As Yom Kippur begins tonight, Jews around the world will gather in synagogues to hear the cantor sing Kol Nidre, whose melody will break your heart.
But the words of this song may be even stranger and more disturbing than its haunting melody. Kol Nidre is a legal declaration repudiating our vows. Just before the sunset that ushers in the Day of Atonement, the congregation stands before a symbolic court of law, represented by three Torahs held in the arms of community leaders. The cantor sings:
All vows and prohibitions and oaths …
that we may vow or swear or prohibit upon ourselves
from this Yom Kippur until the Yom Kippur that is coming upon us for goodness—
regarding all of them, we repudiate them.
All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect.
Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.
Kol Nidre clears the path to different kind of self-improvement. Instead of making vows, we do teshuvah. The noun teshuvah comes from the Hebrew root shuv (shin-vav-bet)—to return—and it has two meanings. First, teshuvah is the act of returning, a coming-back. Second, a teshuvah is a comeback, a response, as in “I asked him a question and he came back with a teshuvah,” or “She told him she loved him and his teshuvah was a kiss.” On Yom Kippur, the goal is to become aware that we are standing in the presence of infinite grandeur and to offer the appropriate teshuvah, to come back with the right response. The High Holiday liturgy that is designed to evoke this response is strikingly short on promises of good behavior. Instead of putting vows in our mouths, what it does is try to place us inside a relationship that, once we are aware of it, we would never dream of betraying—a relationship to which we cannot but respond.
Here are some musical examples for the Jewish High Holidays