Kol Nidre’s Conundrum
How can you enter a day of moral repair with words on your lips that annul your past and future promises?
One of the central images of this relationship is experienced by many contemporary people as unhelpful or even off-putting. During the High Holiday season, many of the regular prayers change slightly to highlight images of God as king, with humans playing the role of subjects. There is nothing in contemporary political and social life that matches the relationship between king and subject that these prayers imagine. Most of us have no kings in our lives, and even in fairy tales it’s hard to conjure a king who is perfectly grand and powerful, and who is dedicated to the loving care of his subjects like the king who is a metaphor for God. But imagine there were such a king and that you were invited to sit with him at his table. In a situation like that, it would not be willpower that would keep you on your best behavior. You would not need vows to remind you not to put your feet on the table, stick your fingers in the mashed potatoes, or help yourself to food without being offered or without saying thanks. Your inner response to the reality of the situation would inspire a sense of awe that would prevent such crude behavior. The emphasis on God as king during the High Holidays is meant to help us return to the awareness that every moment of our lives we are sitting at that table. Our appropriate response—our teshuvah—is sure to follow.
The Yom Kippur liturgy insists that we are part of a relationship. The image of king and subject is only one metaphor for this relationship. Among other relationship images that appear in the liturgy—and throughout the Jewish texts—is the image of lover and beloved. This metaphor may be more helpful for illustrating to contemporary people the difference between two tools for self-improvement: willpower and relationships. If you are true to your relationship with your beloved because you have vowed not to have an affair and because your willpower is strong, then chances are you need to work on your relationship. The right reason not to have an affair is that your relationship with your beloved is precious to you and you know that it will be harmed by disloyalty and betrayal. If your relationship is strong, then your inner response to its reality inspires you to protect its sanctity. You need not rely on vows and heroic willpower to uphold the terms of your covenant.
Vows are brittle. Once we break them, they are irreparable. Relationships are even more powerful, but they are made of a different substance. Instead of breaking, they languish. But we can return to relationships; they can be repaired and ultimately strengthened. The work of Yom Kippur is to return to the awareness that we are standing in the presence of God and to cultivate the inner response that makes us true to that relationship. Vows can only distract from the real work by making us think that our willpower is the key to our success. Kol Nidre erases the distraction and sets the stage for genuine teshuvah.
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