by Maia Brown and Shelby Handler
Listen to the D’var here.
1. B’SHIVAH SHEL MALAH: the stakes & the strangeness
I invite you to close your eyes or cast your gaze downwards or go internal in some way, for some imagining. As much as you can, wherever you are, take a moment to breathe. Just let whatever images come to your mind arise as I speak.
In your mind, without opening your eyes, look above you. Tonight, at this very moment, there is a heavenly court hanging directly above us, dazzling and haunting and staring, seeing all of what you did this year, what promises we kept and what promises we didn’t. And no, it’s not that tidy panel of angels dressed in vanilla frosting and fluffy cloud scarves with harps - no shame if you saw it, I saw it too -- but no, look again, inside and above your mind. The tribunal convened above us, right now, is alive, beaming, visible only tonight on Kol Nidre. Sure, we can say it’s court made of angels, but there is a immense gaggle of them, picture them: a congregation so wild and numerous, they are piled upon one another, and oh, these “angels” are made mostly of eyes, many many eyes, and oh, and their eyes are comprised solely of stars, so many many stars, packed tight into the seams of their alien angelic pupils, eyeballs of entire galaxies witnessing us, in our exhausted, daily attempts at wholeness.
These strange constellation-creatures have seen us, in a kind of seeing we can’t imagine, perhaps it shouldn’t even be called seeing, more like a thrumming-reaching-sensing. They have been awake all this time, they watched you make promises and break them, watched you make promises and keep them and they know what keeping them cost you; they watched you fail, flail, re-commit, get fired up, feel rootless, ruthless, selfish, feel holy, true, connected… they’ve above us right now in all that knowing.
And now, still with eyes closed, look around you and see that an earthly court, too, has sprung up between and amongst us, and it, too, glitters. When we say court: it is not that horrifically supremacist and bureaucratic apparatus on 3rd Avenue designed to declare humans individually guilty for how the system failed them in the exact way power designed it to fail them. Erase those halls from your mind. This is a different kind of earthly tribunal. Inexplicably, it’s covered in moss, can you see it? It's everywhere. Rolling bright green softnesses, and it’s between all of us right now, we’re sitting upon the downy green seats of the earth, oh and it’s completely spangled in dew, but so are we, we are warm and shaking as tiny petals in the morning. Some of us are wearing white, dressed in the garment in which we expect to be buried in -- and this is not a horrible thought, but a sacred one, a deep breath one we take together in this place, where we have a future and we also don’t have a future. We are all here, in the betweenness, in this meadow-courtroom-forest, we gather in electric-lush-wildness, and a cedar frond skitters your elbow as you sit here, shuddering, convened as an essential part of this sacred community.
Still with eyes closed: we are witnessing each other in this place, we are the People beside the earthly court and our consent is needed for the proceedings to continue. The angel-star-creatures have already given their sequined nods. HaMakom, The Place where G-d resides which is itself G-d has given their go-ahead. And now it is our turn, your turn, to affirm: yes, we long to be here together, yes, we will consent to the anti-contract-contract we are signing, yes, we will pray among the transgressors.
What is about to happen is not what you assume.
This is not a prayer.
This is about border crossing.
By arriving at Kol Nidre, we have given permission to take part in this mournful and magical legal proceeding and we have agreed to do so amongst, alongside, with the “avaryanim,” often translated as “the transgressors” or “the sinners.” The root of this word, avar, means to pass, to cross a border, to swell, to run over... it can also simultaneously mean to transgress and to forgive or pass-over a transgression. Border crossing is an activity of harm and healing - we have the capacity to transgress boundaries in harm as well as pass-over (angel of death style) the mistakes we make.
And! This is the same root as the word “Evri”, the Hebrew word for Hebrew. So our language, our collective identity as Hebrews, is at its root, defined by our penchant for crossing national borders. We, the people of passing over borders, come together tonight to pray amongst ourselves.
Now, you can begin to open your eyes.
2. KOL NIDRE: the grammar of border crossing, the liturgy of the future
So, Shelby was our chazzan just now, asking us to get ready and give permission to learn together as border-crossers. (Notice we are structuring our D’var about Kol Nidre, the way that we chant Kol Nidre! A chazzan-ed way in to our work together, with a chazzan-ed way out into the wider work) So, now we are ready to study, yes? Ok, good!
