One of the songs in my "Days of Awe" playlist (the one I listen to in the car when I want good music which puts me in an Elul/Tishrei frame of mind, not the one filled with melodies I need to practice for the Days of Awe themselves) is Bernice Lewis' "Gotta Get Better" off of her album Religion & Release. Gotta get better at letting go... She probably wasn't talking about hatarat nedarim, per se, but I thought of her song when I read the recent post on the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog reminding us to consider doing that ritual this year before Rosh Hashanah rolls around.
Hatarat nedarim means "releasing of vows." It's a ceremony in which one person assembles three others to serve as a beit din, a court of law. (Within Chabad, it's traditional to assemble ten rather than three -- and it's presumed that all are men. Within my egalitarian liberal framework, of course, gender isn't an issue.) The idea is that these friends serve as representatives of the court on high, and that if each of us can honestly say to these friends that we made vows in the last year in error and wish to be released from them, as our friends hear and accept our regrets, the heavenly court does the same. Ideally, each person gets to play both roles; each of us gets to experience being the person asking for release, and being one of the people granting it.
The vows in question can't be interpersonal vows. If I promised you that I would do something, and I haven't done it, then I need to come to you and personally seek your forgiveness. Hatarat nedarim is designed for vows we've made to ourselves and to God. Maybe I promised myself that I'd start working out this year, but I didn't manage it. Maybe there's some emotional work I meant to do this year, but it hasn't happened. Maybe I dropped my davenen practice, or forgot to express gratitude. All of these intentions and resolutions are considered "vows" in Jewish tradition. The ritual of hatarat nedarim is designed to help us feel release, so we're not tying ourselves up in knots over all of the places where we've missed the mark in these personal ways. If we can do that before Rosh Hashanah, we enter the new year with a clean slate.
Reading about this, I wondered how this differs from the release of vows involved in Kol Nidre. So I did a little digging, and here's what I learned. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik held that during hatarat nedarim just before Rosh Hashanah, we ask a personal beit din to nullify our mistaken vows; at Kol Nidre, we do the same thing on a bigger scale, asking the heavenly beit din to nullify our sins. In his page on Kol Nidre, Jon Baker argues that in hatarat nedarim we're essentially saying, "if I had known then what I know now, I never would have made that vow;" at Kol Nidre, we're essentially saying, "if I had known then what I know now, I never would have committed that sin." Another way to look at the difference between the two is to see hatarat nedarim as a small and personal preparation for the communal experience of seeking release from our vows at Kol Nidre. (That's what it says at NeoHasid.org, and the rabbis at Dati Leumi concur.)
One way or another, hatarat nedarim is a ritual which must be performed in a language one understands. (Even traditional sources are in agreement on this.) Reb Zalman has written a lovely English script based on the traditional ritual, which is here: Hatarat Nedarim by Reb Zalman. When I read his recent exhortation to consider doing this work before Rosh Hashanah, I decided that I wanted to give this a try -- but the prospect of trying to find three people in my home community who would be willing to do this for/with me, and managing to schedule time with them between now and the new year, was daunting to me.
But within ALEPH we learn together via conference call, and we've been known to daven together that way, too; could hatarat nedarim perhaps be done virtually? I emailed three close ALEPH friends and asked whether they would be willing to serve as my beit din. When they said yes, I spent an evening with Reb Zalman's text. I rewrote some of it to make the words feel "mine," and I wrote down the vows from which I'm hoping to be released. (They're pretty personal; I'm not going to share them here.) Then I imagined my three friends sitting with me in my living room, read the text aloud so I could hear myself saying it, and emailed it to them.
I found it incredibly powerful to write down what I needed to say, with this intention in mind, and then share it with three friends. So I wanted to suggest that to anyone else who's interested in doing this personal work before Rosh Hashanah but maybe doesn't feel ready, or doesn't feel able, to convene a beit din in person. Alternatively, if this isn't your cuppa, tell me: what are your rituals of release at the end of one year, as we prepare to dive in to the year to come?