“Let our speech be pure and our promises sincere” A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5782

“Let our speech be pure and our promises sincere.[i]

The opening line of this reflection on Kol Nidrei found in our mahzor incapsulates the message of this prayer that has become so central to our worship on Yom Kippur.

Yet, Kol Nidrei is not really a prayer at all.

It is a legalistic formula said before a Beit Din, a rabbinic court represented by individuals holding Torah scrolls.  These ancient scrolls, our grounding, our moral anchor, bear witness to our testimony as the Day of Atonement begins.

The text of the Kol Nidrei itself, at least at first glance, seems rather bizarre and counter to basic principles we understand in Judaism:

All vows—

Resolves and commitments, vows of abstinence and terms of obligation,

Sworn promises and oaths of dedication –

That we promise and swear to God, and take upon ourselves

From this Day of Atonement until next Day of Atonement, may it find us well:

We regret them and for all of them we repent.

Let all of them be discarded and forgotten, abolished and undone;

They are not valid and they are not binding.

Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves;

And our oaths – they shall not be oaths.

The origins of Kol Nidrei are unclear.   While folklore attributes it to the Marranos of the Spanish Inquisition, it is of much earlier origin, perhaps from a similar experience of Jews in Spain in the 6th century.  It may have evolved out of the ancient Babylonian belief in magical adjuration with a formula to cancel the oaths of demons that would cause harm.  Whatever its origins, it is clear that this prayer arose in response to the seriousness with which rabbinic law treated vows as laid out in the Torah.  Yet, there is no mention of Kol Nidrei in the Talmud.   The rabbis frowned upon this wholesale declaration nullifying one’s vows, an action counter to biblical laws.   The Babylonian post-Talmudic sages even referred to Kol Nidrei as a “foolish custom” and tried to eradicate it.  No such luck!  By the 13th century, Kol Nidrei was a given in the Yom Kippur liturgy.  The original version was actually in the language of the past:  all vows that we were not able to keep, let them not be binding.   In order to harmonize Jewish law which prohibits such annulment with the strong desire of the people for this prayer, the rabbis put the text in the future:  let those vows, promises and oaths that we are unable to keep, let those not be binding.[ii]

In either case, Kol Nidrei presents us with a moral dilemma.  Can we cast aside promises that we were unable to keep?  What is the value of our commitments if they can simply be nullified months from now?  This dilemma was most apparent to the early reformers, the post-enlightenment rabbis who were fighting for civil rights for Jews. Our word had to be trusted.  This prayer would fuel the fires of antisemitism, where Jews could be accused of not keeping promises.  Indeed, for a time, Kol Nidrei was absent from early Reform mahzorim, but by the 1945 edition of the Union Prayer Book, it was back in place, ambiguities and all.

Whether it is its haunting melody or the sense of tradition, Kol Nidrei has maintained a central place in the Jewish soul.  So much so that the service for the evening of Yom Kippur bears its name.  It is said three times so that no late comer should miss its words and holding the scrolls for Kol Nidrei is among the highest honors bestowed.

What is the power of its message?

In his book of spiritual preparation for the holy days, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew wrote, “Kol Nidrei is about speaking true – about the power of speech.  It is a gift to us from a time far back in our tribal consciousness when we seemed to understand these things better than we do now, when we seemed to understand the biblical warning that we are absolutely accountable for everything that comes out of our mouths.” [iii]

Our words matter; words have power.  We learn that in the very beginning of our sacred text.  The vehicle God uses to create the world is speech: “And God said, let there be light.  And there was light.”  The psalmist taught us: “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” (18:21).   

We know the power of our words – how what we say can raise others up or knock them down.  We know the power of our leaders’ words – how they can bring people together or drive them apart; how they can incite violence or provide comfort and calm. 

In this difficult time of COVID, where life is literally at stake, we rely on the words of those in positions of power, be they elected or ascribed through media and other platforms; we rely on them to speak truth based on science and scholarship and not to spread false information that can, in fact, endanger others.

We bear responsibility for our words. Apparently, my grandmother didn’t always say the kindest things.  My grandfather often said, “Mariam, if only your ears could hear what your mouth is saying…”  Kol Nidrei calls us to think about and listen carefully to the words we speak.

“Let our speech be pure and our promises sincere.” 

“On Kol Nidrei we affirm that it is an absolute catastrophe, it throws the soul out of balance, to have our words out of line with our deeds,” wrote Lew.[iv]

Kol Nidrei calls us to lives of integrity.  

It is tradition to wear a tallit on Kol Nidrei, the only evening service where one does (unless one is in the role of prayer leader).

That is because of the Kol Nidrei. 

Remember, it not a prayer – it is a legal formula.  As it is forbidden to conduct any legal transactions on a holy day, the custom is to recite Kol Nidrei as the sun is setting, when it is still day and not yet night, a time when one would normally wear a tallit in prayer.

What makes a tallit a tallit?   The tzitzit, the special fringes, the strings that are inserted in the four corners of the garment and knotted in a particular way to represent the 613 mitzvot.

Some Jews also wear a tallit katan, a garment under their shirt, worn at all times, with the tzitzit in the fours corners.  It serves as a constant reminder to observe the commandments, because our words must be in line with our deeds.

The obligation to wear tzitzit comes from the book of Numbers and is included as the final section of the full v’ahavta, the prayer that reminds us that we take these obligations with us, when “when we walk by the way, when we lie down and when we rise up.”  We keep them as a sign on the doorposts of our house and on our gates.

