Kol Nidre Sermon

For the past month we’ve been self-reflecting, apologizing to people we have wronged, and working to accept the apologies of others. We have beat our chests with remorse, as we’ve considered how much more we’re capable of becoming. And then we began to make vows:

This year I will be less judgmental and more compassionate; less angry and more understanding.

This year I will spend more energy with those I love.

This year I will be more forgiving and more generous.

Just as we’re solidifying our vows we come to Kol Nidrei

Kol Nidrei veesare vacharomei v’konamei, v’chinuyei v’kinusei u’shvuot.

“All vows—resolves and commitments…

Sworn promises and oaths of dedication—

That we promise and swear to God, and take upon ourselves

From this Day of Atonement to the next Day of Atonement…

Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone;

They are not valid and they are not binding….”[1]

If you’re puzzled by the words of Kol Nidrei you’re not alone. How can we nullify our commitments[2] before we even have a chance to put them into action? And why would we want to? The Kol Nidrei prayer—the very prayer for which tonight’s service is named—can feel confusing and even counter-intuitive.

For thousands of years rabbis have resisted the Kol Nidre. [3] In the 9th century, Rabbi Amram called the prayer foolish, but it was already too much a part of Judaism’s fabric to do away with. Quickly people became attached to the custom, and especially its stirring melody. By the time of Mordecai Kaplan, taking Kol Nidre out of Yom Kippur was sure to upset many people, who like us, are stirred every year by its powerful melody, so he left the melody and took out the words.

Other rabbis came up with a different solution: they changed the language of Kol Nidre, so that it no longer discussed annulling future vows, but rather vows from the past, which may have been made in good faith but proved too difficult to achieve.[4] In doing so, Kol Nidre would allow everyone to start the new year with a clean slate.

In many communities this change was accepted and proved meaningful, and yet many Ashkenazi prayer books—including ours—retain the original language of the prayer. How do we make sense of it?

At one time, historians thought that the Kol Nidrei “prayer” was created in the 7th century when the Visigoths forcefully converted Jews, or in the 14th or 15th century when Jews became Conversos—forced to “convert” and hide their true Jewish identity. We could understand in these circumstances why Jews would want to preemptively annul any vows they might be forced to take in order to survive.

These theories are romantic, but they as it turns out, they are inaccurate.

According to Baruch Levine[5] and Rabbi Dalia Marx,[6] Kol Nidre actually derived from the language of magical spells written on bowls between the 4th and 8th centuries, which were believed to protect against demonic powers, and other negative forces outside our control. The two scholars differ on one important point. While Baruch Levine suggests that Kol Nidre was written to ensure that demons didn’t interfere with the sanctity of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Dalia Marx believes that Kol Nidre prayers were meant in another context. Kol Nidre is legal as opposed to magical, oral as opposed to written, and communal as opposed to individualistic. “Kol Nidre does not deal with fear of demonic powers,” Rabbi Marx explains. It deals with “the fear of unfulfilled oaths and vows made by each worshipper.”

In other words we are so scared of not fulfilling our oaths that we begin Yom Kippur with a ritual to preemptively annul them. We are so scared about our imperfections that we are afraid to commit ourselves.

We worry what will happen if we don’t achieve our goals. What happens if we fail a test, make a mistake at work, lose our jobs, or if we occasionally lose patience with our child?

Most of us beat ourselves up about it with “could’ves” and “should’ves”—sometimes about factors entirely outside of our control—not being at the side of a parent who died without warning, not knowing immediately what was wrong with a screaming child, not being able to help a friend in need. We should’ve. We could’ve, if only we’d known. But we didn’t.

The fears that Rabbi Marx cites are real. They can be debilitating. When they are, Rabbi Kook urges us to stop: “When thoughts of fear and penitence occur to a person in a spirit of melancholy, let him distract his mind from them until his mind becomes more settled.”[7]

Being saddened by our past services no purpose, he explains. Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein agrees: “…when repentance [feelings of guilt and remorse] deepens and turns to grief, robbing of all quietude the heart in which it dwells, it ceases to serve its high function and becomes a destructive tool.”[8]

I believe that Kol Nidre gives us a powerful tool to overcome this melancholy and grief. That tool is self-compassion.

Self-compassion is extending compassion to ourselves in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. Self-compassion requires self-kindness, recognizing how much we have in common with others, and being mindful.

It starts with kindness.

We know what it is to be a good friend. When a friend makes a mistake and apologizes sincerely, we strive to forgive her. When a friend makes a mistake, we offer support and compassion, reminding him that his mistake doesn’t define him, or take away from what makes him so special. When a friend is down, we try to help.

But often we don’t treat ourselves with the same kindness. In fact, according recent research, people who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others don’t offer themselves the same self-compassion. They berate themselves for perceived failures, like being overweight.[9] One member of this congregation told me that she has trouble forgiving herself for mistakes she made when we was 6 or 7 years old. Another told me that when he was laid off, even though losing his job was due to the economy and not his failure, he saw his work status as evidence that he was not good enough.

We often criticize ourselves, explains Dr. Neff, because we believe we need that criticism to motivate us to succeed, when in actuality it strips us of our confidence and stalls us in our productivity. We perform far better when we feel supported and appreciated as opposed to when we feel berated and unappreciated. [10]

There is a debate in the Talmud in which rabbis disagree about the most important teaching in the Torah. Rabbi Akiva argues that the most important verse is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” a verse that inspires us to behave ethically. Except there is one challenge with the verse, explains Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman: “it’s relative. If we do not love ourselves then we will never learn to love our neighbor. And if we use that model, then how we treat others will be almost completely dependent on how we treat ourselves.”[11]

Another rabbi argues that the most important verse states that we are made in the image of God. We are sacred. Each of us as individuals, and all of us, as members of the human race.

