Promises To Keep


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


     Yom Kippur Eve…We make every effort to arrive on time. Latecomers

are few. No one wants to miss Kol Nidre, perhaps the most powerful religious moment in our liturgical calendar. It has been known to impact the course of people’s lives in mystical ways. The choral and instrumental renditions transport our souls. It is all about the music.

Yet, ironically the literal meaning of Kol Nidre is all about words, specifically

promises and vows. We ask that they be annulled, either for the year past or year to come, depending upon which version of the prayer is utilized, Ashkenazic or Sephardic. Does this mean that we are can break our commitments freely?… of course not, we who cherish honesty and integrity. Our petition applies to forced vows, impetuous words, rash comments, unintentional and not carefully thought through, hasty words that can break relationships: “I swear that I will never speak to that person again.”  Words that prevent us from doing teshuvah are the vows that need to be absolved.

Kol Nidre is often associated with the Middle Ages and particularly dark times when the Golden Age of Spain was tarnished. Jews were forced to convert either by communal pressure or the point of a sword. Secretly recited, Kol Nidre would lighten the spirits of these so called Conversos or Marranos. Hence we darken our lights to recall ancestors who prayed in darkness, lest they be discovered.

In truth Kol Nidre predates Spain. The Talmud provides a formula to appear before a Bet Din, a rabbinical court, of three judges for nullification of vows when made either under abnormal circumstances, i.e. impulsively or recklessly, or if sworn when unaware of certain circumstances or consequences. We call this “finding a loophole” to extricate ourselves from the commitment. Our prayer first appears in the 9th century and evolves into a quasi legal/religious ceremony. A preamble to the prayer arrives in the 13th century by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, as we will read, calling us to stand before both the Yeshiva shel Maalah and the Yeshivah Shel Mattah, the heavenly and human court, along with all other transgressors as we ask that we be released from our vows. Since one can not hold court proceedings during a holy day, the custom is to begin Kol Nidre before sundown, which is the reason that this is the one evening to wear a tallit. The three-fold repetition of Kol Nidre is consistent with court procedures before a minimum of three judges. The Torahs being held by our leaders represent that we testify before God.

So in other words we begin this most holy of days by saying, “O.K. God, just kidding! I didn’t mean it. Do over! Let me off the hook…. Please!” Understanding the literal meaning of this prayer, you can appreciate attempts to eliminate it from our liturgy over the centuries. Conceptually, it is abhorrent to many. Words do matter! Vows should be taken seriously! What will others think of us? They’ll say, “You can’t trust those Jews.”

Regardless, Kol Nidre persevered, perhaps due to the fact that it is in Aramaic. Who knows Aramaic anymore? Along came the early Reformers, who translated everything. Doing so, they were aghast at what they read. Those who prayed from the Old Union Prayer Book might recall that instead of printing the prayer in Aramaic and English, as in our current mahzor, it simply read in bold letters with white space around them: “Kol Nidrei is chanted.” In other words, “just sing the darn prayer. Don’t worry about what it means.” I am not letting you off the hook so easily. We will hear the words intoned in a moment, setting the stage for our 24 hour period of teshuvah. First let us ask how its history and message speaks to us?

Like the Conversos of Spain, perhaps we all lead secret lives in one way or

another, feeling compelled to portray ourselves in one fashion to others, but in our heart of hearts, knowing we are not who we project to be. I think of the brave homosexual men and women who serve our country in the military, who must deny their sexual persuasion due to the ludicrous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I sincerely hope that this will be reversed soon. In the meantime we can see how Kol Nidre can be helpful.

Beyond the military context, many other gay and lesbian men and women feel they must hide who they are in fear of social stigma, rejection and/or discrimination. Towards those among us who suffer in this way, let us open our arms, minds and hearts, as surely as I believe God does. I look forward to the time when they will have full rights and freedom, including marriage recognition. While I do not see that happening soon in Louisiana, we can be receptive, welcoming and supportive as individuals and as a congregation. For these men and women, we can reflect upon our society and understand why Kol Nidre might be needed, but let us hope and pray for a time when it will not.

Many others lead secret lives. Suffering from drug, alcohol, gambling and other addictions, they pretend as if nothing is wrong, deceiving others, deluding themselves and hiding from God. Often they do not realize that their addiction impacts all with whom they come in contact, co-workers, friends and family. The only one who is not aware of the ramifications, who thinks that the addiction is well disguised, under control, is the addict him/herself. For them, Kol Nidre does not apply. It will not annul commitments and excuse behaviors that one might feel are necessary, but in fact are not. Only the paths of repentance will achieve that goal.

And what of those who act falsely, cognizant they are not who they represent themselves to be: the individual who knows everything, the man who is always right, the woman who insists she understands situations better than anyone else, the person who commands leadership roles …..They have a compulsion to be the masters of certain situations, knowing full well that they are not, masking insecurities and inadequacies. These too are leading secret lives, not covered by Kol Nidre, requiring soul searching confrontation with self, forgiveness seeking teshuvah towards those who are offended, with a commitment not to be that person anymore.