Here we are with all our vows. These are reflexive vows, voluntary--they are ours because we made them, took them upon ourselves, not because someone else made us hold them. They are not the mitzvot that we are rarely un-obligated from--that are deeds, obligations, commandments...things we do that hold up the world and tether us to our tradition. We authored these commitments, not Torah, and now we try to author our release from them.
These promises are all around us, misted into the air with everyones elses. Yeah, our oaths are aerosolized, breathed out to meet others' breath in a time when we are still trying to share less air. There’s something there...how we need to breathe together for ritual, together with photosynthesizers too. But breath is about life and death, always. Breath is one most intimate rhythm of how we are always crossing the border of ourself to remember that it is crossable, that it doesn’t keep us from others or protect us from others, it is made up of others, we are made up of others’ (breathing). Careful! You just breathed in someone else's vow! I guess it was always part of your promise--the one that your neighbor just yawned into themselves. hmmm.
Kol nidre is often referred to as a piyyut—a liturgical poem composed most often to be chanted as part of a synagogue service. But Kol Nidre is not a prayer at all, rather it is a legal formula for annulment. Written mostly in Aramaic and not Hebrew, so it would be understood by the majority of the populace at the time of its composition. It’s structure mirrors other legal documents written in the Babylonian era, and like other rabbinic formulas (unlike most prayers) we chant it three times. We say it right before the sun sets (so we aren’t doing the work of undoing on a holiday). We chant with the Torah as witness.
So, how old is Kol Nidre and where does it come from? Are you surprised that there is disagreement on this score? All we are certain of is that it existed in the time of the Geonim, the rabbinic leadership in Babylonia (the largest and most influential Jewish community in the world at the time), between the 6th and 8th Centuries. We would not be able to date Kol Nidre as far back as the Geonim if it hadn’t been so fundamentally controversial. I say fundamentally not only because of its content, but because it grew up in controversial times (ya know, like all of us)—used as fuel for the fiery debates over what Jewish tradition would look like as we stumbled out of the Temple period and a barometer for that question even now.
The Geonim actively rejected Kol Nidre. Rabbi Amram Gaon called it a “foolish custom,” warning that people would take their vows lightly if they knew they could be released from them. Other Geonim tried to change the text so it read not as something with legal authority but a plea for mercy. But the custom spread anyways--to Palestine and Europe. Rashi tried to shift cultural understanding of Kol Nidre as a formula that only breaks forgotten vows. Then his son-in-law shifted the text to the future tense so that it would not release us from our vows, but allow us to cancel future vows--a practice with Talmudic standing. Rabbenu Tam reinforced this change by trying to change the tense from the perfect to the imperfect. By the time the text was finally approved and included in the makhzor in 1565 by rabbi Yosef Karo (author of “Shulchan Aruch”, the most widely consulted legal code in our tradition) only some of these changes had stuck and many communities had continued to use the older text in Aramaic or a Hebrew version. In Europe and Ashkenaz North America, we are accustomed to a text that reads partially in the perfect past tense to begin and then orients us to releasing the vows we make “from this Yom Kippur to the next,” ending with a litany of imperfect verbs.
So, Kol Nidre has been a site for two simultaneous struggles--internal Jewish struggles over what our tradition should mean and around rabbinic authority & external struggles with Christian hegemony and antisemitism.
Kol Nidre is said to have been used by our ancestors in Spain as a way of annuling forced conversions during the reconquista. It was used later by Chrisian authorities as proof that Jews couldn’t be trusted to keep their word in trade or pay back their loans, justifying violent and debilitating strictures on European Jewish life.
And internal Jewish debate over Kol Nidre has never stopped! In fact, in 1927, rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism lobbied successfully to have the movement replace the text of Kol Nidre with Psalm 130 in the Makhzor. But, now it’s back! Folx have always loved it, found ways to say it despite threats from within and without. This is a story where minhang (custom) keeps winning out over authority.
We are attempting some of our boldest border crossing right now. When the book of life is open and the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest. Jews don’t really believe in linear time and right now we believe we can maybe cross some major time zones. But we are not just reaching backwards. We want to bring you into our translation process for a bit to ask how our tradition thinks about time. Ready?
We wish we could take you word by word (don’t worry! We won’t), but you will notice that the translation we shared tries to give you access to some of our discoveries in our excavations of shoreshim--the getting to the root of each word. Maybe you noticed the indented or parenthetical moments that try to bring you into that a little? We want you, always, to know that you have choices! You are also makers of this tradition. So, let’s go deeper on just one line.
