Saturday, September 26, 2009

kol nidre

There are many ways observe the Jewish faith. The most observant go to shul daily, some three times a day, for prayer. There is the Shabbos Jew, who goes to Shabbos services every week on erev Shabbat, Friday evening, and again on Saturday morning, perhaps on Saturday evening, to usher to Sabbath out with the fragrant havdalah service. Lately, Shabbos services have been abbreviated to Friday nights, or even twice a month in smaller congregations. These are different ways--perhaps degrees--of practicing the faith.

Then there are the Jews who only go to shul on the high holy days, that is, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You have to pay for tickets for these popular services, they are long affairs, with much standing, prayer, meditation, and socializing. Then there are those whose only absolute must-attend service is on erev Yom Kippur, which this year is tomorrow evening. This is when the Kol Nidre is chanted. It is such a beautiful melody, so evocative of centuries of Jewish faith that many of us cry when we hear it sung.

Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of the new year in the Jewish calendar, and Yom Kippur is the "Day of Atonement" when Jews fast and publicly announce our personal and collective guilt and sins, ask for forgiveness and to be "written in the book" for another year of life.

Kol Nidre is an odd prayer, sung not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic (the common-people language that Jesus is thought to have spoken) asking for release from all vows and oaths that we have not kept, and may not keep in the coming year. There are many rabbinic and esoteric (and of course, some antisemitic) explanations of this prayer, but I think it is a lovely way to remind ourselves that we are human and do not, cannot, always keep the promises we make. As the day is spent in repentance for acts of commission and omission, the failure to do all that we hoped to do is certainly a source of regret and sadness.

I certainly regret promises that I did not keep this year. There is the funeral that I promised to attend, but was unable to because I had to work that day; the promise that I would bring a patient a Reuben sandwich , and then forgot, and he died before the next time I planned a visit. My list of small promises not kept is quite lengthy. In my work-life, people often die before I can do what I hope to do, offer to do, vow to do to make their life a little sweeter.

We dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah, hoping for a sweet year. Most of us want another year, although I know many people who hope to die, rather than endure another year of suffering. We cannot assume that we have another year to live, or that the year will be good. Certainly we cannot assume that we will be able to fulfill all of our promises this year. I am learning to promise less, so I will feel less regret. Still, I will go to shul tomorrow to hear Kol Nidre chanted as it has been done for centuries, bringing past into present, absolving me for being human, imperfect, less than my promises suggest.


  1. There are some powerful lessons here...
    thank you...

  2. I think that if we try to do good always, and end up doing good often, or sometimes, then we're on the right track.

    Beautiful post