All The Promises We Have Made

Promise?

This evening as the sun sets, Jewish people around the world will gather in synagogues (and around laptops/tablets/cellphones) to begin the holiest day on the Hebrew calendar, Yom Kippur.

The day begins with a rather unusual ritual–but one that is filled with great power and emotion. The Kol Nidre prayer is recited as the sun sets and is actually not a prayer at all. It is a legal proceeding requiring three witness; usually each of them will hold a Torah Scroll taken from the Holy Ark to symbolize the importance of the goings on. Kol Nidre literally translates as “All Vows,” but can also mean “All Oaths,” or “All Promises.” The proceedings take just a few minutes (the legal formula is recited aloud from the prayer book three times in a row), but they have great impact. The aim of Kol Nidre is to pre-emptively nullify any promises we might make during the coming year that we are not able to keep; in some communities, the formula in Hebrew is slightly different and it asks for forgiveness and nullification after the fact for last year’s vows.

What a strange way to begin the holiest night of the year! It does, however, make sense upon deeper reflection. The 24 hours of Yom Kippur will be spent in prayer and reflection; it is a full day to consider our actions in the past and what we hope to accomplish going forward. It is like making New Year’s Resolutions but with more serious implications. We pre-emptively ask God to forgive us for making promises (to ourselves and to God) on this occasion that we may not be able to fulfill; promises to others do not get a free pass–we must make good on them.

What is the point of making such vows in the first place if we can just have them annulled? It is like making a promise with your fingers crossed behind your back! The Rabbis who put this service together stressed that we should really avoid making vows altogether; there is a whole section of the Talmud on this topic. Kol Nidre reminds us that if we are going to do it, we better be serious about it; better not to promise at all and over-deliver than to promise and not deliver.

This, of course, has implications not only for our spiritual life but for our physical well-being too. We often promise ourselves to go to the gym, or eat more healthy foods, or drink less alcohol, etc., but make little progress. Kol Nidre teaches us to be more realistic. If we are going to make a promise, we should be serious about it; this involves not just deciding on it at the spur of the moment. It means knowing ourselves and what makes us tick. It also means having a plan to accomplish our goals, including opportunities for little victories that will further motivate us.

I find this approach comforting. Kol Nidre recognizes human nature. We often make the same mistakes over and over again; this service urges us to be kind to ourselves and be realistic about what we can and cannot accomplish–spiritually and otherwise. We do not have to be perfect. When it comes to our fitness, in particular, it is better to start small rather than make huge commitments only to burn out soon afterwards. It is also important to find ways to be accountable for our actions. What roadblocks have we met in the past and how can we overcome them this time? What can we do to set ourselves up for success? Who can help us reach our goals? What will success look like?

As we begin Yom Kippur, I wish all those who observe a meaningful fast. May the promise of the coming year include promises kept for our spiritual and our physical well-being.

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