It is a worthwhile question, as we begin Yom Kippur, as we enter this 25-hour period engaged in the central activity of kaparah – atonement – to ask, does it actually makes a difference? Does it change us? I don’t want to talk myself out of a job, so you can probably guess that I will say, well, yes, of course it makes a difference.
But I am not entirely sure. I find so much wisdom in our rituals and traditions. We had brilliant ancestors who developed these practices over the course of generations, but the practices themselves are no guarantee of transformation. Maybe the better question is, how do we atone, how do we engage in this process so that it can change us, so that it can enable growth and repair where it is needed?
I think atonement is two things – it’s an accounting and it’s also repentance.
In order to atone for our sins and wrongs and mess and mistakes, first we have to see them and name them. Our Sages composed the formula of the vidui, the prayers of confession for this purpose. They came up with two prayers – Ashamnu, a short, concise list of transgressions for each letter of the alphabet, and the second is Al Chet – a longer list covering transgressions that touch all areas of life – our relationships and how we treat each other, our business ethics and how we use our money, what we consume, how we speak, and so on.
We tap our fists against our chests, trying to break through our callousness and habits, trying to wake our hearts into a different quality of feeling, knocking through layers of self-protection, as we name each transgression. This physical gesture works to move the words from the page to our hearts, from an external, ancestral inheritance to an internal possession filled with the truths of this very moment.
Our Sages debated whether the vidui should entail each of us speaking the specific wrongs we’re individually responsible for, or whether our wrongs should be a collective, shared list, reaching more generally across the spectrum of human behaviour. They clearly fell on the side of a shared litany that we repeat in each Yom Kippur service.
Rather than naming the wrongs that we are already aware of, we are steered to look in directions we otherwise wouldn’t have. We are pressed to ask ourselves – not how many of these sins did I participate in, but how did I contribute to each one? What role did I have in each harmful behaviour – consciously or unconsciously, by action or by omission, directly with my own hands or through the hands of others – in my name, on my behalf, without my objection? We repeat the same list again and again so that our focus lands differently each time and we find ourselves struck by new revelations, suddenly recognizing ourselves in actions and inactions that we hadn’t recognized in the last round. At the heart of this practice is the truth that we cannot change what we don’t see. So we begin with a practice of naming and seeing.
Then, this naming through confession has to partner with teshuva. Teshuva, that potent word that means repentance but evokes the motion of turning around, changing direction, of returning to an original state of alignment and goodness, of coming home to something essential to our humanity that gets lost or covered over when we do wrong. And so teshuva involves both a recovery and motion forward.
How do we do this? The recovery mission can be very tricky. I know that when I really see where I’ve been unkind, where I’ve behaved out of jealousy or contracted into fear, when I honestly look at my complicity in systems like racism that cause harm to some while I benefit – I am not feeling my essential human goodness. I am face to face with all the qualities I hate in myself – my insecurities, my arrogance, my addiction to comfort, my utter obliviousness. It feels shameful and embarrassing. I find that I don’t want to be around the person or the group I’ve hurt because it just makes me feel worse about myself and so the spiral in the wrong direction begins.
But teshuva is a great disrupter of the chain reaction of transgressions, avoidance and hiding. We do teshuva in community. As we recited just before Kol Nidrei, we give each other permission to be together, to pray together, as the limited, far from perfect, wild bag of destructive impulses and unskillful habits that we are. We don’t retreat into private caves of self-loathing or willful ignorance.
We come together and wear our regret on our sleeves so that we can see that we are no better and no worse than anyone else; that whatever we’ve done, we deserve a place in community to be held, to be witnessed, and so that we can mirror for each other the greater wholeness and goodness that we struggle to see in ourselves.
It is woven into our prayers to practice seeing the Divine in the face and presence of one another – beings of immeasurable worth who deserve to be cherished. To look at each other as beings who are more than our mistakes. We practice this with each other.
