Yom Kippur: How to Finally Reach Your Goals This Year
One of the best chess players of all time was the son of a German chazzan, a man called Emmanuel Lasker (1868-1941). He was world chess champion from 1894-1921, a genius whose innovative chess moves are studied to this day. Lasker was a good friend of the renowned physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), and whenever the two of them met they would play a game or two of chess. On one famous occasion, Lasker played chess with Einstein, and afterwards, everyone wanted to know whether the world’s greatest scientist was also a good chess player. Lasker smiled. “He’s good, but when it comes to chess, he’s no Einstein!”
I have never been a particularly good chess player, although the association between rabbis and chess goes back a long way. The medieval Bible commentator Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) wrote a poem about chess in the 12th century, and the 15th-century Italian rabbi, Yehuda Aryeh di Modena (1571-1648), wrote a book about chess called “Ma’adanei Melekh.” But chess offers us an interesting insight into Yamim Noraim, and in particular, Kol Nidrei.
Kol Nidrei is without question both the best known and the most controversial of all Jewish prayers. Its haunting melody was made universally famous by the Hollywood star Al Jolson in the movie “The Jazz Singer,” and later by the pop singer Neil Diamond, while at the same time antisemites hold it up as the perfect example of Jewish duplicity. Recited at the most auspicious service of the year, on Yom Kippur night, Kol Nidrei doesn’t speak about God and angels or about repentance and forgiveness, nor does it address the beauty of faith — instead, it is essentially a legal declaration:
All vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and consecrations, and promises, and pledges, that we may vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves, from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur, regarding them all, we regret them henceforth — they will all be permitted, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing. Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; and our oaths shall not be valid oaths.
The tune may be sublime, but the words are utterly prosaic and mundane. I guess it’s lucky nobody understands Kol Nidrei, or if we do, that we think of Aramaic as a language of dramatic liturgy. I mean, how much would that tune move us if we were to chant the words of Kol Nidrei in English? And how does it even make sense that we begin Yom Kippur with a prayer about nullifying promises? What a strange way to start the holiest day of the year! Couldn’t we have found something more fitting for this special moment? And are the antisemites right? Are the vows we make actually invalidated even before we make them?
Which brings me back to chess. I heard this story from a friend of mine a few years ago. At the time he worked at a synagogue in New York as a youth director, and several times a month they had a teen chess club. Over one summer the synagogue managed to secure the services of a chess grandmaster, Dmitri, who instructed the kids how to play chess. My friend was very excited to play chess with Dmitri, and he played against him numerous times during the course of the summer.
The thing is, he had always thought of himself as a pretty good chess player, but Dmitri demolished him time and again. He tried to help my friend as the games unfolded, while they were playing, and my friend said his game improved as the summer progressed — but he still could never win against Dmitri. He just could not beat the guy.
It was the end of the summer, the last game, and after a few moves Dmitri asked my friend, “It looks like you are trying to capture my queen — why are you doing this?” My friend replied, “it’s simple — the queen is the most powerful piece on the board; if I can capture the queen, I will have a better chance of winning.” Dmitri smiled. He looked down at his queen, and then looked back up at my friend. Without saying a word, he reached over, took the queen from the board, and handed it to my friend. “Here, take it,” he said. “And while we are pausing the game, are there any other impediments on the board that you think are preventing you from winning?”
My friend thought for a moment, and then pointed to the two rooks. Dmitri removed these two critical pieces from the board and handed them to him without a word. “Are there any more impediments?” he asked again, “or are we done?” By this time, my friend was confident that he could demolish Dmitri, now that he had lost his three most powerful pieces. He just shook his head. “No, I’m good.” “Great,” said Dimitri, “no more impediments.” And with the remaining pieces — with no rooks and no queen — he proceeded to destroy my friend in 10 easy moves.
As we enter Yom Kippur, we are probably asking ourselves, “what are our impediments?” Last year, I promised I would be a different person by the time I got to this Yom Kippur, but it feels like Groundhog Day. Here I am, again! Same time, same place! Why do I feel just the same as last year? What has held me back from reaching my goals? What has held me back from hitting my targets?
We all have a list of goals each year, and we all struggle to make meaningful changes. Each Yom Kippur we want to reflect on the past year … and think about how much have we grown. Do you know what the great irony is? It is our goals and resolutions that hold us back. They become the excuse for us not growing. They are the queens and the rooks and the knights and the pawns. When what we need is the king.
Do you know why we begin Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, with Kol Nidrei? It’s not about the vows and oaths we make to others. That is just the nonsense that antisemites made up. Kol Nidrei is about the vows that we make to ourselves. We are going to get rid of this queen and that rook, and then everything is going to be OK. We make promises, oaths, vows — and then every one of them is an impediment to our growth. We add layer upon layer of obligation, trapping ourselves in a prison of our own creation. After all, if I say that I’ll be somewhere at 8 o’clock, it prevents me from doing anything else at 8 o’clock.
And it’s not that we make actual oaths — because an oath isn’t just something that I say I’ll do or that I won’t do. My regular routines and my daily commitments are my vows, and they hold us back. Our goal in the chess game of life is to capture the king, not to focus on the queen and the rooks. Our goal is to get closer to God. To do more Mitzvot, to be holy, to be kinder to others, more tolerant of others, tougher on ourselves — not just in specific settings and situations, but in every situation and every setting. What gets in the way of capturing the king are all the other impediments — the oaths and the vows. That’s why we start off Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei — to remove all the impediments so that we can reach our ultimate goal of capturing the king.
The author is a rabbi in Beverly Hills, California.