Kol Nidre: Its message to us and to our nation

Perhaps the first thing to do is to replace the current Israeli ambassador, who is so closely aligned to the Republican Party and to the current conflict.

Mountain view (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE/AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Mountain view
Kol Nidre is perhaps the most puzzling part of our liturgy.
One cannot call it a prayer, since it does not address God and neither praises nor asks for anything.
At first it seems to be a legal formula for annulling vows, yet according to Jewish law it does not fulfill the requirements for doing that. The most you can say is that it is a pious wish couched in legal language that one’s vows and pledges will be erased and vanish as if they never existed.
Without going into all the details of the convoluted history of the text as we have it, suffice it to say that we know that the language is similar to Aramaic formulas that were written on bowls during the Geonic period, using magic to drive away demons and evil spirits, which may account for the fact that Geonim were opposed to its recitation.
Amram Gaon called it “a foolish custom.”
Therefore it is clear that the custom did not originate among the Sages of Israel, but was a creation of the common people, who insisted upon it even when the rabbis protested.
Throughout the centuries, there were many attempts to remove it from the liturgy.
Non-Jews used it to accuse Jews of not being honest since they announced in advance that they intended to annul any agreements that they had made. At one point, Reform Judaism attempted to retain the haunting melody associated with it, but substitute an entirely different text. People would not stand for it.
What is it then about Kol Nidre that speaks to us so powerfully and arouses our emotions, even though the text is dry and legal, and even though it has no legal authority or meaning? I believe that it is the fact that Kol Nidre conveys to us the feeling that we are now released from the burden of guilt that hangs over us constantly because somehow we have not fulfilled those things we promised to do, not reached the goals we set for ourselves. It wipes the slate clean of unfulfilled obligations and therefore gives us the opportunity to start afresh with a tabula rasa. Once we recite Kol Nidre and hear the verse formulated by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg in the 13th century to be included at the conclusion – “I have forgiven as you have asked…” (Numbers 14:20), we breathe a collective sigh of relief and feel as if we have received a pardon and the permission to create ourselves anew.
Kol Nidre speaks to our deepest unconscious feelings of guilt about our failures and gives us permission to get on with our lives free of that burden.
Because of that, we enter Yom Kippur free of guilt, with pardon granted even before we recite any prayers concerning our past sins.
Who has not made plans and pledges, only to find that they could not be fulfilled? Who has not had the best intentions, only to find out that they were a mistake that needed to be changed or corrected? Who has not regretted good plans that went awry? Kol Nidre consoles us by indicating that those things can be overcome. We can rid ourselves of them and try again. We can overcome our past and make a better future.
This message of Kol Nidre is important for each of us as individuals, but it is also important for us as a group, for groups and nations also need to be able to free themselves of the burden of the past. Nations and governments often need a Kol Nidre as well, a chance to reboot, wipe away past actions and start afresh.
This past year, because of our justified concerns about Iranian nuclear intentions, Israel has been on a collision course with its greatest ally, the United States. Although many experts, including some in Israel, felt otherwise, our government was convinced that the proposed Iranian deal was a disaster and had to be defeated, even if this meant a conflict with the American president and embroiling ourselves in partisan politics.
It is now clear that that effort – justified or not – was a failure. Yet rather than admitting that fact, our government seems determined to continue the fight, no matter what.
Would it not be the better part of wisdom now to take advantage of Kol Nidre, unburden ourselves and start anew? Would it not be better to try to reestablish rapport with the American president and work with him for common goals instead of against him? Much has to be done in the future to ensure that the Iranians keep to the terms of the agreement and to determine how to deal with them if they cheat. Much has to be done to increase Israel’s military and intelligence capabilities and to make new agreements with America that will strengthen our hand. America seems willing and anxious to do that, but it will not be possible if we continue to make the same old statements and do nothing to improve relations.
Perhaps the first thing to do is to replace the current Israeli ambassador, who is so closely aligned to the Republican Party and to the current conflict.
Why not appoint someone of stature, such as Efraim Halevy or Dan Meridor, who could represent Israel with great honor and be welcomed in the White House? Furthermore, this would then be the time to make it clear that Israel is truly committed to finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. An indication of interest in the Arab League peace proposal would be most welcome, especially now that so many Arab states have common interest with Israel in controlling Iranian ambitions. Perhaps in this way we could reestablish Israel’s credibility with Europe and well as with the United States.
Kol Nidre says to us that the past need not be the dictator of the future, that it is always possible to find release from past actions (or lack thereof) that have failed and to initiate new ways of approaching the problems that life presents to us. Kol Nidre says to us that it is time to move on and not to allow ourselves to be prisoners of the past.
It is always tempting to continue the status quo rather than taking new steps, correcting past errors and creating new and needed initiatives. It is tempting – but that is not the way to meet the very serious challenges that await us as individuals and as a nation. We cannot afford that.
This is the time to take Kol Nidre’s message seriously. ■
The writer, a longtime Jerusalem Post columnist, is a prominent lecturer and author whose book Entering the High Holy Days (Jewish Publication Society) was the recipient of the National Jewish Book Council Award. His forthcoming book Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (Jewish Publication Society) is scheduled for publication in October. The opinions presented here are his own and do not represent those of any organization.