Joel Cohen

Yom Kippur: The elevator and a teachable moment

After services on Kol Nidrei night, I arrived back at my high rise apartment building, occupied largely by Jewish residents. Of undoubted Jewish appearance, I was dressed in a suit and black non-leather shoes on a weekday night, but not wearing a kippah. The doorman was, momentarily, not at the front desk when I arrived; but of no consequence to me. After all, I typically press the elevator button without the assistance of a doorman (who would happily do so) on Shabbat, and even on Yom Kippur: for me, the concept of – even the expression – “Shabbos goy” is odious, especially when a gentile’s assistance is invoked for individual rather than communal benefit.

In any event, just after I entered the elevator and my button was lit, a young handsome couple entered behind me – from all appearances including , his kippah, her head scarf and their sneakers, they were Observant Jews. She, lovely and polite, breezily asked if I might press their button for them despite the tradition that one does not ask another Jew to break a proscription on their behalf. Somewhat taken aback but saying “Okay, if this works for you,” I pressed their button. But as the elevator rose – their apartment a few floors higher than mine – I began thinking about it. As I exited, I said, sotto voce, but loud enough for them to hear, the poetic, somewhat disingenuous, theme of Kol Nidrei: Kee L’chal Ha’am Bishgaga” (essentially, that all the sins of the House of Israel are “unintentional” or “accidental”). Although almost inaudibly, I believe I heard her say to me: “I’m sorry”.

I’ve always been troubled by the defense of “Bishgaga”. How can that be? Are we really intending to persuade God of our genuine remorse by telling Him at that critical Day of Judgment that we, either as a people or as individuals, have committed no sin intentionally or knowingly? Are we strategically seeking the forgiveness of God, who presumably knows better, by saying that every wrong we have committed is simply by error or mistake, and without intention?

So just what was the young woman thinking? Was she thinking that I was actually a gentile and that the Shabbos goy protocol would “work” for them? Did she think that, since I wasn’t wearing a kippah and was obviously willing to have pressed the button for myself that I –if a Jew — probably wasn’t observant anyway, so therefore it didn’t matter (I imagine if I were wearing a kippah, this wouldn’t have happened – maybe it is on me)? Did she think that, whether Observant or not, if I was willing to push the button it was good enough to ask, as long as neither she nor her husband were doing it? Or did she think that my having already set the elevator in motion, she and her husband were simply going along for the ride? Most likely, the answer is she simply didn’t think about it at all, not for a moment. She simply asked me to do something she was unwilling to do on her own – for religious reasons.

In truth, there was no need for the young woman to apologize to me. I’m not the one who has been wronged. Rather, she wronged herself. Follow me, here. She didn’t think when she asked me to push the button – no doubt. But, to comply with God’s law, she should not have been in an elevator where she did, or would ask another Jew to, press the button. When one consciously (or even unconsciously) avoids knowledge of what he or she is doing, it seems that that alone is an offense to God’s Law, although the actor himself or herself is the wronged party.

I write not to pick on a lovely young woman whose name I don’t even know, but rather to hopefully present a teachable moment for all of us, myself included – that is, to simply be sure to take just a moment to think, when just a moment’s thought is all that would be necessary to find one less reason to beat our breast. We can’t hide behind an argument that our sins are all unintentional – our task, rather, is to ensure that we are conscious of our obligations, and thus conscious of our violations of them as well. How else do they have meaning?

And so, in this same space, especially when having to admit my own transgressions, I ask for that lovely woman’s forgiveness for having taken to pen over this teachable moment incident.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.