Parashat Ki Teitzei • August 20, 2010
Aspen Jewish Congregation • Rabbi David Segal
 When you make make a vow to the Eternal your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Eternal your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt;  whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.  You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Eternal your God, having made the promise with your own mouth. (Deuteronomy 23:22-24)
Last week I happened to see a rerun of an episode of The Office. In it, Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott had, 10 years before, sponsored a group of inner-city school kids, who became known as Scott’s Tots. He promised them that he would pay for college if they graduated from high school. This episode took place 10 years later, when the kids came to collect on his promise. Needless to say, he couldn’t afford college tuition for an entire class. Instead, he offered them each gifts: “I know you all need laptops for college,” he said, “so here are laptop batteries for each of you...”
It got me thinking about this time of year, which is all about keeping promises, and what to do with promises we’ve broken.
The best known prayer of the High Holidays is Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidre. But we rarely stop to think about what it means. Literally, the title means “all vows.” And in fact, the text is an ancient Aramaic legal formula for a release from vows -- kind of like a release you sign before you do something dangerous...like living for another year, in this case. There is some debate about whether it should absolve us of vows from the previous year, or from the subsequent year, but either way, it is not a beautiful, heart-wrenching prayer in its content, but rather a dry legal document.
Kol Nidre has a long and strange history. I won’t go into all the details, but a few highlights are worth noting. For one thing, for centuries, Kol Nidre was a tool of Christian propagandists, who claimed it as proof that Jews aren’t trustworthy. “Don’t do business with them,” would go the argument, “because they don’t keep their promises. It says it right here...” Fortunately, the world has changed enough that that's no longer the case -- and hardly anyone speaks Aramaic anymore, anyway, so they can't understand it!
There have even been attempts to remove Kol Nidre from our liturgy. Mordecai Kaplan, a notable Conservative Rabbi of the early 20th century and the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement of Judaism, tried to remove this prayer from the service at his New York City synagogue. In his view, it was not modern enough to keep; it was inconsistent with the values and practices of the day. In response, there was virtually a congregational rebellion. People were just too attached to this prayer.
For them -- as I believe it still is for us -- there was a deep connection to the music. The haunting melody, the gravity of this time of year, the connection to tradition and the passing of time...all of these together make Kol Nidre a profoundly sacred moment, even for those who don’t usually use the word “sacred.” We’re fortunate enough this year that we will hear Kol Nidre both on the cello and sung by our Cantor.
But in addition to the music -- which would be reason enough! -- I think there is another reason to keep Kol Nidre in our service.
The Torah’s laws about vows, which we just heard chanted, is pure; it’s an ideal of perfect behavior. But Kol Nidre reminds us: we live in the real world, where we go back on our word, where we lose faith. Sometimes we do it willfully, and sometimes accidentally. So we need Kol Nidre, not just to ask God to forgive us, but also to remind ourselves:
We must be more mindful of the vows that cross our lips, because we ARE ultimately accountable for them, and we must care for our souls in that regard. AND we must also live in the real world, with other people. We must acknowledge not only ours but other’s limitations and inevitable imperfections.
Although it’s not yet winter, a poem came to mind that expresses this idea. I think it’s probably familiar to many of you:
Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
This time of year, we dwell in that space that Frost describes. Yom Kippur is, spiritually, the darkest Jewish evening of the year. We retreat, reflect, turn inward. We inhabit the silent solitude of the woods.
But in the end, we must move on. We can’t stay in the woods forever. The shofar blast, like the horse’s harness bells in the poem, awakens us from our inwardness. We re-emerge into our world of obligations and relationships. It is messy, but it has the potential to be holy, too.
Every Yom Kippur, we turn inward, consulting the quiet darkness, and we recommit ourselves:
to keep our promises;
to go our miles;
and, when it is our turn, ultimately, to sleep,
we will have left the world of our relationships and responsibilities better for our having left our own trail in the newly fallen snow.
Shabbat Shalom and an early Shanah Tovah.