Thursday, September 20, 2007

Kol Nidre Night

Tomorrow at sunset is the beginning of the most solemn holy day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement, practicing Jews abstain from food, water, sexual relations, anointing the body and wearing leather. These things are signs of life and enjoyment, and on the day of Yom Kippur, we are pleading with the Eternal to remember us for life and to inscribe us in the book of life for the coming year. It is a time to consider our ways, to return to the ways that give us life, and to make atonement for our sins against the Eternal. For the sins we have committed against others, the fast of Yom Kippur does not atone. For we must go to those we have wronged and ask their forgiveness, which we hope to receive. And we must give forgiveness to those who ask for it, for none of us is able to stand before G-d and claim that we have not also done wrong.

The process of Jewish repentence is three-fold. A person needs to acknowledge that they have done wrong, and acknowledge exactly what the wrong is. No defensiveness, no justifications. Then she must resolve to right the wrong and to not travel down that path again. This may require restitution or some other action that can make things right. Then, and only then, can one go to the person(s) wronged and ask forgiveness. The person asked forgiveness may or may not grant it. If it is not granted, then one must humbly go back to them three times, while otherwise actively righting the wrong in whatever way is possible. If the person wronged does not forgive at the third time, and you has done all of the repentence possible, then you move on, because you cannot force someone to forgive you. Forgiveness in Jewish thought does not mean that you are excused from the consequences of your wrong action, whether legal or otherwise.

Yet for all of this, Yom Kippur is not a sad fast. It is known as the great white fast, for on that day we dress ourselves in white, as did the high priest on the day of Yom Kippur of old. On Yom Kippur, we are hopeful. By this time during the high holy days, we have made amends with those we love and received their forgiveness. And we have given it as well. And that, especially within the very close relationships, is often a tender and sweet time. And now, as we begin the fast, we know we have been given another day of life to once again return to the paths of life and receive forgiveness for all of the ways in which we have not yet become the people that we were created to be.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, we eat a good meal, for it is commanded to end the ten days of repentence with a feast. Traditionally, since we this is a pre-fast meal, the foods are not spicy or rich. I use a Greek Chicken recipe with potatoes. We drink water rather than wine. Then by 5 PM, we will clear the table and place a white cloth on it, and holy books, to signify that prayer and learning will be our sustenance over the holy day.

Then we go to the Kol Nidre service. Kol Nidre is the ancient prayer that is chanted in the synagogue three times. It is sung to a haunting melody and many think of it as the most beautiful, moving moment in the Jewish year. (I have included a link to Kol Nidre at the My Jewish Learning site. I have also tried to upload a really first class You Tube version, but, alas, I don't know how to get it into my post. Here is the link).

