Yom Kippur Drash

Yom Kippur 5773 – September 25-26, 2012

“The Music of the Night”

By Rabbi Michael Menitoff, PhD, Dean of the Rabbinical School, AJRCA

It is the most emotional and evocative prayer of the religious calendar year. It is the liturgical highlight of the High Holy Day season. It is the only prayer whose meaning is trumped by its music. Recordings of it have been made by such diverse performers as opera luminary and High Holy Day cantor Richard Tucker; popular singers Perry Como, Neil Diamond, Johnny Mathis; renowned cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Jacqueline du Pre. And while it is intended to be a prelude to Yom Kippur Services, mandated by a strict constructionist halachic understanding to begin and end before darkness, in most communities the entire Evening Service is referred to by the name of this unique prayer.

While it may be obvious, Kol Nidrei, which means “All of the Vows,” is the prayer. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. It appears to present an opportunity for recalcitrant oath-takers to ask forgiveness for broken promises in the presence of a quasi-judicial gathering. It is the ultimate expression of regret on the day on which we confess our shortcomings and our resolve to do teshuva, to repent, to live up more closely to our G-d-given potential.

Kol Nidrei is introduced by the verse, “By the authority of the court on high and by the authority of this court below, with divine consent and with the consent of this congregation, we grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed.” There is historical speculation that guilt-ridden Jews who were forced to renounce their Judaism unburdened themselves on Kol Nidrei evening. The congregation welcomed them back.

There have been times when those predisposed to think ill of Jews argued that this prayer was indicative of the Jews’ mendacity. They alleged that Jews would go back on their promises and could not be trusted. This made even greater sense to them when the wording of the prayer was changed, probably in the early 12th century, seeking absolution from vows pronounced from this Yom Kippur until next, rather than over the past year.  Obviously, a Jew-hater did not need any text to promulgate bigotry. And it would be of no consequence to him that Kol Nidrei oaths refer to ones made to G-d rather than to another person.

Today, the welcoming of sinners on Yom Kippur applies to all of us. For who among us is not a sinner and not in need of improvement? A new anthology, The Observant Life, conveys this idea especially well:  “Perfection is not a prerequisite of joining a holy community. We are all imperfect, and the synagogue, therefore, is at best a collection of people who are ‘works in progress.’ What unites the faithful is not what they have accomplished, but what  they are striving to accomplish. We join together on Yom Kippur in recognition of the fact that we want to be better, that we need to be better, and that we understand that, in accepting imperfections in others, we can hope that they will in turn accept and forgive our own imperfections.”

G’mar Hatima Tova. A good completion of the High Holy Day season.

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