Ten Minutes of Torah: Kol Nidrei


Kol Nidrei

In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, at the beginning of their first date, Woody asks Annie for a first kiss. As he explains it, he knows both of them will be thinking about it all through the night so wouldn’t it be better to get it out of the way and then enjoy the evening?

I think something similar happens on Kol Nidre as we listen to this most beautiful of melodies, asking God to forgive our shortcomings and transgressions. After the Kol Nidre chant is finished, traditionally – and included in the Mishkan HaNefesh pilot – we feature a verse from Numbers 14:20 wherein God says “I forgive you.”

At first glance, this verse seems strangely misplaced. We just asked that our vows be released and our failures forgiven. The service literally has just begun. The observance of Yom Kippur is barely started. And God says, “Okay. I forgive you.” Talk about anticlimactic! It would be understandable if we said, “Great. Let’s go home before God changes God’s mind!”

However, like Woody’s logic in the movie, there is wisdom in God’s declaration. After all, Kol Nidre for most of us is not a legal formula, even if it is modeled on one. It is a statement of aspiration. We will try to do the best we can. By having God say “I forgive you” immediately after, we are reminding ourselves that the goal of Yom Kippur is not to convince God. The aim is to change ourselves. So let’s get the saying sorry and the forgiveness finished and then get down to work!

Much of this work focuses on how we treat ourselves and how we treat others. That work will not be concluded five minutes after Kol Nidre. As the medieval teacher Rabbeinu Tam taught, Kol Nidre only applies to vows made to God. The annulment of vows has nothing to do with our obligations to other human beings. It is almost as if God is saying to us, “Look, I am easy. I want to forgive. You have to worry about other people and of course yourself. So put me aside and focus on the work before you.”

I love Kol Nidre but I also know that that its haunting melody is not only a statement of regret. It also is a summon to remember that the gift of life comes with a price, and the way we pay has less to do with God than it does with how we treat each other.

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, coordinating editor of the forthcoming CCAR Machzor, and the author of five books including, Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most and Love Tales from the Talmud .