A multiplicity of voices
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A multiplicity of voices

A guide to understanding Yom Kippur eve prayers

In “God’s Favorite Prayers,” Tzvee Zahavy dismisses a four-fold division of Jewish prayers, which goes like this: “Wow! Oops! Gimme! and Thanks!”

That characterization – which comes from a 2009 New York Times Magazine article – might at first glance cover the standard varieties of prayer.

But it fails the test of Yom Kippur.

Sure, the theme of Yom Kippur is, to put it a bit crassly, “Oops!” Yet Kol Nidrei – the formal annulling of certain vows that technically is recited immediately before the start of Yom Kippur – is not exactly a guilty plea. (That does come later, in the Al Chet, the confession of sins.)

Nor do the Selichot prayers that precede the Al Chet, which center on the repetition of God’s attributes of mercy, fall into that rubric.

Zahavy’s approach, however, explains both elements of the Yom Kippur service.

Kol Nidrei, he says, is a legal document, and that reflects the archetype of the Scribe. “The lawyer cares about words, cares about writing. When a lawyer is writing a legal brief, he has to really concentrate on the logic of it from beginning to end.

“When we walk into shul on Yom Kippur, there are lots of things we could say, but we start out with this statement that all of the vows that we’ve made are null and void,” he says. (See Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s op-ed on Page 18 for another view of Kol Nidre.)

Understanding that the legal language of Kol Nidrei is a form and a style, says Zahavy, enables one to look into the deeper question of what is the prayer’s meaning.

“We are entering into Yom Kippur, when we are going to really try to have compassion upon ourselves for being sinners, for having shortcomings, for not achieving the perfection we ideally would like to achieve.”

“The Kol Nidrei is a very legal sounding way of saying that you have permission to change your ways, to be compassionate, to forgive yourself. Then you can go on to the different levels where you’re asking forgiveness of God and asking forgiveness of your fellow man,” he says.

“It’s an articulation, in a legal way, that we have the power to nullify the vows of the past and the vows of the future. We have this permission. We say that everyone is granting us this permission – the ‘court’ above in Heaven and the ‘court’ below of our community – we’re together with everyone who had shortcomings, that have failures.”

“It’s the beginning of our important spiritual work.”

The Selichot prayers, he says, reflect a different archetype, that of the “Meditator.”

He notes the repetition of the Selichot, which return again and again to a refrain of the “Attributes of Mercy.”

“Why do we repeat it over and over? We say it multiple times on Yom Kippur Eve. Many people say Selichot early in the morning for the whole month, or they’ll recite them in the synagogue the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. Why are we repeating these phrases over and over?”

“When you look at the repetition, you’ll see that the key words invoke all those elements of compassion that we’re trying to grab on to so that we can renew ourselves with regard to our inner being, our relationships with our community, and our relationship with God.”

Zahavy says that while American culture has the notion of compassion, a lot of which comes from far eastern Buddhist idea of meditation, “these things are foreign to most Jews. I’m of the opinion that this is not foreign at all, that it’s right there repeated in prayers over and over again. In reciting Selichot, we are trying to break through to compassion; compassion for ourselves, for our fellow Jews, and then reaching out in that sense of compassion and seeking God’s help in achieving that state of compassion.

“Because if we don’t achieve compassion, we’re going to spend the next year without having moved forward. Anger, disappointment, feelings of lack of self-worth, all the things that overwhelm people can really be moved aside by the proper understanding of compassion, of loving kindness and of mercy that comes from God, that comes from the soul, that comes to you in ways that are jumping out of every page of the prayer book, certainly on Yom Kippur,” he says.

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