The phrase is: הַבָּא עָלֵֽינוּ לְטוֹבָה
One potential hyper-literal translation of this line is: the-future we-come-up for-good. Aleynu is plural, the nu at the end means we, and the root in this case can mean that we come up, that we arrive, that we are put on the altar, that we are counted, or offered, or made void, or promoted. L’tovah: the lamed is a prefix that can mean to or for. Tovah: good, handsome, valuable, fit...or, goodness, happiness, mercy, much, many, very. Finally, habah, the future. Bah, here can mean: coming, future, the world to come, futurity (the possibility of a future). It comes from the root bet, vuv, alef--to enter into, to come, to have sexual connection (yes, absolutely it does) to bring, to offer, to bring about.
So, we come up to the coming? We arrive to the offering? We come to what we bring about?
Yes. All of those! (put your ideas in the chat?)
We are offered as an offering! We are put on the altar of the future! We are counted in the world to come! We are made void by futurity!
And all of this for goodness, for mercy, for muchness. May it be a good time to come up.
It made us wonder, does the future arrive to us or do we arrive to the future? Are we offered the future or are we offered up to it? Maybe goodness happens when we are moving towards each other, arriving simultaneously, each with something to offer?
We finally settled on: may we be counted in the world to come! may that future arrive to us anointed in goodness!
The future comes in and out of fashion and this is one of those anti-future moments. One common way that people tried to put words to early lockdown times last year was that it seemed as if the future had been taken from us, excised from the horizon. The future is an idea that relies on movement and we felt stilled. It was disorienting, how do we still live in relationship to all three tenses? Then came fire season and the gutting way that Climate Crisis questions futurity. Kol Nidre—this palimpsest text—puts us in that tension between the perfect and imperfect. Grammatically and philosophically. And it is precisely Kol Nidre’s disorienting record of our wrestling with time--the version we chanted tonight and the knowledge of the many many other versions--that throws us back into the whirl of time and gives us back the future, whether we want it or not.
We are in the past and the future as we chant, we are in the finished and unfinishedness of our actions, because we are moving--together. We are getting unstuck. We are realizing that the future and us aren’t done with each other, there are still things to offer. It’s not a safe meeting as we walk towards each other. The altar during Temple times was a bloody place. But, please, may we still keep arriving there...
3. V’NISLACH L’CHOL ADAHT: what happened and what’s still happening
This year, the future-ness we face is a shmita year, where we are again asked to be more still to let the land rest, to let each other rest. To forgive debts—this is a whole year to enact the release kol nidre teaches us, to imagine what spaciousness and possibility seeds when we carve out more space.
Yet Kol Nidre is a formula for bringing us into motion again. The fact that we have to break promises betrays the fact of change. Yes, we sigh, the only constant is change…we know! It is dizzying, it is hard, it means we die and those we love die. But also, it means that when we believe that everything is stuck, halted, and narrow, there is still movement, we are still moving. It is no mistake that the Chazzan’s afterword to kol nidre reminds us of Mitzrayim—Egypt—the narrow place, reminds us of the transformation from slavery to freedom. If that movement can happen, surely we can move now…the Chazzan chants that it has been this way always—the “it is too much to bear” and so I bear it.
We know that keeping a promise is difficult. But it’s hard to break a promise too, even if it's one that needs breaking...because the future has changed around us, became the present, and in that new present: perhaps a promise we made can no longer exist on the wild new ground we’re suddenly moving across.
Kol nidre is not ensuring that we can break our promises and still be forgiven. But trying to give us the right amount of space to feel we can make promises, despite not knowing what narrowness or wide-open-ness lies ahead. Kol Nidre doesn’t invite us to be sloppy and careless, but rather nudges us to be bold knowing that we can be held if we falter… and that brave stumbling may be the only way to keep approaching the world to come.
So, in that spirit, we salute you all in your uncertain futures, with all the translations we didn’t choose (all the futures that could have been!) as we grappled with that one wild line that set off this entire path of grammatical border crossing:
May the future arrive to us as an offering!
May the future be ever-arriving in good time!
May that future be charged in pure potential, even when it arrives!
May the future arrive to us or us to it or... both!
May we even have a future at all… please!
May the future even want us to show our silly faces!
May we move towards that future just as it moves towards us!
May that future ever-approach us as we ever-approach it!
May the Messianic vibes be ever in your favor!
May we be placed on the same altar as the future!
May we approach the future as she peers over her shoulder!
May we bless the future as it blesses us!
The future? We come up for good!!!!!!