Kol Nidre Talk

It’s taken me a while to get my legs back after the High Holidays. Here’s my talk from Kol Nidre. I’ll post the next morning’s d’var Torah in a couple of days…

There are two things that, for me, create the special mood of the Yom Kippur evening service. The first is that, by the time we arrive at this moment, we have already begun to obey the Torah’s command t’anu et nafshotechem—afflict yourselves, deny yourselves—on this day. But although our fast is underway, at this point we do not yet really feel any sharp pangs. Our hunger, and its conseqeuences have entered our awareness, but its reality has yet to take hold of our bodies. This is a unique moment in the progress of a fast, maybe especially suited for contemplating why we engage in one in the first place.

The other thing, however, has already occurred. It took its place, in fact, as the first and most memorable part of our gathering tonight. This was the poignant and ambiguous moment when the hazzan chanted, in a melody that manages to break the heart and exult it at the same time, an Aramaic paragraph possessing all the charm of a tax code:

Kol Nidre: All vows, prohibitions, oaths, consecrations, konam-vows, konas-vows, or equivalent terms that we may vow, swear, consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves…regarding them all, we regret them henceforth. They all will be permitted, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing. Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; and our oaths shall not be valid oaths.

This is a strange way to begin the most solemn day of our calendar: not with a cry from the heart or one of the spiritually uplifiting piyutim, liturgical poems, that can be found throughout our mahzors, but with a dry, legalistic formula proclaiming, in no uncertain terms, that we are released from any and all bonds we have forged, or have yet to forge—depending on the version of the text, which cannot even rightly be called a prayer, that we happen to recite. There is a time-honored tradition of hatarat nedarim, the annulling of vows, on the afternoon preceeding Yom Kippur, which is probably what put this text into circulation in the first place. But that doesn’t explain why it has become the focal point of such an intense ritual moment. Maybe it’s the melody? It certainly is beautiful, but how did these words come to be set to it? What gives them the magnetism to draw such evocative music to themselves?

So this preliminary stage of our holiday gives us two mysteries to chew on: why are we fasting? And what makes Kol Nidre so intense? Let’s start with the second and work our way back to the first.

Not everyone has agreed that Yom Kippur should begin with Kol Nidre. Amram Gaon, the 9th century Babylonian sage who compiled the oldest siddur still in existence, called the practice of this recitation a minhag shtut—a foolish custom—and a number of Sefardic rites, following his lead, leave the text out entirely. Kol Nidre has always been very big in Ashkenaz, but the chidren of the great commentator Rashi, who played such an important role in the formulation of Ashkenazic tradition, still felt the need to tinker with its language. Closer to our own time, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the father of Reconstructionism, removed Kol Nidre from his first mahzor, though he was later compelled by popular outcry to put it back, emotional attachment trumping the arguments for discarding it.

The concern has always been with the implications of declaring release from the fulfillment of promises, something that has provided a lot of ammunition to Jew haters throughout the ages. If you ever get to feeling too comfortable with your place in the world, I recommend googling the words “Kol Nidre, translation”, and sifting through the anti-Semitic pornography that claims Kol Nidre as ultimate proof of Jewish treachery–“turning” in the words of one articulate counter-commentator,
“Yom Kippur into a vulgar caricature of itself”, warped in the Jew-hating imagination from a day of self-inquiry and betterment to an occasion for eradicating our guilt, so we can sin even more lasciviously against Western Civilization.

But generations of rabbis have been as concerned with the effects misinterpretation of Kol Nidre might have on the social fabric, as they have been with anti-Semitic propoganda. This formula, they have argued, has no bearing on interpersonal vows—commitments between one person and another—whether a family member, a business partner, a client, or a court of law. Such promises cannot be unmade by the pretty trilling of a string of Aramaic words. It is one of the bedrock principles of tshuva, repentence, that prayer does not atone for chat’aim ben adam l’chavero—sins bringing discord to relationships between people, which can only be healed through direct reconciliation with the offended party. Similarly, the liturgical words of Kol Nidre will not release you from your obligations to another human being.

Rather, they address the other major category of transgression: chat’aim ben adam l’makom. This phrase is usually rendered “sins between a person and God,” but the word used for God is makom, meaning place, so I prefer the translation “sins between a person and his place—sins between a person and the ground or foundation of her being.” Traditionally, in the context of Kol Nidre, this might refer to unfullfillable personal vows, often made in haste or under duress, whether the classic foxhole prayer (“If I get out of this alive, I’ll…”) or its close cousin, the prayer of the distressed sportsfan (“If the Celtics pull this one out I’ll name my first child Rajon Rondo.”) Recognizing our tendency to become entangled in impracticable words, Kol Nidre offers us a way out. To put it another way: it releases us when we have used our words to create a sense of self, an arena of expectation, bound ourselves to the foundation of our being in ways that cannot endure. This may begin to explain Kol Nidre’s power, its strange, legalistic intensity. We begin our descent into repentence with a moment of profound release, not from each other, but from ourselves.

