Yom Kippur has two competing themes: we are sinners and we must afflict ourselves and repent; and: humans can become like angels – we wear white and put aside the needs of the body, like eating, bathing and sex. But actually, these two ideas are not opposed: they stem from the same root; our desire to rejoin with God as Beloved, to make ourselves worthy of the Great Love.
The Chassidic commentator, the Sfat Emet, said Yom Kippur is considered a foretaste of the world to come where there is no eating and drinking. Thus it is a day of true joy, for Israel, even though we aren't quite able to grasp that joy because we are still creatures of this world….Yom Kippur is a day of complete self-negation before God. The rabbis say on the verse (Jer. 17:13) “God is the hope – mikvah- of Israel.” That just as a mikvah purifies the ritually impure, so does God purify Israel. Just as a person has to enter the mikvah’s waters with the entire body, so does the entire self have to be negated before God.
In a sense, this seems completely bizarre – how could complete self-negation produce a day of great joy? But the truth is that Yom Kippur is preparation for the renewal of our wedding with God. The original wedding was at Sinai, which makes our anniversary Shavuot, but throughout the years, sometimes it’s not enough to just celebrate one’s anniversary. Sometimes we grow so used to one another, or tired of our usual ways that we feel a distance between us, and we have to work for reconciliation, for a new intimacy, and that, ultimately, is Sukkot, when we move back in together and relearn one another’s ways. But at Yom Kippur, we’re not there yet. We’re not ready. We have to prepare, and we prepare as if we were going to our wedding all over again. Just as the day before we marry we immerse ourselves in the mikvah, the ritual, living waters, to enter our new life joined together in purity, so do we do on Yom Kippur. In this case, it is our partner, God, who is the mikvah, and we immerse ourselves in God, in mikvat Yisrael, in hope, as we would in marriage, taking two individuals and making them one. What we don’t think about is that the reality is that we have always been one. Nothing in the world is separated from God, because the spark of God is in all that exists. But it takes a jolt to let us feel this secret in our bones. As on our wedding day, we fast, we leave behind the husks of our sins and become pure spirits, who are able to recognize our unity with God, our Beloved.
But fasting is not enough. Fasting is actually for when we are already prepared to celebrate and to be at one with God. Once we are fasting, we have already stepped into the realm of the neshama, the soul. But to get to that place, to cast off our own husks, we need the Yamim Noraim, the ten days of Awe and Terror, culminating with Kol Nidre before Yom Kippur even begins..
Kol Nidre is one of the more peculiar rituals of Jewish life. Dating back to sixteenth-century Spain, Kol Nidre is a declaration by which personal vows are cancelled. It was introduced into the liturgy despite the opposition of rabbinic authorities, and was repeatedly attacked in the course of time by many halakhists. In the nineteenth century it was actually expunged from the prayer-book by many communities of western Europe.
And there’s no surprise about why it has faced such ire from the rabbis; in its original form (still used by the Sephardic Jews) it was bad enough, absolving the vows of the past year, but in the form used by the Ashkenazim, it actually absolves Jews from vows in the upcoming year! Of course it was cited by non-Jews as evidence of the untrustworthiness of Jews. Say all you like about how Kol Nidre only affects vows between humans and God, and doesn’t affect at all those which concern other people; it looks suspicious, and inspires wariness.
But despite its looks, I believe that the people who have defended this custom for centuries have tapped into something important. In fact, Kol Nidre turns out to be liturgically integral to the mood of Yom Kippur, despite technically taking place before Yom Kippur begins.
Before sunset on the eve of the Day of Atonement, when the congregation has gathered in the synagogue, the Ark is opened and two rabbis, or two leading upstanding people in the community, take from it two Torah-scrolls. Then they take their places, one on each side of the Hazzan , and the three recite in concert a formula beginning with the words … "In the tribunal of heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God—blessed be He—and by the permission of this holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with the transgressors."