The origins of Kol Nidre are mysterious. The name Kol Nidre simply means all vows, and it is not a prayer, but rather a legal formula. On Yom Kippur, all Jews, whether righteous or not, pray together. The plea for forgiveness is communal. We do not say "I have sinned" but rather, "we have sinned." In the Vidui (confession), we acknowledge all possible sins from the beginning to the end of the alef-bet, whether each one has done each sin or not, because they affect us all. So it is thought that the Kol Nidre might have been written for Jews who were forced into conversion to Christianity in the medieval times. Even they would be welcome in the synagogue on Kol Nidre night.
The UAHC publication Gates of Repentence, the Machzor (High Holy Day prayer book of the Reform movement says this about Kol Nidre:
"Kol Nidre is the prayer of people not free to make their own decisions
people forced to say what they do not mean...we identify with the agony
of our forebearers who had to say "yes" when they meant "no." Kol Nidre
is also a confession, for we are all transgressors, exiled from the Highest
we know, all in need of the healing of forgiveness and reconciliation..."
Here is the actual text of the Kol Nidre in English: "All vows, obligations, oaths, anathemas, be they called konam or konas, or by any other name, which we may vow or pledge..... From this Day of Atonement until the next.....we do repent. May they be deemed to be forgiven, absolved, anulled or void, and made of no effect. They shall not bind us not have power over us, and the vows shall not be considered vows, nor the obligations obligatory, nor the oaths, oaths."
Gates of Repentence renders it thus: "Let all our vows and oaths, all promises we make and the obligations that we incur to You, O G-d, between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void, should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be absolved of them."
NOTE: Remember that Yom Kippur atones only for our obligations to the Eternal. It does not atone for our obligations to others. Any vow made between us and another person cannot be absolved by simply reciting a legal formula. They must be absolved by mutual agreement and the request for forgiveness from the vow between those involved. I say this because, sadly, antisemites have used the Kol Nidre to make all kinds of untrue claims against Jews.
It seems odd that the recitation of this legal formula would move us to tears, but it does. Year after year. I think it does because for several reasons. One is that, as we get older, we realized that each year at Yom Kippur, we stand and vow before G-d that we will be better people. And each year, being imperfect, we fail to realized this vow. We know that we are weak, that without the reliance on the true Master of the Universe, we are "grass that springs up in the morning, and withers and fades..." The need for the Kol Nidre is also an expression of our need for a merciful Judge.
Secondly, through the Kol Nidre, we remember the deepest darknesses of our people. The times of being driven and in exile, of having no home and no country. We remember when our ashes darkened the skies of Europe. And yet, we are still here. Another Yom Kippur, and Israel lives and endures, and expresses a profound dependence and trust upon the One. Even after all of that, we still affirm the covenant...we are still Yisrael, the G-d-wrestlers.
And finally, there is a wild sort of hope expressed in the Kol Nidre. We are not asking to be absolved of last year's vows between ourselves and G-d. No, we are assuming that we will be written in the book of life; that we will live, imperfect though we are, until next Yom Kippur. We are assuming that G-d is truly forgiving and compassionate, knowing who we truly are: frail and vulnerable. We think back on the years and centuries in which our people have come to say these words, and that the continuity goes on and will go on, down the years and centuries to come.
In a sense, the rest of Yom Kippur is more of the same. We spend the day at prayer, and are nurtured on the words, the passionate longing, the hope of our people. We step out of regular time and engage Holy Time in a profound way. It is long, and it is different than all other Jewish times and seasons. Oddly enough, though, I look forward to standing, shoeless, to hear Kol Nidre sung. I stand among the holy congregation here, but I feel the presense of the old ones, the ancestors, the ones to come throughout time and space...all with me to affirm the eternal covenant, until the gates close at Neilah service, as Yom Kippur ends.
And through the whole of the night and the day, we express not only our trembling at the awesome nature of the day, but also the tenderness and love that exists between us and the Eternal, partners in a long and fruitful endevor to bring holiness into the world.
Fitting with this loving kindness is my favorite Yom Kippur prayer, Ki Anu..."For we are..."
For we are Your people,
You are our King.
We are Your children,
You are our Father.
We are Your inheritance,
You are our Portion.
We are Your flock,
You are our Shepherd.
We are Your vineyard,
You are our Keeper.
We are Your beloved,
You are our Lover.
May we all be written and sealed for blessing in the awesome Book of Life.


Megan over at Imaginif said...

Far out. Elisheva that is a fantastic explanation. Until now, I really had no understanding of the significance.
Thank you. You have fed me, yet again.

Mother Crone's Homeschool said...

What a blessing you have shared in explaining this here. My step-son is half-Jewish, and is taught nothing of his heritage. I shall share this with him, as a holy day so remarkable. How beautiful!

Judy Aron said...


Thanks for such a wonderful and insightful post.
I always look forward to your holiday postings.
This Day of Atonement has had deep meaning for me with my mother's passing...and now as I begin to sit Shiva and recall the blessings she brought to me and my family, as well as her friends and others, it certainly does make me take stock of my life as well.

Magpie Ima said...

what a lovely post! You really covered it well. I hope you had an easy fast and a meaningful day.

kke said...
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