I Never Promised You Dessert: Reflections on Kol Nidre

I make all sorts of promises to my children that I do not keep. Many are made in the exigency of the moment: When  my toddler twins are refusing to get in the stroller because they want to stay at the zoo, I promise them we’ll come back the following week– even if I know that won’t happen, and I’m just relying on the fact that they’ll forget by the time they’ve calmed down. When they are fighting over a toy in synagogue and disturbing everyone around us, I tell them that if they don’t stop arguing, they won’t get lollipops at the end of the service – even though I would be powerless to keep them from the Candy Man. Sometimes my promises take the forms of bribes, as when I tell my son that if he eats all the food in his plate, he can have as much dessert as he wants – even though I then limit him after the third cookie, telling him that it’s for his own good, so he doesn’t get a stomachache.

I’ve been feeling very ill-at-ease about all these unkept promises, particularly now that the high holiday season is upon us. My children are all very young, and they are unlikely to remember tomorrow what I promised them today. But as we recite in the section on remembrance in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, “There is no forgetting before the throne of God’s glory.” God remembers His promise after the Flood never again to destroy the earth again, as well as His covenant with Abraham, as we affirm in our prayers. And so even if my children forget what I’ve promised before my credibility erodes, I know that God does not forget, and that these unkept promises will not go unrecorded.

I don’t think the rabbis of the Talmud would have been pleased with my unkept promises either. In tractate Nedarim, which deals with vows that a person takes upon himself or herself, they quote from the book of Ecclesiastes: “It is better not to vow than to vow and not to fulfill.” They warn that every time a person takes a vow, a notebook recording all his deeds is opened in heaven, and God reevaluates his fate more critically. Before Rosh Hashanah, when we ask God to inscribe us in the Book of Life, we are supposed to annul any vows we made the previous year. On the eve of Yom Kippur, this is solemnized in the Kol Nidre service, where we declare all our vows from the previous year to be null and void. But I have already voided so many of my own promises to my children by failing to fulfill them, and I find the beautiful melody of Kol Nidre even more haunting as I think about how thin is the line between unkept vows and outright lies.

But then I am reminded of the history of Kol Nidre, which was originally formulated as a way of annulling vows made the previous year, but then became in the Middle Ages a way of pre-emptively declaring that all vows in the future—from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur—will have no legal force. If so, then Kol Nidre is not just about looking back with regret, but also about looking forwards with resolve. And so perhaps that is what I’ll try to do as well. I’m not going to promise that I won’t make any more vain promises to my children, because to do so would just be to make one vow on top of another. But looking forwards, I hope I’ll think twice before making promises I can’t keep. If my children eat all the food on their plates, I’ll promise them that they will feel better and have more energy to play. If that’s all I promise, I imagine I’ll feel better too.

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