Kol Nidre: A Call for Self-Compassion

Posted on October 10, 2023

By Student Rabbi Heather Renetzky

When I was little, my parents spent A LOT of quarters on the washer and dryer in our apartment building. This was for two reasons:

  1.   As a baby, apparently the vibration of the machine was just about the only thing that would calm me down enough to fall asleep.


  1.   As a toddler, I was constantly raiding our linen closet.

I would empty the closet of every last towel, washcloth, and pillowcase because I felt that it was my job to make sure every single stuffed animal in the house (and there were lots) had a comfortable place to sleep. Each stuffed animal required a sheet, a pillow, and a blanket. No stuffed animal would go underserved, and so no precious linens would go unused.

Though I gratefully outgrew this particular behavior, (and my parents now have a house with a washing machine that does not require quarters), that sense of deep tenderness and compassion for others hasn’t faded. I will drop everything to bring a sick friend some soup, will lend a listening ear to someone going through a difficult time, and (in perhaps a hold out from my making-beds-for-my-stuffed-animals-days) will even apologize to my plants when I notice it has been too long since I last watered them.

Compassion and tenderness for myself on the other hand…well…that sometimes feels impossible to access. Unlike the cozy stuffed animals that would lay fast asleep around the perimeter of our living room, I’ll find myself laying in bed, wide awake, replaying every “should,” “could,” and “would” of the day—on repeat. It is as if my head hitting the pillow gives my brain explicit permission to beat up my heart, to replay every shortcoming not just from the day but from years ago! The text message I sent that day that was maybe a little too harsh. The broken communication pattern with a friend that took years to notice. That time in high school when I hurt someone I cared about. The movie of mistakes plays on repeat and the remote to hit pause is nowhere to be found.

Sometimes, it can feel like the Yamim Nora’im, these holy days of and between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are the “Shame Film Festival.” Afterall, we are asked by our tradition to play and replay the “shoulds,” “coulds” and “woulds,” of the past year as we think about how to be and do better. Judgment and self-effacement are a part of the season.

Yet, we begin Yom Kippur not with a harsh judgment or decree, but with an act of compassion and welcome: The recitation of Kol Nidre.

This prayer, which really reads and functions more as a legal formula, absolves us of all of the vows and oaths that we WILL break in the coming year.

Let me say that again, because it is such a compelling and unexpected idea: Kol Nidre preemptively releases us of the mess-ups we have yet to make!

Such a pre-apology is so countercultural, in fact, that it has been questioned by generations of halakhic authorities! The Talmud (Nedarim 23b[1]) even tells a story about this–The sage Rav Huna bar Hinnana planned to teach about Kol Nidre at a large holiday gathering. But he was told by Rava, the head of the Academy, that he couldn’t because it would encourage people to treat vows lightly!

The radical legal declaration of Kol Nidre includes the following preamble:

בִּישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽעְלָה וּבִישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽטָּה.

ועַל דַּֽעַת הַמָּקוֹם וְעַל דַּֽעַת הַקָּהָל. אָֽנוּ מַתִּירִין לְהִתְפַּלֵּל עִם הָעֲבַרְיָנִים:

By the authority of the court on high and by the authority of this court below, with divine consent and with the consent of this congregation, we hereby declare that it is permitted to pray with those who have transgressed.

It is permitted to pray with those who have transgressed.

Our liturgy understands that we may come into Yom Kippur feeling shameful about the places where we messed up. And in our very first prayer, it asks us to press the pause button on our movie of mistakes. It forces us to remember that even if we have screwed up, we are still worthy of being in community.

The meaning of the word מותר—here translated as permitted, comes from the root nun-taf-resh, meaning “to sever,” “to loosen,” or “to release.” Kol Nidre not only permits us to be present with all of our flaws, but has the power to release us from that self-deprecating feedback loop of despair.

Kol Nidre places a pillow under our head, a blanket over our cold and tired bodies. Kol Nidre says: Yes, this is a season of reflection and confession and repair. Yes, we are here to do better. AND, we are also accepted with love and compassion, regardless of the transgressions and mistakes we have made and will make.

In the words of my teacher, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld: “We with our crooked hearts, we transgressors, we who long so deeply to love well and be loved well, we who have failed, we who are ready to try again, we are all permitted to be here.”

