Yom Kippur

You DO Have a Prayer

September 25, 2008

As we get ready for Yom Kippur, I have a question: What is Kol Nidre all about? Why do we say Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur? Or, more importantly, why is Kol Nidre – which means “All vows” – the last thing we say before the start of Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy days, the Shabbos of Shabboses? What is the big deal about vows?

There is a simple answer that is a bit complex – and then there is a complex answer that is really simple. And, then, seven rules that I find helpful for enhancing my prayers.

The simple answer is that in Kol Nidre, we renounce all vows we made during the year and – according to most authorities – the vows that we may make during the coming year as well. But that simple answer doesn’t really explain anything. It is much more complex. Why are vows so important? What is the big deal about vows – not only in Kol Nidre but throughout the Torah and Talmud? If a judge asked a man on trial for a capital crime if he has anything to say for himself before sentencing, would he say, “Well, I forgot to pay my Mastercard bill even though I promised I would”?

The complex answer highlights the essence of prayer. It is actually quite simple. We say Kol Nidre because it highlights our direct connection to G-d and G-d’s direct connection to us.

Let me give some perspective.

The essence of a vow is that it is a contract between G-d and me. Okay. So? I make agreements all the time. I usually feel bad if I don’t live up to them, but it’s not the end of the world. And I may sometimes make a promise to G-d that I will/won’t do something. I try my best but sometimes I don’t live up to that vow either.

So here’s the big deal: the incredible thing about a vow to G-d is what it actually is. A vow is a contract between the Almighty and me. Think about that. It is an outright real enforceable contract. I can make a deal with G-d. It is a direct connection like renting a car or an apartment or any other promise or contract. But think about it – G-d is infinite, ever-expanding, runs the world, feeds the animals, gets the sun to rise and makes the stars. I can make a contract directly with G-d.

So a vow gets to the essence of my relationship with G-d. It is one-on-one. I have a personal relationship even to the extent that I can cut a deal with G-d. G-d is in the heavens but I have a one-on-one relationship with the Almighty.

Now, let’s get to Kol Nidre. This is no ordinary deal. If I don’t pay some bill or my rent, it’s not the end of the world. But the relationship with G-d is special. It is not to be taken lightly. With a vow to G-d, if I violate an oath, it is a big deal because we treat a vow as a real contract.

But there is more: Kol Nidre gives me an incredible opportunity, i.e., to start the year fresh without any outstanding obligations. But I will come back to that in a moment.

Next: my seven rules for prayer.

1. You don’t have to finish praying but you do have to start
2. Pray early and often
3. Having a “good prayer” day
4. Know before whom you stand
5. Finding a parking spot in NYC
6. Real men do prayer.
7. Choose your weapons

1. Prayer: You don’t have to finish, but you have to start
If you go to a typical mainstream Orthodox prayer service, it can be hard to keep up. They go so fast.

You don’t have to. And you don’t have to finish all the prayers. Quality matters over quantity. Looked at another way, we are all influenced by the business world in which the only thing that counts is results. In prayer, you get full credit for the effort. There are certain ones (e.g., Shema, the Amidah) that are more central, but our Sages tell us that you have to understand what you are saying.

In the SATs – you get more credit for the right answers. Similarly, in prayer, you get points for knowing what you are saying and not just for rushing through so you finish.

2. Pray early and often
One of the nice things about Jewish prayer is that the morning and evening prayers bracket your day. You start your day with prayers and you finish your day with prayers. So everything in the middle is in the “prayer parentheses.” It helps to put perspective on the world if you start and end your day with prayers. It gives your day more meaning. Everything you do during the course of your day fits inside the brackets that starts with G-d and ends with G-d – with a booster shot in the middle of the day with mincha (mid-day) prayers.

As someone wrote to me recently, it helps you understand that “you are the bowl, not the grapes.”

3. Having a “good prayer” day
I have a friend who made a joke that when Houston was conducting a contest for a “city motto,” her suggestion was: “Houston: where every day is a bad hair day.”

