Understanding Kol Nidre, its draw, it beauty, its true colors

The Kol Nidre prayer is one of the most authentic, meaningful and moving moments of the year, and not just for observant Jews. However, it does not have any significance according to Jewish law.

AN ULTRA-ORTHODOX man watches protesters march across Jerusalem’s ‘Bridge of Strings’ in August.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ULTRA-ORTHODOX man watches protesters march across Jerusalem’s ‘Bridge of Strings’ in August.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Several years ago I was the spiritual leader of one of the central Yom Kippur services for non-observant Israelis in Tel Aviv. Due to the endless technical preparations involved, I did not get a chance to prepare my Kol Nidre sermon. While I had the option to recycle one of my past sermons, after looking into the eyes of the participants, I strongly felt it would be inauthentic.
I prayed to God to send me some inspiration but nothing came through. When the cantor stood up and started the Kol Nidre prayer, I suddenly heard a song in my head: “I see your true colors shining through and that’s why I love you.” 
The lyrics are from Cyndi Lauper’s 1980s song, but they popped into my head at that immensely powerful moment. I suddenly realized that this was the essence of Kol Nidre – showing our true colors.
The Kol Nidre prayer is one of the most authentic, meaningful and moving moments of the year, and not just for observant Jews. However, it does not have any significance according to Jewish law, as this is not the proper way to annul our vows. 
Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained that the uniqueness of the prayer is rooted in the concept of a declaration of freedom. “Man, by nature, tends to be subjected to idols [that he creates]... which eventually destroy him, demand from him unattainable sacrifices, suffocate the spark of life and extinguish the radiance of his soul. These masters appear in various names and forms... but he can and must free himself from them when he enters Yom Kippur and to which we refer by saying ‘Kol Nidre’.... We enter Yom Kippur with a declaration of complete freedom” (Al HaTeshuva p. 144).
Often, we are enslaved to societal expectations. We try endlessly to perform and to accomplish, to please and seek approval. We adopt a false belief system, that if we can only live and look perfect and meet society’s expectations, we will avoid the painful feelings of shame and judgment. In the social media age, we measure our self-worth by the number of “likes” we receive.
At the start of Yom Kippur, we declare freedom from the enslavement of these unhealthy behaviors. We exclaim that they are all Sh’vikin sh’vitin, betelin umevutalin, lo sheririn v’lo kayamin (“aborted, abandoned, canceled and declined, null and void, without power and without standing”). We reclaim our integrity and our authenticity, and ask for the courage to show our true colors.
PSYCHOANALYST Eric Fromm wrote, “The inability to act spontaneously, to express what one genuinely feels and thinks, and the resulting necessity to present a pseudo-self to others and oneself, are the root of the feeling of inferiority and weakness. Whether or not we are aware of it, there is nothing of which we are more ashamed than of not being ourselves, and there is nothing that gives us greater pride and happiness than to think, to feel, and to say what is ours” (The Fear of Freedom, p. 226). 
This is precisely the gift of Kol Nidre, the declaration of freedom. We express our willingness to stop pretending and performing, acts which remove us from our authentic selves, and which plant within us feelings of inferiority and unworthiness.
The best expression of the courage to overcome this fear of shame and judgment is the collective Vidui (confession) that we all say together on Yom Kippur. No one puts on a show; we acknowledge that we all make mistakes, because none of us is perfect. Yom Kippur is a festival of realness and authenticity, and this is the day when we can really get close to God as “truth [emet] is the seal of God” (Shabbat 55a).
The authentic experience of Yom Kippur is the birthplace of compassion. The difference between mercy and compassion is equivalent to the difference between empathy and sympathy. 
Sympathy means “I feel for you,” while empathy means “I feel with you.”. Feelings of mercy are intertwined with feelings of superiority, while compassion conceals a message of equality. No one is perfect, we are all flawed, but it is the beauty of our imperfections that enable our true colors to shine through. Real photographs are always more impressive than photoshopped images that hide our wrinkles and stains.
That is why the traditional celebrations of Yom Kippur were based on experiences of equality and compassion. “There were no days of joy in Israel greater than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. On these days, the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to embarrass anyone who had nothing” (Ta’anit 4:8). 
Our clothes are our most personal items of self-expression, and on Yom Kippur, every bride-to-be was willing to wear a simple dress so as not to embarrass her friends who did not have beautiful outfits to wear. White symbolizes simplicity, purity and naivety. It is not a day of “showing off” but rather a day of authenticity on which we should not hesitate to show our true colors. Rather than social judgment or competition, we should focus only on showing other people empathy and compassion.
The Sages taught us, “Everyone who disqualifies someone else, disqualifies them with his own flaws.” Judgment of others is usually a shield against our own flaws. Someone who sees a defect in others is afraid to look inside themselves and therefore inflicts their weaknesses on others. 
On Yom Kippur we embrace compassion and let go of our judgmental patterns, in order to experience closeness to God. That is why we are told, “For transgressions between man and his fellow, Yom Kippur does not bring atonement, until he has pacified his fellow” (Mishna Yoma 8:9).
The forgiveness and atonement that we seek on Yom Kippur is an outcome of this profound expression of authenticity. God embraces us with endless compassion on this festival of love and says to us, “I see your true colors shining through. I see your true colors and that’s why I love you. So don’t be afraid to let them show, your true colors which are beautiful.” 
GOD’S COMPASSION is rooted in His “confession” that He also “makes mistakes,”, since He created us as imperfect beings with an evil inclination. “Rabbi Elazar said that Elijah spoke impertinently toward God, as it is stated, ‘You have turned their hearts backward’.... God ultimately conceded to Elijah, as it is written, ‘I will heal... those whom I harmed [by creating them with the evil inclination]’” (Brachot 31b).
A couple of years ago, I spent Sukkot with my family at a hotel. During one of the meals, one of my daughters, wearing her beautiful new dress, filled her plate with spaghetti with tomato sauce. It was not a surprise that on her way back to the table she spilled the entire plate on her new white dress! I saw the looks in the eyes of everyone watching, as if they were about to say “How many times did we tell you not to do that?!” 
The same words were on the tip of my tongue, but then I looked in her eyes and saw her crumbling into tears. The last thing she needed was rebuke and criticism. I approached her gently, gave her a big hug and said, “Don’t worry sweetheart. I know you did not mean it, and it happens to us all. After washing, your dress will be like new.”
Her smile of relief reminded me of the feeling I had experienced just a few days earlier during Ne’ila. This is the profound message of Yom Kippur. Our clothes are stained with errors and mistakes, but when we have the courage to present our true colors, God bestows His endless love upon us, gives us a big hug and says, “Even if your sins prove to be like crimson, they will become white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).
COVID-19, this tiny virus that has become the joint enemy of all humanity, has brought some proportion to our lives and forced us all to let go of some of our judgmental and divisive feelings, realizing how we are all equally vulnerable. Especially this year, it’s an opportunity for us to approach God together, with full empathy and zero judgment, to be real and authentic, and to have the courage to show our true colors, with all of our wrinkles and stains, because our true colors are beautiful!
The writer, formerly rav of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra’anana, is author of The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age.