May 10 2013

Why in the Desert? Parshat Bamidbar and Shavuot

Learning Torah All Night on Shavuot

Learning Torah All Night on Shavuot

This week’s Torah portion begins the book of Bamidbar (“In the Desert”) and reiterates the geographic context of the revelation of Torah, “And G-d spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai.” The Torah never conveys information gratuitously. What is significant about the desert as the context for the giving, and receiving, of the Torah?
The Midrash focuses on this issue and provides multiple answers:

The Torah was given to the people of Israel in the ownerless desert. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, “It is ours”; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, “It is ours.” Therefore it was given in the wilderness, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may acquire it. (Mechilta D’Rashbi)

Why was the Torah given in the desert? To teach us that if a person does not surrender himself to it like the desert, he cannot merit the words of Torah. And to teach us that just as the desert is endless, so is the Torah without end. (Pesikta D’Rav Kahana)

The Torah is not the monopoly of an intellectual elite, those with distinguished “yichus,” graduates of yeshivot, or any other subgroup of Jewish society. The Torah is the universal possession of the entire Jewish nation, no matter who we are or how we define ourselves. At the same time, we cannot fully actualize this heritage unless we are prepared to commit ourselves to a life-long engagement, full of discovery and self-discovery.

In light of these midrashim, the synchronicity of Parshat Bamidbar and Shavuot, celebrating the giving of the Torah, is no wonder. There can be no better time to renew our commitment to Torah than right now. I invite you to participate in the many opportunities available for learning in your community.


May 1 2013

Yom Yerushalayim -Jerusalem Day

 

Jerusalem of Gold

Jerusalem of Gold

This coming Wednesday, the 28th day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar, Jews the world over will observe Jerusalem Day, celebrating the re-unification of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty. “If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its strength. Let my tongue cling to my palate if I fail to recall you, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my highest happiness.” (Psalms 137) More than 2500 years ago the Jews sent into Babylonian exile uttered these words, swearing to maintain a profound mindfulness of Jerusalem. Why this radical commitment to Jerusalem?

I would like to share with you a few selections from a marvelous analysis by Rabbi Shraga Simmons, appearing on aish.com.

London comes from a Celtic word which means “a wild and wooded town.” Cairo is an anglicized version of the Arab name for Mars, the Roman god of war. Paris is named for the Paris of Greek myth, who was asked by the gods to choose between love, wisdom, and power. The Talmud says Jerusalem was named by God. The name has two parts: Yira, which means “to see,” and shalem, which means “peace.”

Elsewhere, God is a theory, but in Jerusalem, God is seen, and felt, as a tangible presence. In Jerusalem we reach beyond the frailty and vulnerability of our lives, and we sense and strive for transcendence. Elsewhere we grope for insight. In Jerusalem we anticipate clarity. Paris may be for lovers, but Jerusalem is for visionaries. Jerusalem is a metaphor for a perfected world, and it gives us perspective on our lives…

Already divided by language, by geography, and even by religion, our people are bound only by threads of memory and of hope. These threads are exquisitely fragile. If they sever we will fragment, and the long and bitter exile of our people ? not yet fully ended, is a consequence, says the Talmud, of the dissensions which sunder us from one another.

To this threat, Jerusalem provides counterpoint, for Jerusalem embodies our memories and hopes. Jerusalem is a living memory, a vision of God in our lives, an image of a perfected world. Jerusalem gives us the strength to achieve what we as a people must do, to unite ourselves, and to sanctify this world…

When Jerusalem was liberated by the army of the nation of Israel in June 1967, time was conflated. The past became present. What we had longed for became ours. What we had dreamed of became real, and soldiers wept because an adolescent Mediterranean country suddenly recovered a memory lost for 2000 years. The past was instantly present, incredibly, transcendentally, transforming who we knew ourselves to be.

I strongly recommend you read the article of Rabbi Simmons in its entirety.


