Nothing rivals the awe and splendour of Kol Nidrei night. Nothing rivals the Kol Nidrei melody. But nothing explains the apparent banality of the Kol Nidrei words.
The explanation needs us to acknowledge how often the prayer book appeals to God and says, "May the words of our mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable before You" (Psalm 19:15). We don’t seem to notice that the verse equates the words of our mouth and the meditation of our hearts, implying they are in agreement.
The reality is that there is often a gap. We mean one thing and say another; we say one thing and mean something else. Every Yom Kippur we make a private resolve, "God, this year I’m going to tidy up my life" – but our hearts say something else, "No I’m not: I like me just as I am and I have no real intention to change anything".
Enter Kol Nidrei: "God, make my words match my thoughts, and if I mouth words which I don’t really mean, tell me to stop all the nonsense. Don’t look at my vows; look at my heart. Don’t hold me to empty vows; teach me not to promise things I can’t or won’t do; forgive me for the words which I am unlikely to fulfil…"
ALL DRESSED UP & SOMEWHERE TO GO
White is the dominant colour on the High Holydays, because of a widely entrenched custom. The officiants wear white, as do many of the congregation, both males and females. The synagogue Ark has a white curtain, the reading desk and Torah scrolls have white covers, and in pre-war Frankfort even the carpet was white. Some people make sure they have white flowers in the house. Those who follow the custom of kapparot prefer a white chicken to wave over their heads.
The dominance of white derives from the high priestly vestments in the sanctuary. We lay people emulate the priests since we are told we are “a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6). Reasons ascribed to the wearing of white range from fear (white is the colour of shrouds, and who knows what the year has in store for us?) to confidence (we are certain that the Almighty Judge will acquit us).
There is a spiritual aspect; on Yom Kippur we experience the exhilaration of the white-garbed angels. Though our sins might have been as staining as scarlet (Isa. 1:18), we believe God will let us start the year with a clean slate. From the mystical point of view, since white is the colour of wedding clothes, it symbolises the renewed at-one-ment between human beings and God.
The white High Holyday robe is called "kittel", a little coat, or "sargenes" from a Greek word for "silk" or because of a similar German word for a coffin.
On Yom Kippur, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum used to say to his congregation, "Children of Israel! Take to heart the white garments you are wearing. In these garments we will one day go to the world above to give an accounting before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
"Let’s imagine that we are standing before His throne at this very moment. Let us repent now, for once our earthly life is at an end, repentance will be of no avail. Let us resolve not to return to our sinful ways but seek pardon from Him who pardons and forgives."
WHY GOLLANCZ DIDN’T LIKE YOM KIPPUR
20th century British publishing was largely in the hands of a range of outstanding individuals. Amongst them was Sir Victor Gollancz, about whom much could be said. His uncle, Sir Hermann Gollancz, was rabbi of the Bayswater Synagogue in West London for many years, and Bayswater (and its toilets) figures considerably in Victor Gollancz’s writings.
One of the Jewish things which Gollancz found unpleasant was Yom Kippur, whether at Bayswater or anywhere else.
In "My Dear Timothy" he describes how the approach of Yom Kippur filled him with malaise and when it arrived he yearned that it would soon be over and he could breathe again and be free.
It took him a long while to understand why he was so desperate for that freedom. Probably what aggravated him was the calendar-induced feelings of guilt that held Yom Kippur Jews in its thrall. He had problems with saying over and over again a litany of confessions which had no real relation to him or others around him.
His problem with guilt and confessions is probably widespread, but that doesn’t mean that the confessions ought to be abolished. They are general enough to cover most of the dubious attitudes that govern people’s lives, and even if some of the list do not apply to a given individual, the fact that such issues exist anywhere in our society is good enough reason to say, "We’re all in this together", and whether or not a Gollancz or anyone else has committed a particular act, no-one can escape a certain degree of responsibility.
Of course if you or I were Gollancz we might find other things to criticise about Yom Kippur, and that’s precisely the sort of self-wrestling that should occupy our attention during the fast. We ought to be asking, "If I don’t like Yom Kippur, what can I put in its stead?"
A STILL SMALL VOICE
Yom Kippur has times of exaltation and times when attention wanders. There are greater and lesser moments – impressive, major moments when, in the language of the liturgy, it almost appears that “the great trumpet is sounded”. There are also moments when, amazingly, all is quiet, and “the still, small voice is heard”. There is eloquence in silence, when the world does not exist, and we quietly, serenely, confront ourselves and our own souls.
In New York a room in the United Nations building is called “A Room of Quiet”. The name is explained in this fashion: “This is a room devoted to peace and those who are giving their lives for peace. It is a room of quiet where only thoughts should speak.”
Yom Kippur too gives us “a room of quiet where only thoughts should speak”… the thoughts of a husband who quietly realises how deeply he loves his wife, of a wife who recognises how fortunate she is in her husband, of children who discover the solid quality of their parents, of parents grateful for the good there is in their children, of friends who determine to be better friends, of colleagues who resolve to show greater appreciation of each other in future… these are some of the thoughts that speak.
The thoughts also speak of ourselves and God. We pretend we don’t believe in Him, but we all know deep down that something exists which is higher than human, and in moments of stillness it beckons us upward.
The mystics ask, why do we conclude the fast by saying “HaShem Hu HaElokim”, “The Lord, He is God”, seven times? However unemotional we are, by the end of the day we have reached such exaltation that despite ourselves we feel close to God.
And then the day is over. Its exaltation lingers a little, but so often the spirit has evaporated by morning. Whilst it was there the silence was real, the thoughts did speak, but now it is “i-kavod”, “the glory is departed”.
But things don’t have to be so. Every day of the year we can catch a glimpse of Yom Kippur by “surrendering to the stillness… by withdrawal from the market-place, the honking of horns, the television set, the innumerable diversions and attractions which modern living thrusts upon us, and yielding to the quiet that is everywhere” (Samuel H Dresner).
Thoughts can speak almost anywhere, in the garden, in the bedroom, by the water, among your books – certainly in the synagogue. Calm, peaceful, serene surroundings are good for silence. It helps us reflect and resolve.
Let’s find silence, and then go back into the world and find speech. Let’s go to other people, give them a smile and a word of friendship and concern. Perhaps they won’t always respond at once, or even at all. Maybe the world has not been good to them. But one rebuff should not stop us.
There are times to be silent, and times to speak – to say words that are caring, not callous; words that are considerate, not cruel; words that are pure, not pornographic; words that are peaceful, not provocative. Let the silence tell us what to say; let the power of speech say it and let us help to make the world a better place.