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.
Of course, there’s a difference between breaking a promise to someone else, and breaking a promise to oneself or to God. For a mis-step between me and God, Yom Kippur can atone — but for a mis-step that hurts someone else, Yom Kippur does not atone unless I seek forgiveness first. If I promised you that I would do something, or be something, I have to make amends for the promise I couldn’t keep.
Here’s an interesting thing. We’re required to seek forgiveness in order for Yom Kippur to do its inner work on us and in us — but even if forgiveness isn’t granted by the other person, the fact that we’ve sought it is what matters. The fact of making teshuvah and earnestly seeking forgiveness opens us up to the spiritual possibility of release.
Tonight we seek release as a community, and that’s important. We come together for these 25 hours because doing this together is different from doing it alone. Between tonight and tomorrow night, we spend time in community — sometimes davening, sometimes in silence, sometimes in remembrance — and we seek release together. This dates back to ancient times. We read in Torah “כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם לטהר אתכם… לפני ה’ תטהרו” — “For on this day y’all will come together and atone and be purified; before God y’all will be made pure.”
The experience of this day has the capacity to change us, to render our souls pure and clear, but we have to enter into it together. In a certain way, our individuality is a fiction. We become attached to the idea that we’re all unique, but deep down we’re all reflections of the same Infinite One. Deep down we all have the same heart. What touches my heart touches yours, too. What hurts my heart hurts yours, too. We come together to atone, to “at / one,” because our souls are connected, because our hearts are one heart.
And we come together because we need each other. Talmud teaches (Brakhot 5b) that אין חבוש מתיר עצמו מבית האסורים, the prisoner can’t free herself from prison. When I get emotionally and spiritually stuck, when I get tangled in recriminations and self-blame, sometimes I can’t lift myself out of there — I need a beloved friend to see me where I am, to remind me that I am loved, and thereby to lift me out of my place of constriction. We do that for each other.
And yet Yom Kippur has an individual function, too. Only I can atone for my mis-steps. I can’t atone on your behalf, nor you on mine. I can’t forgive you for the promises you made to yourself, or to God, about how you would live over the last year — only you and God can do that work. I could say “It’s okay. You had the best intentions. Let yourself off the hook.” But my words won’t make a difference unless you do the inner work of releasing yourself from where you missed the mark.
Forgiving ourselves is an essential step in the process of forgiving each other. In tomorrow afternoon’s Torah reading we’ll read the exhortation to love our neighbor, our other, as we love ourselves — which suggests that in order to love someone else, we have to first love ourselves. By the same token, in order to forgive someone else, we have to first forgive ourselves. I have to do my own inner work first — I have to put on my own oxygen mask before helping the person next to me, even if the person next to me is someone for whom or to whom I feel responsible.
Tonight we asked God to release us from the promises we couldn’t keep. Our task is to feel that release, to feel forgiveness from on high — and to forgive ourselves — so that we can extend that release toward those who couldn’t keep promises to us.
One definition of release is “to allow or enable to escape from confinement; to set free.” Our missteps, our broken promises, the vows we made that we couldn’t live up to, become like captivity. They hold us back. They confine us and keep us small.
But 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.
I said a moment ago that a prisoner can’t free himself from prison. This is part of why we need each other: to offer forgiveness when we can’t feel it ourselves. This is also why we need God. Because even when we feel unforgivable, God has always already forgiven us. Tonight’s liturgy reminds us of that: no sooner did we sing Kol Nidre than we heard the words, “And God said, I forgive, as you have asked.”
And because we are made in the divine image, we too have the capacity to forgive. Because we are human, we often have to do it more than once. Maybe you think you’ve forgiven someone for a promise they couldn’t live up to, and then you discover that anger and frustration reappear and you have to let it go all over again. Sometimes forgiveness and release go hand in hand. Sometimes “letting it go” is a step on the road to forgiveness. And sometimes “letting it go” is all we can do.
The same is true when it comes to the promises we make to ourselves. We said we would go to go the gym, and we fell off the wagon. We said we’d maintain a yoga practice, or a prayer practice, or a meditation practice, and life got in the way. We said we would stop snapping at the kids when we’re late getting ready for school, but we fell down on the job. We had intentions of being grateful for every moment, and we lost sight of gratitude…
This is not work that we do once and then get to be done with. This work recurs, like the dishes or the laundry. This work recurs, like a heartbeat or like breathing. But here’s the thing: the people who see me most clearly and love me most dearly are always able to forgive my failings and my flaws, even when I have trouble forgiving myself. And God — the Beloved Friend Who is as near to me as the beating of my own heart — sees me more clearly, and loves me more dearly, than anyone else. God has always already forgiven me. God has always already forgiven you.
God forgives. But sometimes we can’t. Some things are not forgivable, at least not on this earthly plane, or not yet. Maimonides teaches that we’re obligated to forgive someone who’s hurt us if they apologize and genuinely make teshuvah, turn their lives around and become someone who would no longer be capable of inflicting that hurt. But what about those whom we hoped would turn their lives around and genuinely ask for our forgiveness, who haven’t even acknowledged that they’ve hurt us?
Jewish tradition is clear that not only is it not necessary to forgive someone like that, but that forgiving someone who does not admit their own wrongdoing does both them and us a disservice. There’s important wisdom there.
And… I also know that holding on to my hurts doesn’t ultimately serve me, nor help me to serve God. Yom Kippur invites me to release my grudges so that my own heart and spirit can flow freely. Even if I can’t forgive, I can try to let go of the story I tell myself about my own suffering. Because the story can weigh me down, can limit me, as surely as do unfulfilled promises.
Another definition of release is “to allow something to move, act, or flow freely.” Broken promises — those we make to ourselves and to others, and those that others make to us — become blocks obstructing our spiritual lives. They get in the way, they clog our emotional and spiritual channels.
When there is release, there is flow. Our hearts can flow freely again. The abundance of divine blessing, which our tradition calls שפע / shefa, can flow freely again. This is the purpose of Yom Kippur. All of the rituals and prayers and practices of this day are tools designed to help us reach release so that shefa can flow into our lives, and through us into the world.
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.