Vows and Yom Kippur

Avi Ganz head shotAvi Ganz is the director of the Elaine and Norm Brodsky Darkaynu Program for Men

On the Eve of Yom Kippur or, what we often call “Kol Nidrei Night,” men, women, and children across denominational, cultural, and generational spectra join together in shuls to usher in the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur.  The Day of Atonement is also a day of “at-one-ment” when we commune with our Father in Heaven and He mercifully bestows forgiveness.  It is a day of introspection, self-criticism, and reckoning, to be sure, but also a day of promise and hope; a time for strengthening bonds and maybe brushing off the cobwebs from old commitments or aspirations.
On a day so lofty, why do we start our full day of prayer with the public annulment of vows?  After all, how many of us really make vows?  Of those who do, how many of those vows can be ceremoniously annulled in what amounts to a wholesale dissolution of very serious commitments?
Perhaps the message is not about the individual vows at all:  perhaps the message is about the very concept of a vows.  At their core, a vow is a verbal commitment for the future.  I understand today that tomorrow will somehow be better if I lock in today’s “rates.”  This idea is antithetical to what Yom Kippur and atonement are all about.  Sure, there are times when a commitment (tzedaka, a korban, a stricter adherence to a mitzvah, or a commitment to more frequent chessed) is inspired by something objectively good.  The mechanism is a Torah-prescribed mechanism for good.  At the same time, the idea that I can bind tomorrow by the perception of today is an idea that is foreign to the renewal of Yimei HaDin – the High Holy Day season.  We start off Yom Kippur with our public individual and communal declaration: “Today is a new day.  This year is a new year.  I am a new me. We are a new we.”
With this subtle reminder, we enter the day and indeed the year.  May it be a blessed year of renewed vigor and productivity; health and happiness.
This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782


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