I’ll always remember my first Yom Kippur. Not my first one ever of course, although one of my earliest childhood memories is of me and my sister eating chicken and ketchup sandwiches on Yom Kippur afternoon with gleeful abandon, mindless of our hungry and long suffering mother who probably just wanted to be left to pray in peace.
No, what I mean is, I’ll always remember the first Yom Kippur I was old enough to be counted as one of the people. Just over a month had passed since my Bat Mitzvah, and since I was old enough to be counted in the commandment to fast on the holiest day of the year. A few days before Yom Kippur I sat down with my father, brand new Machzor in one hand, a pile of pink sticky notes in the other. He told me we were going to go through the Yom Kippur prayers and mark down all the important bits and what they meant so that I wouldn’t feel lost during the service.
Even now, a decade later, I still know how grown up I felt that day. My machzor was blue and shiny, Hebrew prayers on one side of the page, English translation on the other. My name was scrawled into the inside cover in my best grownup handwriting, and as I told my father everything I had learnt in school about the Holidays, I felt sure I was teaching him something new. And indeed, my father the rabbi always acted like I was.
With endless patience he showed me where I should sit, where I should stand, and where I should hang my head, put my hand on my chest, and recite the Viddui (confession) prayer with everyone else. The words scared me then, as they scare me now. As a 12 year old, I wracked my brain to try and find ways to make the Viddui personal to me.
Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu, Dibarnu Dofi.
We have trespassed, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have gossiped.
In my young mind I had committed all of these sins, and more. I had cut through someone’s garden to get to the park, I had lied to get extra time to play games on the computer, I had “forgotten” to give my friend back her pencil, and well…which 12 year old doesn’t talk about her friends behind their backs? I realised that if I didn’t ask for forgiveness now then all my carefully written sticky note bookmarks would be for nothing.
That night I skipped to shul, trying to keep up with my father and brother in their shiny sneakers, stark and out of place against their suits. My own bright green crocs stuck out awkwardly beneath my new dress as I dragged my sister along behind me as we went, me clutching my new blue machzor, her, a pile of Jewish storybooks.
We felt so grown up as we climbed the stairs to the women’s section. Look at me I thought. Twelve years old, and finally fasting on Yom Kippur, I’m doing so well! Maybe my self-importance and conviction in my own maturity faded away once I was passed around by a few of my grandmother’s friends for some cheek pinching, but for the sake of my own dignity I’ll pretend it didn’t.
With a few whispered apologies and maybe a stumble or two over our own feet, my sister and I made our way to the back of the room. There we sat, in impossibly uncomfortable chairs, surrounded by people we didn’t know, as the Chazzan (cantor) mumbled a few words and began the opening prayers.
I clutched my Machzor open between my hands, knuckles tight and eyes glued determinedly to the page.
“we say this first part three times, and then the next part seven more” I whispered to my sister. But at the grown age of 9 she already knew that of course, and didn’t mind telling me so. Still, I was 12, I was counted for the commandment to fast, it was my job to tell her!
As the prayers began in earnest my eyes began to skim over the page with awe. How meaningful I was sure I would find this, how upset I’d be once it was over, but how cleansed I’d feel, knowing I put in all I had to offer. This year was only just starting, but I already couldn’t wait for next year.
He’evinu, V’hisharnu, Zahdnu, Chamasnu, Tafalnu Sheker
We have caused sin, we have caused wickedness, we have had malicious intent, we have extorted, we have falsely accused
I stifled a yawn. 14 now, no longer bright eyed and excited about my first time fasting. It was early in the afternoon, maybe 1:00 or 2:00, and still the Mussaf prayers seemed nowhere close to being over. I counted the pages in my deep blue machzor, slightly more dog eared than last year and the year before that. No more pink sticky notes marked the pages. We were barely halfway through. I wondered if the girls across the table from me were as bored as I felt. I wondered if the Chazzan was as bored as I felt. He probably was, I decided, from the way he was running through the prayers faster than anyone could keep up with him.
I stood up mechanically as everyone else did, and buried my face in my Machzor as the men began to sing the opening notes of the Viddui prayers. At 14 now, I felt my sins were much greater than they had been two years ago, and it was crucial I paid attention to this prayer, despite my general boredom. The accidental theft of the borrowed pencils seemed long forgotten. I was always getting in trouble at school now. I thought that maybe if I confessed my behaviour in Viddui, my teachers would like me a bit more. I would ask for forgiveness for making loud jokes at their expense and then maybe they’d let me stay in the classroom more often.
My heart wasn’t in it though, and even as I beat my chest to the rhythmic chanting and wailing notes, my fingers still brushed the pages of my machzor, counting down until I could go home and leave the heavy weight of my heart on the scales of judgment behind.
As we sat down again to listen to the Chazzan resume his mournful chanting, I let my finger slide down off the page. The dark blue cover of my machzor slipped shut as I began to trace the pattern of the sun shining off the lace curtain in the air. Just a few more hours and it would all be over for the next three hundred and fifty days.
Ya’atznu Rah, Kizavnuh, La’aztnu, Maradnu, Neatznu,
We have given bad advice, we have deceived, we have mocked, we have rebelled, we have made God angry
I got to shul late the year I turned 16. It was further away than I thought it would be. Gone was the walk up the road trailing my father and brother and dragging my sister by her hand. Instead I walked 40 minutes in the rain with a friend, thinking that the only problem I had with Yom Kippur was that my childhood shul simply wasn’t the right place for me anymore.
But when I walked into the cold open space with her and pulled up a plastic folding chair, I felt no warmer than I had in the biting wind outside. Where were my grandma’s friends, ready to pinch my cheeks and tell me how much I’d grown? They hadn’t done that for years now I supposed, but I still missed them. And it was nice that the Chazzan was making sure he was going at a pace we could all follow, but I missed the full steam ahead mumbles of my childhood Chazzan, and the way I only knew to stand up because everyone else around me was standing.
I held my blue machzor loosely in my hands. I didn’t open it for most of the morning, preferring instead to listen and take it in, trying my hardest to rediscover some of the magic from when I was 12. No matter how beautiful the tunes, or how intensely I closed my eyes, the words refused to seep in. The tune of the Viddui prayer was all wrong too. But the words were still the same.
I tried to keep my mind on them as I opened my Machzor to say them along with everyone else. I was sure I had so much to confess this year. But the words held a different meaning for me than they had ever had before. I was angry with God, and then God had the audacity to come along in the middle of my confession and say He was angry with me?? I wished I was 12 again, sincere in my apologies to not lie and tell my sister I had only been on the computer for five minutes instead of ten. I wished I was 14, bargaining with God to let my teachers like me if I just stopped laughing at their expense from the back of the classroom. Viddui had been simpler then, back before I felt sure I had actual sins weighing on my heart, back before I had laughed at religion and started wishing I wasn’t a part of it anymore. Back when the words of Viddui carried weight because I wanted to do better, not because I was scared I was only going to do worse.
I got home early from shul that year. And as I closed the door to my room to sleep away the last hours of the fast, I thought about my father and brother, and sisters and mother, all in the tiny shul up the road where the Chazzan was mumbling too fast, and would be for hours yet, and where the wailing notes of the Viddui prayer were rising and falling in the air like shards of glass.
I left my blue machzor, now worn and damp from the 40 minute walk, on the side table downstairs. I didn’t even bother to put it away.
Sarrarnu, Avinu, Pashanu, Tzarrarnu, Kishinu Oref
We have turned from God, we have been immoral, we have sinned deliberately, we have oppressed, we have been stubborn.
I turned the borrowed machzor over in my hands. It didn’t have an English translation on the side, and I didn’t know where the Chazzan was up to anymore. I had been lost since I walked in 45 minutes ago, the Rabbis announcements in Hebrew going totally over my head.
I was 18, and 3,000 miles away from the country I grew up in. Before the sun set and the fast of Yom Kippur began, I had phoned my parents as they recited the traditional blessings to me over the phone, instead of with their hands placed gently on my head as they would usually be.
