Kol Nidre is a mysterious prayer. Scholars suggest its origin may very well hearken back to the belief in magic found in ancient Babylonia some 1500 years ago. Its language is striking. “Let all vows, resolves and commitments…be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone.” It has even provided the basis for antisemites to say, “See you cannot trust the word of Jews. Look at what they say on their holiest day.” Controversy surrounds its words.
Yet its haunting melody and its majestic accompanying rituals are what transports us. The drama of the open Ark, the Torah scrolls adorned in white, and our congregation’s leaders holding these scrolls close to their hearts, lift our spirits. The cantor’s chanting of its words—irrespective of their meaning—stirs our souls. We hold fast to the melody. (And we acknowledge that no one sings it better than our cantor!) We cling to the mystery of Kol Nidre.
I turn to the words of the mystics whose teachings I often find mysterious but whose insights carry me through the power of this, our most sacred evening of Yom Kippur.
Isaac Luria, the sixteenth century mystic, offers a parable. It is a foundational teaching of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah. He teaches:
At the beginning of creation God spoke; and primordial light infused all existence, contained in radiant vessels.
And intention arose in the mind of God: to create a being capable of choice, able to distinguish good from bad, holy from profane.
God breathed in and withdrew—tzimtzum—and for the smallest moment was absent, to make space for human beings to develop their godly essence, as expressed in the divine intention: “Let us make the human being according to our image.”
Utter darkness reigned; the forces of chaos tore at the cosmos; the vessels were broken. All creation threatened to fall asunder.
At that instant, when darkness was complete and creation was in peril, the human being came into existence.
And God breathed out again, filling the universe once more with splendor.
But what of the rays of light that escaped from the broken vessels—were they lost forever?
Now the fusion of the divine intention and human potential became clear. For human beings are able and thus commanded to retrieve the wandering rays of light—those entangled in darkness, lost in unlikely corners of the universe.
Each act of kindness, each effort to be human in inhuman circumstances, returns a spark of light to its Source.
The rays of light are everywhere. And when all have been retrieved and uplifted, the messianic time of peace will be upon us. (As quoted in Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe)
I take heart in the message. We must uplift creation.
And I find myself again and again drawn to the modern mystic Leonard Cohen z”l. Listen to his Anthem: “There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything). That's how the light gets in.” Is this perhaps a modern rendition of our ancient words?
I pray. When the words and music of Kol Nidre reach your ears, may you find your strength renewed. We are going to need it more than ever during this upcoming year.
We must lift up these rays of light.
That’s how the light gets in!