The ancient Aramaic words of the Kol Nidre prayer will ring out, as they do every year, stirring the emotions of the faithful gathered in the synagogues. What is it about these words that have transformed them into a symbol of the Days of Awe? What is it about the melody that enables it to tear down all defensive barriers, even the one that has grown up around the soul of the assimilated Jew, for whom the experience of prayer is so remote?
The Kol Nidre prayer dates from the days of the persecution of the anusim, crypto-Jews, in Spain and Portugal. These Jews, who spent the whole year denying their identity and religion, would assemble on the eve of Yom Kippur, risking their lives, and declare that all the vows of conversion to Christianity they had take n upon themselves were not truthful vows.
Once a year, for a brief moment, the crypto-Jew would remove his mask and dispense with all the lies, celebrating his inner truth and lamenting the need to repress it in his everyday life.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, we declare ourselves anusim. We recognize the fact that many times, the way we live does not reflect our inner truth.
All too often, we wish we could change the trajectory of our lives, but are unable to free ourselves from the chains that bind us to that which is familiar, conventional and safe. All too often, we know that by our actions we are doing an injustice to ourselves and others, but we end up repeating those same actions, time after time.
In the same way as the anusim got up once a year and exposed their masquerade, we admit that we all too often lie to ourselves and others. Once a year, we declare our yearning for greater honesty.
How many times do we put others down in order to feel stronger ourselves? How many times do we suppress our uniqueness so that no one can say we are not part of the crowd? How often do we take a certain position because it is fashionable, because everyone thinks that way, because we are afraid of what others will say?
All the vows we have taken in the desire to find favor in the eyes of others, all the promises we have made that we never intended to keep, all the conventional behavior we adhere to although we know it harms us and those around us, all these are the focus of the Kol Nidre prayer.
Kabbalistically, the message of Kol Nidre is addressed primarily as a plea to God. Since the beginning of its national existence, Israelâ€™s sins have provoked God to take oaths that He would punish, exile or decimate the nation. In the Torah, Moses interceded with God on more than one occasion on behalf of a sinful Israel. The Talmud relates that Rabba bar Chana heard a heavenly voice saying, â€œWoe is Me that I have sworn to punish My people, but who can annul the vow for Me?â€ (Baba Batra 74a).
Thus, Kol Nidre implies to God that just as we seek to annul vows we should not have taken, so do we beseech that He annul His oaths to remove His Presence from His people and His city and send Mashiah, speedily, in our day.
The writer is dean of students, Diaspora Yeshiva, Jerusalem.