In the short time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are called upon to engage in critical self-reflection, introspection and to seriously examine how we behave. We ask ourselves, which of our actions was worthy? What did we do that was unworthy? The Vidui (Confessions) prayer on Yom Kippur (which includes a list of sins that we read aloud, in community, in the ”Ashamnu” and the “Al Chet” sections) is designed to direct us to hone in on our transgressions. This list obviously only partially mentions our sins but the author’s intention was to compose them sin, by sin, line by line. Rabbis for Human Rights has published a contemporary version of this prayer that can be found here, but when the list is recited in unison, in community, in Hebrew, and in alphabetical order Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu – We have trespassed against God and others; We have betrayed God and other people; We have stolen or pillaged – the effect and meaning of this prayer are extraordinary! Notably, this extensive but not exhaustive list implies that it is meant to cover all of our sins from “A-Z” from Aleph ad Tav.
Every year without fail as I prepare for Yom Kippur, I am astounded by the fact that these prayers are in the plural (“Ashamnu, Bagadnu…”, “For the sin we committed…”). Just when one might think that the Machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, is directing us inward this prayer demands that we look outward, that we glance around us and think about the “we” and not just the “I”. Rather than just focusing on our own personal failures we are mandated in this collective recitation of our sins to experience a communal announcement of its own accountability and responsibility. Therefore, whether or not I personally, cheated or stole is not the point. This prayer reminds me that precisely because I am a member of a community I am also responsible for the actions of my community.
This is a challenging concept for us and even more so, for those of us committed to making Israel more just, moral and accountable for its human rights failings. Many of us (I would include myself) sometimes tend to attach the blame to a general, amorphous “them” – the IDF, the government, the general public that seemingly continues to rejects our viewpoint – for policies that conflict with our Jewish values. But we must remember that the IDF is our army, the government was democratically elected by us and that Israeli society is the society in which we live and that the Israeli public is the public that we want to influence because we also comprise it. That we keep going to demonstrations and constantly protest and criticize the situation doesn’t free us from the obligation to try to change it. Sadly, many of us, in Israel and outside of Israel have given up on the hope of influencing Israeli society. Therefore, this year I propose adding another “Al chet” – “for the sin of despair.” On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we say “ ובכן U’vechen Grant honor to Your people, glory to those who fear You and hope to those who seek You.” We must not despair! Hope is a religious commandment!
At the Kol Nidre service we recite the verse “Please forgive the sin of this people, as You are so compassionate…” Most of those engaged in this prayer assume that the original context of this verse is from when Moses seeks atonement for the people of Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf. Actually, this verse is from the book of Numbers, when Moses asks for forgiveness for the people of Israel because of the sin of the spies (14.15). My father, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman z”l, taught that the sin of the spies was not their speaking ill of the land of Israel (did they lie?). The sin was that the people put their faith in unworthy leaders, those who stoked the public with fear and despair. The Rabbis, therefore, chose this verse to be the centerpiece of the Kol Nidre service.
Yom Kippur calls on us to take responsibility and to reject unworthy leaders and to rebuff those who only know how to strike fear in us and lead to us to despair. We must choose leaders who bring a message of hope even in difficult times. And in these difficult times, most people have given up the hope that there will be a peaceful resolution to conflict between us – Israel – and the Palestinians. But we must not follow these leaders down into a chasm of despair. In these challenging times we must find the strength to hope for better days and to believe in our ability to be agents of change. If we can’t find those leaders who will do this, we are obligated to take their place and to, by example, bring this message to our society, to our people.
Gmar Chatimah Tova
Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman