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Vow Making in the New Year

The High Holiday season maybe technically over, but the lessons we take away will, I hope, linger a bit. I had the pleasure of spending Kol Nidrei at Rabbi Judith Hauptman’s Ohel Ayalah services, and, as expected, I had a phenomenal time. Rabbi Hauptman brings an upbeat and genuinely friendly feeling to the services;
we were at one point instructed to speak to one another during the t’fillot “so that this’ll sound like a real Jewish event.”

We did a quick review of the liturgy, and Rabbi Hauptman spoke about the rabbinic period (please don’t ask me which) when it was decided to change the language of Kol Nidrei—from the releasing of vows made the previous year to asking that vows to be made in the year to come be forgiven. It had to do with how Jews were perceived in non-Jewish courts, and the change is reflected in what we see versus what we read in the Hebrew version of the Kol Nidrei liturgy. (For anything more detailed than this, it’s probably best to ask for yourself.) And thus, Rabbi Hauptman encouraged us to make vows about the year to come—New Year’s resolutions, if you will. Don’t not make them because you might not keep them, she said. You’re saying aloud now that you know your vows could be fallible! But if you don’t make them, there’s no chance.

On a personal note, it’s a comforting thought. Who doesn’t want to revel in their own human fallibility sometimes? But, of course, I just had to bring it around to politics. And thinking about this idea—that we shouldn’t be afraid to dream big—especially in the things we’d like to improve—just because our plans may not work out made me reconsider the somewhat cynical pragmatism I’ve adopted in evaluating our political leaders.

I have high expectations of government and political leaders, I’ll admit it. I believe, sincerely, that government can and should be an actively instrument of good for the citizens of a country—I don’t believe it to be the lesser of evils. And so when I feel repeatedly let down by those in charge, I sometimes affect a more disparaging view of the process and the participants; I say that I want the candidate who can do the least damage, or the candidate with whose plans I feel the most familiar; or whose ideas I think could get past an oppositional legislature, if need be. Pragmatism certainly has its place in evaluating politics and political leaders, but to adhere to it too stringently is to take the possibility of poetry out of leadership. Although our leaders—potential and otherwise—may make vows they will not be able to keep, if they don’t vow it (whether “it” is lower carbon emissions, universal health care, better schools or a safer world), it’ll certainly never happen. I was happy for the reminder.

–Mel Weiss