Though the chanting of the Kol Nidre text is the iconic moment of the evening service on Yom Kippur, the words of this Aramaic legal formula are less important than the dramatic occasion in which the Kol Nidre is the central element.
The congregation enters the Sanctuary on that holiest of nights and is stunned to see an empty open ark devoid of Torah scrolls. Normally the Aron Hakodesh (The Holy ark) is filled with sifrei Torah – the Torah scrolls are what make the Ark “holy” (Kadosh). Without Torah scrolls the Aron’s meaning changes. In Hebrew, “Aron” is an “ark,” a “closet,” and a “casket.” Looking into an empty Ark is as if we are peering into our own coffins and confronting our limitations and mortality.
The High Holidays, however, offer a reprieve. The liturgy reminds us that prayer (i.e. praising and celebrating God and life), teshuvah (i.e. turning and returning to lives of meaning in relationship with others, with Torah, the Jewish people, nature, and God), and tzedakah (i.e. restoring justice into human affairs) are available to us at any time. Despite whatever has drawn us away from our core Jewish values during the year, we can recommit in this season to living our lives with greater dignity and meaning. We can turn our lives around. Fate need not necessarily determine our destiny. We can change, evolve, and grow. We can be elevated and worthy to stand with dignity before God on this holiest of days.
The Chassidim teach that if one wishes to walk east when one is walking west, all that’s necessary is to turn around.
G’mar chatimah tovah.