Yehoshua didn’t go to Kol Nidrei?!

Every year, we begin the holiest day of the year by annulling all of our vows, oaths, and verbal commitments (an act whose biblical source, in Bamidbar 30, has much to tell us about the role of the rabbinate, and the  real reason for the defeat in Ay). Yehoshua’s stubborn commitment, counter to the will of the people (see Yehoshua 9:26) to a promise made against the Torah’s command, and under false pretenses, is truly remarkable, even confounding.

But perhaps the question should be inverted. Yehoshua’s commitment is deeply grounded in the Torah’s emphasis on the importance of keeping your word. In light of that, how can we start Yom Kippur by negating that value?

In truth, when it was first introduced in the times of the Geonim, “Kol Nidrei” met with great resistance from the sages of the Babylonian academies. Some later authorities tried to mute it’s radical nature by turning it into a declaration nullifying future vows ab initio, rather than past vows that had already been made. But there is one vow we nullify which doesn’t fit this model. It’s actually the very first thing we say as a congregation on Yom Kippur, a beautiful statement of tremendous power, which perhaps can also help us understand Yehoshua’s strange stubbornness.

“With God’s consent, and the consent of the congregation, in the Academy above and the Academy below, we permit prayer with sinners.”  The original significance of this statement was to annul the excommunication of any members of the congregation, in order to allow them into synagogue for Yom Kippur. In other words, we begin Yom Kippur by annulling an oath of exclusion. Perhaps it is in a similar vein that we annul all other oaths. The rabbinic term for the key which allows a vow to be annulled is a ‘petach‘, an opening. Vows generally exclude; their nullification involves finding the opening to once again include.

But not so the vow of Yehoshua to the Givonim. That was actually a vow of inclusion. Commitments like that, you don’t take back so easily.

May this be a year of annulling our commitments, our vows, our oaths, and our habits of exclusion. “Open for me like the opening of a needle’s eye, and I will open for you like the opening of a great hall.” In the merit of our commitments of inclusion, may God include us all in the books of life, blessing and peace.

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This blog offers short reflections on the daily chapter of Tanach along with the 929 project, an incredible opportunity, a wonderful challenge. To learn more about it, visit 929.org.il.