Apr 25 2013

Parshat Emor: Save the Shmuzing for the Kiddush

Cohanim Blessing the People in the Temple

Cohanim Blessing the People in the Temple

This week’s Torah reading deals extensively with various aspects of the functioning of the institution of the Tabernacle and of what would become the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. One of the most interesting of these details is the disqualification of priests who have certain physical abnormalities. It is obvious that these “defects” are not the fault of these cohanim. Neither are those individuals relegated to an inferior class of humanity in any way. The disqualification is exclusively with regards to the full functioning as a cohen in the Holy Temple. Why?

The Torah is quite explicit with regards to the purpose of the Holy Temple and its antecedent, the Tabernacle- “make for me a Holy Temple so that I might dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) The function of the Temple is to create a context for the in-dwelling of the Divine Presence, a sacred space in which we can feel the majesty of God’s presence in the world. There can be no doubt that aesthetics play a major role in the arousal of the sense of awe which the Torah desires we experience in the “House of God.” The physical appearance of the cohanim is one component which contributes to producing the desired aesthetic-psychological-spiritual effect.

Consistent with the above is the Torah’s demand that we engage in only the most decorous behavior in the Temple. The verse, “you shall be in awe of my Holy Place” (Leviticus 19:29) is explained by the Oral Law to forbid from the Temple precincts, among other things, excessive levity, unkempt dress and hygiene, spitting, turning one’s back to the Holy of Holies, and non-mitzvah related activities.

When the prophet Ezekiel expressed despair over the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem God offered comfort by responding that even in post-exilic times He will sanction the creation of sacred space, “although I have removed them far off among the nations… yet I will be for them a miniature Temple in the lands to which they have come.” (Ezekiel 11:16) The Talmud explains that this verse is referring to synagogues and study halls.

For this reason many of the same demands for uplifting aesthetics and proper decorum apply to our synagogues. Indeed, the momentous and universally accepted law code, Shulchan Aruch, devotes several chapters to these standards.

With the help of God and the blood, sweat, and not a few tears of many devoted people, many Jewish communities have built a “miniature Temple” worthy of the term. The verse “you shall be in awe of my Holy Place” compels us to be ever vigilant to protect and improve the sanctity of our sanctuary.

It is obviously not enough for the furniture to fulfill the mitzvah of “you shall be in awe of my Holy Place.” We who fill this sacred place must demand of ourselves to be on the highest standards of behavior within the synagogue, if not at all times! Let us make sure that our synagogues become known as “the shul in which the worshipers worship,” and save the shmuzing for the Kiddush.


Apr 18 2013

Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Beyond Lies

Tell the Truth!

Tell the Truth!

This week’s Torah portion opens our eyes to the breath-taking demands made by Judaism for uncompromising adherence to honesty. In an intriguing string of prohibitions, the Torah commands, “You shall not steal, you shall not deny, neither shall you lie, one to another.” The fact that these three items are listed together led some commentators to suggest that the stealing referred to includes what is referred to in Jewish law as “gneivat da’at,” literally, “stealing of the mind.”

Let’s examine a biblical example that uses a very similar term. The Book of Samuel relates the story of the rebellion of Absalom against his father, King David. The text describes how he would ingratiate himself to the populace by displaying feigned affection and insincere sympathy for their grievances. Absalom’s behavior is summarized in the phrase, “and Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” Similarly, “stealing the mind” (gneivat da’at) refers to any conduct which serves to mislead people, even if well-short of being an overt lie.

