Yom Kippur is, in essence, a day of atonement, of forgiveness for sins and transgressions, and as such it is mainly an act from Above which may not have anything to do with man's Teshuva. Although according to most of our Sages, one must do Teshuva in order for Yom Kippur to atone, still, it is God who once a year atones and who purifies the Jewish people from its sins. The viduy (confession) and the al het (alphabetical confession) we recite both between and within the Yom Kippur prayers, in which we enumerate all the different kinds and levels of sins, transgressions and crimes, are mainly a request on our part that God forgive us, atone for all our sins and wash them away – so much so that we will not keep even those sins that we may have liked to hold on to for another year.
All this is true for all of the Yom Kippur prayers; but Kol Nidrei, recited with much pathos and ceremoniousness at the beginning of this holy day, is different, because it does not have to do with sins or transgressions. Although according to some opinions Kol Nidrei is the annulment of various vows we had made and perhaps did not carry out – which, in itself, is a sin – the very detailed text of this prayer and its repetition three times seem to point in another direction. All the different kinds of vows, oaths and prohibitions do not necessarily have to do with the commandments that we are obligated to fulfill. They are also not, in and of themselves, transgressions; rather, they are various things we have taken upon ourselves and that we now feel that we can give up, along with all the other things that the Almighty removes from us on Yom Kippur.
True, halachically speaking there are vows that are specific, clear and unequivocal; however, most of the vows, oaths and prohibitions that people take upon themselves are a long, almost interminable series of human decisions with which people shackle themselves throughout the year. Some of them are interpersonal shackles, while others are ropes with which people bind themselves – e.g., commitments to do or refrain from doing certain things, avoiding certain persons or doing whatever they can in order to connect with them.
In other words, it is a list – albeit only implicit – of things that comprise our ordinary day-do-day conduct: coincidental or temporary, decisions made because of an instant of passion or desire, statements that result from anger or annoyance with others or with ourselves – although they may not suit any formal definition of "vows." It is how we live, what we do and what we want to do with ourselves and with those around us, what we buy for ourselves or for others, etc. Every one of us has a list of such things that he has taken upon himself, thereby creating, day by day, self-imprisonment. So many of these may be things that we do not particularly desire, or not want at all, but we are already in the habit of doing these self-imprisoning acts.
Before the beginning of Yom Kippur, before we start to deal with the more grievous sins, transgressions and crimes we have committed, and also with whatever we were supposed to do and failed to do, comes Kol Nidrei and brings to the fore all that is neither commandment nor transgression, but rather the building blocks of the overall structure of our life, all those things that bind us because we have, in a certain sense, taken them upon ourselves as if they were vows, and which do not enable us to set ourselves free and do whatever we really have to do.
Yom Kippur is the day of great liberation from the great burden of sins and problems that weigh us down, a day in which we are called upon to cast off these private burdens, and to make a public declaration about our desire and intention to let go of all the unnecessary commitments, all the superfluous desires. Therefore, before beginning the work of this holy day we clean the air around us – so that we can go about the purification, atonement and Teshuva of Yom Kippur without all those shackles with which we had tied ourselves up. And after that, after being forgiven for all the unimportant and unwanted promises we had made to ourselves, after we rid ourselves of all the prohibitions and vows etc., we may be able to enter into the core of this day and start purifying our souls more thoroughly.
The time of the Ne'ilah prayer has two facets. One is that despite all the ups and downs we experience throughout the day, there prevails the general feeling that the day itself atones. This feeling grows stronger and stronger as we get closer to the end of Yom Kippur. At this point in time we feel that we are dealing not with any specific detail, prayer or request, but rather with the very essence of the day, and that now we really want, with all our heart and soul, that the act of atonement will indeed be completed. The other side of Ne'ilah is that we want to conclude this day not with a drowsy decline but with a mighty roar, with a great call.
The Ne'ilah prayer is not only a prayer recited before the gates of Heaven close down: before the locking of the Heavenly gates we want to express what it is that we really want, that we truly seek. And this is not a request for forgiveness. We do say, in this prayer, "You give a Hand to transgressors," and we stress it even more vehemently than we have done so far; we speak about God giving us a hand and granting us the possibility of extricating ourselves from all those places into which we had descended and sunk, and know that He takes us out of the strong currents of water or deep filth into which we had fallen, leading us toward a new beginning.
But beyond that we also want to say something that until now we have not yet had the opportunity of saying with all our might: we want to utter words that express what we really want. Now I, the individual, take my mind off of my private problems, off the sins and transgressions that weigh me down, off of my omissions and oversights. Now, after God has "blotted out, as a thick cloud, our transgressions, and, as a cloud, our sins," it is time to move on to the next stage: "return unto Me, for I have redeemed you" (Isaiah 44:22). We must, we want to express our desire to return to God – to return to Him not though this or that specific action but with a declaration that will express how profoundly we are connected with the Almighty, how deeply we want His closeness.
This is why at the end of this prayer we all say, together and in unison, "Hear O Israel," and cry seven times "The Lord is God" – an exclamation that reflects the different aspects and ways in which "the Lord is God": Judgment and Mercy, the revealed and the concealed, that which is beyond nature and that which is within nature, our relationship with Him both individually and as a nation. This is the very essence of the Ne'ilah prayer, and this is what we must do: roar, all of us together, with all our might. Now, after this entire day of atonement and forgiveness throughout which we were more or less clean, we finally come out and say what we have not yet said: Father, we want to return to You!