This month we are in the month of Elul, leading into the High Holy Days… the most sacred time of the year for us. During this time, we are meant to take a moral inventory of how we have lived our lives over the past year. This process is meant to make us better, stronger, more authentic human beings. It is said that we must ask forgiveness of those around us before we can be forgiven by God. While I agree with this concept, I feel it overlooks a crucial piece of the puzzle – the part where we forgive ourselves for our mistakes. We are judged by God during this period, but so often we are our own harshest judges and critics.
The Kol Nidre prayer is said to have originated in Spain when the Jews of the Inquisition were being forced to convert to Christianity in order to survive. The prayer, with its literal translation of ‘All Vows’ seems to alleviate our guilt at having to say something we do not truly mean. On the surface, it seems to allow us to take legal oaths and then violate them later on without consequence. This interpretation has led to some rabbis even trying to remove this prayer from the liturgy to avoid scrutiny by non-Jews because it raises questions of loyalty on the part of the Jewish community to the broader society.
I would like to encourage us this year to take a different perspective on the prayer – one that gives us some space and acceptance of our own fragile humanity. As Rabbi Eric Solomon says of the prayer, “In order to break through and allow for internal revelation, we need a kavannah (intention) that begins by subtly coaxing our minds and concludes with a resounding push to expose ourselves – both our proudest gifts and our shameful misgivings. Kol Nidre is that invitation; the invitation to share, to be open and to prepare for repentance.”
In order to reveal our most authentic selves and become whole, we need to be able to forgive ourselves and accept even those darkest parts of our souls. And we need to extend that forgiveness into the future. It is not that we do not intend to keep our word, but that we are aware that it is in our nature to be fallible. As we pray Kol Nidre this year, my hope for us is that we embrace ourselves and and all of our imperfections, recognizing that we will (and should) make more mistakes in the coming year. Recognizing that we will continue to do our best in each situation. And recognizing that we should continue to be vulnerable and forgiving, not just to others, but to ourselves.