Yom Kippur is like no other holyday in Judaism as it puts us directly in touch with the sacred; Kol Nidre evening is like no other night in Judaism as it draws in our people from every quarter; and the Kol Nidre melody is like none other in Jewish worship as it opens the broken heart to the deepest of spiritual mysteries.

It is told of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk that he once attended a wedding where he heard a young man playing a violin. He called to the violinist and asked him to play Kol Nidre. Hearing its somber moving tones, the Kotzker Rebbe said: “It is possible to be moved to do t’shuvah (repentance) even by hearing Kol Nidre played on the violin!”

Why is Yom Kippur so powerful? What is it about Kol Nidre night that attracts so many Jews?

There are many reasons; the darkened, full and quiet Sanctuary, the spectacle of an empty Ark upon entering, the wearing of white by hundreds of worshippers, the stately and silent procession of the sifrei Torah with only the ringing of the silver bells punctuating the quiet, the glorious and awe-inspiring music, the powerful liturgical message calling upon us to make amends, the expectation that we will drop our pretensions, acknowledge our failings and frailties, and commit to live on a higher moral and spiritual plane, and our return to community, the Jewish people, Torah, and God.

Rabbi Eddie Feinstein offers a powerful insight to who we are and what this day is really all about in his interpretation of a passage that we read immediately before the Kol Nidre is chanted: ….anu matirin l’hitpalel im ha-avaryanim (“We are permitted to pray with sinners”). He suggests that ha-avaryanim (“sinners”) can also refer to “Iberians.”

Iberians were Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal from Roman times until their expulsion in 1492. When they fled into Europe, Ashkenazi Jews (those from Germany and the surrounding lands) could not tell one Iberian Jew from another. Consequently, they suspected that all of them were conversos (i.e. secret Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism though in their hearts they remained Jews). Rabbi Feinstein suspects that in order to include the Iberians in the community the rabbis wrote this prayer intending it to mean, “We are permitted to pray with ha-avaryanim – these Iberians.”

What is the lesson? He says: “We are all Iberians. We are all hiding something. We all have secrets. We have all failed at something, betrayed some idea. We have all found ourselves far from where we planned to be in life. We all have shame. We all have movements when life drives us off our map. We arrive at Kol Nidre seeking a second chance, a second chance to come home, to join the community, to seek God’s forgiveness and a new beginning.” (All These Vows: Kol Nidre, edited by Rabbi Larry Hoffman, Jewish Lights publ., p. 146-148)

When we enter the synagogue as one disparate people on Friday evening, each of us has, in effect, come home!

G’mar chatimah tovah!

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