Clean Hands: A Yom Kippur Message

By Ilana Grinblat

Published September 15, 2010.
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This past Sunday, I took the kids to our synagogue’s tashlich at the beach where we threw bread into the ocean to symbolically cast off our mistakes of the past year. At the beach, we saw several of our friends, so after the ritual was over, we took the kids for lunch. When the kids sat down to eat, I realized that there was no place nearby for them to wash their hands, and my hand sanitizer was in the car. I asked the other parents if they had any hand sanitizer with them.

This question launched us into a conversation about how hand sanitizer didn’t exist when we were kids, and how we worry now about a whole range of issues about which our parents were not concerned. Were our parents too lax? Are we too strict with our own kids? Not strict enough? Why is it so difficult to get parenting right?

This Friday night, on Yom Kippur, we will recite the Kol Nidre which cancels “all vows.” The Kol Nidre is puzzling. The most sacred prayer of the year is not actually a prayer at all, but rather a legal formula to cancel oaths. Oddly, rather than cancelling vows that we made and didn’t fulfill in the past year, the traditional formula cancels vows that we’ll make in the coming year. Why do we need this formula in advance? Perhaps, we’ll promise properly in the coming year? Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get it right.

At the holiest moment of the Jewish calendar, the Kol Nidre forces us to confront the impossibility of perfection. The prayer asserts that we will inevitably make mistakes next year, as we did last year. This realization is heartbreaking but strangely liberating at the same time.

When my son was an infant, I composed my own Kol Nidre, admitting all the mistakes I would make with him. I wrote:

God has entrusted me with a precious soul to raise. This task is both amazing and overwhelming. I wish for you, my sweet child, that you should know no pain or discomfort, but we don’t live in this kind of world. I can’t prevent all hurt, and sometimes I may even be its cause. I want to admit to you upfront that I will make many mistakes, large and small, with you, my darling, for I am merely human. Even with the best intentions, I will stumble along the way in parenting. I’ll occasionally lose patience and perspective. I’ll be overtired and frustrated, and at that moment, I won’t be the parent you deserve. Although I wish I could care for you myself every minute, you will have to share me with others and be cared for by others. In advance, I ask for your forgiveness. Yet I can promise that I will do my best every day to care for you in mind, body and spirit. You will know without a doubt that you are loved because I love you beyond measure.

Love, Mom

What is your Kol Nidre for the year? What mistakes do you need to admit upfront that you’re going to make?

May we go into this new year with clean hands and clean hearts, whether or not we can find the hand sanitizer.

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches biblical interpretation at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.


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