The great Maimonides, in his monumental code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, rules:

“A person is forbidden to act in a smooth-tongued and luring manner. He should not speak one thing outwardly and think otherwise in his heart. Rather, his inner self should be like the self which he shows to the world. What he feels in his heart should be the same as the words on his lips. It is forbidden to deceive people… For example, one should not sell a gentile the meat of an animal which has not been ritually slaughtered as if it were ritually slaughtered meat, nor a shoe made from the hide of an animal which has died of natural causes as if it were made of the hide of a slaughtered animal (even though kosher considerations have no legal relevance to a non-Jew). One should not press his colleague to share a meal with him when he knows that his colleague will not accept the invitation, nor should he press presents upon him when he knows that his colleague will not accept them. He should not open casks (of wine) supposedly for his colleague which he must open for sale, in order to deceive him into thinking that they have been opened in his honor. The same applies with all matters of this sort. It is forbidden to utter a single word of deception or fraud. Rather, one should have only truthful speech, a proper spirit and a heart pure from all deceit and trickery.”

Our Talmudic sages add, “There are seven types of thieves, foremost among them is he who “steals the mind” of others (misleads)… He is considered as one who would even be willing to mislead the Almighty (!), for anyone who misleads others is called a thief…”

Another curious feature of our verse is that the three prohibitions listed use the plural form of the word “you,” while previous verses and subsequent verses use the singular form of “you.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the Torah means to direct its remonstration not just to private citizens, but to those who represent and lead society as a collective whole, such as judges and political leaders.

All of society would be well-served to be reminded of the far-reaching demand on honesty and candor which the Torah imposes on both the simple citizen and, especially, upon leaders.

 

 

 


Apr 10 2013

Parshat Tazria-Metzora: The Land of the Shechinah

Our Jewish calendar is fast bringing us to both the celebration of Israel Independence Day and the Torah Portion of  Tazria-Metzora. Israel Independence Day, of course, celebrates the establishment of the modern Jewish State on May 14, 1948. The Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora deals largely with certain types of skin blemishes (tza’ra’at, in Hebrew) and the procedures to be followed in response, including the possibility of quarantine. It is hard to imagine two subjects more seemingly unrelated, but let me take you on a short Torah adventure.

First, just to set the record straight- despite the common translation of the Hebrew term for these skin blemishes as “leprosy,” the commentators emphatically explain that this is not a medical malady. The Torah describes these same blemishes as appearing on the walls of the home and on clothing, clearly not indicative of any known natural dermatological ailment! Our Sages explain that this was a super-natural phenomenon indicating the presence of some form of unethical behavior, particularly leshon ha’ra, destructive speech. These blemishes served to alert the effected parties to the need to change their ways.

In an intriguing twist, the Torah qualifies this phenomenon, “When you come to the land of Canaan that I am giving you as a possession, I will place the affliction of tza’ra’at on a house in the land of your possession.” For some reason, tza’ra’at is particularly associated with the Land of Israel. The commentators explain that this phenomenon is a function of the more intense concentration of the Divine Presence, the Shechina, in the Holy Land. Sin diminishes this special concentration of the Divine Presence and it is this diminution of the Shechina which gives rise to these blemishes. The Land of Israel is characterized by a uniquely intense revelation of the Shechina so that its departure might manifest itself in tza’ra’at.

The work of Torah commentary entitled Iturei Torah explains further why this association with the Land of Israel is especially expressed by blemishes on the home. The author suggests that the blemish is finely tuned to identify the specific nature of the sin which brought it about. If an individual sins with his body, then the blemish appears on the body. If the sin was with one’s possessions, then the blemish materializes on garments. Finally, if the sin is not that of the individual, but a collective turpitude of society as a whole, then this communal defect is expressed on the house. This precision aids us to focus our efforts at moral repair. As individual Jews, we bear full responsibility for our sins as individuals, and their repair, no matter where we may live. But the full experience of Jewish society on a collective level is only possible in Israel. Only in Israel do we, as Jews, have the opportunity, and responsibility, to build a state on the ethical vision of our constitution, the Torah. For this reason, tza’ra’at on the house is particularly associated with the Land of Israel.

