envelop myself in the melody of the music even more than the words and their meaning.

Yet we are a People with a tradition that has a profound respect for words. We are called ‘The People of the Book.’ Literature is the weaving of words into narratives that portray heroes and heroines, and give substance to our history. Liturgy is the arrangement of words that give us the structure of our worship services. God spoke to Moses out of the fire, and God’s words at Sinai are likened to thunder. The awesome power that was granted to human beings was the power to formulate speech. In Jewish houses of study throughout history, scholars and their disciples pored over ancient texts and sacred tomes, and pondered their meaning. The purpose of our liberation from Egypt was not to bring us to the Promised Land, it was to bring us to a mountain where God would transmit words etched on stone tablets.

Still and all, the words of the Kol Nidrei present an insurmountable challenge for me. The traditional translation refers to “all the moral pledges…and other self-imposed obligations we leave undischarged from this Atonement Day until the next Atonement Day…May they all be forgiven. We regret having made them, still more we regret having neglected them.” The translation in our prayer book reads, “Let all our vows and oaths, all the promises we make and the obligations we incur to You, God, between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them.” Our worrisome words – “may they, being unfulfilled, be forgiven” – are future-oriented: “From this Atonement Day until the next Atonement Day.” And that, for me, is the problem.

The text refers only to vows affecting yourself and vows made between you and God. They do not include vows and promises made to other people because those unfulfilled pledges made to others must be addressed by you and those individuals. The Kol Nidrei does not absolve you of the demand of our faith that you speak to the people that you disappointed or offended. You cannot walk away from the pain or embarrassment you have caused. You are responsible! This is why it is so difficult and so liberating to say to someone, “I know that I did something to hurt you. I did not mean for that to happen.” Or, “I was so angry at the time, but I did not realize how painful my words would be or the breach in our relationship that they would cause.” Or, “Something happened between us that is so unlike the person I know you to be, and I need to talk to you about it.”

The Kol Nidrei is the only service referred to by the name of a prayer, but very little is known of its origin. The suggestion that it was composed by Marranos in Spain as an expression of their overwhelming grief at having committed apostasy and sought absolution from the vows they had been compelled to make, is not accepted by scholars. The first reference to Kol Nidrei is found in the 8th century CE. In the 9th century CE, Rav Amram, the author of our first known prayer book, said that he had heard of it and called it “a foolish custom.” That is an amazing statement! An esteemed Jewish scholar and author of our first prayer book dismissed the Kol Nidrei as “a foolish custom”! Fifty years later, another authority, named Saadia, conceded to popular will by allowing the Kol Nidrei to be recited in certain cases, namely when an entire congregation unwittingly erred by making a vow and then desires, as a group, to have its act nullified. You have to see the humor in this: how many synagogues do you know where everyone agrees on a course of action? Since such a situation probably would never occur, Saadia’s intent may have been to legislate the Kol Nidrei out of existence. He failed.

By the year 1000 CE, general acceptance had been gained for the Kol Nidrei, invoking Divine pardon, forgiveness and atonement for the sin of failing to keep a solemn vow to God or oneself “from the previous Day of Atonement until this Day of Atonement.” But scholars of 12th century France and Germany did not accept this version and reworded the text to be an annulment of vows which may possibly be made “from this Day of Atonement to the next Day of Atonement.” That is the text of the Reform Movement: “From this Day of Atonement to the next Day of Atonement.” But the call to address something unspoken, “From this Day of Atonement to the next Day of Atonement” is impossible for me. I prefer to read the text that dates to the year 1000CE before French and German scholars got their hands on it and radically altered its meaning 200 years later. The earlier text remains the preferred one for me: “From the previous Day of Atonement to this Day of Atonement” because memory provides concrete examples of where I have gone astray and what I need to address; what I did wrong and what I did not do, but know that I should have done. It is not just a matter of learning from our mistakes. That is difficult work in and of itself. It is also a matter of deciding how we might keep some of the promises that we broke. How can we fulfill forsaken pledges “from the previous Day of Atonement to this Day of Atonement”?

On erev Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about my beloved father and how he often wanted to spend time with me but I was too busy to be with him. As my father aged, travel become more difficult for him and the trips that he wanted to take with me became memories not of where we went but of what might have gone. I remember the rash declarations of my youth. In high school I said, “I cannot go with you Dad, I’ve got plans that weekend” and four years later, while in college, I told him, “Dad, I wish I could go but our fraternity has a big event over that weekend.” In graduate school there was always a lot of work, and I felt that I could not absent myself for four or five days no matter how appealing the time and trip with my father sounded. So I again claimed the press of time, and then we ran out of time.

Here is what I learned from my father: some promises made “From previous Day[s] of Atonement to this Day of Atonement” can still be fulfilled, even years later. To truly address the past – unfulfilled pledges, broken vows, forgotten promises – “From previous” – and here I choose to amend the text – “Days of Atonement to this Day of Atonement” is to determine who and what still matters.

