Promises

On Tuesday night, we will be returning to our true core. Throughout the tumultuous eras of our Jewish existence, anti-Semitic tormentors have accused us of many awful things. One of the most damaging and disturbing accusations was that Jews were deceitful, that they would promise something and then blithely refuse to honor their word. Such accusers would sometimes point to the prayer of Kol Nidrei – a short, solemn and haunting service at the start of Yom Kippur, in which the entire congregation collectively annuls any vows that they had made during that year – as evidence that the duplicitous Jews treat their promises as ephemeral and expendable. 

That the Kol Nidrei annulment only applies to promises undertaken towards God, not towards other people, is a fact that these slanderous accusers conveniently missed. Nonetheless, the question remains. Every Yom Kippur night, millions of Jews around the world make their way to their local shule, ready for a day of intense prayer, physical withdrawal and profound introspection. Puzzlingly, however, we begin the most introspective day of the entire Jewish calendar with a dry legal formula (albeit beautifully chanted), declaring all of our promises to be null and void. To be sure, there are historical reasons for this practice: for many centuries, countless Jews across the globe were forced to practice their Judaism in secret, and would have to begin their clandestine, dangerous Yom Kippur services by declaring that their public allegiance to other religions was false. This historical legacy alone is powerful enough to make us pause for thought. But in our day, where we live as proud, free Jews, under full protection of the law, what kind of public promises do we feel compelled to annul? 
The answer, sadly, is ‘too many’. Throughout our daily lives, we all swear implicit allegiance to a whole host of foreign ideas and concepts that do not correlate with who we truly are. We bow before the gods of financial success, social popularity, or physical perfection. Far too often, these allegiances push us to mistakenly prioritize the urgent over the important, the fashionable over the faithful, and the ephemeral over the eternal. Such loyalties envelope us in a robe of impeccable respectability but obscure the simple beauty of our true inner selves. 

Yom Kippur is the antidote to all of this. On Yom Kippur, we are ourselves. We eat no food, disconnect from technology, wear no makeup, attend no social events and dress in basic white. To achieve this purity, we must first disavow (even if only temporarily) all of our outside pressures and influences, stating clearly that our essence remains loyal to those elements of life which are non-negotiable: our values of faith, truth, justice and love. Kol Nidrei is a crucial step in this act of Teshuva, of returning to our untarnished essence. It is the moment where we stand exposed and vulnerable in front of God, taking stock of our choices and actions while asking Him to judge us favorably. This inner return to our true core is the what this holy day is about – and it is this that will, please God, secure us blessing in the year and a year of blessing. 

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