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Kol Nidre and Making Promises

It’s hard to maintain a Jewish life in a small liberal arts college, with an even smaller population of active Jews. We didn’t have a Hillel until last year, and even with a Chabad somewhere down the street. You can fit the people going to each high holiday service into two minivans. Shabbat services happen once or twice a month. We’re lucky to have a Passover seder big enough to require tickets, but admittedly, most of the people who go aren’t Jewish.

Beyond that, even the small stuff is hard. If you want a Challah of any size you have to trek off-campus for one (on Thursday because by the time class lets out on Friday they’ll be sold out–who knew there were this many Jews in town?), and lit candles aren’t allowed in the dorms (I’ve made do with electric tea lights, but it’s not the same). What with a busy schedule of classes and homework, by the time Friday rolls around usually I’m thinking about how glad I am that I don’t have to go to geology lab that day. I’ve even managed to self-impose some distractions–the Anime Club I run holds meetings on Fridays, which everyone agrees is the best time to get together, watch some shows, and let off steam after a stressful week. But then we go to dinner together, and four hours later I get back with Shabbos completely out of mind.

Of course I feel bad about it. After seeing the death camps in Poland and spending a month in Israel back in 2009, I made a promise to myself–no matter what happened, I would keep on being Jewish, even if my threadbare interpretation of “Jewish” just meant going to High Holiday services, eating Matza for Passover, giving the occasional tzedakah, avoiding pork, and lighting candles every Friday. And really, until I left Boulder to pursue my studies elsewhere, I was doing a stellar job of it. When school picked up, and I no longer had people to celebrate Shabbat with every week, it got sadly easy to forget about the electric tea lights sitting on my desk. Every now and then I remember, and I feel bad about the number of weeks that have passed since the last time I remembered. I tell myself I’ll light them again next week… but it doesn’t happen.

For the last couple of years I’ve attended Kol Nidre services at the local reform synagogue with a few of the other Jewish students at my school. It’s a lot different from what I’m used to–they have a piano and a choir (and an oboe, as I found out this year), their cantor is an opera-trained soprano, and their sanctuary is elaborately decorated in bronze and glass. Each year I sit in the pews of that beautiful sanctuary and think about the Jew I’ve been. It’s… never a really great reflection. I’ve managed to break the one promise that, of the five, was the most important to me–to celebrate Shabbat every week. Usually I just resolve things by saying to myself, “I’ve failed this year, but next year I’ll be better”. I’ll light those electric tea candles. I’ll go out of my way to get bread to bless. I’ll do better next year, really.

This year I really wondered about that. What use would it be, to make another promise I know I won’t remember to keep?

Kol Nidre is the prayer that acknowledges that we as humans are going to make promises we can’t keep. It’s a disclaimer, of sorts: if I make a promise between now and the next Yom Kippur, and it turns out that I can’t keep it, then it doesn’t count. It’s an interesting prayer because it accounts for something we can’t predict. Instead of looking back on the mistakes of the previous year, it looks ahead to the mistakes we’ll potentially make in the coming year. That’s kinda cool, right? You can go and make promises without worrying about keeping them, because they won’t count if you don’t–

No. Stop. That’s not what Kol Nidre is about. It’s not an excuse to make promises you can’t keep, to get people’s hopes up and then not deliver, and then have God just let you off scot-free. (If it were, politicians would be the ones filling the rows at Yom Kippur evening services every year.) Kol Nidre is for the promises you make honestly, and that you honestly can’t keep. Kol Nidre is our reminder to God that we aren’t perfect, and to take that into consideration when, this time next year, God looks over all the things we’ve done in the past year. Sometimes things just don’t work out. Sometimes it can be helped, sometimes it can’t. We just don’t know what the future will be like from where we stand. If we acknowledge that in advance, we can be more mindful in the coming year. We can be more careful about what we promise to do, and hopefully work harder to keep our word. The promises that we do keep mean a lot more than the ones we don’t.

I’m not going to promise to keep Shabbat every Friday this year. It hurts me to even type something like that, but it’s true. I’m not. I won’t promise to do it because I know I’m not going to be able to back that up. It’d be like getting a dog, even though the dorms don’t allow dogs–I’d be making a commitment that I just can’t hold up. I’ll still make Shabbos when I can remember to light those electric tea candles and say a prayer over any bread-like item we happen to have around, but I won’t beat myself up over the times I forget. I’m going to do what I can to be a reasonable Jew, even living a busy life at a small liberal arts school, but I’m not going to make a promise that I can’t keep. It’s better to live honestly, and to know what are reasonable expectations for the coming year, than to set high goals and then wallow around in guilt when you can’t reach them.

One day I’m going to be the Jew I swore to be in Poland and in Israel–the matza-munching pork-avoiding tzedakah-giving high-holiday-going Shabbat-keeping kind of Jew. But maybe right now it’s not reasonable to expect myself to keep some of those going, especially when other things have more immediate precedence. I’m a modern girl with modern priorities. I’ll hold off renewing that vow until I know I can stay behind it, just like I’ll hold off getting a dog until I know I can take care of it. That way my resolve will really count for something, instead of just dissolving year after year like the countless other potential promises that Kol Nidre excuses us from. For now I’m better off making promises I can keep–like spending less time on the internet so I can get all my schoolwork done.

About Lauren Fellows

Lauren Fellows
BJN Staff Pokemon Expert. Anime enthusiast, tumblr addict, compulsive doodler, dedicated storyteller. Check out my art at laurenfellows.com

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6 comments

  1. Stan Kreis

    Thanks Lauren for some great observations and insights about your life, younger adults and Yom Kippur. Keep writing.

  2. Insightful and beautiful article, Lauren!

  3. A wonderful commentary and a very thought provoking take on Kol Nidre. Thanks so much for sharing your views and feelings with us.

  4. You are a wonderful writer. The ability to share such personal reflections is a gift. You put a voice to the thoughts of so many people. It isn't easy to reveal your vulnerability. You have such an honest way of doing so. Shana Tova. Your parents must be very proud!

  5. Great post Lauren. Certainly applicable to the modern day college student but also something to which we can all relate. When you are ready for that dog, just let us know…..