Yom Kippur isn’t about tearing us down. It’s about building us up. Just as we show a friend compassion, we have the ability to do that for ourselves. When we fail, the goal is not to beat ourselves up but to understand what factors went into that perceived failure. We must recognize that we are made in the image of God, but we are also made of the dust of the earth.

We offer the words of Kol Nidre because we recognize that we are human. We are imperfect, and we will make mistakes. We don’t annul our vows to get out of them. We do it to forgive ourselves when we aren’t able to achieve them.

Self-compassion sometimes gets a bad reputation for leading to self-indulgence or lower standards. Dr. Kristen Neff explains that is anything but the truth.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner taught that it is easy to just say we made a few mistakes and promise to never do them again. We do this all the time. On the high holy days we do much more:  “We receive whatever evils we have intended and done, back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations. We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again. And thereby transform them and ourselves. When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t just hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.”

We hold ourselves when we recognize that everyone makes mistakes.

We hold ourselves when we recognize that every decision we made we made for a reason.

We hold ourselves when we recognize our capabilities and limitations.

We hold ourselves when we recognize where we excel and where we have room for growth.

And we hold ourselves when we remember that every action and every decision we have made have helped us to become the people we are today.

Rav Kook reminds us that it is important to partake in repentance and not penitence. Penitence focuses us entirely on past mistakes. It opens the door to “should’ves” and “could’ves.” As Rabbi Lichtenstein explains, When we permit repentance to bite too deeply into our soul, we are simply inviting… unhappiness in the name of atonement. We are, in reality, making atonement more distant by making ourselves miserable.”[12]

Repentance, however, focuses squarely on the future. We look back on the year with one purpose only: to ascertain where we are, and where we are going. When we make a mistake, adds Rabbi Lichtenstein, “We do not need to rebuke our past or punish ourselves for it, we have to transcend it, to live a better life in the present and aspire to an even better one in the future….” [13]

Now is the time when we consider not the mistakes we’ve made, but why we’ve made them. We work to overcome the root causes for our errors rather than the errors themselves. This is hard work, and we may be unsuccessful at first. Kol Nidre reminds us that it is okay to fail. Annulling our vows means that far more important than the outcome is the effort. All of a sudden making vows isn’t quite so scary. As long as we put our heart into them, succeed or not, we will prevail. Because 5776 will be a year of growth, of improvement, and of increased blessing by virtue of our effort.

“Yom Kippur begins by annulling our vows, but just as significant, it ends with us making a vow: L’maan nechdal meioshek yadeinu—“We vow to withdraw our hands from all that we have taken wrongfully.”

It is one thing to make a vow at the end of Yom Kippur, but our sages question why we end the Holy Day with this particular vow. Is stealing that prevalent of a problem? The Gerer Rebbe says no. The theft refers to that which we steal from God when we do not live up to our true potential.

When we stop trying, when we stop believing in ourselves, when we allow fear of failure to stop us from becoming the people we are capable of becoming, the Gerer Rebbe says we are stealing away our potential.

Alternatively, if we acknowledge our limitations, but try to do our best anyway we will uphold our sacred vow.

We begin Yom Kippur by giving ourselves permission to annul our vows. We end it by vowing to believe in ourselves anyway. That is the true nature of repentance.

[1] Mishkan HaNefesh p18

[2] Nedarim 23b teaches about an ancient custom allowing people to nullify vows they will make. It does spell out some ground rules, however: they need to have those specific vows they wish to break in mind as they say the prayer, and they cannot teach the rule publically, so that vows aren’t treated lightly.

[3] Jews were historically called disingenuous many time because of this prayer. Menasse ben Israel tried to convince Oliver Cromwell to readmit Jews to England in the 17th century, saying that Kol Nidre didn’t mean that Jews couldn’t be trusted. Similiarly, in 1910, the Berlin paper Staatzburger-Zeitung called Kol Nidre an insult to civilization: “Like the Talmud, it is a culpable deception of the Aryans by the Jews. A Jew can commit perjury in court; his religious convictions allow him to do it. He may brand truth a lie and ruin his fellow man. These moral dues of Judaism are a criminal assault on humanity and civilization.”

[4] Sephardic liturgy changed the language to say “from last Yom Kippur to this one.” Ashkenazi Jews, such as Rabbi Meir ben Rabbi Samuel (son in law of Rashi), tried to change the tenses as well. They were less successful because at that time everyone was attached to the music and the words.

[5] Levine, Baruch. “The Language of the Magical Bowls.” In A History of the Jews of Babylonia. Vol. 5 Ed. Jacob Neusner. Leiden, 1970.

[6] “Marx, Dalia. “What’s in a Bowl?” in All These Vows: Kol Nidre, Ed. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. Jewish Lights Publishing. Woodstock, VT, 2011, p.26-30.

[7] Kook, Rabbi Abraham Isaac; Abraham Isaac Kook; Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, trans.; Paulist Press; p102 (“The Lights of Penitence/Orot HaTeshuva”).

[8] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; Society of Jewish Science; p 212.

[9] “Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges” by Tara Parker-Pope, NYTimes.com, February 28,2011. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/28/go-easy-on-yourself-a-new-wave-of-research-urges/?_r=0

[10] The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion: Kristin Neff at TEDxCentennialParkWomen

[11] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-geoffrey-a-mitelman/self-compassion_b_836448.html

[12] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; Society of Jewish Science; p 212.

[13] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; Society of Jewish Science; p 212.

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