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All Vows

| September 9, 2010


Even as I contemplate the seriousness of Yom Kippur each year, I am always struck by its incredible beauty. For me, the Kol Nidre service, with its powerful repetition and haunting melodies, is both a spiritual awakening and an opportunity to enjoy the richness of our millennia-old liturgical tradition.

There’s no question that Kol Nidre is an awe-inspiring experience. And yet, it also seems slightly perplexing. In English, the name translates to “All Vows”, referencing the core message of one of the central prayers: As we repent for past sins and look forward to a fresh start, we declare null and void any vows we might make in the coming year.

On the one hand, I find the idea comforting: We are all flawed beings, and it’s reassuring to think we can get off the hook if something doesn’t go quite as planned. But as a social justice advocate, I am concerned by the implication that our commitments are somehow meaningless. Working on the frontlines of hunger relief (or nonviolence, or child welfare, or any cause worth fighting for), those commitments – whether of time, intention or financial support – are our bread and butter; they help us focus, inspiring us to keep going even when our energy begins to wane. Indeed, in some sense vows are all we have, a pledge made by fellow members of our community that they will join us to right the wrongs of an imperfect society. If we nullify those, how can we ever hope to make progress in our quest for tikkun olam, or repair of the world?

I believe there is another way to look at this, particularly as it relates to social justice. Making progress on difficult social issues is challenging in the best of times – and this is not the best of times. Widespread economic uncertainty continues to threaten global prosperity, and people around the world face increasingly bleak prospects for the future. In my own hometown of Detroit, a city long beset by serious financial woes, growing numbers of families lack the basic resources they need to survive. It’s enough to cause even the most dedicated social justice crusader to throw up her hands in frustration and say, simply, “I give up.”

It is in this context that Kol Nidre begins to make sense to me. The liturgy undoes our vows – but it doesn’t tell us not to make them. In fact, we can pledge to our heart’s content. And I wonder: Wouldn’t it have been easier for the rabbis of old, the sages who crafted the Yom Kippur service, just to discourage us from committing ourselves in the first place?

The answer, as I see it, is this: To do so would have been to contradict the Torah itself. After all, it commands us to help the stranger, and then repeats it 36 times to make sure we got the message. Making vows – to do good; to strive for harmony; to do right by our fellow man – is an obligation, not an option; we are compelled to do our part to make a difference. Kol Nidre does not take away this responsibility, but it does tell us not to lose hope if our efforts fall short. In the year ahead, some of our endeavors will not succeed. Hunger will persist. War and disease will continue to rear their ugly heads. The Yom Kippur liturgy reassures us that our past vows to accomplish these things will not be held over our heads, even as the rest of our text and tradition reminds us that our failure to achieve our goals does not free us of our obligation to pursue them.

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