We’re not here in this life to be small. Our souls yearn to expand, to live into the fullness of all of who we can become. Yom Kippur is here to help set us free.
Tonight we let go of broken promises. “כָּל נִדְרֵי / Kol nidrei…” All the promises, and the vows, and the oaths. The promises we made that we failed to live up to. The promises we made that it turns out we couldn’t keep.
Unkept promises, both those we make and those made to us, become a weight holding us down. What would it feel like to let that weight go?
My teacher Reb Zalman — Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory — wrote a script for releasing ourselves from our promises. The petitioner says:
“In the last year I have from time to time made vows, sometimes speaking them out loud, or had an intention, a resolution to change something in my actions, behavior and attitude in my mind. Some of these are in relation to myself, my body, my mind, and my soul. Some of these deal with the way in which I conduct myself in relation to other people. And most of all, there are those that deal with my relation to God…”
You might imagine that he wrote these words for Yom Kippur. Actually, he wrote them to recite before Rosh Hashanah. There’s a custom called התרת נדרים / hatarat nedarim, “untangling of vows.” Here’s how you do it. You assemble a beit din, a rabbinic court of three. And then each person takes a turn being the person requesting release, while the others serve as judges empowered to grant release.
The ritual acknowledges that resolutions are a kind of vow, and that when we fail to live up to our intentions, we need a mechanism for forgiveness. What moves me is the response from the court of friends: “hearing your regret, we release you.”
To release ourselves from the promises we couldn’t keep, the first step is to name them, with genuine regret. We speak our mis-steps to someone we trust, and that someone whom we trust says “it’s okay, you can let it go.” Then? We have to believe them. That last step may be the hardest part.
That ritual is a kind of practice run for the work we’re here to do over the next 24 hours, together.