I’m going to come back to this point by way of the other question, the one about fasting. T’anu et nafshotechem—afflict yourselves, deny yourselves. We’ll find these words in tomorrow morning’s Torah portion, the sixteenth chapter of Vayikra, Leviticus, describing the very first Yom Kippur ceremony. The Hebrew root ‘ana, from which we get the words t’anu and ta’anit, is complicated, with overtones of ‘humbling’, ‘afflicting’, even ‘torturing’ and ‘violating.’ The Mishnah clarifies that the ta’anit referred to here encompasses five abstentions. On Yom Kippur we are to give up leather shoes, bathing, sex, perfume, and, most famously, food and drink. But why? The classic answer runs something like this: “Giving these things up helps us concentrate more effectively on prayer and atonement.” I’ve heard that all my life, and while I think it may be true that abstention draws energy away from habit, perhaps allowing for greater consciousness, I’m not convinced that fasting aids concentration. Just take a moment to imagine how you’ll be feeling at Ne’ilah tomorrow afternoon. If you’ll forgive me, I don’t think you’ll be lapping up the mahzor word for word. Ta’anit, fasting or self-affliction, is not an aid or conduit to another experience. It is an experience in and of itself.

Tractate Ta’anit of the Babylonian Talmud tells the story of what a community does when, as has been the case in our area this summer, the rains don’t fall as expected. This particular story isn’t about the material reponse—shifts in water usage, planting regimens, and personal consumption, all of which are very important. It tells instead of the emotive response of the population; how persistent anxiety etches itself into the ritual life of a community. Ta’anit, fasting or self-affliction, is the primary response. It begins subtly. At first only dignitaries fast, and only for stretches of certain days of the week. As the drought persists, this intensifies, with more people beginning to fast for longer periods of time. Then they begin to surrender their sensual luxuries, such as annointment with fine oils, wearing finery, ‘marital relations’—until daily life comes to resemble a perpetual Yom Kippur.

Maybe it’s in our genes—an instinct for excessive self-control at a time of scarcity, but this also reminds me of the psychosomatic condition known as cutting, when people, often but not always young women, deliberately make themselves bleed so as to localize an amorphous pain in the solid fact of their own bodies; or to negate the power of random circumstances to hurt them, by hurting themselves. At the same time, it seems like an act of cosmic bargaining, saying to God or nature, fate, chance, or chaos: I am going to take myself as close to death as humanly possible, and all I ask in exchange is that you let me live. This is not what the manuals would term healthy adult behavior, and our tradition, rightly, restricts it to certain days of the year, particularly this one. But I do think what we are doing today, however circumscribed, runs along these lines: that on Yom Kippur, we undertake, through ta’anit, self-affliction, to have a conscious encounter with death.
It is certainly a day on which we invite our dead to be with us in memory and spirit, especially during tomorrow morning’s Yizkor prayer, and this gives me some comfort in what has been, for my family, a year of death. In January, I said goodbye to my beloved Uncle Frank, a tough man who loved me unquestionably though his Orthodoxy, and even delighted in his sly way, to throw me as a Reconstructionist hand grenade into a room full of his black-hatted friends. His sister, my Grandma Ethel, died two weeks later, at the age of 97. I watched in awe as her gently ferocious body took its last breaths, feeling the ground of my being shifting like an earthquake beneath my feet.

My wife’s grandparents should live and be well until 120–though being Knoxville Presbyterians they may wonder why I chose that particular number—but this year has been one of decline for them. My most recent visit with her grandfather, when we were down in Tennessee in July, has stuck in my memory, and plays in my mind as I share these thoughts with you tonight. We sat on the back porch of his home in assisted living, looking out on the square of lawn, its gardens and short trees. I’ve heard the stories of his life before, how as kids he and his brother would be dropped by their father out in the Smoky Mountains to spend long, gorgeous summer days working on the construction of the family cabin we still visit, catching and cooking fish for their supper; about his proud service in the Air Force during WW2, and how he flew over Nagasaki only a day after the dropping of the atomic bomb. Now he was telling me about the birdfeeder he had recently put up, on a post near where he would sit in the shade on the hot afternoons, and how no birds had come yet. He was still waiting. It would make him very happy to see a bird at his feeder.

I don’t see this as a story about getting old, though its message may be expressed with particular poignancy at his stage of life, a blessed life of family, opportunity, and experience. I see it as a story about the nature of human life in general, how it changes, how it passes, how our sense of who we are and what we may expect, the ground of our being, shifts along with it, how for all our dreams and passions, for all our past, there may come a time when all that remains to fill our hearts is the beating of a birds wing; there may well come a time when all that it takes to fill our hearts is the beating of a bird’s wings, if we are not to bitter to appreciate it. And because we have a tendency to forget this, we fast, we afflict ourselves until we remember—remember that we die so that we never forget to be alive.

And so, for the same reason, the bland words of Kol Nidre become incandescent:

Kol Nidre: My vows will not be valid vows, my prohibtions will not be valid prohibitions, my oaths will not be valid oaths. They will all be cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing. I will take this moment while I live to nullify the words, expectations, self-images that bind me too rigidly to a ground of being that is always shifting, so that for as long as my heart and my lungs agree to sustain my eyes, I can look on each moment as a new mystery. And in this spirit I will decend into tshuva.

Kol Nidre: “I see my light come shining, from the west unto the east. Any day now, any way now, I shall be released.”

Kol Nidre: Within my limitations, I will be unconfined.

G’mar chatimah tova.

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