Yes, we are in the “presence of a court” when we recite Kol Nidre. We are in a setting of judgment. But we are in a court of kindness. Although at this time of year, we often focus on God as “King” or as “Judge,” God’s rachamim (compassion) is just as present, especially on Yom Kippur. Even when God sits on a throne, this throne is sometimes described in our liturgy as kiseh rachamim[2]—a seat of compassion! God is depicted as acting with “the compassion a mother has on her children,[3]” acting “as a father would have mercy upon his child.[4]” God is described as tov—good, sole’ach—forgiving, and rav chesed l’chol korecha[5]—abounding in kindness to all who call on God. God is the parent who, despite having no towel to shower with because all of their bathroom towels are currently spread across the living room floor, still chooses not to put a child lock on the linen closet.

As compassionate as I am toward people, plants, and even stuffed animals, the generosity of heart–toward self and others–that is described in Kol Nidre and throughout our high holiday liturgy, feels truly superhuman and otherworldly.

I have put many “Give yourself permission” notes and posters up on my wall and in my calendar. I have an appreciation for the self-care, self-love throw pillows that declare: “GOD LOVES YOU! YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL! EAT, PRAY, LOVE.” But honestly, none of these notes do me much good.

Accessing self-compassion is HARD to do. And it has been for generations past. It is baked into our foundational text that we are a people who struggle with self-compassion. The prophet Jonah, whose story we read on Yom Kippur day, struggles to make peace with his initial failure to listen to God–he literally tells people to heave him overboard into stormy seas.[6] Hannah, whose story we read on Rosh Hashanah–struggles to decouple her fertility from her self-worth, describing herself as existing “under the stress of sorrow and vexation.[7]” Even Moses, one of the most prominent figures in the Tanakh, rejects God’s initial call to lead the Jewish people claiming that he couldn’t possibly be good enough for the job.[8]

Yet, despite a history of self-compassion struggles, our Jewish tradition still demands that we try to access our own rachamim.

What is impossibly difficult and impossibly beautiful about our tradition, and about Kol Nidre specifically, is that it starts by calling on God AND us. The prayer says:

בִּישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽעְלָה וּבִישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽטָּה.

 ועַל דַּֽעַת הַמָּקוֹם וְעַל דַּֽעַת הַקָּהָל

On the authority of the heavenly court and the worldy court, based on the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the community.

However compassionate God is, WE, as the congregation, also have to commit to taking on the perspective of rachamim: We have to consent to being loving and tender.

Kol Nidre offers us compassion, no matter how difficult we might find it to do that for ourselves. But it also requires us to have compassion for ourselves and each other. Yes, the challenge of the high holidays is to reflect and plan to do better. But it is also a challenge to believe in the words of Kol Nidre–that we have permission to be here, regardless of the mistakes our past held or our future will hold.

When we send that too harsh text–We will do the work of repair, AND we are released from our vow to be kind to others.

When we snap at our kids–We will do the work of repair, AND we are released from our vow to be patient.

When we get lost in our own lives and forget to check in on our friends and loved ones that need support–We will do the work of repair, AND we are released from our vow to be selfless.

We are released.

We are released.

We are released.

The recitation of Kol Nidre may already be behind us, but we still have the rest of this year–and frankly, the rest of our lives–to continue to cultivate the sacred skill of self-compassion.

Compassion is a practice. Like learning a new language or getting into an exercise routine, it requires dedication and determination.

Sometimes, it takes a Divine source to inspire that compassion–perhaps knowing the extent of God’s rachamim can help us have at least a fraction of that rachamim for ourselves. Every Shabbat, when we sing Ahavat Olam or Ahava Raba, the prayer before the Shema that evokes God’s love, we can direct that love toward ourselves, thinking, “What am I holding onto from the week that I need to let go of?” Every time we encounter the word rachamim in our liturgy, we can imagine ourselves as a stuffed animal lovingly tucked into bed, cocooned in love, kindness, and care–taking a deep breath to press pause on the mistake movies that sometimes play.

And often, practicing that compassion requires the support of people who we love and who love us. We can hold onto the reassuring words of a friend when they remind us that we are a good person. We can savor the loving note of encouragement from a colleague. We can sink into that great, big squeeze of a hug from a relative.

We can use the resources of our metaphorical linen closet of comfort to make a bed that is easier to sleep in.

In realms far beyond the world of prayer, we can take the permission granted to us by Kol Nidre and use it as a kavanah–an intention.

In this year of 5784:

May we remember that we are worthy of the kind of love and care given by a doting kindergartener to a dear stuffed animal.

May we find the remote to hit the pause button on the mistake-movies that have been on replay.

And may we grant ourselves and each other permission to be in community together–even when we mess up.

[1] https://www.sefaria.org/Nedarim.23b.4?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en


[3] Ibid.

[4] Psalm 103:13

[5] Psalm 86:5

[6] https://www.sefaria.org/Jonah.1.12?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en

[7] https://www.sefaria.org/I_Samuel.1.16?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en