Bringing the Lesson of Kol Nidre into Your Year, Hanna Perlberger
It was Erev Yom Kippur. I was doing some last minute errands, like picking up a pair of rubber crocs to wear to shul. Next door to the shoe store is a store that sells unusual craft and handmade items. I usually stop in at least once a year – when I make my annual “croc-run”, so I dropped in to look for a jewelry box for my daughter, who still has piles of little cardboard boxes of jewelry all over her bureau, gifts from her bas mitzvah two years ago. Besides, I like the owner of the store. She is always there and we usually have a pleasant exchange.
As soon as I walked in, I saw her – and “the big change”. “Wow – your hair is….so…. short”. Her hair, which happens to be the absolute thickest jet black hair I have ever seen on anyone, was cut in a short bob, and – like the crafted items in her store – was cut in an artistic way – kinda like a sculpture around her face. “Yea”, she answered. “I finally cut my hair – first time in 40 years – since I was a child.”
Hmmm, first haircut in 40 years. This was sending off alarms in my life-coach brain. So, as gently as I could, I asked for the story, which she immediately shared. “Because my hair is so thick, my mom used to take me to her beauty parlor every week where they would wash my hair and put it in a braid. One week, without so much as a word to me, they cut my whole braid off. Then I sat in numb horror as my hair was bleached blond, and permed. Permed! I have a picture of me sitting at the beach in a ridiculous bathing suit with daisies on it, with this crazy blond hair and black roots – and my brother tortured me for years with this picture.” She was smiling as she said this, but I could see the painful memory on her face. “I never let anyone touch my hair again, for over 40 years.”
I asked her what made her make that decision, what made that day different for her when she woke up. I was expecting to hear of an epiphany, so what she said surprised me. “Every five years, at some significant birthday, I would ask myself if I was ready to cut my hair, and the answer was always ‘no’, and so I would not ask myself for another five years. Then I had a birthday – not a 5 year birthday – not a significant birthday – but I just felt I was ready. I called a friend who has a salon and I told her I trusted her, and she should do whatever she thinks is right for me, and I love what she did.”
I asked her whether anything has changed in her life since she cut her hair and she told me how she went hiking and zip gliding, and other activities that she would have thought she couldn’t do. “Life is too short not to do what you want.”
On Yom Kippur we read the story of Jonah, the most “clueless” prophet ever. What G-d has to do to get his attention, to get His message across, is almost hilarious. But here it was – this huge shift in this woman’s life – and it happened not with a club over the head, not with miraculous and fantastical events, but with a whisper, a gentle stirring, a simple dissolving of a “rule” she had where this decision could only be visited on a 5-year significant birthday, and the underlying “rule” she had adopted to keep herself safe, to keep herself “her”. And she could also trust someone with her identity, trust someone to see her with love and do right by her. And once she dropped those rules, she could drop other rules she had made that had kept her from doing fun activities she had thought she couldn’t do.
On Kol Nidre, I had my own whispering. While I love the somber tune of Kol Nidre, the slow build of intensity, how it absolutely anchors me to the majesty and solemnity, the tradition and history of Yom Kippur, I listen with my eyes closed, letting the sounds fill me, because I don’t relate to the actual words. What vows? What oaths? What does this have to do with me or my life? This year, because of the “woman with the hair”, I realized that my mind is filled with oaths and vows, my life is overflowing with them, actually.
What is a vow or oath other than an attachment to a belief or rule you make up for yourself and call it truth? A rule can take on the force of a vow, an oath. Like many of the rules that we make up, they don’t’ really work, as they are the product of “magical thinking”. Or, they are outdated. While this woman’s refusal to let anyone touch her hair may have served her well against an overbearing and insensitive mother, it did not serve her as an adult.
Sometimes, our rules just serve to keep us from experiencing happiness or other positive emotions, for example, when we have a rule that we won’t experience being healthy until we lose 30 lbs., when we could just as easily make a rule that we can experience health every time we exercise, every time we make a healthy food choice. We make rules that we won’t be happy until we get that car, that house, that husband, a baby, our fourth child, a new job, a raise. Or we have “rules” from eating the emotional poison of others, where we are not even conscious of what we have taken on as a toxic view of ourselves.
The point is, we have rules, we make vows and oaths – and some of them are great and some of them are really horrible. On Yom Kippur, we have the ability – we have the obligation really – to look at our accumulated beliefs, rules, vows, oaths and ask ourselves which of them really serve us, which of them work for us, which of them get us closer to our goals, and help us integrate ourselves so that we are aligned internally and externally.
That is not the work of one day, but it is a day-by-day obligation, and if we listen carefully to the whisperings of our soul and the murmurings of our heart, we can annul those vows – at any time of the year – that hurt us, hurt our relationships with our loved ones, and distance ourselves from our true selves and from G-d.
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