It has always struck me as odd that the opening Tfila of Yom Kippur is Hatarat Nedarim (Annulling vows). Though not fulfilling a vow constitutes a transgression are they such a grave one that they specifically, and not our many other failings, deserve to be dealt with at so dramatically at the onset of Yom Kippur?
When thinking of what we look like on Yom Kippur, I can’t help but think of a surgery: we dress in white, refrain from eating and drinking, isolate ourselves from the world and experience a mixture of worry and hope in anticipation of positive results.
That is exactly what Yom Kippur is – a spiritual surgery. We remove all material matters and concerns, sterilizing ourselves, allowing exclusive focus on the non-material aspects of our lives. We spend hours inspecting the layers that lay hidden beneath the surface of our identities, identifying the broken and ruptured organs of our personalities, removing negative elements, mending and tending.
But, unlike a physical surgery, spiritual introspection requires something fundamental in order to succeed – the realization of how we came to need it to begin with. Our sins do not stem primarily from a lack information about our shortcomings, rather because we’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which we are unable to escape.
How often do we (or our children) say: “This is who I am”, “This is what I’ve always done”, “I can’t change” and similar statements?
Vows are just that – patterns that bind us to what we’ve thought, said, done and grown accustomed to, in the past year. Unless we first release ourselves from our destructive patterns, no fasting, praying, crying or singing will help. The surgery will fail, as after Yom Kippur we will find ourselves bound by the same patterns of thought and behavior we had a day earlier.
Hatarat Nedarim is dramatic for a reason. It is a legal and spiritual process after which one must realize they are not enslaved to their past and can say to themselves with full conviction “I must change” and therefore “I can change”, and, using the processes Yom Kippur – fasting, Tfila, Viduy, Slichot, etc… have a successful spiritual surgery resulting in a year of renewal, growth and holiness.