The rituals of Yom Kippur overlap significantly with the rituals of Jewish marriage, such that one’s wedding day is considered a personal Yom Kippur, a day that includes fasting and wearing white. But there is also a stark contrast between these two rituals—a wedding involves making vows, and Yom Kippur involves breaking them.
“All vows and oaths we take, all promises and obligations we make between this Yom Kippur and the next we hereby publicly retract in the event that we should forget them, and hereby declare our intention to be absolved of them.”
These are the words of the Kol Nidre prayer, the prayer recited on the eve of Yom Kippur to begin the holiest day of the Jewish year.
All vows we hereby publicly retract…
Relationships are lived out through vows—vows of love, vows of sexual exclusivity, vows of commitment, vows of companionship.
Vows of marriage.
What does it mean to take these vows so seriously that we are afraid to really make them—that we have to say a preliminary “J/K” as we begin every year, anticipating getting swept up in the moment and making promises that we might not be able to keep?
What does it mean to retract all vows and then go ahead and make them anyway? What does the Kol Nidre tradition imply about my marriage?
It’s not that I don’t intend to keep my vows, or that I won’t try as hard as I can to make good on my word. It’s that I am painfully aware of myself as fallible. I am limited. I join my community this Yom Kippur in a public acknowledgement of human limitations and a retraction of future promises “in the event that we should forget them”—just in case. Just in case I have a moment of forgetting the full meaning and implication of my commitments, I want to state from the start that I know it might happen.
The weight of my own fallibility, my own propensity for making terrible mistakes, is thus at the core of my relationships. From the moment I start dating someone or asking someone to kiss me, I want them to know I am not perfect. I might hurt them, inadvertently. I might say or do the wrong thing. I could seriously mess things up. Don’t get me wrong—I am often also awesome and stunning and amazing—but totally flawed. From long-term planning to dividing household chores, my aspirations may be stronger than my abilities.
To be in a relationship with me requires taking that risk that I will mess up. Or that you will mess up. Perhaps this annual ritual of retraction makes it that much easier for us to even try—to step into the risky and at times terrifying realm of relationships and at least try to make and keep promises, to build and maintain commitments. But if we try and don’t make it, that’s OK too. There is no requirement to be perfect. Next year we will have another opportunity to atone, apologize and move on to even more glorious mistake-making.