Yom Kippur eve, as the sun goes down and the holiness of the highest day of the year sets in, Jews all over the world will gather together to listen to the stirring declaration of Kol Nidrei. As the Chazzan stands before the congregation, dressed in white, with the Torah scrolls at his sides, and as everyone's hearts are filled with the excitement of starting fresh, one can feel the holiness in the air. Everything seems so picturesque, except for one thing.
As we begin to read through the words of this ancient paragraph, waiting for something inspiring to catch our eye and instill the feelings of the day's holiness, we instead find that the paragraph has very little to do with Yom Kippur ... or repentence ... or judgment ... and - for cryin' out loud - it isn’t even a prayer! It just seems to be a technicality, some type of legal protocol to be fulfilled in order to annul our vows before Yom Kippur begins. Yay!
But, in fact, there is tremendous depth to what is happening when we say these words. The Torah strongly discourages us from taking vows. This is because most vows are made in moments of weakness and vulnerability. At a point of anger one might make a vow never to speak to a loved one again. At a point of frustration and failure, one might take a vow never to try again. When we take vows, we are creating new barriers and new limitations, as well as new perspectives that are not based on the truth in our hearts but, rather, the emotions of the moment.
On Yom Kippur, we are supposed to rise above those false realities. We are supposed to be able to transcend all past experiences and embrace the world as if it is our first day on the planet. It is, in fact, the first day of the rest of our lives and we are starting with a clean slate. On Yom Kippur we declare that we are ready to give over our past to the Almighty. Everything that happened yesterday is now in His ballpark to fix. The past is His "problem." We have to focus on tomorrow.
Furthermore, at the time when the Kol Nidrei was written, it would not be uncommon for Jews whose behavior was not aligned with the community standards to be excommunicated. They would have to leave their communities and people would not be allowed to associate themselves with these outcasts in any way. Imagine the scene on Yom Kippur eve when the Kol Nidrei was recited and the back door of the Synagogues would open and all of these "sinners" would suddenly be welcomed back into the community! The haunting chant of a seemingly unispiring declaration meant a new life for them, a chance to start again.
Kol Nidrei is about letting go of the dark past for a new beginning infused with new light. It is the declaration that all the pain, negativity, cynicism, and all the chips on my shoulder can no longer exist. During Kol Nidrei we replace yesterday's disappointments with the promise and potential that this year will bring. And what can be more inspiring than that?
May we all be written in the Book of Life!