It surely is no coincidence that this Torah reading occurs proximate to Israel Independence Day. The message of tza’ra’at is a profound reminder of our feelings about the modern State of Israel. Israel is the Holy Land. It is not just another piece of real estate. The Divine Presence is palpable in the Land. At the same time, the Jewish State is an enormous obligation. It is not just another member state of the United Nations. It has been given to the Jewish People in trust. We have a collective mandate to build a society that will illuminate the world with Divine ethics. The message of tza’ra’at on this Israel Independence Day today is to deepen our appreciation of the Jewish State as both profound privilege and awesome responsibility.


Mar 7 2013

Vayakhal-Pekudei: When Not to Do a Mitzvah

I want to share with you a short, and not so sweet, thought based on this week’s parsha. In a remarkable display of generosity, Bnai Yisrael respond to Moshe’s call for the raw materials with which to build the Tabernacle with an overabundance of donations. When is the last time a fund-raising campaign issued a call for the cessation of donations (!), yet here we read:

And they spoke to Moses, saying: “The people are bringing very much, more than is enough for the labor of the articles which the Lord had commanded to do.” So Moses commanded, and they announced in the camp, saying: “Let no man or woman do any more work for the offering for the Holy.” So the people stopped bringing.

The great commentator Alsheich comments on this phenomenon. “When so commanded, refraining from doing a mitzvah is no less a mitzvah than doing a mitzvah.”

An extremely important application of this principle is concerning the mitzvah of rebuke. The Torah states, “You shall surely rebuke your fellow.” The Hebrew uses a double form of the verb “rebuke” (hocheach tocheach) which is often understood as providing emphasis, hence “you shall surely rebuke…” However, our sages understood this double expression in a different way. The Talmud records the view that just as it is a mitzvah to rebuke when it will be heeded, so too it is a mitzvah not to rebuke if it will not be heeded.

Now consider the following passage in the Talmud:

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: “In this generation there is no one capable of receiving rebuke.” Rabbi Akiva said: “In this generation there is no one who knows how rebuke ought to be worded.”

The emerging message is that rebuke is most volatile and mostly doomed to, not just fail, but to exasperate the situation. Anyone who has lived in the real world and has eyes in their head has had more than enough experience of this!

As the Alsheich comments, “When so commanded, refraining from doing a mitzvah is no less a mitzvah than doing a mitzvah.”
So what are we to do when confronted by improper behavior? Listen to the profound words of the Baal Shem Tov:

If you see a person doing something ugly, meditate on the presence of that same ugliness in ourselves. And know that it is one of God’s mercies that God brought this sight before your eyes in order to remind you of that fault in you, so as to bring you back in repentance…

Let us hope for the inspiration to do many mitzvot and the wisdom to know when to desist from doing a “mitzvah.”

 


Jan 17 2013

“Months and Meaning” Parshat Bo

Rashi, the greatest of the Biblical commentators, begins his analysis of the Torah with an astonishing question. Rashi assumes that the Torah is a book of “instruction,” which is the literal meaning of the word “Torah.” If so, the Biblical text should have begun with the verse in this week’s Torah reading, “This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is the first for you of the months of the year,” which is the first instruction, or mitzvah, given to the newly born Jewish nation. Rashi goes on to explain why the Torah does, in fact, begin with the narrative of Genesis. We can examine his answer another time. For today, let’s focus on why the mitzvah of “This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is the first for you of the months of the year,” was chosen as the first commandment given to the Nation of Israel and perhaps should even have been the very first sentence of the Torah. What is this mitzvah and why is it so significant?

Rashi explains that the simple meaning of the verse is the commandment to have the month in which the exodus from Egypt took place (what we now call the month of Nissan) be the reference point for the naming of all of the months, in an ordinal fashion. Nissan will be called “the First Month,” Iyyar by the name “the Second Month,” Sivan as “the Third Month,” and so on. Indeed, in the Torah itself, the months are given no other names than these ordinal designations. At first glance it seems that this point is technical and certainly does not justify the seemingly disproportionate attention given to this mitzvah.