Everything felt strange and wrong. From the unfamiliar language, to the brown leather machzor I held unopened in my lap, nothing about this felt right. The harsh clipped vowels of the Chazzan were nothing like the stream of unintelligible, but familiar sounds I had grown up listening to, and the patches the bright midday sun made on the floor were a poor substitute for the dim shapes and shadows dancing on the edge of a lace curtain. This shul was all wrong. This Yom Kippur was all wrong.
I didn’t close my eyes as the Viddui prayers began. Instead I watched as others poured their hearts out into their confessions, bodies swaying with the exertion, heads hung in reverence as they cried, reassuring themselves that it was ok, whatever errors they had made over the past year were being washed away, ready for them to start afresh.
Meanwhile I wondered what I could even confess to. I had turned from God, as the confession states, that much was true. But I didn’t need to, much less want to, apologise for it. If at 16 I had been angry with God, at 18 I hated Him. How many times over the past six years had I turned to Him, head hung low, hand on heart, and given over my confessions? And how many times had I felt a better person for it?
Not when I was 12 and my eyes were bright and my Machzor full of promise and potential.
Not when I was 14 and my Machzor was used and loved, but even then my eyes had begun to stray to the clock on the wall.
Not when I was 16 and my Machzor was damp and forlorn, and I felt trapped in a life I didn’t think was mine, and even when I walked 40 minutes to reclaim it I knew I didn’t belong in it.
No, I felt sure, this year I had nothing to confess to.
we have been wicked, we have corrupted
When I was 20 I didn’t say the Viddui prayer. I don’t even remember if I fasted. It had been eight years since I had first been counted amongst the people for the commandments of Yom Kippur, and I no longer wanted to be.
I didn’t say the Viddui prayer that year. I couldn’t even remember where I put my machzor.
Tee’avnu, Taeenu, Teeta’anu
we have committed terrible sins, we have gone astray, we have led others astray
The words of the Viddui prayer still scare me today at 22 years old, the way they did when I was 12, ten years ago. I have said them almost every year, and every year I cared about them less and less. And here as I type the final three confessions, I find myself saying them out loud, for the first time in four years. I have sinned, I have gone astray, I have led others astray.
From the sins of borrowed pencils, to a confession to myself of pain and anger I pushed away rather than try to understand, to abandoning my religious beliefs for an easy way out, and finding my way back to them in my own way, reaching the end of the Viddui prayer hasn’t been easy.
But then, maybe it wasn’t meant to be.
The end of the Viddui is a personal introspection into where we went wrong. We start with confessing clear errors, the borders of our sins are clear cut and obvious, and we end by asking ourselves where we went wrong.
When you’re 12 it’s easy to say.
You took something that wasn’t yours, you said something you shouldn’t have said.
By the time you’re a little older and a little wiser, it’s harder to be sure.
What impact have my actions had? What path did I end up on? Did I lead anyone else down that same path with me?
How do I know if I went down the wrong one? Can I go back, can I start over?
I think I know the answer to this one. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to.
We say the Viddui multiple times each Yom Kippur, and yet it’s taken me a decade to get to the end of it. I may have tripped in the middle, I may have changed paths, and I might not know where this new one is taking me.
But as I stare a new year and a new decade down, I know I’m ready to find out.
Ten years ago I skipped down the road to shul in my large Jewish community, feeling like I was on top of the world, and stood together with a hundred or more other people in a crowded room. Ten years ago I was counted for the commandments of Yom Kippur for the first time
This year I will go to shul outdoors, in a spread out group of no more than twenty, in a world that would have been unrecognisable a year ago, never mind a decade. I will go to a shul where I will not only be counted for the commandments of Yom Kippur, but also as a member of the Minyan, of the ten men and women needed to make up any service.
I will recite the Viddui prayers, I will hang my head and place my hand on my heart, and I will reflect. From excitement, to wariness, to anger, hate, and self acceptance, I will make space for all of them in my confessions.
And as I do so, I will promise to myself that it will never take me ten years to reach the end of the prayer again.
Now excuse me, I need to go out and buy a Machzor.