Yes, We Can
Rabbanit Sally Mayer
The haunting melody of Kol Nidrei resonates with every Jew who attends services on Yom Kippur night. But if you were writing the prayers for Yom Kippur, what would you choose as the opening lines? Perhaps you would open by apologizing for however we have sinned over the year; maybe put in a bid for mercy and kindness in judgement; or an appeal to God to honor the covenant with our forefathers, even if we are not deserving. Why, instead, do we launch Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei, a prayer that asks Hashem to release us from vows we may have taken over the year? It seems like such a minor detail; why begin with that?
A “neder,” or vow, can be a commitment we took upon ourselves explicitly. However, our Sages teach us that a positive action that we perform several times can gain the status of a commitment, even without that conscious statement. Once we enter into a pattern, there’s an assumption that it will continue. This can be a very positive thing – when we enter into the habit of reaching out and inviting a lonely person to our Shabbat table, or we start attending a shiur on Shabbat afternoon, continuing those patterns enriches and ennobles our lives.
Unfortunately, we all fall into negative patterns as well. We’re not sure how we got there, but we’re not happy with how things are going – in a relationship with our spouse, parent, child, or even with Hashem. Those negative patterns are so hard to break that we sometimes think it’s hopeless – we can never change them, so we might as well accept them.
Kol Nidrei comes along on Yom Kippur, the day on which Hashem renders our final judgement for the coming year, and tells us – yes, you can change those negative patterns. You can be released from those “vows” that you inadvertently undertook. You can begin again! This is the crucial message of teshuva, repentance. The prophet Yechezkel teaches (33:11) that God has no desire to see the downfall of the wicked, but rather appeals to us to abandon our negative ways and return to Him. Kol Nidrei teaches us to believe in the possibility of change, of undoing those patterns that trap us, and allowing ourselves to begin again.
Rabbanit Sally Mayer is Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program