There is a sense of awe we are hit with upon entering the shul for Kol Nidrei. It does not emanate from white vestments which dress and adorn the shul in a display of purity, and it is also likely not a result of our near-comatose state, having just engorged ourselves with food in the hopes that hunger pangs will not plague us before morning. No, the sense of awe and fear comes from the sight of the thick machzor that we have to get through over the course of the day. However, we should not fear it too much. 50% of the machzor is the traslation, 30% is intros, notes and additions, and we will likely skip another 20%. Do the math and you won’t have much to fear.
There is a beautiful prayer called tefilla zaka – a pure prayer – which is found in many machzorim before the kol nidrei prayer. The prayer was composed in the nineteenth century by the Chaye Adam, Rabbi Avraham Danzik from Lithuania. It includes a detailed confession as well as an undertaking of the five afflictions of Yom Kippur. It concludes with a declaration that we forgive others for offenses against ourselves.
The idea of confession, central as it may be to other faiths, is a precondition to teshuva, the return to our Jewish faith.
It is only human to occasionally offend and wrong others. On Kol Nidrei night we invite the sinners to pray with us. There are, however, no sinners among us. There are only humans, people who have at times made mistakes. You show me a saint and I’ll show you a sinner. We are all only human.
This humanity is also our greatness. We are capable of being selfless, of thinking about someone other than ourselves. We are capable of saying sorry. There is a custom of pre-Yom Kippur apologies. In Jewish circles you find people frantically apologizing to others and seeking forgiveness. Indiscriminate forgiveness. You can walk down the street and be bombarded with requests for forgiveness. “Do you forgive me? Do you forgive me?” They are so busy they don’t stop to hear the answer; they have to move on to the next person.
“Do you forgive me?” he asks you. You look at the unfamiliar face. “Do we know each other?” you ask him. “What’s the difference, just say you forgive me!”
It can get comical and absurd, but the culture of apologies has become a part of erev Yom Kippur.
We beat our chests and recite the Ashamnu, confessing that we have done wrong, that we have betrayed; and we accept responsibility. We say sorry. Why do we say sorry? How is that helpful?
In the 70’s movie “Love Story,” Ali McGraw states gravely: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Well, maybe that worked for him. Maybe he never had a functional relationship. We know that it is just the opposite. Love is what compels us to say we’re sorry. Love may strike like a thunderbolt and be blind initially to all faults, but ultimately it is the ability to accept responsibility for our faults that makes love endure and mature.
Psychological research has shown that apologies go a long way toward mending damages. This was found to be true even in legal cases. Intuitively one would think that an apology in court is tantamount to admission of guilt and would be counterproductive. However, it was shown to mitigate consequences regularly in court, and it consistently relieved tensions between two sides. Rather than fanning the flames of resentment, due to real or perceived injury, an apology calms the waters and enables people to come to a respectful agreement.
So why are we not forthcoming with apologies? Why does the extraction of an apology come with the same rarity and pain as the extraction of a molar?
It is because we can’t afford to be wrong. And apologizing means I was wrong. If I accept responsibility it shows I am fallible. Our fragile egos can’t afford that. We hold up our esteem by the image of perfection. If the image is proven false our entire self esteem is deflated.
On the other hand, if one has a healthy sense of self worth, and it is not based on one’s image, it is far easier to apologize. The equation of very simple. The bigger a person really is, the more likely one is to apologize, and the smaller a person, the more threatened one feels by apologizing. The flip side is that the more one apologizes the bigger one is.
On Yom Kippur we don’t stop apologizing. Half the machzor repeats confessions and admissions. On Yom Kippur, therefore, we are giants!
The notion of apologizing is fundamental to teshuva and this is our aim as we plow through the services over the course of Yom Kippur.
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