Kol Nidre: Which direction do we look?

Tuesday October 4, 2022

Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Kol Nidre

When exactly do we begin preparing for Yom Kippur? Although we are just ten days into 5783, the text of the Kol Nidre prayer has us examine the year to come, having us consider NEXT Yom Kippur, 5784. How can that be? I have yet to feel forgiven for this year’s sins and I already need to begin atoning for the ones I haven’t even committed yet??

Some of us began thinking about the future at birth. Others take each moment as it comes. Jews are a reflective people-but the particulars are rather individual. We regularly consider our choices, the lives that we live. It may be a daily activity through prayer and meditation. It may be how we reflect in the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av and the seven from then to Rosh Hashanah. For others, the shofar of Elul or Rosh Hashanah is the clarion call that makes us consider. For still others, it is this evening, hearing the Kol Nidre prayers that we finally look at where we have been and where we are going.

כָּל נִדְרֵי וֶאֱסָרֵי וּשְׁבוּעֵי וַחֲרָמֵי וְקוֹנָמֵי וְכִנּוּיֵי. וְקִנוּסֵי דִּנְדַֽרְנָא. וּדְאִשְׁתַּבַּֽעְנָא. וּדְאַחֲרִימְנָא. וּדְאָסַֽרְנָא עַל נַפְשָׁתָֽנָא. מִיּוֹם כִּפּוּרִים זֶה עַד יוֹם כִּפּוּרִים הַבָּא עָלֵֽינוּ לְטוֹבָה. בְּכֻלְּהוֹן אִחֲרַֽטְנָא בְהוֹן. כֻּלְּהוֹן יְהוֹן שָׁרָן. שְׁבִיקִין, שְׁבִיתִין, בְּטֵלִין וּמְבֻטָּלִין, לָא שְׁרִירִין וְלָא קַיָּמִין: נִדְרָֽנָא לָא נִדְרֵי. וֶאֱסָרָֽנָא לָא אֱסָרֵי. וּשְׁבוּעָתָֽנָא לָא שְׁבוּעוֹת: 

All vows we are likely to make, all oaths and pledges we are likely to vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Our vows are no longer vows, our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.

With a prayer and melody that is familiar to Jews around the world, one might forget that while it has been around for centuries, for much of its history it was surrounded by controversy. Some rabbis rightly feared anti-Semitism, that Christians would think that Jewish people would not be consistent with their oaths or contracts. Others thought Jews themselves would not take their obligations to God seriously. Still others saw it more metaphorically, that it is not literally wiping away anything, but helping us spiritually begin anew. As we say when we return the Torah, quoting from Lamentations:

הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה' אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה. חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם

Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!

Return us to ourselves, to You, let us come back, return our days like before? In Lamentations, in the moment of destruction, we pray for a restoration, yet I do not believe we truly want to return to the past. We wish to return to the ideal, to the self we have not yet achieved, but continue to work towards.

In our own lives, there are moments that transform us. There are moments that bless us, that bring joy and opportunity. For a moment, we might want to relive them--a wedding, the birth of a child, meeting a loved one for the first time, but in truth, we need not go back. Instead, we must bring that spirit with us to the present. We must find the holiness of those moments and bring that energy to our endeavors today! True teshuvah, true repentance is not merely atoning, but learning and growing to create and recreate ourselves. We all have the potential to keep trying.

Returning to the prayer that started our evening, it is a reflection of human nature. It understands that we find ourselves in difficult situations at least annually. Whether it is a close call on the highway or a health scare or a loss or a job difficulty, we find ourselves making promises that we may not truly plan on keeping.

The language of the Kol Nidre prayer has one major variant. One version of Kol Nidre asks God to forgive the vows of the past-from last year to this—while the other version speaks of the future—this Yom Kippur to next Yom Kippur. In some ways, we may need both—we need the reminder of the difficult moments that have been AND the opportunities and challenges of what will come.

Tonight and tomorrow we will repeat confessionals a number of times. We will list sins and missed opportunities. We will speak of mistakes that we have made, as well as those that have been made by others of the community. All of these confessions are in the plural—recognizing that All Israel is responsible for one another. At the same time, as we symbolically beat our chests, we must acknowledge to ourselves and Our Creator the mistakes that we have actually made.

Counterintuitively, confessing is an incredibly uplifting and optimistic act. Unlike some views in our American society today, our Jewish tradition remains 100% committed to the idea that we ALL have the possibility to change.

Maimonides says, “Tshuvah is when a wrongdoer leaves off doing a wrong act, puts it out of the mind, and resolves never to repeat it.” We might say, “Tshuvah is when a wrongdoer leaves off the wrong act, and asks why the act was done. IF it is part of a recurrent pattern, the person should try to understand the pattern as best he or she can, and then begin, alone or with the help of other, to change the pattern into a more desirable one. It is only if one says, “that’s the way I am,’ without attempting any self-understanding or change, that a person rules out the possibility of tshuvah.” (
p.268 of On Wings of Awe)

Often our heshbon hanefesh, our accounting of our souls, is focused on the confession and the tshuvah—yet there is another aspect that is equally vital. We must acknowledge where we went RIGHT this past year—so that we may strive to reproduce those actions in the year and years to come. We must acknowledge the possibilities in our lives!

I can look back at these past years and acknowledge that I could have remembered more often to post my sermons online, respond to the 500th email, get to minyan on time or remember to say Birkat HaMazon after EVERY meal. At the same time, I must acknowledge to myself that my priority will always be the people. If the choice is a congregant in a hospital or updating the website—I will always choose the congregant! We are always making choices, let us make choices that reflect our values.

This past year we have been planning our 100 year celebrations. We have worked to create celebrations with every age and in many different ways. I cannot wait for these opportunities. I am so grateful to see how many different people have been involved in the planning. Looking to the future of CBI, we need to engage children, teens, college ages, young professionals, young parents, older singles, retirees, home bound, etc etc etc—we need each and every one of you!

Our history at CBI is filled with blessings. The size of the congregation has ebbed and flowed, grown larger and smaller, been younger and older at different times. Looking to the future, we must continue to engage everyone in their connection to God, Torah and Israel.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: “There were no days of joy in Israel greater than Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur” (Mishnah, Ta’anit, end of Chapter 4). As we enter this Yom Kippur, as we consider the choices we have made, let us remember the power of this day. This is a day to help us erase our mistakes. We have an opportunity not merely to start over, but to begin anew with the knowledge of our previous actions. We know where we have brought blessings into the world and where we did not.

As we reflect on the year that has been and the year that will be, let us remain optimistic. Let us choose joy. Let us choose celebration. Let us live a life together of meaning, of hope, of health, of Yiddishkeit. CBI has been our home for the last 100 years, together, it will be our home for the next 100 years and beyond. Let us prepare for the future and appreciate the present. Let us see the opportunities we can create and how we can grow, b’yachad, together this year. Amen!