In our regular prayer book, Mishkan Tefillah, opposite that part of the v’ahavta, there is a reading adapted from words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that conveys a deeper significance for the practice of tzitzit:

Life without integrity

is like loosely hanging threads,

while in acts of piety we learn to understand that

every instant is like a thread

raveling out of eternity to form a delicate tassel.

We must not cast off the threads

but weave them into the design of an eternal fabric.

Each day points to eternity;

the fate of all time depends upon a single moment.[v]

“On Kol Nidrei we affirm that it is an absolute catastrophe, it throws the soul out of balance, to have our words out of line with our deeds.”   Lew reminds us that it is integrity that keeps our souls in balance; Heschel reminds us that it is integrity that binds us together; that the fate of all depends on how we live and act in each and every moment.

Rick and I have recently started watching a series about a Danish Prime Minister.  It reminds me of West Wing or Madame Secretary, portraying the intricacies and challenges of political leadership.  In the opening episode, the main character, who is the leader of one of the parties vying for control, is given the opportunity to potentially unseat the current Prime Minister by confronting him publicly with incriminating evidence of what appears to be inappropriate use of government funds that was obtained by her aide in a rather unethical manner.  She will have nothing to do with that and immediately fires the aide.  She will not compromise her integrity for political gain.  Naturally, a rather sleezy head of another party has no qualms about using that information.  (The show is called Borgen and it’s on Netflix if you want to see what happens.)

Though the dilemma this character faces is of higher stakes because of her position, it is the same challenge that each of us encounters when we are faced with ethical choices.  Do our words, does the way we portray ourselves, match our deeds?

For those in positions of power – any kind of power – the stakes are much higher as they hold a public trust.  We have witnessed too many times when integrity loses to ego, be it with elected officials, clergy, coaches, sports figures, producers, directors – the list goes on.  Primary, of course, are the immediate victims of their actions.  But society as a whole suffers as well when such trust is violated and we lose our faith in those upon whom we should be able to depend for truth and decency, those who serve as role models for our children.  When integrity is lost, the threads begin to unravel. 

Because absolute power does have the potential to corrupt absolutely, those in positions of power need “integrity checks” like the tzitzit.  The Torah calls for such a check for ancient Israelite kings:  they were required to keep a copy of the Torah by their sides at all times, to remind them of the law and their obligation to follow it, that they were not above it.

That didn’t always work, so prophets became the “integrity checks.”   

It was the prophet Nathan who called King David out for having an affair with a married woman, Bathsheba, and then sending her husband to be killed in battle after she became pregnant by David.  David admitted his wrong and paid the consequences and retained the kingship.

Later kings did not heed the words of the prophets.  Nor did the priests who became corrupt, nor did the people who followed the wrong role models.  Tomorrow morning we will hear the words of Isaiah who called the people to account for their hypocrisy, for fasting and afflicting themselves on Yom Kippur, calling themselves righteous, but closing their hands to the poor, turning their backs on the needy.  Ritual and prayer are offensive to God when not accompanied by acts of justice, compassion and righteousness.  Our words must be in line with our deeds.

Fortunately, in this country, we do have “integrity checkers” on those in positions of power:  a political system with its built-in checks and balances that must function independently of one another; a free press that enables investigative reporters to speak truth to power; paths for victims of sexual abuse or harassment to speak out.  And, we, the citizens, have a voice – through our vote, through protest – to demand accountability, to demand integrity.

Still, we know, that our human systems are imperfect — that they and we will fail at achieving our goals, our egos will win out sometimes, we will lose sight of the right path.  That brings us back to the conundrum of Kol Nidrei: we make promises, but we ask not to be held accountable for them?

Rabbi David Stern, Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Dallas, TX, offers a compelling resolution:

“Kol Nidei raises, on our day of striving for moral acuity, the question of moral ambiguity.  On the one hand, the humbling message seems to be that we should stay flexible in the face of the world’s complexity.  But at the same time, what is the point of Yom Kippur if not to restore us to our guiding convictions?  How do we do both?  Similarly, even as Kol Nidrei grants release from the commitments we fail to keep, we know that chaos would ensue without some sense that we could hold each other accountable.

At the outset of the day when we seek to both confirm our moral horizons and to forgive and be forgiven for our moral failings, Kol Nidrei sets a deep spiritual challenge:  to hold our convictions with both strength and compassion, to pursue them with integrity and humility.”[vi]

Kol Nidrei concludes with God’s promise, “I forgive as you have asked.”

Let our speech be pure and our promises sincere.

Let our spoken words

— every vow and every oath –

be honest and well-intentioned.

Let our words cause no pain, bring no harm,

and never lead to shame, distrust, or fear.

And, if after honest effort,

we are unable to fulfill a promise, a vow, or an oath,

may we be released from its obligation

and forgiven for our failure.

May our speech be pure and or promises sincere.[vii]

[i] Mishkan HaNefesh, p. 19

[ii] Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ed., All These Vows:  Kol Nidrei, pp. 6-11

[iii] Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, p. 188

[iv] Ibid., p. 198

[v] Mishkan Tefillah, p. 237

[vi] Rabbi David Stern, “Night Vision: A Gift of Sacred Uncertainty” in All These Vows: Kol Nidrei, p. 212-213

[vii] Mishkan HaNefesh, p. 19

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