On Tuesday night, Jews around the world will gather at synagogues for Kol Nidre – the service that begins the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. The service takes its name from a prayer at the beginning of the service in which we absolve ourselves of all vows and oaths that we will take in the coming year. You read that right – all vows we have yet to make in the coming year. This prayer has been used as a basis for anti-Semitic stereotypes of the shifty, untrustworthy Jew through the ages.
The Torah and Jewish legal texts take vows, oaths, and keeping your promises very seriously. Numbers 30:3, for example, forbids us from breaking a vow – a prohibition that the Talmud tells us “shakes the whole world.” Ecclesiastes 5:4 states that it is better to not vow at all than to vow and not follow through. I’m sure you can come up with dozens of other passages with a similar message.
How, then, can we recite Kol Nidre? Because Jewish law is very clear that the prayer only applies to personal vows that we make to try to induce ourselves to proper behavior – and that the annulment only applies if we have honestly tried to fulfill it and have, as humans so often do, failed. I’m going to eat better and exercise more. I’m not going to argue with my spouse. I’m going to spend more time at prayer. I’m going to treat others more kindly. I’m going to more carefully watch what I say.
In other words, Kol Nidre isn’t a “get out of jail free” card. It is an acknowledgement that human beings are little more than dust and that our inclination to do evil is strong. Kol Nidre asks God to remember our weaknesses and forgive our vows if, after sincere effort, we find ourselves unable to fulfill them. But only after sincere effort.
May this be, for all of us, a year of vows fulfilled. G’mar chatimah tovah – may the Day of Atonement end in a good inscription in the Book of Life.