Kol Nidrei is NOT About Promises (5776)

Kol Nidrei.

Tonight's service is named for this prayer that we heard toward the beginning of our service. Kol Nidrei is so powerful, so important, so meaningful - that we stand during its threefold recitation. In fact, it is only during the singing of Kol Nidrei that we take all of our Torahs scrolls out of the ark and stand before their holy words, messages and inspirations. You may not know the name of Moses' wife, you may not know the difference between the Mishna and the Talmud, but I bet that you can hum the beginning of the haunting melody of Kol Nidrei.

Kol Nidrei - all these vows.

Let all our vows and oaths, all the promises we make and the obligations we incur to you, O God, between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be absolved of them.

The translation makes Yom Kippur seem relatively easy. As we sit here this evening we are already absolved of vows that we make for the next year coming up. Kol Nidrei - all of my vows and promises that I don't fulfill in the next are already forgiven right here and now! Does this mean we can say goodbye to Jewish guilt?

Well, sorry to disappoint, but no, it's not that easy. And it isn't supposed to be. Let's not let go of Jewish guilt quite yet ...


On the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Shabbat T'shuvah, we spoke about the power of words. God spoke the world into existence. We use words to form thoughts and opinions, ideologies and belief systems, rules and laws, morality and ideals. Our words communicate our fears and our visions. Our words can repair the world.

Take with you words, and turn to God, and say to God, 'Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips'. (Hosea 14:2 )

This verse of Hosea helps us understand the power of Kol Nidrei. Our prophet's words are precisely what we follow tonight, as we take our words and turn to God. T'shuvah means exactly that - turning. We turn toward God. toward our community. toward the best parts of ourselves. Our vows and promises are made of words. And we too hope that our words are received gracefully.

It's no surprise that we stand facing all of our Torahs during Kol Nidrei. These Torah scrolls contain our most holiest of words. Facing them, we recommit ourselves to the power of our speech and our thought. We think of the words we said, and the words we did not say. And we recommit ourselves anew. We make promises and vows.


I bet that most of our parents taught us very early on to keep our promises. Keeping one's word is a sign of integrity and honesty. It testifies to someone's character, work ethic, and trustworthiness. It makes for a good friend, a trusted colleague, a beloved spouse.

Promises are important. But if we allow ourselves to hear its powerful message, Kol Nidrei teaches yet another insight about our words and our vows. Kol Nidrei is much more than a legalistic prayer absolving us from our unfulfilled promises that we may make in the upcoming year.

In fact, the purpose of Kol Nidrei is not to keep our promises, although we should keep our promises. The purpose of Kol Nidrei is not even to try our best to keep our promises, although of course we should always have honest intentions when giving our word. The purpose of Kol Nidrei is the same as the rest of our High Holidays - to do T'shuvah. To improve. To do better. To be better.

Kol Nidrei is not about promises. It is about relationships. Kol Nidrei is about the commitment to our relationships.


When I promise Emily that I will do the dishes, there is something that is far more important than whether or not I actually will do the dishes (although, sweetheart, I really will do the dishes) ... It's the commitment to my marriage.

When you tell someone you will do something, you implicitly demonstrate the value of your relationship with that person. You show care and concern, the desire to make them happy, the desire to please them, or to help them. It is a demonstration that you know that what you do (or don't do) matters to another person.

A promise shows commitment not only to the action in question. It shows commitment to another person. When you make a promise, you are committed to T'suvah, and this is true whether or not you actually fulfill the promise.

Kol Nidrei reminds us of what is most important in our lives. As long as we are dedicated to each other, we are fundamentally engaged in acts of T'shuvah. This is the central Mitzvah that we have in Judaism. The Torah teaches: *Love thy neighbor as thyself. Hillel said: That what is hateful to you do not do to another person. And tonight, while hearing Kol Nidrei, we commit ourselves to this same message. It is the message of Judaism.


During the next 24 hours, we spend the day in this sanctuary thinking on our mistakes. We regret those moments in the past year where we let others down, missed the mark, didn't do our best, hurt others, hurt ourselves. Most of these mistakes involve someone else - your spouse, child, sibling, childhood friend, colleague, employee. Kol Nidrei does speak of the various promises you weren't able to finish, but much more than that, Kol Nidrei focuses us on the promise to remain committed to those that we make promises to. It's about the promise to continue along the path of T'shuvah.


Many of us memorized these words of Robert Frost during middle or high school: The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.

Tonight, we think of the work we have to do: We have relationships to heal. We have ourselves to heal. We have miles to go before we sleep. If Rosh Hashanah is a semi-colon that marks the end of the year, Kol Nidrei is the start of a new phrase, a new beginning. Let us promise to recommit ourselves to each other ... to our God and to ourselves. These are the promises we have to keep. These are our vows.

Kol Nidrei.

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