It’s in our communal prayers to practice loving each other with every inclination of our knowing hearts, with all the strength through which we live, with every benefit we have received. By being a community, right now, we agree to do this with and for each other. And there are no exceptions. These are not just words our tradition ask us to parrot for some amorphous goal of continuity. Can you incline your heart in this way toward someone here, noticing the light in them, reflecting it back to them, so it might guide them back home?
Let’s remember too that it’s not only our present community helping us recover our whole and holy selves when we’ve gone awry. We stand with both feet in an ancestral stream that is long and life-giving. We have elders and ancestors reminding us of our place in the Jewish family, in the great Jewish story and whether you’re Jewish or not, if you’re here, you are part of it. When we dip into that stream and gather what we need from it – in wisdom and poetry, rituals and sacred stories, laws and commitments – we know ourselves as part of something bigger and that we have a role to play in fulfilling a robust aspirational, collective purpose. When we see ourselves as part of a much longer arc, then when we get thrown or lost or stuck along the way, the course correction needed is not so drastic that you can’t reach into the stream again and realign with the flow.
And if that’s hard to do, then Jewish practice also has God for backup. Now I know many of you are avowed atheists, semi-avowed agnostics, suffer from post-traumatic God disorder or don’t resonate with the word God for all the baggage that the name has accumulated, but stay with me.
We are asking – what helps you recover and know your own clear goodness so that you can return when you go astray? The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 17b) describes God showing Moses what the Israelites should do when they inevitably sin. God puts on a tallit and says, tell them to recite this – “Adonai! Adonai! El rachum ve’chanun, erech apayim ve’rav chesed ve’emet. Notzer chesed la’alafim noseh avon va’fesha, ve’chata, ve’nakeh.
“Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Exodus 34:6,7).
When we fall off course, when we forget the goodness and strength that is our true nature, we are, in the Talmud’s framing, to remind God of God’s goodness, compassion, loyalty and forgiveness. When we can’t access our potential for compassion, when we can’t forgive ourselves, we are told to let God embrace us with compassion, to walk with us in loyalty, to let God forgive us.
Whatever you believe, this is an invitation to see ourselves through the eyes of loving that is so expansive that it casts no shadows. A chesed, a lovingkindness that is beyond human limitations. We are called on to open ourselves to the experience of being gathered into graciousness that is generous and tender, until we can remember and recover our own capacity for kindness, patience with ourselves and forgiveness.
Maybe you’ve known this feeling, when the ego drops away, when you find yourself awash in sudden grace or peace, a quality of consciousness that turns the enemies assaulting our own minds into merely misbehaving guests that can come and go, while the home of our clear souls becomes ever-more stable. In my experience, this isn’t an awareness that you can force or will into happening. But mysteriously, when we practice as we are today, when we make ourselves available to it, this divine light it can find its way into even our most contracted spaces.
And once we come home to our capacity for goodness, even partially, what about the forward motion of teshuva? From this place, there is choice. From this place, the energy and desire to do better, to choose differently, to tackle the hard stuff is already in motion. Halleluyah! When we know we’re in it together, fumbling and trying and failing and succeeding, when we can see where we’re messing up and can hold the wider clarity of what we are capable of, then we are not stuck or paralyzed or hopeless. We are in motion and where there is motion there is life. We can choose again and again until we forge new habits, new pathways, give new names to our responses and actions. This is a process of becoming. For the movement forward, we have to let go of the urgency and the guilt that we’re not already there. We have to let go of comparing someone else’s strengths against our struggles. It helps, I think, to hold in view that the goal is that we become more and more free, more and more able to reach into the world, ennobled with the gifts of responsibility and agile with the movements of responsiveness. This is the birthplace of liberation.
Lasting change, real change is slow. Yom Kippur doesn’t create the change but it puts us deeply into the practice that enables change. In every generation, there are moral challenges, big questions, calls for ethical choices in our own lives, and in our communal spheres. In every generation, humans are so very human – fallible, limited and indomitable sparks of goodness. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, said so beautifully, “It takes time to become anything worth becoming.” May we be blessed and strengthened to practice becoming, together.