All We Are: a Kol Nidre Reflection
“All We Are” is a poetic reflection on teshuvah, sung to the traditional melody of Kol Nidre.
Unlike most recordings on the Mussar Blues web site, this piece is actually intended for liturgical use. I would love to hear from you if you are thinking about using it in that capacity.
All we are
All we have been
All we have said
All we have promised
All we’ve forgotten
All we have done
All we earnestly intended yet we did not do.
Help me see
Help me be who I could be
Help me gather up the broken parts
And recreate myself as from the start.
Today we turn back time
Restore harmony and rhyme
Look a year ahead to Yom Kippur
To see our better selves walk through this door.
Our flaws we own
Harmful habits hard as stone
We repair and we atone
Returning to ourselves and to our home.
Soul-stains need cleaning
Destructive deeds I’ve done demand redeeming
With caring and repairing.
The road we are clearing
The boat we are steering.
Help me know
The direction I must grow
Help me through
The sea between my old ways and the new
Today the gates of change swing open
With renewed hope.
Return תשובה Teshuvah
Truth אמת Emet
Courage עומץ לב Ometz Lev
Awe יראה Yirah
Trust בטחון Bitachon
Humility ענוה Anavah
Holiness קדושה Kedushah
About this Poetic Reflection
Close your eyes and listen.
The great spiritual power of Kol Nidre is a paradox. Chanting it affects us deeply, though not necessarily through the meaning of the words. Many are moved even though they do not understand its Aramaic language. Others understand, yet remain puzzled by the words. Many read an English translation and wonder why this text feels so meaningful.
I believe it is mostly the music that moves us—the melody, the emotion, and the sound of the syllables.
I set out to create a singable English companion to Kol Nidre with the following features:
- Match the meter and rhyme of Kol Nidre, clearly referring back to the sounds of the Aramaic text. As a result we can sing it to the traditional melody, tapping into its musical power. [Kimmelman, in Hoffman, All These Vows, 168–173]
- Skirt the halachic content of the Aramaic proclamation, and focus instead on the enterprise of teshuvah [return], for which chanting Kol Nidre prepares us.
- Draw the listener into the process of teshuvah, as a Yom Kippur liturgical event and as a long-term Mussar project.
- Invoke assistance from the One above—implicitly, not explicitly, to avoid derailing listeners onto theological sidetracks. Keep the focus on teshuvah and the spiritual work ahead.
Themes, Imagery, and Voice
The themes are integral to Yom Kippur and teshuvah: brokenness and repair; speech, action, and inaction; growth and change.
To prepare us for the inner work of Yom Kippur, the words touch on three prerequisites for teshuvah: honesty, humility, and hope. [Louis Newman, Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah, 6]
This poem connects to a long tradition of spiritual poetry by referencing classic imagery of the piyutim of the Yom Kippur liturgy, such as gates, seafaring, and stubborn hardness.
Shifting between “we” and “I” respects the Jewish emphasis on prayer in community, and also the intensely personal nature of teshuvah.
The third stanza mentions the idea that teshuvah transcends the usual flow of time, redressing our misdeeds and undoing their spiritual consequences. [Steinsaltz, The Strife of the Spirit, 102–103] [Lawrence Kushner, in Hoffman, All These Vows, 175]
Following the Ashkenazi version of Kol Nidre, the poem refers to the year ahead—a forward-looking message of hope—rather than to the year that has ended.
This prayer-song is not a substitute for Kol Nidre, but a supplement. It is not a translation, but a doorway. The traditional text and melody are wise elders, while this poem is a young novice sharing an elder's musical tallit [prayer garment]. I hope that, heard together, the two texts can perhaps move us even more powerfully than either one alone.
One can start along a path of teshuvah [return] at any moment. Jewish tradition offers us special invitations—the fast days of Tammuz and Tisha b’Av during the summer months, then the entire month of Elul, the ten days of teshuvah starting at Rosh Hashanah—though it’s never too soon to begin.
If we are stuck, sometimes a musical nudge can pry us loose. If we lose steam, a song can get us fired up again. If we forget our purpose, this melody and these words can remind us.
Whenever you board your teshuvah train, let this song serve as your “All aboard!” You might listen to this conductor’s call daily to keep your destination in focus. Nesi’ah tovah [a good journey].
Creative teachers so often find new ways to use music—discussion starter, writing prompt, art prompt, set induction. Please share your ideas.
I thank Rabbi David Booth and Louis Newman. Our conversation about Kol Nidre spurred me to write this singable English companion piece, and brought up many of the concepts that became grist for the poem. Louis prompted with phrases that transformed into the first stanza, and the rest of the piece sprouted from there.
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash