Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi. He’evinu, v’hirshanu, zadnu, chamasnu, tafalnu sheker.
Of these we are guilty: We betray. We steal. We scorn. We act perversely. We are cruel. We scheme. We are violent. We slander. Al Chet She’chantanu lifanecha—for the sins which we have committed before You—G-d of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, lead us to atonement.
By the time Yom Kippur comes to an end tomorrow evening, we will have confessed our wrongdoings five different times in less than 24 hours. In more traditional services, the confessions occur 10 times.
As I approached Yom Kippur this year, I found myself grappling with this section of our liturgy, which is known as the Viddui—the confession. As many of us know, we confess in the plural—for the sins we have committed. There are a variety of explanations for why we do so, which I’ll get to soon. But this year, because we are living through a time in which it seems that so many are guilty of corruption, betrayal, theft, scorn, belittling of others, rancor, incivility, dishonesty—and more—I found myself wondering: what purpose does our confessing the sins of others serve? Does our confession absolve others of the guilt, the responsibility, for what they’ve done? While we know that each one of us is responsible for atoning for our own transgressions, what could our ancestors have had in mind, I wondered, when they built these communal confessions into our Yom Kippur ritual?
Tonight, I’d like to explore these questions with you. I hope that doing so might somehow help us “hold” these practices in a way that makes more sense to our modern sensibilities. But even more important than that, I hope that this exploration might help us all better cope with this extraordinary period in history that is filled with so much corruption, so much wrongdoing, so much sinfulness.
I want to do so because I know that living in the midst of so much turmoil is taking its toll. It’s taking a toll on me, and my guess is, it is on many of you, as well. All that is happening in our tumultuous political environment can be challenging, regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum. A survey conducted by The American Psychological Association revealed that 66 percent of Americans said that the future of our nation is a significant source of stress, and 57 percent said they were stressed by the current political climate. And that was three years ago. This stress manifests in our own lives in a variety of ways: some emotional, such as worry, tension, irritability, and some physical: headaches, insomnia, stomach problems and more. It also manifests in our relationships and our interactions with others. We do the best we can to go about our lives, but sometimes, it’s hard: our anxiety, anguish, or dis-ease—is simmering, just below the surface.
So . . . here we find ourselves, on this holiest night of the year: examining and confessing our own wrongdoings, while also confessing the sinfulness of others. What’s it all about?
First, let me say a word about the word sin. As some know, the word chet (in Al Chet She’chatanu) often gets translated as “sin.” Because of the many negative connotations associated with that word, however, some choose to substitute “missing the mark,” “wrongdoing,” or “transgression.” The difference in translation is significant. For some, speaking about “sin” invokes a G-d whose will has been violated. For others, using the word “wrong” suggests a this-worldly moral error. From that perspective, wrongdoings are violations of the ethical standards of the culture or the community within which they occur. Whatever you choose to call it, what I want to explore tonight is the idea that together we confess them all, and ask for forgiveness for having committed them.
Second, there are actually two different viddui’s that are a part of our liturgy: the first, the shorter of the two, is an alphabetic list of sins—ashamnu, beginning with the letter alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and ending with ti’ta’nu, which begins with taf, the last letter. The second, the longer confession, begins with the words Al Chet She’chatanu—for the sin which we have committed; it too is an acrostic, beginning with alef and ending with taf. The practice is to recite both vidduis, all together, not individually. Some of us beat our breasts as we do so.
There are a variety of explanations for why we recite these lists of sins in the plural.
Perhaps the most well-known explanation is based on the teaching found in the Talmud, “Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh”–“All of the people of Israel are responsible for one another” (Shevuot 39a:22). We confess in the plural to remind us that on some level, we share responsibility for the transgressions of everyone who is a part of our community.
To help illustrate this, one teaching says “all Israel is one body, and each individual Jew is a limb of this body. . . . Therefore, even if a person has not committed a particular sin, that person must [still] confess it, for when his fellow sins, it is as if he himself had transgressed.”
How true this is! I know that when someone who is Jewish commits some egregious act and news of the wrongdoing is highlighted over and over again in the media (think Bernie Madoff, Harvey Weinstein, or most recently, Jeffrey Epstein, to name just a few examples), I cringe, and sometimes even feel a sense of shame. Whether it is rational or not, many of us expect more from those who are Jews, especially prominent ones, hoping that their Jewish upbringing would have guided them to act more ethically. Kal Va’Chomer—all the more so—is this true when we learn about the corruption or illegal activity of those who are leaders of Israel, a country that is supposed to be built on Jewish values and ideals. Perhaps like me, some of you feel this discomfort, and even shame. When we confess their sins, we acknowledge to ourselves, to others, and to G-d, that some members of the Jewish People have fallen short of the high ideals toward which we all must strive. For that we express our deep regret and sadness, and pray for their forgiveness, or better, redemption.
But today, because we no longer live in isolated shtetls or villages, the concept of kol yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh, All the people of Israel are responsible for one another– extends beyond those who live with us in just the Jewish community to those with whom we live in our larger society and even, in the world.
And so another explanation offered by Lisa Exler and Ruth Messinger of the American Jewish World Service suggests that saying “For the sins that we have committed” reflects a radical view of our responsibility for one another. By implicating ourselves in this long list of sins inflicted by our fellow humans, they say, the liturgy forces us to remember that as global citizens we share responsibility for causing the poverty, hunger . . . disease, inequality, prejudice, and cruelty that exists in the world. I would add that acknowledging our role also encourages us to do what we can to reduce or alleviate our negative impact.
