Vows and Power: Thoughts before Kol Nidre

One morning this last summer, I read Torah at a Fabrangen Shabbat service.  The weekly portion was Matot, from the book of Numbers.  The aliyah I chanted was one of the more uncomfortable readings from the Five Books of Moses.  In it, we have an outline of rules that allow men to nullify women’s vows.  Daughters may have vows nullified by their fathers; wives by their husbands.  Only vows and promises made by widows and divorcees are certain to be binding.

The terms used for these vows, commitments and oaths – neder, isar, shevu’a — are similar to the ones referred to in the nullifications of future vows in the Kol Nidre formulation.

In thinking about these objectionable verses, I decided to abandon the lens of gender, and focus instead more narrowly on power, though those two constructs – gender and power – remain quite entwined.  The ones whose vows could be annulled by others were those without power and autonomy over their persons – people whose parents and spouses maintained great power over them.  A vow could only seriously be binding on someone fully in charge of herself.

When we recite Kol Nidre, we assume both roles: powerless and powerful.

We are the powerless – our vows, commitments and oaths are going to be nullified, released.   We do not have enough autonomy to make our words actionable; our paths will be beyond our control.

We are the powerful – as we sing along, we release ourselves, in advance, from these vows.  In the text of Kol Nidre we pronounce “coolhon y’hon sharan.  La sheririn v’la kayamin’ .  We release, in advance, all our vows.  They are not valid, they are not in force.

Which are we?  The powerless or the powerful?  Kol Nidre seems internally contradictory.  We ARE NOT empowered to make our words count.  And we know that, because we ARE powerful enough to dismiss them.

Once again in Jewish practice, we recognize ourselves as persons who live with tension and ambiguity.  The human being is complex, balancing reaction and limitation against power and potential.

I think that in general, we are not sufficiently aware of how powerful we are.  Last summer, after Freddie Gray was shaken to his eventual death in a Baltimore police ‘rough ride’, I read a comment on the story complaining that he had “as much opportunity as anyone else”.  To me, that commenter had no clue of how powerful and privileged she is.

I think as well that we are not sufficiently aware of how powerLESS we are.  Habit, indifference, defensiveness, fear, caution and pride – all these are our attributes that beat back our potential and our effectiveness.

The High Holiday period is a focused time when we endeavor to identify how we are powerful and where we are not.  Beginning with the Hebrew month of Elul and throughout the Ten Days of Repentance, we cajole ourselves with shofar blasts to awaken ourselves to how powerless we’ve allowed ourselves to become.  With the High Holiday liturgy, we empower ourselves by taking responsibility for the direction our lives will take, by choosing our attitudes and behaviors even when we can’t control all our physical outcomes, by making time to focus our attention on who we are, what gifts we’ve been granted, and what we are capable of.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah.  May we all be sealed for a good year.

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