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Kol Nidrei & Forgiveness

Posted on September 14, 2017 by Rabbi Jonah Zinn

I have fond memories of the Kol Nidrie of my childhood. I recall it as a service of unparalleled spectacle. The entire community was there, all packing into the sanctuary dressed for the holiday. As the ark was opened, the Congregation would rise together with a sense of solemn responsibility. We remained standing for what seemed like an eternity. The Torah scrolls were removed from the ark one-by-one and held lovingly for all to see, each clad in a brilliant white cover, shimmery silver breast plate and regal silver crown. Then the three recitations of the Kol Nidrie prayer began with dramatic music which stirred the deepest recesses of my soul. Perhaps you also have special memories of this opening prayer of Yom Kippur.

Kol Nidrie is an example of what Rabbi Larry Hoffman calls the “sacred drama” of worship. Rather than look at liturgy strictly as text, Rabbi Hoffman urges us to consider how the text is ritualized and acted out. He wants students to reflect on the impact of the entire experience, not just the words. Mishkan Hanefesh equips us with the tools to engage with this drama on a new level. This year, as we absorb this sacred drama and listen to the century-old words seeking absolution and forgiveness for the unfulfilled vows made to God in the past year, let us also reflect on some the gifts this new machzor gives us to consider. This reflection by Rabbi David Stern spoke to me.

In its emphasis on humility, Kol Nidre provides a corrective to the toxic certainties of polarized discourse. What if we approached each other with the humility to recognize that our most confident convictions will always be qualified by the limits of our own knowledge and understanding? In its haunting melody and strangely legalistic language, we begin to sense the twilight truth: our high horses to often stumble and our soapboxes stand on shaky ground. Kol Nidre grants us the gift of sacred uncertainty: the chance to begin this new year with a sense of what we do not know, rather than the narrow certainty about what we do. It’s what Buddhists call “beginners mind.” What if every time I were ready to proclaim some self-evident truth, I allowed Kol Nidre to whisper in my ear, ‘Says who?’

As we begin the New Year, may we all be open to beginning anew. May seeking forgiveness from God also spur us to seek forgiveness from those we have let down or treated unfairly. As the sacred drama unfolds before us, may it move us toward a new path in the New Year full of kindness, humility, and righteousness.

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