A Thought from Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik – The Power of Kol Nidra

The Power of Kol Nidra
By Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

…contemporary man is unaware of his needs. Man is surely aware of many needs, but the needs he is aware of are not always his own. At the very root of this failure to recognize one’s truly worthwhile needs lies man’s ability to misunderstand and misidentify himself, i.e. to lose himself.

Quite often man loses himself by identifying himself with the wrong table of needs which he feels he must gratify. Man responds quickly to the pressure of certain needs, not knowing whose needs he is out to gratify. At this juncture, sin is born. What is the cause of sin, if not the diabolical habit of man to be mistaken about his own self? Modern man is, indeed, existentially a slave, because he is ignorant and fails to identify his own needs. g. 62

….in sin, man mis-identifies and alienates himself from himself, in the case of תשובה he reverses the process of mis-identification: he discovers himself, and “returns” to his true self.

The same principle underlies the concept of התרת נדרים . What is התרת נדרים ? One takes a vow or an oath, to engage in or refrain from an action. Later he discovers the difficulties connected with the execution of his vow or oath. He appears before three people, and they dissolve the vow or the oath, by subjecting him to a cross-examination which results in the conclusion that, had he anticipated the hardship engendered by compliance with the vow or oath, he would never have committed himself.

The question arises: why is he absolved? The taking of the vow or oath was a free act; nobody constrained him to do so. The answer is the same as for אסמכתא . In substituting the pseudo-I, with its wrong table of needs, for the true self and the right table of needs, the individual has ceased to be the author of his own deed, of his vow or oath.

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