The Vows We Never Made

White is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality…is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen….In a word, God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.

The paragraph I just read was written 110 years ago by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, one of the great essayists of the 20th century. Consider the red string that was hung in the Temple on Yom Kippur, which we will read about tomorrow. According to our tradition, when the Se’ir LaAzazael, the goat upon whose head the Kohen Gadol confessed the sins of the Israelite people, was taken out to its death, this string turned white in full view of those in attendance. The people would rejoice upon seeing this miracle; it was tangible proof of their atonement, proof that their sins had been washed away. If the redness in the string symbolized sin, then white may be simply the absence of sin, the nothingness, the clean slate left after that sin is forgiven. And, yet, perhaps it means much more than that. After all, white is not the absence of color; white is a color, as I just read, a shining, affirmative thing. With our sanctuary draped in white, with so many of us wearing what, what are we displaying; what are we affirming?

The closing words of Kol Nidrei are still echoing in our ears: “nidrana la nidrei, v’essarana la essarei, ushvuatana la shevuot – our vows are not vows, our proscriptions are not proscriptions, and our oaths are not oaths.” On a basic level, simply understood, this line simply amplifies the the declaration which came in the line before – “shevikin, shevitin, beteilin umevutalin, la sheririn v’la kayamin – that the promises we made in the past year, the promises we will make in the coming year, are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect.”

However, according to Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein, Rosh Yeshiva of the Slabodka Yeshiva at the turn of the 20th century, the line is not just a legal declaration, not just a description, but an powerful admission of fault; it is actually the first line of vidui, our opening confession as Yom Kippur begins. Consider the whole point of Kol Nidre, consider the reality of having just preemptively annulled all of the vows we will be making in the coming year. Do we really have such little confidence in our ability to live up to our word, to do those things we commit to doing, to avoid those things we foreswear? As Rabbi Epstein, leader of one of the great mussar yeshivot explains, the answer is “yes.”

That last line of Kol Nidrei, he continues, is really about us – why are our upcoming vows undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force and not in effect? Because “nidrana la nidrei, v’essarana la essarei, ushvuatana la shevuot – because our vows – the vows that we make – are not vows, our proscriptions are not proscriptions, and our oaths are not oaths.” In short, our upcoming vows are not non-binding because we recited a legal formula; they are essentially worthless because we are essentially untrustworthy. We do not take the things we say seriously enough, nor can we guarantee that we will even have the ability or the wherewithal to live up to the commitments that we do take seriously.

Perhaps, then, the white of Yom Kippur is not just about forgiveness. White is not the absence of color. White is a color; white says something. Even in the very act of absolving ourselves, of removing stains and blemishes, we are also saying something very blunt about ourselves. White light, after all, shines the harshest. This Yom Kippur finds the organized international Jewish community, and, in particular the Orthodox community, having just come together to lobby, to fight, to speak in a voice unparalleled in vigor and unity since the movement to free Jews from the Soviet Union. And yet, at least so far, we are facing the fact that “nidrana la nidrei,” that our words have not been effective. This year has seen a world that seems to spin further and further out of control, whether it is millions of refugees streaming out of Syria, the spread of ISIS, increasing danger for Jewish communities around the globe – even the rising bitterness of the internal Jewish politics and disputations that is regularly splashed across the pages of our community newspapers – we find that nidrana la nidrei. When we take a step back, we notice how despite the passion and intensity we bring to the conversation, at the end of the day we actually seem to have very little to say. It is a sobering thought, to be sure.

But I also think we can take Rabbi Epstein’s reading and move it in a different direction, because we should give ourselves some credit. We aren’t always untrustworthy and irresponsible, and we are certainly not weak and unaccomplished. Perhaps we are successful – but what are our successes? Are our accomplishments bright white, shining and affirmative, or are they really just the absence of other colors?

When Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson launched the first generation of shlichim to be his emissaries to Jewish communities around the world, he faced a challenge with one particular young rabbi, who was very talented but could not commit to a life’s mission. He shuttled between communities and took on various projects – most of which were somewhat successful. So in one meeting with the Rebbe, for example, he described various fundraising projects he was coordinating across New York State, and a plan to visit a Chabad yeshiva in Chicago to test the students there. As the meeting concluded, the Rebbe told him, “But we are dealing with kleinekeiten – with small things,” and sighed deeply. The young man emerged from the meeting shaken. By the end of that year, newly focused, he had moved halfway around the world, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Nidrana la nidrei, v’essarana la essarei, ushvuatana la shevuot” – are the goals we set for ourselves really goals, are the plans we make really plans, or are our plans really not plans, are our goals really just the absence of goals? On Kol Nidre night, we don’t just consider the commitments that we will make, but shouldn’t, but the ones we should make, but won’t. We need to consider whether we act with a sense of significance, purpose, and meaning, or whether we are lost in the kleinekeiten, the small things, the distractions, things that may be flashy and grab attention, but will not actually make much of a real difference.

So perhaps what we are confessing as Yom Kippur begins is the tragic fact tha our upcoming vows, our goals and resolutions for the new year are void upon arrival – not because we won’t fulfill them, but because even if we do, they weren’t really much to speak of in the first place. We have so much power and privilege at our disposal, and we should be changing the world. We sometimes can can tick off achievement after achievement, success after success, but not see a lasting difference in the long run.

In one sense, these two interpretations are at loggerheads. On one hand, Kol Nidre teaches us that we are essentially unreliable and weak, that we take on commitments we cannot fulfill, that we are too ambitious. On the other hand, it also teaches us that we are not ambitious enough, that we don’t make enough truly significant commitments. So which is it? I think we can live with both. As Yom Kippur begins, we honestly do not know how the year will turn out, where we will be this time next year, or what we will be in a position to achieve, whether for ourselves, our families, or the Jewish community at large. On the other hand, the response to that uncertainty is not setting our sights lower – it is the opposite. We cannot guarantee that we can fulfill the nedarim that we make, but we can work to make sure we are making the right ones, that we act with purpose, that we aim high and with conviction.

According to the Rama – Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the towering 16th century figure – we wear white on Yom Kippur to resemble the Malachei HaSharet, the Ministering Angels. Some might suggest that the reason why is because angels are blameless or free of sin. However, in the Unetaneh Tokef we describe how terrified even the angels are, ki lo yizko b’einekha badin, because even they could not be vindicated in the eyes of God’s judgement. Others would say that we wear white because angels do not partake of the physical world and its pleasures, just as we abstain on Yom Kippur. I think, though, that the point is in how our Sages often described angels – each representing a particular mission or specific purpose. Each angel has its own contribution to make, its own stroke to advance the plot – and that is what we want to emulate. Angels are not white because of their absence of color, but because they are brightly shining, affirming their purpose, radiating with meaning. Over the course of this Yom Kippur, may this be true of us as well.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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