Ramban, the greatest of the medieval Spanish commentators reveals the secret. Time references are generally a convenient but arbitrary way of making our lives more manageable. Not so is the path of Torah, which seeks to infuse everything with meaning. Designating the months with ordinal names (the First Month, the Second Month, etc.) starting with the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt makes that great act of Divine redemption the reference point for all dates. If we say, “I was born in the Third Month,” we are also reminding ourselves of God’s saving grace, since the Third Month, by its very semantic nature is only meaningful relative to the First Month- which is the month of deliverance. Every time we write a date, we are not simply marking time. We are heightening our consciousness of God’s ongoing loving and active concern for us.

The Talmud tells us that the present names we use for the months (Nissan, Iyyar, Sivan, etc.) were imported into our Hebrew lexicon when we returned to the Holy Land from the Babylonian exile after the fall of the Babylonian empire and the ascension of the Persians. If so, doesn’t this undermine the meaning of this wonderful mitzvah? The Ramban again provides the answer. No, he argues, in fact it deepens the meaning of the idea behind this commandment. When we use the Babylonian names for the months we are further reminded of God’s redemptive presence in history, which was not just a one-time act with regards to Egypt. The second great exile, this time to Babylonia, came to end, as well, through the ever-present action, even if somewhat hidden, of Divine Providence.

It is noteworthy that in Modern Israeli Hebrew, the English names of the months are often used, transliterated into Hebrew consonants and vocalization. Could it be that this is yet another, and this time ultimate, reminder of God’s abiding faithfulness to us? When we utter the Prayer for the State of Israel we refer to it as “the first-flowering of our redemption”- redemption from the current dispersion of our people, mostly in the lands of Western civilization, where these names of the months are in universal use. When the process of redemption will be fully actualized and we all make aliya to Israel, then the use of these names by our Modern- Hebrew speaking children will serve, yet again, to remind us of God’s abiding faithfulness to His promises.


Jan 12 2013

Parshat Va’eira: “Our Baskets Full of Creeping Creatures”

This week’s Torah portion finds us well into the saga of slavery and impending redemption. We already met Moshe last week and witnessed the not particularly auspicious launch of his career. Plopped right down in the middle of this narrative is a tracing of the pedigree of Moshe, including the verse, “And Amram took Yocheved, his aunt, as a wife, and she bore him Aharon and Moshe…”

This passage and this particular verse need much analysis, but for our present purposes, I would like to focus on just  one observation. Moshe is the product of the union between a man and his father’s sister. Concerning this type of relationship the Torah states unequivocally, “The nakedness of your father’s sister you shall not uncover; she is your father’s flesh.” Moshe is the product of a union that in a short period will be proclaimed from Mt. Sinai as an anathema to Torah morality. True, at the time of the marriage this union was not yet prohibited-Yaakov himself married two sisters- but in a culture in which “yichus” is valued, we might have expected Moshe to have come from a nobler, squeaky clean, lineage.

The great 13th century French Bible commentator, Rabbi Chezekiah ben Manoach, known as Chizkuni, addresses this issue:

“Why did God agree that a great man such as Moshe should be the product of a marriage which is destined to be forbidden? Because no man is appointed as an authority over the community unless there is a basket full of creeping creatures hanging on his neck, lest he be arrogant over the community.”

Chizkuni is borrowing an answer to a question asked in the Talmud concerning King Saul. The Talmud asks why the monarchy of King Saul did not endure. The rabbis answered, “Because there was no flaw in his familial past.” This answer is quite paradoxical. One would have expected flawless yichus to contribute to the success of his monarchy!

The Talmud then elaborates, “for R. Yochanan had said in the name of R. Shimon ben Yehotzadak: One should not appoint any one administrator of a community, unless he carries a basket full of creeping creatures on his back, so that if he became arrogant, one could tell him: Turn around!” Possessing a flawless past can lead to arrogance and prevents a leader from profoundly identifying with others, who do indeed “carry a basket full of creeping creatures” on their backs.

