What exactly is Kol Nidre and what gives it its unique power? This is actually a very puzzling question because if you look at Kol Nidre itself, you will see, first of all, it's not even a prayer. It's actually a legal formula for the annulment of vows.
Secondly, the annulment of vows, Hatarat Nedarim, is something that many people have already done on the morning of erev Rosh Hashanah. So, we don't need to do it a second time.
What is more, many of the Rishonim doubted that you could annul vows and that collective wholesale manner, doing it once for the whole shul. Many people doubted that that was a valid legal procedure whatsoever.
So here, you have a legal formula that is not a prayer and is of questionable validity, and yet nonetheless, there's an extraordinary intensity about it. Why so? Well, some people say it's simply to do with the music. And certainly, the music is indeed very powerful. Some people say that it has to do with the Middle Ages when, in places like Spain, many Jews lived secretly as Jews, while outwardly they were living as Christians. Or maybe it's a reference to Jews who were excommunicated from the community.
One way or another, Jews who had not been inside the synagogue for the whole year would nonetheless come on Kol Nidre night, and there is a formula that we say before Kol Nidre, “beyeshiva shel mala u’viyeshiva shel mata”, “In the court of heaven and the court on earth”, “anu materim lehitpalel im ha’ava’ryanim”, “we give permission to pray with the transgressors.” And that was allowing these people who had been excommunicated or excluded from the community, shut out in 26 other words, to come back and to re-join the Jewish community in prayer. Maybe that gave it its power.
If you look at my commentary to the machzor, you will see that I put forward a completely different theory, which is that Kol Nidre is actually going back to the most intense drama of confession and forgiveness in all of Jewish history. When Moses pleaded to God to forgive the Jewish people after they had made the Golden Calf. And we read the words “vayichal Moshe”, “Moses besought God”, but “lachool” can also mean ‘to nullify’. And the Sages said that Moses said to God, even though you have vowed to punish those who worship other gods, and you are thus compelled by your vow to punish the Israelites, nonetheless God, you have given us the power to annul vows, “vayichal Moshe”, “and Moses said”, God, I am using that power to annul your vow. You are now free to forgive the Israelites for their sin."
That is a rabbinic reading, dramatic in itself, of the most dramatic encounter in prayer in the whole of Jewish history. That is what gives Kol Nidre its power. It is taking us back to Moses on Mount Sinai, pleading with God to forgive His people. And so, on Kol Nidre night, that is what the chazzan does; he is in place of Moses and we are praying for forgiveness.
OUR FATHER, OUR KING
Avinu Malkeinu, that great prayer we say on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the days between, is based on a much shorter prayer attributed to Rabbi Akiva, the great teacher of the first and second century. And in its repeated two-word introduction is a deep and beautiful idea that I think is best explained by a story.
Once a great naval ship sailed into the port. On the hillside overlooking the sea, a crowd had gathered to watch it enter. Among them was a small child who waved to the ship. An adult asked the child to whom he was waving. The child replied, “I'm waving to the captain of the ship.” The man said, “Do you think the captain of such a great ship would notice a small child like you?” “I'm sure of it,” said the child. “Why?” said the adult. “You see,” said the child, “the captain of the ship is my father.”
On the one hand, God is Malkeinu, our King, and we are his servants. But on the other he is Avinu, our Father and we are His children.
When God told Moses to lead the Israelites to freedom, He told him to say to Pharaoh, “My child, My firstborn, Israel.” When Moses commanded the Israelites not to lacerate themselves or divide themselves into factions, He said, “You are the children of the Lord, our God.”
So we experience God in two ways, in awe and in love. In awe because He's our Sovereign, the Supreme power of the universe, but also in love because He brought us into being. He is to us as a parent is to us. Between a servant and a king, there can be estrangement. A king can send a servant into exile, but between a father or a mother and a child, there can be no estrangement. However far removed they are from one another, the bond between parent and child still holds.
The beauty of Rabbi Akiva's prayer is the way he orders the words Avinu Malkeinu. God is our King and a king rules by justice, but before God is a King, He is a parent. A parent loves. A parent lets love override strict justice. A parent forgives. In the words, “Our Father, our King,” Rabbi Akiva was saying, “Yes, You are our King, but remember that You are also our Parent therefore that we have sinned, forgive us.”
If our words are honest and penetrate to our heart, they penetrate to God's heart also, and God forgives because a parent can't forsake his or her child. Whatever wrong they may have done, God's love for us is like that, but deeper. “Though my father and mother might abandoned me,” says David in Psalm 27, “God will bring me close.”
What is the meaning and the source of Vidui, (confession), the thing we do on selichot and above all on Yom Kippur, the prayer that begins “Ashamnu, bagdnu, gazalnu”, that we say, beating our heart and confessing collectively our sins?
The answer is, it goes all the way back to the Temple, to the sacrifices and specifically to the sin offering in which the sinner, upon bringing the offering, confessed their sin and said, very simply, “Chatati aviti pashati”, “I have done wrong, I have sinned”, and then specifies the sin. And though the Temple hasn’t 25 existed for over 2000 years, and though we no longer have a sin offering, Vidui, the act of confession still exists, still has its original power. And according to Maimonides it is the biblical core of the mitzvah of teshuvah itself.
