Kol Nidrei always puzzled me. Why begin the holiest day on the Jewish calendar with a legalistic formulation? Why not begin with a description of the kohen gadol’s Beit Hamikdash service about which we read during the Yom Kippur Musaf? Why not begin this holy day with a recitation of Hashem’s awesomeness as we will do when we recite the Unetaneh Tokef? Why instead begin with a detailed listing of the various forms of vows?
Then there is the unusual temporal direction of Kol Nidrei. For most of Yom Kippur we are looking inward and backward. We contemplate what we have done in the past year. The version of Kol Nidrei most often recited is a formula to annul vows not even yet made. Why? Consider also the observation made by Rabbi Yaakov Bienenfeld of the Young Israel of Harrison New York. Rabbi Bienenfeld noted that if we reverse the letters of the Hebrew word Nidrei we spell the word Yarden, the Hebrew name for the Jordan River. He then posed the question of whether there is any significance to be found in this rearrangement or reversal of letters?
When I think of the Yarden River I think of Moshe Rabbeinu standing on its banks and gazing on a land he will never enter. Why was Hashem’s most loyal servant not allowed to enter the Land of Israel?
There is a popular misconception that Moshe was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel because he failed to heed Hashem’s instruction. Although Moshe struck the rock, rather than speak to it, this was not the primary error. Rather, it was a manifestation of an underlying problem.
Moshe was not denied entry into the Land of Israel because he struck a rock. He was denied entry into the Land of Israel because of a spiritual gulf. There was a gulf between Moshe and the people of Israel. Moshe had grown far beyond the people. Moshe could no longer connect with the people. He could no longer relate to them and they no longer could relate to him. This became apparent at the Waters of Strife. He was too far above the people to understand and feel their distress. He could not comprehend their doubts or lack of faith. He grew impatient and angry with them. Lacking a comprehension of and connection with the people, he could no longer lead them. Someone closer to them needed to take over.
The rabbis tell us that Hashem vowed that Moshe would not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel for the following reason. There came a point during the period of the first Beit Hamikdash that the Jewish people’s sins grew intolerable to Hashem. Rather than destroy His people, Hashem chose to vent His fury upon the Beit Hamikdash. If, however, Moshe had entered the land he would have constructed the Beit Hamikdash. A Beit Hamikdash constructed by Moshe, owing to his spiritual greatness, could never have been destroyed. Therefore, if the people were to survive, Moshe could not lead them into the land. The contrast between Moshe’s spiritual greatness and the people’s lesser spiritual achievements would have stood out as a sharp and harsh indictment against them. To prevent this, Moshe would not be allowed to enter the land. For the love of the people he willingly accepted this fate.
Yet, we also learn that Moshe held out hope that the decree might be changed. This is manifest during his farewell speech recorded in the parsha of Va’etchanan. In that parsha Moshe tells the people how he prayed to Hashem to be allowed into the land. Moshe relates Hashem’s response that he, Moshe, was to no longer pray for permission to enter the land. The rabbis tell us that this statement should have been a hint to the people. Although Moshe could no longer pray to be allowed into the land, the people could pray on his behalf. Sadly, they failed to pray.
How could the peoples’ prayers make a difference when the prayers of Moshe, the greatest prophet, were unaccepted? The request contained in any prayer by the people would not have made a difference. The difference, the power, would lie in the effort to help another. The simple act of praying for another would have changed the people’s spiritual character. By praying on behalf of another person, on behalf of Moshe, they would have elevated themselves closer to Moshe’s spiritual level. Then Moshe and the people would have been better able to relate to one another. Moshe could have continued as their leader. It would be a change in circumstance that would enable Hashem to annul the decree, the vow, that He made against Moshe.
This is why we recite Kol Nidrei on the night of Yom Kippur. This is why Kol Nidrei looks to the future. During the month of Elul, during the Ten Days of Repentance, we have looked to the past. On Yom Kippur night we look to the future. On that night we must resolve to change our spiritual character. We must resolve to do in the new year something more. If we change our spiritual nature, then the decrees that Hashem made against us on Rosh Hashanah, the vows He made against us on Rosh Hashanah, can be annulled due to changed circumstances. Kol Nidrei reminds us, teaches us, that we can change ourselves and thereby change our fate.
If we resolve now that in this coming year we will change our spiritual character then Hashem can look at us and say that our nature has changed. Hashem can say that we are not the ones against whom He made the harsh decrees on Rosh Hashanah. We just need to act. It can be something small. It can be as simple as praying for someone else. Indeed, the story of Moshe recommends that the best way to change our spiritual character is to look for ways to help others. Pray for others. Do something for others. Do something for the community. Do something for our people.
Our ancestors failed to pray for the man who prayed so often for them. Let us not repeat their mistake. On Yom Kippur, let us pray for ourselves. Let us pray for our families. Let us pray for our friends, our nation, our people. Let us resolve to do something more in this coming year so that we might cross the Yarden, that we might cross into that Promised Land, into a new year of good and blessing.
William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in religion and a law degree from NYU. He has served for a number of years as the president and board member of the Young Israel of Harrison, New York (YIOH). The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.