We all carry a basket full of creeping creatures, each of us in our own way and unique to the particular contexts of our lives. Our vulnerabilities, mistakes, and stumbling cannot dissuade us from bearing responsibility towards others. On the contrary, they empower us to appreciate the frailty and fragility of the human condition. They enable us to help and guide, through a profound and humble identification with the other.

This powerful message is applicable whether we are a rabbi, a parent, an employer, or a friend. It speaks to us all. Let us march forward, not despite our shortcomings, but through them, helping each other to arrive at the Promised Land.

 

 

 


Jan 4 2013

Let My People Know!!

In the first section of the second book of the Torah, Parshat Shmot,  Pharaoh seems to be guilty of a lethal policy of gender discrimination. In his first decree, he instructs the midwives, “If the baby is male, kill him, and if a female, let her live.” The gender distinction is even more forceful in the second decree, “Any male born, cast him into the river, and any female, cause her to live.” What could possibly be the intent behind Pharaoh’s diabolically anti-Semitic plan?

The Talmudic Sages explain, “So they said, ‘let’s kill the males and take the females as wives.’” The most recent Lubavitcher Rebbe explains this midrash as reflecting a two-fold assault on the Jewish people: half will be destroyed physically and half will be destroyed spiritually through their assimilation into Egyptian culture via intermarriage with Egyptian men.

This strategy is subtly hinted at in Pharaoh’s initial statement against the Jews:

“Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with him…”.

The Talmudic Sages point out that grammatical consistency should have dictated the wording “let us deal wisely with them,” since the reference is seemingly to the plural term “children of Israel.” The Sages explain that there is here a hint of a double entendre, the term “him” is meant to include the God of the Jews. The mother of all anti-Semitic schemes targeted physical Israel and spiritual Israel.

It is fascinating to note the remarkable parallel to the more recent anti-Semitic policies of the last century in Czarist Russia.

Moses Telling Pharoah to "Let My People Go!"

Moses Telling Pharaoh to “Let My People Go!”

who served as an adviser to Tsar Alexander III from 1881 to 1893 and was lay-head of the Russian Orthodox Church, formulated the most succinct articulation of Czarist policy. His formula for solving the Jewish “problem” was as follows: “One-third was to emigrate, one-third was to die, and one-third to disappear (through cultural-religious assimilation).”

In accordance with his plan, more than two million Jews fled Russia between 1880 and 1920. In fact, much of American Jewry is descended from this huge influx of Russian Jews.

At the same time, the Czarist government encouraged hundreds of pogroms, murderous attacks upon the Jews. On April 28, 1903, the New York Times described the horror inflicted on the Jews:

“The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia, are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Russian Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews,” was taken-up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120, and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.”

The plan to assimilate the remaining Jews took various forms. In 1825 Czar Nicholas I ordered the forced conscription into the Russian military of Jewish children at age 12 for a period of 25 years. The Czar assumed that any child subjected to this involuntary servitude would emerge as a Christian. Furthermore, in the 1840’s, special, state-sponsored schools were established for Jews. By decree, these schools were to be staffed by Christian teachers, as well as Jews. The official government pronouncement read as follows:

“The purpose of educating the Jews is to bring about their gradual merging with the Christian nationalities, and to uproot those superstitions and harmful prejudices which are instilled by the teachings of the Talmud.”

The Czars seemingly took a page right from Pharaoh’s playbook! Indeed, the Egyptian exile is the paradigm for all future exiles.

America is also an exile, though a sweet one. The United States has been most hospitable to the Jews. Anti-Semitic acts are considered hate crimes and there are no official schemes to assimilate us away from our Jewish identity and heritage; however, here lies the irony: in the absence of an assimilationist policy imposed by others, we have “imposed” it on ourselves, through indifference and a craven lack of self-respect as Jews.

