It is an interesting way to open up a day dedicated to repentance. The day that is designated for atonement and returning to God opens with the recital of “Kol Nidrei”. “Kol Nidrei” is not a prayer or an appeal to God. “Kol Nidrei” is a declaration. We declare our intention to annul any vows that we have made. Furthermore, this declaration has almost no practical effect (- this declaration has no effect at all as it relates to vows that were made towards other people; and even as it relates to vows that were made towards
God, the declaration only has a limited effect for future vows.) So what is the
point? Why do we start the services of this holy day with a declaration of
annulment of vows?
What is a vow? A vow is when we infuse our own will with the power of God’s Law. In other words, we decided to do something or to refrain from doing something – we then take that decision and we give it extra strength – we infuse it with the power of a vow. The entire concept of a vow is that we are exalting a decision that we have made.
What is repentance? Repentance means turning back to the service of God after having rebelled against Him (Chovot Ha’Levavot). Repentance means reaffirming our place as God’s servants and accepting upon ourselves to obey Him. The entire concept of repentance is that we tell God: You are our Master and we are but your servants.
The first step in repentance is the recognition that what “I” want is irrelevant – all that counts is what God wants. My own desires and decisions will not determine my path, but rather God’s will and His command will determine my path in life.
The first step in repentance is to put aside our own decisions. When we stand before God on Yom Kippur, we first acknowledge that the fact that “I” decided something – is meaningless. It is for this reason that we open the service of this solemn day with the declaration of the annulment of vows. The first statement that we make on this day is: “I put aside all of my own decisions, I am not the boss – You, God, are the only authority in my life”.
(As an aside; there is a place for vows in the service of God. But as a part of the repentance process, we ought to rethink every one of our decisions and see if it is truly in line with God’s sovereignty and with His will as expressed in His Law. If we will continue with our vow, it will be on the basis of God’s authority and not on the basis of our own decision.)
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal