As Yom Kippur descends upon the Jewish nation in Israel and in the Diaspora, synagogues are filled with people who come to the Kol Nidre service, many of whom are not regular attendees. Some offer social explanations for this occurrence: a fond remembrance of parents’ tradition, or a need to connect with Jewish heritage or to meditate on God, specifically on Yom Kippur night. There are probably numerous reasons people have for coming to shul for Kol Nidre, not least as stated in the prayers themselves: “We sanction prayer with the transgressors.” This phrase reflects the encounter of Jewish men and women who, on this night, are as transgressors who have come to ask forgiveness and atonement.
But the heart of Kol Nidre does not deal with transgression; rather it pierces the human heart and highlights our vulnerability as humans, separate from our Creator.
Various expressions in the prayers reflect this vulnerability, which we accept as a blessing. In the words of one piyyut (hymn): “Like clay in the hand of the potter, who expands or shrinks it at will, so are we in Your hands…” The piyyut continues with similar metaphors; the Creator is a sculptor, a stonemason, a smith, a seaman, a glazier, a weaver, and we are matter in His hands. Thus, we plead, “Have compassion upon our broken hearts, do not cast us off from Your Presence, do not take from us Your spirit, do not forsake us in our old age, do not abandon us when our strength fails.”
What do these phrases, which we pronounce repeatedly through Yom Kippur, mean? Why do we remind our Creator that He does not desire to destroy the world?
One day a year, when we are connected to Jewish tradition in the synagogue, we recall those things that are part of the natural process of human life: growing old, loss of Divine spirit whether in life or in death (also a natural part of life), the fragility of our world that can be destroyed in an instant.
In universal spiritual language, this is referred to as a moment of letting go. Anita Moorjani, a Hindi businesswoman who lives in Hong Kong, wrote a book entitled Dying to be Me (Hay House Inc., 2012), in which she describes her sudden recovery from cancer as an outgrowth of a near death experience. Her lungs had filled with fluid and she was close to death, when she experienced a hitherto unknown sense of relief and release. At that point she began to understand that “All is perfection and proceeds according to plan.”
This is the type of experience that the Yom Kippur prayers endeavor to accord us, in which we surrender to a Power greater than us, with a sense of total release, without illness or trauma. From a modern or post-modern perspective, there is a sadness about these statements, which touch on the frailty of human existence. This is why we push them aside, cultivating in their stead the illusion that we are omnipotent and in control. True, Judaism believes that we are created in God’s image –but not that we are God. One of the primary notions in Judaism is that the fragile human has the capability to change oneself and the world, but inherent in this power is an understanding of one’s limitations. We are not in the world in order to control it; we have the power to control our own deeds but our physical existence is not entirely In our hands.
Yet, precisely when the post-modern illusion of human omnipotence is shattered, these prayers offer tremendous relief, truly liberating. We are freed from the pretense of equating our power with God’s. We acknowledge our vulnerability, that we grow old, that we find and lose our Divine spirit. We can pray for, but not guarantee, the continued existence of the world. Accompanying this sense of release, as we realize our dependence upon the Creator and become aware of our own vulnerability, is tenderness, a great blessing and a prayer for a g’mar hatima tova.
Dr. Einat Ramon is Senior Lecturer in Jewish Thought and Founder and Director of the Marpeh training program for Spiritual Caregivers at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.
TRANSLATED BY PENINA GOLDSCHMIDT