What does Vidui actually mean? It means standing in court, and pleading guilty, and then throwing yourself on the mercy of the court, which you can do because you know that God is indeed merciful, “kel rachum vechanun”, that God forgives, “venislach lechol adat Bnei Yisrael”, that Judaism itself is a culture of forgiveness.
Now imagine an unforgiving culture. The truth is that is the culture that exists throughout most of the contemporary West. The culture of viral videos and hashtags and so on, some of which is very important and valuable but not all of it. And we have today an unforgiving culture.
Now, in an unforgiving culture, what do you do? You do anything possible to avoid confession. You hope no-one finds out what you’ve done. If they do, then you bluff it out. You deny it for as long as you can. But in a culture of forgiveness, which is Judaism, especially on the days of selichot and on Yom Kippur, you can do the opposite.
You can be honest. You can express remorse. You can acknowledge that you are not proud of everything you did. You can commit yourself not to repeating that sin in future. And the end result is you can grow. And that is so much better than the alternative. Honesty and moral growth are a lot better than bluff and denial and being haunted by guilt.
So, confession frees us to be honest about ourselves, to identify our failings, and then, morally, to grow. It really is an act of purification and of moral growth.
YOM KIPPUR MUSSAF
Yom Kippur is unique in the extent to which, especially during mussaf, we retell and relive the ceremony as it took place in the Temple in Jerusalem, with the High Priest, conducting the most elaborate ritual of the year, when he atoned for the whole of Israel.
Every prayer we say throughout the year is “zecher l’mikdash”, is in some sense a memory of the sacrifices that took place in the Temple. But on Yom Kippur much, much more than that, we try to imagine ourselves actually there.
We describe the service of the High Priest in detail during the Chazarat Hashatz, the readers’ repetition of mussaf.
We fall on our faces as the crowd did in the Temple when they heard the sheim hameforash, the name that only he could pronounce. When they heard that coming from his mouth, the holiest name of God, they fell on their faces and we, four times fall on our faces.
And the reason why we say “Baruch sheim kavod malchuto” out loud during Shema, only on this day of the year? There are many Midrashic explanations, but the historical explanation is that’s what happened in the Temple. They didn’t say “amen” in the Temple; they responded to the Priests by saying “Baruch sheim kavod malchuto”. That’s why we say it silently during the rest of the year because the Temple no longer stands but on Yom Kippur we act as if the Temple still stood.
And the question is why? And the answer lies in the nature of Yom Kippur and the service of the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest because it was on that day that he atoned for all Israel. For all of us, together, as a unit, as an entity, as a collective, as am echad, as a single people. And there is incredible power in that idea. When the Temple was destroyed, we continued to practice Yom Kippur and instead of the High Priest, that was devolved and democratised to each of us as individuals. So we apologise, we atone, we confess as individuals.
But Judaism and the Sages did not want to lose the power of that collective repentance that only happened in the Temple with the High Priest. And that is why we re-enact the High Priest service at the Temple so that we should repent collectively not just individually.
So on Yom Kippur, as congregations and communities around the world, united in sending our prayers to Jerusalem as if the Temple still stood, say to God please accept our prayers as if the High Priest was still officiating in the holy and the Holy of Holies. Accept our repentance as one people, with one heart, one soul and one voice. Hear us together.
Forgive us together. And together write us in the Book of Life.
“Wherever you find God's greatness,” said Rabbi Yohanan, “there you will find His humility.”
And wherever you find true humility, there you will find greatness. That is what Yom Kippur is about: finding the courage to let go of the need for selfesteem that fuels our passion for selfjustification, our blustering claim that we are in the right when in truth we know we are often in the wrong.
Most national literatures, ancient and modern, record a people's triumphs. Jewish literature records our failures, moral and spiritual. No people has been so laceratingly honest in charting its shortcomings. In Tanakh there is no one without sin.
Believing as we do that even the greatest are merely human, we also know that even the merely human – us – can also be great. And greatness begins in the humility of recognising our failings and faults. The greatness to which God is calling us, here, now is “not in heaven nor across the sea” but in our hearts, minds and lives, in our homes and families, our work and its interactions, the tenor and texture of our relationships, the way we act and speak and listen and spend our time.
The question God asks us at Neilah is not, “Are you perfect?” but “Can you grow?”
There are three barriers to growth. One is self-righteousness, the belief that we are already great. A second is false humility, the belief that we can never be great. The third is learned helplessness, the belief that we can’t change the world because we can’t change ourselves.
All three are false. We are not yet great, but we are summoned to greatness, and we can change. We can live lives of moral beauty and spiritual depth. We can open our eyes to the presence of God around us, incline our inner ear to the voice of God within us. We can bring blessings into other people’s lives.
And now, in absolute humility, we turn to God, pleading with Him to seal us in the book of life so that we can fulfil the task He has set us, to be His ambassadors to humankind. This Yom Kippur, may you find the transformative experience lift you to become greater next year than you were Tishrei / 6th October last year, to climb the ladder towards heaven, to be a little closer to the person God needs us to be.
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