Unlike other services, in which the most important stuff is preceded by an hour of warm-up for spiritual muscles--short prayers, lots of psalms--Kol Nidre just starts. There's no preamble; you've already had a month to get ready. "Please rise as the Ark is opened." The hum of conversation quiets as the musicians begin to play, two verses alone at first, with cello or recorder standing in for the human voice to follow. All the scrolls are removed from the Ark, a crowd of honored congregants at the bima embracing each one for the rest of us to see.
The first verse of Kol Nidre starts in a whisper, the cantor nearly speechless on our behalf, and then builds until we cower in awe at the end. There are many stories of the Kol Nidre melody changing lives, its echoes beckoning to people on the street who hadn't been in a synagogue for years. It is indeed sad and beautiful and immensely moving, but I find other prayers equally so. What touches me like fire is its delivery rather than its tune, and how the singer of Kol Nidre lays bare to the rest of us the soft yearning of his contrition, the heated power of her pleading. My synagogue has three simultaneous Kol Nidre services, and this year I was fortunate to be at the location of the cantor himself. He hadn't fully recovered from laryngitis; he sounded a little hoarse, a bit tentative. But, for me, this made his song even stronger. Raw and partly stripped of its elegance, I could hear his pain and longing more clearly than ever.
After the evening service and teaching that followed, I walked home in the loud, insistent rain. I sat on my sofa for awhile and wondered about life. Then I sang, reviewing Shaharit and Ne'ila one final time, and--in a non-traditional but, to me, fitting form observance--read some Jewish-themed blogs written by people coming to terms with pain and loss. I gave thanks for continuing to go from strength to strength, especially after a year when it seemed, for a few moments, that I might not be able to do so.