The Czar got it right, more or less: the teachings of the Talmud (and the Torah in general) were preventing “the merging with the Christian nationalities.” Self-knowledge obtained by getting to know our profound spiritual-cultural legacy is the key to self-preservation. I know of no Jew that would consciously partner with Pharaoh or the Czar in the destruction of the Jewish people. We must wake-up in a collective act of redemptive self-reclamation. If Moses went to Pharaoh and demanded, “Let my people go,” then we must demand of ourselves, as individuals and communities, “Let my people know!”


Feb 2 2012

A Better Understanding of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur

Talk is Cheap- Not!
In a very short time, millions of Jews throughout the world will gather in their synagogues and listen to the soul-stirring plaintive chant of Kol Nidre. Even though Kol Nidre is technically not part of the evening service (known as “maariv” or “arvit”) of Yom Kippur it has become synonymous in popular parlance with the evening service and is certainly experienced as its emotional highlight. Yet, an examination of the words of Kol Nidre leaves one mystified. What is so inspiring about “All personal vows, oaths, and pledges… we publicly renounce…”? Not only are the words not particularly emotionally resonant, their plain meaning is far from obvious.

Kol Nidre is one of the most awesome prayers of the entire Jewish year.

The Torah addresses the issue of vows in several places: “If a man vow a vow…he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” and “When you vow a vow…you shall not delay to pay it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you and it would be a sin in you. But if you refrain from vowing, it shall be no sin in you. That which is gone out of your lips you shall keep and perform.”

The biblical book of Ecclesiastes further sharpens the sentiment: “Do not be quick with your mouth… so let your words be few…many words mark the speech of a fool. When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it… It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin…Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?

The Talmud goes one step further, declaring: “Even when one fulfills his vow he is called wicked.”

The message is unmistakable. Talk is not cheap. It is very dear indeed. Our word must be our bond. It is better not to make promises.

Is there any positive function of vows? Yes. The great sage of the Mishna, Rabbi Akiva, asserted that vows can be help to self-restraint. Precisely because of the awesome gravity by which we view our verbal commitment, such an articulation can be an effective last resort when battling weak self-control.

What is Kol Nidre? The Torah provides for mechanisms for cancellation of vows but within very specific familial circumstances or in the context of a court of law. As early as the ninth century Rabbi Amram Gaon in Babylonia pointed out that Kol Nidre does not conform to those parameters required by the Torah for the cancelation of vows.
The popular notion that Kol Nidre arose as a response to the Spanish inquisition of 1492 in order to allow for those Jews forced to vow allegiance to Catholicism to renege on that commitment is clearly false, given that it predates this event by at least 500 years!

One of the most compelling explanations of Kol Nidre was offered by Rabbenu Tam, the famous grandson of Rashi. Pointing to a comparable passage in the Talmud he suggests that Kol Nidre is not canceling past vows already uttered, but proactively clarifying the intent of promises that might be made in the coming year. They should be understood as careless formulations rather than as conscious and formal articulations of a vow. It is indeed similar to the practice of saying the Hebrew words “bli neder,” meaning “without taking a vow,” when offering to do something. It is akin to saying that we will make a good faith effort, but we value our words too much to take upon ourselves promises that we may not be able to fulfill.

From where does this reverence and care about the spoken word come? It is interesting to note that the first thing we learn about God in the Torah is that He creates, and He creates through the power of speech- “let there be light.” The pinnacle of creation is the human being, made in His image. When the Torah describes the creation of the first human being it states, “and man became a living being.” The classic Aramaic translation/commentary on the Torah called Targum Onkeles, translates this phrase, “and man became a speaking spirit.” Our capacity for speech is the reflection of our Divine image. It is the most fundamental creative capacity by which we give form to that which existed only in the potential and hidden realm of thought.

Speech is our most precious and powerful capacity. To cheapen speech is to betray our very humanity, our Divine image. Isn’t it abundantly true that many, if not most, of the difficult situations which we create for ourselves are a product of our injudicious misuse of the power of speech? Indeed, I can think of a no more appropriate way to begin the Day of Atonement than through the somber reflection on just how cheap talk is not.