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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.

Continue reading "Release" »