Kol Nidre Symbols

Kol Nidre 5773

Every Jewish holiday is wrapped in symbols. Symbolic stories, symbolic prayers, symbolic food, we get the message of each holiday in as many different forms as possible.  This of course is equally if not more true of Yom Kippur. Last week I spoke a lot about windows and mirrors. How in a synagogue a window was required so that we would always be aware of and called to change and improve the world outside our walls. A mirror is also made of glass but will reflect back only what is in front of it, it can’t help you see outside of yourself. For the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read a story by Primo Levi about a man who creates what he calls, “metamirs,” little flexible and sticky mirrors that a person puts on their forehead when looking at another, and the other will see himself reflected the way the metamir wearer sees him. The protagonist sees his reflection from his ex-girlfriend, from his mother, and from his new girlfriend. From these reflections he is able to more fully understand the nature of his relationship with each of these people, but he also acknowledges that none of these reflections look at all like the reflection one sees when looking into a regular mirror. A reflection of yourself through another person’s eyes may help you to understand your relationship with that other person, it may give you some insight into how you are perceived by others, but it is still not the truest most honest reflection of your self.

In the story the protagonist never puts the metamir on his own head, I wonder what he would see if he wore the metamir while looking at himself in a standard mirror. Would he be surprised by the way he saw himself or would the reflection look exactly as he expected, the same as it did when he checked his hair or brushed his teeth in the morning.

On Rosh Hashanah we look out the window on a fresh new year, we embrace the sweetness and hope that we pray will come to us and those we love, and we pray for the same for those around us. But today, Yom Kippur is about the mirror and the reflection. It is about looking deeply into ourselves it is about preparing for death and hoping for life at the same time. The symbols of this day are intended to help us get there no matter what our learning style might be.

This evening, Erev Yom Kippur is also known by the name Kol Nidre, for the prayer we heard done so beautifully tonight, first by our musicians Igor Shakhman and Michael Liu and then again when it was sung by Richard Koplan. This blessing is a nullification of vows made during the past year that we may have been unable to keep. But even thought the title and the words say, “all vows,” it doesn’t really mean “all” vows. If it did, the Jewish people would rightfully be considered the least trustworthy in history because every year we granted ourselves a pardon from any unfulfilled obligations! Rather this blessing is meant to free us from the vows we were forced against our wills to make, forcible conversion being the kind of promise this blessing considers. As well it frees us of unfulfilled promises to God but has nothing to do with the promises we make to other people. But as modern Jews who have not been forced on pain of death to be any particular religion at all, this blessing perhaps needs to be thought about differently. Perhaps it could be about freeing ourselves from the obligations and pressures that we apply to ourselves but that are not healthy for us. Shlomo Deshen writes that “This is a day when the world is left behind, when all barriers between human beings are eradicated, even those between the righteous and the sinners, as are barriers between human beings and God, and between life and death. On this day we enter into a new dimension, the realm of holiness where the self is negated and we are all equal before God. As Kol Nidre frees us from the bonds we have taken upon ourselves, we take yet one more step away from this worldly life.” And Rabbi Reuven Hammer writes that “Kol Nidre …[releases us] from much more than technical vows: it releases us from all that binds us  to our imperfect selves—the limitations that keep us from fulfilling our ideals of who we would like to be.”