Commentary for Yom Kippur

3 Oct

The Kol Nidrei service has been a source of controversy for centuries.  Its text, as summarized in the Rabbinical Assembly’s machzor reads “All vows and oaths we take, all promises and obligations we make to God between this Yom Kippur and the next we hereby publicly retract in the event that we should forget, and hereby declare our intention to be absolved of them (p. 353),” has been used by anti-Semites throughout the generations (who have conveniently ignored the qualifying phrase “in the event that we should forget them”) as proof that Jews intend to be dishonest from the start, and thus can never be trusted.

Obviously this is not the case.   The Torah clearly states that “anyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to the LORD your God (Deut. 25:16),” and even if the act of announcing to your entire congregation that you do not intend to keep any agreement you make over the course of the next year was sufficient to protect one from violating this precept, then any dealing with anyone not in the same synagogue with you on Yom Kippur, whether the person is a gentile or a fellow Jew, would still violate the commandment of not putting a stumbling block in front of the blind (Lev. 19:14) and thus unacceptable in the eyes of God.

The perpetuation of this idea that Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur act as a spiritual “get out of jail free” card for any wrongdoings one commits over the course of a year comes from a misunderstanding of what Yom Kippur is, by both Jews and non-Jews alike.  Yom Kippur is not a mechanical ceremony in which everyone who shows up and says the magic words is automatically cleansed of all sin.  The rabbis of the Mishnah are quite clear on this point: “One who says ‘I will sin and Yom Kippur will provide atonement [for the sin], Yom Kippur does not provide atonement (Yoma 8:9).”  What Yom Kippur is is a day to honestly admit our failures to both ourselves and God, and to focus ourselves on doing better in the coming year.
In order be absolved of our sins, we must first atone for them.  No one can repent for our sins in our place.  We must do it ourselves.  If we want to be pardoned for straying from God’s path, we must first show God that we wish to return to it.

And so on Yom Kippur we reflect on our wrongdoings, and we vow to not repeat them.  But we know that just as we have not been perfect in the year that has passed, we will not be perfect in the coming year either, and so we do Kol Nidrei and nullify our vows before we make them, so as to not also make ourselves guilty of the sin of oath-breaking if we should slip up and repeat the misdeeds that we vow to correct.  In this way, Kol Nidrei functions as a safety net to ensure that in our desire to repent we do not set ourselves up to sin even more.  But just because we have this safety net does not mean it is okay to give up and allow ourselves to fall.

By the very virtue of doing Kol Nidrei, we are acknowledging that we are flawed; that we will make mistakes in the coming year.  Then, immediately after Kol Nidrei, we begin Yom Kippur, where we vow, in spite of those very flaws, to improve ourselves and become the best person we can be.

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