The Kol Nidrei prayer, recited on the evening of Yom Kippur, is perhaps the most famous in all of Jewish liturgy:

All vows, obligations, oaths or anathemas, pledges of all names, which we have vowed, sworn, devoted, or bound ourselves to, from this day of atonement, until the next day of atonement (whose arrival we hope for in happiness) we repent, aforehand, of them all, they shall all be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, void and made of no effect; they shall not be binding, nor have any power; the vows shall not be reckoned as vows, the obligations shall not be obligatory, nor the oaths considered as oaths.
While there are fascinating details about the story of Kol Nidrei’s origins and its entry into the Yom Kippur service, the question I would put forward at the moment is why Kol Nidrei comes when it does, just as we begin the Day of Atonement.

To answer that question, it is useful to consider the language that opens this week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei: “When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” (Num. 30:3) The Torah proceeds to elaborate how a vow (made by a woman) may be annulled within a set of rules. But the fundamental point here is the sacrosanct nature of an oath or vow: it is so powerful that one must go through a significant legal process to undo it. The fundamental presumption is, as the Torah states, that one is obligated to do that which one promises to do.

Fast-forward now to a later moment in the Torah portion, when the tribes of Gad and Reuben come before Moses and the Elders to ask that they be allowed to stay on the eastern side of the Jordan river, and not cross into the Land of Canaan. Moses’s first response is disappointment and anger. “Shall your countrymen go to war while you sit here? Why do you discourage the Israelites from going over into the land the LORD has given them?” (Num. 32:6-7) He proceeds to compare the tribes to the spies who, forty years earlier, had discouraged the Israelites (turned and prevented their hearts, says Rashi) from entering the land. Now, Moses says, Reuben and Gad are doing precisely the same thing.

Finally the tribes agree to go to battle with the rest of the Israelites, and only once the war is over to return to the eastern side of the river. At this moment, Moses states the terms of the agreement, reminding them of what they have said they will do, and that they will be considered sinners if they fail to do so. And then, in language directly parallel to the opening verses of the parasha we quoted above, Moses simply says, “Do what you have promised.” (Num. 32:24)

Reuben and Gad were presumed to be joining the rest of the Israelites on the western side of the Jordan. Their desire to separate themselves creates a literal rupture in the life of the people. And the way that tear is stitched together again is through a promise. We might say that it is no ordinary promise, but as Moses’s words and God’s own instructions on vows and oaths make clear, there is no such thing as an ordinary promise. “All that leaves your mouth you shall do.” Our words, and specifically our promises, create worlds–they create debts and expectations, they shape the world as we know it. Our promises are holy. They hold the world together. A rupture can be repaired with a promise. And a promise broken creates a rupture, a violation of trust, a violated covenant.

So now back to Yom Kippur and Kol Nidrei. Yom Kippur is the day when we press the reset button on our lives. It is the day of complete and total forgiveness. And it is a day when we stand outside the world, as it were: we do not eat, drink, wash, or engage in any of our normal bodily activities that signify our involvement in society. It is a day on which we are simply and powerfully human. In order for us to be whole, we need to know that our debts are forgiven. And likewise, in order for society to fade away for the day of Yom Kippur–in order to reach that sublime level of simplicity–we need to be able to operate outside of promises. So we say Kol Nidrei, in order to create the moment in time when can restore our covenant with God.

Shabbat shalom.