When my father and mother fled Vienna in 1938, just before Kristallnacht, they first went to London and a year later they arrived on these shores. Two years earlier, in 1936, his brothers fled Russia and came to Palestine. The three brothers promised each other that after the war, once life returned to whatever ‘normal’ would come to mean in a post-Holocaust world, they would make plans to be together. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s they were busy building careers and raising families. Their pledge was put on hold. Phone calls were made, letters were exchanged, and they stayed in touch as the 1960s arrived, but by then it had been more than 25 years since they had seen each other and the promise they made to themselves every year, “From the previous Day of Atonement to this Day of Atonement” was still in force but had never been realized. And then one of my Dad’s brothers in Israel died. It hit my father hard, and I am sure that his grief was over the loss of a brother as well as the fact that in all those years they had never seen each other.

When the 1970s arrived, the pledge was still in effect. Finally, in 1971 – thirty-five years after they were last together – my Dad and his surviving brother saw each other again. I cannot fathom the reasons that kept them apart for so long. I know that money was tight for both families, and that as the years passed responsibilities increased, but I will never understand why, during all those years, they did not once cross the ocean to be together.

I lived in Israel in 1971 and 1972, so that was an incentive for my father and mother to come there, and finally the day dawned when my Dad and his brother would see each other. We traveled from my apartment in Jerusalem to Bnai Braq, an Orthodox enclave of Tel Aviv, where my uncle and aunt lived. When we arrived at their apartment building, my father, then 65 years of age, did not wait for the elevator but led us with great alacrity up four flights of stairs to his brother’s apartment.

I stayed ten feet behind my Dad, wanting to give him and his brother some private space. I had no idea what to expect, though the thought that one or both of them might collapse from the intensity of the sudden sight of a long-lost sibling crossed my mind. My Dad knocked on the door and it opened instantly. The next few moments are frozen in time for me, as if seen to this moment in slow motion. I see my uncle’s face as he reaches out to my Dad. I imagine that his face mirrors my father’s emotions. There are tears in his eyes. He repeats my father’s name time and time again, as if not quite believing the moment has finally arrived. My Dad softly murmurs his brother’s name. Their embrace seems to last forever, but soon we are in the apartment and the brothers seem oblivious to everything but each other. They touch, laugh, share silence, then talk over each other, and shake their heads at the wonder of it all. Their knees touch. Their hands clasp. They cuff each other playfully on their shoulders. They are men who, finally together, are rediscovering their youth. Their laughter comes in waves, and I think it is less about what is being said than the wonder of hearing it together. It is as if they can no longer bear to be disconnected.

The next day is Shabbat. The streets of Bnai Braq are empty of cars. My father and his brother walk slowly, arm in arm, to the shul where we will pray. I wonder how often they walked like that in years long past. Were they so close then? After a leisurely stroll along the streets of Bnai Braq, we enter the shul. My uncle takes Dad by the arm and leads him to the memorial wall. They stand in front of a section of the wall that is filled with polished bronze memorial plaques. My uncle slowly lifts his right hand until his fingers rest lightly on the plaque that bears the names of grandparents I never knew: my father’s parents. My Dad reaches up to do the same. His fingers gently caress the Hebrew letters of their names. The brothers embrace each other. Tears stream down their faces, and they keep saying to each other, “We kept the promise. We kept the promise.” The words run into each other in Hebrew, German, English and Yiddish. It is as if the countries they lived in and fled from, the cultures they treasured, and the lands to which they came, all vie for space in their vocabulary as they bow their heads and honor their parents by softly saying the kaddish. It is the rush of history that I hear, and part of me thinks that they are somehow glimpsing visions of a world that no longer exists, and holding onto each other for the reassurance that they have survived and are together.

The pledge that they had made 35 years earlier and that they recognized as an unfulfilled vow – “From previous Day[s] of Atonement to this Day of Atonement” – was finally realized. Decades later, they fulfilled what they considered to be their responsibility. The fact that the pledge had not been fulfilled in all that time did not prevent it from finally being realized.

Contrast that to the words, “May all the pledges and obligations we leave unfulfilled from this Day of Atonement to the next Day of Atonement be forgiven.” We ask that future pledges made to God and to ourselves for the forthcoming year be made invalid if we find ourselves unable to fulfill them! Are we too cavalier when we ask to be absolved in this manner? Does speaking only about the future and not about specific deeds of the past allow the Kol Nidrei to become an easy escape from responsibility? How can we ever hope to gauge our level of remorse if our focal point during the Kol Nidrei is for unarticulated vows? Since the Kol Nidrei does not refer to the past in the translations we use, we frame our regret for unspecified broken promises that might be made in the future! On this holiest day of the year on the Jewish calendar, it seems to be an exercise in futility and I agree with Rav Amram that it is, in his words, “a foolish custom.” The way to rectify it is to return to the words of the 10th century: “May all the pledges and obligations we left unfulfilled from the previous Day of Atonement to this Day of Atonement be forgiven.” Those pledges and obligations we can measure. Those pledges and obligations we can still rectify. Yom Kippur is a time to resolve issues that have been left unattended for a year or even more.

To quote author Martha Beck, author of a wonderful book entitled “The meaning of life is not what happens to people. The meaning of life is what happens between people.”

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin