Recently I heard a remarkable story. During the Second World War, a German soldier was mortally wounded in battle, and as he fell, a priest rushed up to administer the last rites. With his remaining strength, the soldier pushed the priest’s cross away, and said: “Ich bin ein Jude!” [“I am a Jew!”] The priest replied: “Sorgen sich nicht, ich bin auch ein Jude!” [“Don’t worry, I’m also a Jew!”]
It is remarkable how every Yom Kippur all over the world, thousands upon thousands of people who otherwise never come near a synagogue, come to the Kol Nidrei service.
It is known that the Kol Nidrei prayer gained in significance during the persecution of Jews in Spain at the time of the Inquisition. People who had been forced to convert, the Marranos, behaved outwardly like their neighbors, but inwardly they remained Jews. Once a year they used this prayer to renounce the oaths they had been forced to make forswearing their own religion in favor of Christianity. Deep down, in their innermost souls, they remained Jewish. The Kol Nidrei was a proclamation that their vows, all their external behavior,was not really them. This prayer helped them cleanse themselves of their outer garments and reach their inner souls.
Today in America, although there are no such persecutions, there are still Marranos. We are not under pressure by the church, but simply by the environment in which we live. Our inner souls are cloaked with external garments which are just not ours. We walk, act, and talk in ways incongruous to our Judaism. Then there are the inverted Marranos whose outer appearance is that of a Tzaddik, but who are lacking inside; missing the spirit and ethics of being Jewish. All of us together need Kol Nidrei; we need to get it together.
Rabbi Dessler in “Michtav Me-Eliyahu” writes that there is one part of our soul that burns like a tiny flame. That flame has the capacity to survive. No matter how hard its carrier might try to extinguish the flame, it will continue to burn.
This is what Yom Kippur and repentance are about, removing the outer garments and letting the light shine out.