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The Cry of Kol Nidrei

Lev Avos Blog

Exploring Tanach while reflecting on parenthood

The Cry of Kol Nidrei

Yechiel Shaffer


Listening to Yo Yo Ma play Kol Nidre invokes a very dramatic reaction. The sheer brilliance and drama in performing the ancient tune is overwhelming.

One feels the great dread of the day of Yom Kippur. You cannot ignore the fear and overwhelming concern felt at that moment. We are beginning the most sanctified day of the year where our future is determined. To be moved by the Kol Nidrei melody is to be human; after all do we not begin the day of Yom Kippur as humans and conclude it as angels?

KolNidreYet, there is a profound sadness to be found in the melody. What is the source of that sadness?

Perhaps the history behind the context of Kol Nidre is important to remember. Each year those who lived a public life as a gentile would gather to annul the vows they had made the where antithetical to their Jewishness. Under the threat of death many Jews lived this compromised lifestyle and therefore felt compelled to gather on the evening of Yom Kippur to repent and return to their faith, if not for but one evening.

Kol_nidre_in_the_machzor_of_WormsPerhaps this sentiment remains true today. We thank God do not live under the threat of persecution yet throughout the year we make promises and compromises that lead us away from our commitment to God. This sadness of Kol Nidre is an acknowledgement of our troubling behavior. On a deeper level, the sadness of Kol Nidre recognizes the unbridled enthusiasm of youthful observance and the sometimes cynical nature of adulthood. We mourn that we are no longer children with an abundance of possibilities and a plethora of choices. Our lives have become more limited in scope and more focused in attention. While this is a necessary process, one evening a year we pause to remember the promises of our youth and mourn that we perhaps did not fulfill them.

That is why on Yom Kippur it is more important then ever to encourage our children to dreams and aspire for greatness. Rav Yosef Dov Soleveichik once commented that the Sifrei Misah, books of death, that are open on Yom Kippur are not referring to those who will pass in the year to come but to those who have passed already. We invoke their merits as a bargaining chip on Yom Kippur. With that in mind, it is profoundly important as parents to recognize the merits we will pass on to our children. When we pray on Yom Kippur we should not pray for ourselves but pray for those who will come after us just as our ancestors did for us.

The sadness of Kol Nidre is an existential grief of our failed childhood aspirations. Our transformation from Humans to Angels, over the course of Yom Kippur, takes that grief and galvanizes it to make changes for both us and our children in the future.

May this Yom Kippur be a day of atonement and inspiration for the entire Jewish people.