Kol Nidre and the Real Work of Personal Change

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September 12, 2013

I begin each day of my life with a ritual. I wake up at 5:30 am, put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirt and a hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st street and 1st avenue, where I work out for 2 hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go, I have completed the ritual. —Twyla Tharp, “The Creative Habit”

Why do we recite Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur night? The exact history of this prayer is a little vague, but what is clear is that this prayer is not a prayer at all: the Aramaic text, dating from at least the ninth century, is a legal formulation for the annulment of vows. It doesn’t mention the themes of the season: forgiveness, teshuva, renewal. It does not mention God. Unrelated in its content to the rest of the Yom Kippur liturgy, it seems at first blush to be a strange way to start a 25-hour period of intense introspection and self-reflection.

Part of Kol Nidre’s rhetorical power comes from its repetitive language:

Every vow and bind, oath, ban restriction, penalty, and every term that sets things out of bounds, all that we vow or swear, ban or bar from ourselves…. Let each be released, forgotten, halted null and void, without power and without hold. What we vow is not vowed, what we bind is not bound, what we swear is not sworn.

In every way possible, we affirm that any promises we make on this day are null and void. Looking closely at this language, we realize that Kol Nidre’s role as the opening text for Yom Kippur is puzzling not because it is out of place, but because it actually seems to undermine the work of Yom Kippur: Isn’t this day, and this season, all about making vows, making resolutions, making promises to transform ourselves into better people, different people?

This is where I find Twyla Tharp’s wisdom to be insightful and inspiring. In her description of the work she has done every day to become the renowned dancer and choreographer that she is, Tharp reminds us that the big dream of becoming an accomplished artist, top in her field, winner of medals and awards and accolades did not come through any grand proclamations, any big resolutions, any vows. Instead, it came through small acts, daily rituals that serve as a container — a container that allows her to take the small steps that she needs to take every day, to become the person she wants to be.

The same ideas apply to the pursuit of any personal goal. To avow “I will be a more patient person” is meaningless unless I am willing to do the detailed work of noticing when I snap at my spouse or my friend or my co-worker, pinpointing the moment when my body gets tight and the words are about to come out, hurtful and thoughtless — and creating a tiny but crucial act of pausing before those words fly out. A ritual: Breathe in. Breathe out. Let the tightness release. Gather my thoughts and speak my heart softly. Create a new pattern, a new habit. This is how I become a more patient person. This is how I will change.

The promise “I will recommit to daily prayer” is an empty declaration unless I take a hard look at what is getting in the way. Why am I not making space in my day to talk to God? What is the ritual I will create — the series of small, seemingly insignificant actions —through which I will carve out moments for daily conversation with the divine? This is how I will become more present and more active in my relationship with God.

This, I believe, is the message of Kol Nidre, and one reason why we begin Yom Kippur with this text. In the dramatic intensity of Yom Kippur, we might be tempted to spend the day making resolutions and proclamations about what we will always do and never do in the coming year, about the people we will become and the parts of ourselves we will leave behind. But Kol Nidre reminds us that these vows are deceiving — because grand resolutions and declarations are not truly the basis for growth and transformation. Instead, the real work of personal change happens through the very small actions, the rituals that we begin to take on when these 25 hours are over.

May this year be one in which our aspirations for personal growth and change come to fruition — through the small actions and the daily habits that will move us forward on our path.

Shuli Passow is a Jewish educator and communal professional who most recently served as the director of community initiatives at Jewish Funds for Justice, where she worked with synagogues across the country to support their involvement in congregation-based community organizing. She has taught widely in youth and adult education settings, and is particularly passionate about exploring issues of justice, compassion, environmentalism and economics through Jewish text. Shuli is currently pursuing rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Shuli will be co-leading Yom Kippur services at New York University.

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