There are other explanations too for why we confess in the plural. But I have to admit: I find none of these explanations particularly satisfying—intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. While we here in the sanctuary are beating our breasts, fasting, and doing the hard work of really searching our souls and repenting, “they” are still out there sinning. Are we simply giving those who have committed (and continue to commit) these immoral and/or illegal acts a free pass, in a sense, by atoning for them?
Why is their sinfulness our responsibility?
I finally found an answer that makes sense to me in an essay written by Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington D.C.
After reminding us that change occurs only over the long haul, sometimes even over generations, Rabbi Zemel writes: “We should remind ourselves that the very notion of an individual self is a modern one and not entirely accurate.” “The ancients, our forebears, thought as part of a collective. . . .”
These words jumped off of the page. “The notion of an individual self is a modern one?” And it’s not really accurate? If we’re not individuals, then what are we? What might it mean to see ourselves, as our ancient ancestors did, as part of a collective?
Our ancestors, the Sages, like us, contemplated human existence, with all our contradictions and complexities. They debated our role and place in the world. One, Ben Azzai, pointed to the verse from Torah: “In the day that God created the human being, in the likeness of God did God make the human.” From their perspective, the starting point is God, not the human being.
So often, we see the world from the limited perspective of our own egos—as if the world revolves around us. But it doesn’t. We are all a part of something much bigger, much larger than our own individual lives. Seen against the backdrop of the universe, or all of existence, human and otherwise, each one of us is but a small speck.
Our ancestors knew this. They understood the importance of having a strong sense of self, as well as a good dose of humility.
And thus, they taught: ‘Therefore, the human being was created as a single individual [Adam]. . .[and for the sake of peace among human beings], so that one should not say to another: “My parent was greater than yours. For a human being stamps many coins with one seal, and they are all identical, while the Eternal One, the Source of our very being, stamped every human being with the seal [the imprint] of the first human, Adam, and [yet] none is identical with another.”
In other words, we are all very different, even while we are all essentially the same: mortal, fallible, imperfect human beings. Some more evolved than others.
If we could just zoom out, as I sometimes like to imagine, and see the world “from a distance,” from “G-d’s perspective,” we would likely see fallible and imperfect human beings who time after time commit errors and wrongdoings and yes, sometimes, even more egregious transgressions—simply because they are fallible, imperfect human beings.
From a distance, we might also see ourselves there, standing next to and in the midst of those other imperfect human beings. We too are imperfect, fallible. But also, hopefully, evolving.
I am not proud of the terrible things I have wished for some of those who are committing terrible transgressions today: those who are jeopardizing our democracy, hurting innocent people, belittling and bullying others. I know that those destructive thoughts come from my lower self, from mochin d’katnut—my small-mindednessness. From the perspective of my higher self, from the place of mochin d’gadult, my expanded mind or greater consciousness, I also know that it is not their punishment, their destruction, that I seek, but rather, their heartfelt repentance. As the wise Beruria said, as quoted in the Talmud, “It is not the death of sinners that we seek, but that they should turn from their sinful ways.”
As much as I might want to revel in my righteous anger, I too must turn from my sinful ways—the less-than-honorable thoughts I have about others whom I see as immoral or criminal. Harboring those thoughts is not good for me, for my soul. We all fall short, at one time or another, from acting according to our higher selves, the best of which we are capable. That is why, at the beginning of our time together tonight, when we convened that heavenly Beit Din, or Court, we said: anu matirin l’hitpalel eem ha’ahvar’yanim: all of us may pray as one, even those who transgress.
To be a Jew, and to participate in this annual ritual, is—I believe–to be able to see our own, as well as others’ humanity, more broadly. We come together on this day not only for ourselves, not only for the community whose destiny we share, but also for the larger collective enterprise that we call humanity. We pound our breast, we cry out, and express our deep remorse, regret, disappointment and sorrow that human beings are in fact so fallible, so imperfect, and often act in the world from a place of such brokenness. We express our fervent hopes and deep longing that those who betray and steal, scorn and act perversely, are cruel and scheme, and do all of the other terrible things that human beings are capable of doing, might look honestly at themselves and their deeds, repent for their wrongdoings, and make the choice to live more honorable, ethical and upright lives in this coming year. Even as we examine our own lives, and wish the same for ourselves.
Friends, none of us can ever know the power of our prayers when we send them out into the universe. Sometimes our prayers change us; maybe on some level that we cannot possibly ever understand, our prayers might help change others. This, I think, is what our ancient ancestors believed in the depths of their being. This is what they ask of us when they guide us every year at this time, to join our prayers with theirs, reciting words and engaging in rituals that are powerful, more powerful than we might ever understand with our rational minds. That is why on this day, they guide us to disengage from our worldly preoccupations, join our voices with the angels, and see all human beings, including ourselves, from a distance.
Y’hiyu l’ratzon imrei fi, ve’hegi’yon libi lifecha, Adonai tzuri v’go’ali.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to You, Mystery of All that is.
 Teutch, Rabbi David, “Our Sins? They’re Not All Mine!” in We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, Ed. Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD., p. 137).
 Teutsch, p. 135.
 Yitzchak ben Shlomo Luria Ashkenazi, or the Ari, 1524-1572) (Forms of Prayer, vol. 3, 769-70).
 Exler, Lisa and Messinger, Ruth, “We Have Sinned: T’shuvah in a Globalized World,” in We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, Ed. Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD., p. 136).