My Grandpa Abe almost never set foot in a synagogue, but the one time of the year when he took pride in climbing the steps of the bimah was on Yom Kippur Eve. It was then that he played the mournful melody of the Kol Nidre on his bass for our whole congregation to hear. It was a piece of Judaism that even my grandfather, who spent all of his adult life estranged from the faith, found relatable. Kol Nidre is so powerful that we call the evening service on Yom Kippur by its name, which means, “All Vows.” Yet most contemporary Jews would admit that the text is confusing. It asks, that, should we fail to complete our vows from one year to the next, they be forgiven and annulled. In the Ashkenazi tradition, we ask this dispensation in advance for the new year. But why, at the very start of the Day of Atonement, before we have finished cleansing ourselves from the old year and aligning ourselves for the new one, would we take on the failures that are yet to come?
For me the answer lies in the traditional melody, not just the words. Despite their fleeting sparkles of hope and redemption, the notes cry out with the incomprehensible heaviness of being. They are the sound of life tearing us open – of joy that is born in pain, of perseverance that bears fruit only with great suffering. They are the unspoken prayer of a people who know all too well that life is struggle. Though the words of Kol Nidre speak to the future, the sounds are laden with the past. Between the two, the thought emerges, “Perhaps next year will eclipse me again.” Perhaps, despite my best intentions, I will fail again. The request for a future pardon comes off nearly as a legal trick, as looking to protect ourselves from yet unseen future harm. But the magic of Kol Nidre lies in that moment between the pain of the past and the openness of the future. That willingness to feel life in all of its rawness is what brings us right here to the present moment, ready to begin the solemnest of days.
Last month I wrote what I realized was my own version of Kol Nidre. To me, it feels pleading and awkward, like the original text, but just as present, just as earnest.