I have good “prayer days” and bad “prayer days.” There are some days when prayer comes more naturally. You have something bothering you. And there are those days when it doesn’t because you are distracted. That’s normal. So don’t let that get you down or discourage you. Tomorrow can be better. A great baseball player can go 0 for four and then hit a grand slam!

4. Know before whom you stand
Prayer does require the right perspective. If I really believe that I am praying to the King of Kings, Who controls the world, I will have a different mindset than if I don’t have any particular perspective in mind. Before I walk into my (secular) boss’ office, I intuitively know who I am about to address and will act accordingly. It is the same with prayer: you need to think for a moment before you approach your Bosses of all Bosses.

What about talking during praying? I used to get very annoyed when other people were talking while I was praying. Where is their sense of dignity, I would huff to myself. Some times I would think about telling them to be quiet. But now I look at things differently. Every action, I realize, consists of two parts: what it means for me and what it means for the other person. I don’t know why that person is talking, but that is his issue. For me, I believe that G-d is giving me a test, testing me with the temptation for me to talk (since everyone is doing it). But G-d gives us tests to strengthen us, and this is just one more of those tests.

5. Finding a parking spot in NYC
What should you pray for? What are legitimate grounds for prayer? The answer: I pray for everything. I pray for the big things and I pray for what seem like small things.

But first a joke: A man is running very late for the most important meeting of his career. He has to be somewhere to sign some documents in midtown Manhattan. And he needs a parking space right in front of the midtown NYC building. “Oh Lord,” he pleads, “if you find me a parking spot in front of that building, I will observe your laws – I will keep the Shabbos – I will keep kosher – I will… oh, never mind – I found a spot.

It is legitimate to pray for a parking space. It is okay to pray for anything, for everything. It’s a great habit to get into. Because it helps us remember Who is in charge of everything. G-d splits seas, brings the weather, brings the dew in the morning – and helps me find a parking spot.

6. Real men pray.
I think there seems sometimes to be a level of elitism in the religious world that prayer is for girls or for the weak and “real men do gemara.” But look at the gemara or look at the Torah: real men – such as Avraham, Isaac and Jacob – prayed. Prayer is not just for seminary girls. It is for all of us. At a more contemporary level, great rabbis focus on prayer. I have been told that Rav Moshe Feinstein said tehillim (Psalms) every day and that his son, Rav Dovid Feinstein says the whole book of tehillim three times a week. From another perspective, it’s like conditioning for a great athlete. They didn’t get to the top of their sport without constant practice of the basics.

7. Choose your weapons.
When it comes to prayer books – siddurim – there are a lot of choices. There is Hebrew/English, transliterated, interlinear, Hebrew only. There’s large print, small and portable. There are also some great books on prayer. I find that I like having multiple prayer books because some days I want a different pace or different commentary.

Finally, prayer is personal. While I have a terrific partner – my wife, Nancy – in my spiritual growth, prayer remains an individual activity. Like dieting or exercise, no one can make me pray. It has to come from me. And that is why I started out by trying to put prayer in context – I am praying to a G-d with whom I have a one-on-one relationship.

So, one last thing on Kol Nidre. Not only do we have a direct relationship with G-d, but He will let us out of all of our vows so we can start the year fresh. It is essential to understand that this is a real relationship. When we make a vow to G-d as a very serious thing, then we can look at our prayers as having real meaning – as being a real conversation where we ask for all the things we need – and are thankful for all the things we have.

Kol Nidre, then, highlights – first – that we have a real tangible one-on-one connection with G-d to the extent that I can enter into an enforceable contract with G-d. Second, that G-d – and this is where he differs with Mastercard or your lender – will forgive us for hasty things we say and start each year fresh and new.

Andrew Neff, who was on Wall Street for 25 years, recently wrote an article From Bear Stearns to Bava Metzia. He now spends mornings in a yeshiva in Teaneck, New Jersey.