These three individuals make up a beit din, a court, which has the power to release individuals from their vows. This practice is based on a passage from the pirkei de rab eliezer, that cites Shmot (Exodus) 17:10, that in the battle against Amalek, Moses went up to the top of a hill with Aaron and Khur, who supported Moshe’s hands as Moshe prayed to God for victory against Amalek. This is connected to Yom Kippur thematically as we enter the day prepared to do internal battle with our yetzer hara – our evil inclination, with which the great rabbi, Rav Solovitchik, identifies Amalek.
But what is Kol Nidre really? When we step before the beit din, the court, to be relieved of our vows, what we are really asking is to be untangled from words. Words are powerful – they are thought become action, and they are real, not just vapor that evaporates in a moment. Words are webs that bind us to one another, to the world, to the past and the future. This is not a bad thing; with words God created the universe – and us. Words, though, can also get in the way.
How many of us have spoken angry words to the people we love and regretted it later? Yet we find, somehow those words spoken in irritation bind us, we can’t get away from them. Now, personally, I’m a sulker. When I feel irritated, my response to my partner asking me if he can do anything is likely to be, “Leave me alone.” But that’s not what I really want. What I really want is to be coaxed out of my sulk and irritation with florid apologies and sweet words and extra attention. But once I say, “Leave me alone,” I’m bound to those words. Somehow I just can’t say, “I really want you to pay attention to me and be nice to me now.” And my partner is bound by those words, too. Once I say, “Leave me alone,” he has to leave me alone.
God, too, is bound by our bitter words. Through out the year, however much what we really want is God’s love and attention, somehow, we find a thousand ways to say to God, “Leave me alone.” And so what choice does God have? God seldom forces Herself on us. We usually have to choose God and ask God to be with us. And after a full year of hearing, “Leave me alone,” we have spun a web of words guaranteed to keep God away from us. That is why we need Kol Nidre. Kol Nidre doesn’t free us from our promises to other people, it only offers us an opportunity to take back all those “leave me alone”s that we threw at God. It is the chance to wipe the slate clean, so that on Yom Kippur, when we try to become fit to be God’s partner, God can take us back in love, our verbal wars as if they had never happened, our sulks over.
It is a risk to submit to Kol Nidre; to negate our words is to negate ourselves; to put aside our defenses, to be open to the risk of something new, of the untried and possibly disappointing. What if God doesn’t answer? What if our lover has become so tired of sparring with us that She’s gone to find someone new? But if we want intimacy, we have to put aside that thought and be willing to rebuild with a clean start, and risk being disappointed.
But I want to suggest something else, perhaps a bit heretical. God needs Kol Nidre too. Rav Soloveitchik on the Days of Awe cites a passage in the Talmud (Nedarim 66a) which says that if a person vows, “I will not marry this ugly person” and she was found to be beautiful, he is permitted to marry the woman, not because she was ugly and became beautiful, but because the vow was made in error.
Rav Soloveitchik cites a story from one of the kinot -lamnts- on Tishah B’av, in which Elijah came across a poor and dirty woman. He asked her who she was, and she told him “The congregation of Israel.” Elijah told her that she should wash herself off, and then she would be beautiful again.
How often can we hear, “Go away, Leave me alone,” over and over before we start to believe it? Every lie we tell, every word of disrespect to our teachers, every time we engage in gossip , every sin of speech – and Jews have as many words for verbal wrong as Eskimos have words for snow- is a way we tell God, “Go away, leave me alone,” even if what we want is for God to coax us back, to love us into giving up our flaws. But every time we sin through speech, we are taking a vow that we won’t turn to God, won’t say, “Come back, I love you and I want you here with me.”
God loves us, every wart and hiccup, but after we paint ourselves with mud and refuse, after we roll in sewage, after we spit at God and yell and cuss, even God grows tired and says, “I just can’t marry this person, they’re too ugly.” But after the Yamim Noraim, after we have cleaned ourselves and scrubbed off the sins of the year, God can see the glimmering underneath of beauty, then God can go to the beit din, and say, “I want to be released from my vow not to marry Israel. My vow was made in error, because I can see that she isn’t ugly, she’s beautiful – and I love her.” And the beit din sets God loose from God’s vow, and so on Yom Kippur, Israel can become beautiful like an angel, stripped on the body, only a radiating soul, and we can go off to the sukkah together.