Promises are dangerous things.
Ill-conceived promises may bind our hands before unforeseen events. This past year, many of us watched horrified as the United States nearly defaulted on its debt because members of Congress refused to back down from pledges they had signed opposing all new taxes.
Even worse, when broken, promises can rile up those who feel betrayed. Chicago’s cancellation of a “promised” 4 percent increase in teacher salary has become the rallying point around which local unions built a narrative of governmental disrespect. The fury they unleashed kept more than a quarter million kids home from their first days of class.
I think about these promises as I enter the synagogue on the evening of Yom Kippur. The ritualized mechanics of the evening service are bizarre. The synagogue is packed with members who attend services only once each year. All surfaces and most adult men are clothed in plain white. As the Day of Atonement begins, the stage is all set for an emotional appeal for divine mercy. But then the leader begins his chant: “Kol Nidre … Let all of our vows and oaths … be permitted, nullified and cancelled.”
The content of the prayer appears to be unforgivably anti-climactic. Year after year, I shudder at the thought of some random person who, hearing the haunting melody of the opening chant and feeling uplifted by its power, wanders into the synagogue and actually reads the prayer’s translation.
But even as I grimace at the image, I also sense that there is something profound about beginning the process of repentance and atonement by freeing ourselves from extraneous commitments and obligations. Indeed, it often seems that these commitments serve as a sort of barrier that needs to be removed before the real business of atonement can get started.
After a few years at Yale, I understand this wariness of promises more and more. I often feel that I am buried under a sea of commitments — academic, religious, extra-curricular and social. I find myself running from meeting to meeting, shaving a few minutes off of the end of one and the beginning of the next. Even after writing over two dozen articles, I have yet to hand a column to my editors by deadline. Each commitment distracts me from another, and my attention and time is never completely devoted to the person before me.
This is, I think, a feeling many in our hyper-programmed generation experience regularly. We feel pulled and pushed, in demand and over-extended. It is incredibly difficult to put all of this out of our heads as we try to engage fully and meaningfully in anything, and yet perhaps this is precisely what we must do.
For those hours on your common room sofa discussing Kant or comforting a distraught roommate, let your obligations cease to exist. Let them dissipate before the importance of your current project.
But there is also something deeper in the way the nullification of oaths kicks off the process of atonement. The Kol Nidre liturgy acknowledges how simple it is to make commitments, and how difficult it is to follow through. All of us enter Yale with obligations to family, community and humanity and whoever is providing the bulk of our tuition payments.
Yet we immediately add to these, rushing a cappella groups, joining teams and heeling newspapers. In doing so, we set ourselves up for failure as, inevitably, important details — and sometimes people — fall through the cracks. Sometimes doing better is simply a function of taking on less, and so perhaps we’re better off simply declaring all our future volunteer commitments to be null and void.
It would be simple to end with a slightly self-referential exhortation not to over-commit ourselves. But I have one last point: Resolutions to commit less are also dangerous — they’re just another form of oath.
Kol Nidre is the antithesis of a new year’s resolution. We begin the year by saying we don’t do resolutions. The process of self-examination and change is long, and, too often, making a promise is a way to avoid actual introspection.
So as we move into this semester, don’t promise yourself that you will get more sleep or spend more time with that friend. Instead, simply think long and hard about why you don’t already. Perhaps then we can finally escape the constant specter of unfulfilled promises.
Yishai Schwartz is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.