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The Message of the Kol Nidre

Erev Yom Kippur • Yom Kippur Eve

September 17, 2010 • 10 Tishrei 5771

Rabbi Bridget Wynne


We can all remember as children doing something we weren’t supposed to – taking someone else’s toys, going outside when we’d been told not to …


One person who I will not name carried out some creative wrongdoing, along with a couple siblings, tying the babysitter to the bedposts when he fell asleep.


When you got caught doing something you weren’t supposed to, maybe your parent, or a teacher, told you they were disappointed. Maybe you were punished. Even worse than punishment, though, is that painful feeling you may have had, that you’d done wrong, perhaps even that you were an unacceptable person.


Many of us have memories like this, not only from childhood, but from more recent times, too.


Yom Kippur can bring some of the same feelings – focusing on and admitting mistakes, wrongdoings. Who looks forward to thinking negatively about ourselves, and maybe even to being rejected for our failings?


Part of us may long to look into the dark corners of lives … to apologize for our mistakes ... to find better ways to keep our promises to ourselves, and others. In some ways we want to become our best, most whole selves. But this is hard when the child inside each of us is pleading, “Don’t tell, don’t get me in trouble.”


Now, take a moment and look into the past again, but this time, for a different sort of memory. Did you ever do something wrong, get caught, but not receive the punishment you thought you’d get? Perhaps instead of yelling, or criticizing, your parent or teacher spoke gently to you, tried to understand how you saw the situation, and let you know that even if you’d made a mistake, you were still a good person.


I remember an experience like this, when I was in grade school, and told a teacher that I’d broken a rule. She thanked me for telling the truth. I felt so relieved, and cared about. It didn’t seem that hard to try to do better next time.


Each of us yearns, somewhere inside, for unconditional understanding and love. Often we can see this yearning in children, but most of us adults have learned not to reveal it, and may not even realize how much we want it. Even if we received this kind of acceptance as children, as grownups we may find it’s in short supply.


There are deadlines to meet, expectations to live up to, agreements to keep. We fear what will happen if we make mistakes, and others find out. We might lose a job, a relationship …


What would it be like not to have to hide our failings, to know we can bring our mistakes out into the light, reveal and examine our faults, and be accepted, understood, even loved, anyway?


Tonight offers us that chance.


This evening’s service is often called the Kol Nidre, after the music and words we are about to hear.


The teachings of Yom Kippur say we’ll be forgiven if we repent our wrongdoings, apologize to those we’ve hurt, and do our best to change. But the less public message of this holiday, concealed in the words of the Kol Nidre, is that each of us is accepted and understood whether or not we do what we’re supposed to.


Does this mean that we don’t need to try to be good people? Does the Kol Nidre actually say this?


Yes. Now, before the year has barely started, the words of the Kol Nidre say that, in case we are unable to keep our promises to ourselves and others in this New Year, we can put them aside, be forgiven, and start again with a clean slate!


How did this message get into our prayer books? The story goes that Conversos, Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity hundreds of years ago – gathered secretly, in basements, on Yom Kippur and used the Kol Nidre to declare their pretend Christianity null and void. It’s an appealing tale, but the Kol Nidre came from hundreds of years before that.


It makes sense, since this message of forgiveness is what we so need and want to hear at this time.


Though the story about the Conversos is not historically true, the idea is right. Each of us has ways we feel we must hide, go underground. What do you feel you must keep out of sight?


Just as the Kol Nidre touched the underground Jews of the past, it can remind us, too, that, despite our weaknesses we are still full of potential for good.


Its words speak to the longing in each of us for unconditional understanding and love. They tell us that we’re accepted, even though we will fail to make all the changes we hope to in this New Year. Knowing this, it is easier to look honestly at our wrongdoings, our mistakes, because we know we will not be abandoned, not be rejected.


Tonight, as we hear the beautiful and mysterious Kol Nidre, I invite you to let its message reach deep inside – to the child in all of us who fears punishment, to whatever in each of us that we keep hidden, underground. Take in the words – “it’s true, you have not lived up to all your ideals, you have not come through for others in your life the way you wished, you have not always been your best self, but you are still welcome, still full of potential for good. You’ve made promises and broken them, and you’ll do so again in this new year, but you are accepted and loved, just as you are, so don’t stop trying.”


May this message enter our hearts this evening. May it release us from fear and anger, guilt and shame. May we accept the invitation of the Kol Nidre to the self within each of us that wants, so much, to be loved, to be accepted, and to begin again.

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