Kol Nidrei

By Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, at the beginning of their first date, Woody asks Annie for a first kiss.  As he explains it, he knows both of them will be thinking about it all through the night so wouldn’t it be better to get it out of the way and then enjoy the evening?

I think something similar happens on Kol Nidre as we listen to this most beautiful of melodies, asking God to forgive our shortcomings and transgressions.  After the Kol Nidre chant is finished, traditionally – and included in the Mishkan HaNefesh pilot – we feature a verse from Numbers 14:20 wherein God says “I forgive you.”

At first glance, this verse seems strangely misplaced.  We just asked that our vows be released and our failures forgiven.  The service literally has just begun.  The observance of Yom Kippur is barely started.  And God says, “Okay.  I forgive you.”  Talk about anticlimactic!  It would be understandable if we said, “Great.  Let’s go home before God changes God’s mind!”

However, like Woody’s logic in the movie, there is wisdom in God’s declaration.  After all, Kol Nidre for most of us is not a legal formula, even if it is modeled on one.  It is a statement of aspiration.  We will try to do the best we can.  By having God say “I forgive you” immediately after, we are reminding ourselves that the goal of Yom Kippur is not to convince God.  The aim is to change ourselves.  So let’s get the saying sorry and the forgiveness finished and then get down to work!

Much of this work focuses on how we treat ourselves and how we treat others.  That work will not be concluded five minutes after Kol Nidre.  As the medieval teacher Rabbeinu Tam taught, Kol Nidre only applies to vows made to God.  The annulment of vows has nothing to do with our obligations to other human beings.  It is almost as if God is saying to us, “Look, I am easy.  I want to forgive.  You have to worry about other people and of course yourself.  So put me aside and focus on the work before you.”

I love Kol Nidre but I also know that that its haunting melody is not only a statement of regret.  It also is a summon to remember that the gift of life comes with a price, and the way we pay has less to do with God than it does with how we treat each other.

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg has served as the senior rabbi of Temple Judea in Coral Gables since 1996. In July he will begin serving as the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Rabbi Goldberg is the coordinating editor of the forthcoming CCAR Machzor and is the author of five books including, Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most and Love Tales from the Talmud.

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One Response to “Kol Nidrei”

  1. avatar

    Very nice post–interesting and theologically rich. It also highlights an aspect of Liturgical worship Services that is sometimes a bit uncomfortable, or at least a little funny to talk about. There is a way in which Liturgy is very much DRAMA–like a scripted play or movie. This is not to say that it is “phoney” or “acted” or a “performance” (or at least it shouldn’t be). Nevertheless, we are “scripting” what we (the congregation) say to God and for our own reflective benefit, we are scripting what the clergy say to God on our behalf and for our own benefit, and even what the clergy and choir say or sing to us on behalf of God! That was probably not the main intent of Rabbi Goldberg’s thoughtful post, but when he talks about “having God say” that He/She/It forgives us, this curious reality jumps out at the reader. What right have we to speak on behalf of God, or even imagine what we thing God must be saying or thinking? Yet, this is a liturgical tradition in many religions. I am fine with it, though it certainly means we ought to tread carefully when innovating and composing new Liturgy. Suffice it to say that I do not always agree with the decisions made by prayerbook committees.

    I have only one minor quibble that may not really be a quibble at all, but just a different understanding. The author writes
    “the goal of Yom Kippur is not to convince God. The aim is to change ourselves. So let’s get the saying sorry and the forgiveness finished and then get down to work!”

    That may be true–if one conceives of an infinitely wise, infinitely perceptive, omniscient Deity Who is not bound by a linear timeline, then we may indeed be forgiven before we ever commit a sin. Or, there may be a linear progression, but we are forgiven immediately as long as we feel true remorse, and the ritualized repentance and atonement is a constructed outward sign of something that’s already happened inside. Either way, it might be beneficial to continue to behave as though the goal of Yom Kippur WERE “to convince God”. By reasoning these things through and whole-heartedly dramatizing the whole process of remorse, apology, repentance, etc., we may purify ourselves and our future behavior. The key is that it has to be real, and not merely dramatic, and DEFINITELY not a show of piety for other people. It is nice to worship in public and be moved by visible signs that other people are having a genuine experience–kavanah can be CONTAGIOUS! But, overdoing it for the “benefit” of others is not good.

    Maybe for the duration of Yom Kippur (and the preceding Days of Awe), we SHOULD draw out the “saying sorry” and the “forgiveness”, and “get down to work” after Ne’ilah.

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