However, self-deception, acting in ways we do not truly feel, is not always negative. Pretending to be who we are not can sometimes be positive, even praiseworthy. When facing great challenges, afraid of what comes next, we can don a mask of bravery, which will assist us in addressing what lies before us. Many of us did just that when dealing with Katrina. In contrast, during moments of triumph, upon achieving great success, when victorious over an opponent, pride and boastfulness are the norm.

Instead, we should consider wearing a cloak of humility, even a false cloak, to rein in unappealing arrogance.

The Talmud emphasized vows made impetuously or without fully appreciating the implications of our commitment. While Kol Nidre might annul those words, our goal should be to avoid uttering them in the first place. The five second rule not only applies to items dropped on floors, but words that issue from our mouths. When angry with someone, hesitate before unleashing a diatribe that you will later regret. Belittling a child for a foolish error, embarrassing a spouse for failing to meet your expectations, castigating a loyal employee for a bungled task, shaming a friend for a miscue will rarely achieve anything positive. Just because you enjoy a close relationship and assume it will blow over, does not make it pleasant for the recipient. Words do hurt! Before volunteering to take on a project or offering to perform a favor, be sure you are ready to fulfill the task. When asking another during their difficult times if there is anything you can do for them, be prepared to accept the task that is requested. Otherwise you have offered empty words and created false expectations.

“But you promised” are famous words commonly connected with the mouths of our children. Sometimes they apply to actual promises made to share time together, to visit a favorite destination or purchase a desired item. Parents have a responsibility to keep those promises as much as is humanly possible. Don’t make them just to placate a child for the moment and then renege. You will have done more harm than good, eroding a fundamental relationship of trust and dependability. And if the circumstances have changed, conditions are altered or complications arise, explain the new reality, asking for forgiveness. You may understand why you cannot fulfill your promise, but do all you can to make sure the one you promised does as well. If true for children, how much the more so this applies to older family members and friends. Kol Nidre does not annul false commitments, only those sincerely made.

Children (and perhaps the child in each of us) will often reshape words into promises, or wishes are so strong they become transformed into promises. “We’ll see,” becomes “You promised.”  While one cannot be responsible for how others understand or react to what we have said, we can be sensitive to their feelings. Often our “we’ll see,” is the hope that we can fulfill a wish and when unable to do so, our own disappointment is expressed harmfully: “You’re nuts! I never said that.” as opposed to “I realize how you concluded that way. I had also hoped to be able to meet your desire, but was unable to do so.” Words will not change reality, but they can either inflame or placate. Implied promises are also part of Kol Nidre.

As we think of promises that have been broken, it is difficult not to examine the current economic crisis. We focus upon crooks like Bernie Madoff, heads of major financial institutions, whose lavish lifestyles and squandering, reckless business practices placed our country and many of us individually into precarious financial predicaments. Kol Nidre does not forgive or annul the promises they made.

The promise of America: work hard and save and you will be secure for the future has been compromised. Jobs have been lost and finding meaningful employment is difficult. Some can’t meet weekly or monthly obligations. Others must renege on pledges to charitable organizations, dependent upon donations for sustenance. Retirement funds have diminished in value. The promise of a secure future which we made to ourselves and our loved ones may be difficult if not impossible to fulfill.

Kol Nidre is a statement of understanding and we hope that this synagogue will be a haven of support and comfort.

Last are the vows we have made to ourselves. Some are broad life goals, visions that we have of where we want to be, perhaps forged in youth, but frustrated along life’s path. Others are more immediate, some life changing, others, life enhancing: weight to lose, habits to kick, activities to experience, behaviors requiring change, relationships to forge, books to read, subjects to explore, individuals and organizations to assist, services to attend more often… Feel free to fill in your own shortfall. Kol Nidre offers temporary clemency, allowing us to forgive ourselves for non-compliance, while reminding us that life is not complete. There are promises to keep.

In a moment we will hear Kol Nidre, a prayer of the ages. Not only does it set a tone for our full day of worship, it moves us to be honest with ourselves as we contemplate our lives. The words of poet Merle Feld could very well be our own:

Kol Nidre

I am so grateful for this,
a moment of truth,
grateful to stand before You
in judgment.

You know me as a liar
and I am flooded with relief
to have my darkest self
exposed at last.

Every day, I break my vows,
to be awake in this moment,
to be a responsible
citizen of the world.

No one sees, no one knows,
how often I become distracted,
lose myself and then lose hope—
every day, every day

On this day, this one day,
I stand before you naked,
without disguise, without embellishment,
naked, shivering, ridiculous.

I implore You—
help me to try again.



The preceding poem by Merle Feld appears in Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality A Sourcebook, edited by Ellen M. Umansky and Diane Ashton (Brandeis).



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