It is, perhaps, the most solemn night of the entire year. Men, women and children somberly file into sanctuaries across the world. The mood is heavy with the gravity of the moment as each member of the assembly recognizes the high stakes of the proceedings and the profound effects it holds for the course of the year ahead.
A hush descends upon the room as the prayer-leader ascends the podium bedecked in his prayer shawl and pristine white tunic. He is accompanied by prominent members of the congregation tightly hugging holy Torah scrolls. They stand at either side of the Cantor who slowly raises his head heavenward and begins to intone the haunting strains of the ancient tune which accompany the familiar words that inaugurate the holiest day of the year. “Kol Nidre Ve’Esorei…”
But as we analyze the words of this prayer its meaning becomes enshrouded in mystery. For we discover Kol Nidre is not so much a prayer at all, but rather a legal formula whereby we release ourselves from the commitment to keep any vows, oaths or obligations we may willingly undertake over the course of the following year. This appears to violate the very spirit of Yom Kippur and the New Year as we, seemingly, stipulate that any resolutions we make for improvement are null and void at the very outset!
Indeed, at various periods in our history, our enemies used Kol Nidre against us to portray Jews as untrustworthy people who cunningly break their promises, particularly to non-Jews. This libel led to the prayer being expunged from the Yom Kippur service at the decree of hostile governmental authorities in many areas where Jews lived. The earliest record we have of this is a famous debate that took place approximately 800 years ago in Paris, France between Rabbi Yechiel, the leader of French Jewry at that time, and the Bishop of Shantz. The debate was instigated by Nocholai Donin, a Jewish convert to Christianity, and was conducted in the presence of the King of France, Ludwig IX.
Rabbi Yechiel went to great pains to clarify that Kol Nidre was only intended to release an individual from personal obligations he unwittingly placed upon himself, not from promises or obligations he made to others. In fact, Jewish law records that regarding obligations to others, or even promises to keep God’s Mitzvos, Kol Nidre does not release the individual from his responsibility.
In the early ethical teachings of our Rabbis we find that the primary function of vows and promises is to strengthen one’s resolve to keep Hashem’s Torah and Mitzvos. We often want to return to God through Teshuva – Repentance, but many challenges stand in our path toward Him. We naturally resist change. A vow or promise to change our ways is often the key to breaking through that resistance as we are more intent on living up to our commitment and not breaking our promise, God forbid.
I can personally attest to the power of a promise to keep a Mitzvah. Many thousands of people who made a promise to me to keep a Mitzvah were able to successfully stay true to their commitment through the power of the promise. And for that reason I am reluctant to release individuals form such promises, even in cases of extenuating circumstances. For I have seen firsthand how doing so can allow that individual to sink back to the lowest levels.
A beautiful parable is offered by the author of the holy book, Reishis Chochma, highlighting the power of a promise. A loyal subject of a benevolent King wanted to present a gift of gratitude to the King for all the good he bestowed upon his subjects. The noble citizen wanted to ensure that he would carry through on his own commitment and so he personally informed the King of his lofty intentions, recognizing that to go back on his word could result in severe consequences. And so it is with our promises to God to study His holy Torah and keep his commandments. When we conduct ourselves in accordance with His will, we give Hashem the only gift we can offer as human beings. And when we reinforce our commitment with a personal promise to Him, we ensure that we will follow through successfully.
Kol Nidre, then, is a declaration that we free ourselves from our own personal promises in the realm of the mundane so that we can dedicate our fullest efforts and commitments to keeping the promises we make to serve God’s holiest purposes. We must use the special opportunity of renewal that Yom Kippur affords us to promise to keep the holy Shabbos, to promise to keep the Mitzvos in the holy Torah scrolls which surround the Cantor on this holiest of evenings. And of course, we must promise to help other Jews in need and always strive to bring them closer to our Father and King in heaven.
May Hashem bless all of you with a year of joy and goodness and may He grant you the strength to live up to your promises to be the best Jew you can possibly be. I wish you all a meaningful Yom Kippur and a happy and healthy new year.
Special thanks to Rabbi Avraham Shalom Farber & Yehuda Leib Meth for the translation.