Thoughts of Repentance on Yom Kippur

yom kippur

Yom Kippur is over and I am left with my thoughts of the day. This day is the culmination of 10 days of reflection on the beyond-the-world, the world, and one’s place in it. It is a trying time for me because of the omnipresence of God, a figure for whom I have little or no belief. I thank Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman for giving me a way to get through this period and other times I spend in my Temple. While he was visiting our Temple a few weeks ago in preparation for the Jewish Holidays, he offered a way for skeptics and non-believers to take in the liturgy and traditions. He said (more or less), “Suspend your disbelief and come as a part of an audience attending a metaphorical drama written over the ages, full of wisdom to be found in its lines and music.”

Our Temple is using a new (two-year old) prayer book that is helpful in this regard. It is full of alternate readings and explanations of the texts that elucidate the drama. The core thoughts I carry away and have been reflecting upon are: gratitude for being alive, facing up to the human failings that come with that life, and confessing and repenting for the acts that come from those very human parts of my body.

Being alive is a miracle that transforms a mess of chemical matter into a living being, in my case, a human being. Being the specific human being I am is another miracle for which I am grateful. No one else of the billions of people alive in the past, today, or in the future is like me. I am unique, shaped by my own biological make-up and unique life experience. I am grateful for all of the other human beings and the non-human world that has created who I am. Some I know well: my parents and family, my wives, my children and step-children, my friends, my teachers, my students, my bosses, my doctors, and on and on. Others who that have entered more silently and indistinctly have also played their parts. I have not always had the most complimentary thoughts about all of these, but I am equally grateful for the presence of all of them in my life.

The new Prayer book has a footnote echoing what our Rabbi always interjects when we come to the part of the service where we confess or recount our “sins.” I put sins in quotes to distinguish it from the notion of sin in other religions. The word in Hebrew, often translated as sin, has a root meaning coming from archery and means something more like “missing the mark.” It has the same meaning that the secular aphorism “To err is human” does, but the context is very different. We throw out that aphorism when we want to excuse our bad actions.

On Yom Kippur, one cannot get away with that; we must confess our misses, repent, and ask forgiveness. God forgives and atones for us unconditionally for all our transgressions directed toward God. I can skip this because, as a disbeliever, this doesn’t apply to me, or, at least, so I say. But for those misses that fall upon other human beings, I must make it right and apologize if I am to move into the New Year with a clean slate. It matters not whether my errant acts were intentional or unintentional. So if I have written anything here that has harmed anyone, I apologize for doing so, and, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, Jewish or not, I ask for your forgiveness.

The central prayer of confession is the Vidui, a series of transgressions in alphabetical order, followed by another series of Hebrew acrostics. Not being a Hebrew reader, this goes right by me, but the impact does not. There are always a handful or more that must have been written just for me. Today, the Vidui had more meaning than usual. The Rabbi must have been reading my (and many others’) minds when he said before his sermon that he was departing from his customary practice and bring politics into the sanctuary. Having just recited the Vidui, I was pretty sure I knew what he was going to say and so it was. He spoke about the importance of being genuine in one’s confessions and apologies for missing the mark, especially when has missed the entire target (my addition).

I add here something he did not say, but surely understands. Living together at any level requires trust and trust requires that we expect others to be responsible for their actions. We expect them to be respectful and to honor every human being as the same miracle they are. Allowance for mistakes is critical as errors are inevitable, but accepting one’s responsibility for them is essential if trust is to be maintained. Little or none of this can be found in the immediate political campaign and in the behavior of office-holding politicians in our Capitols. They have forgotten that you and I are part of their family and we have to live together. My feelings about this run the gamut between sadness and disgust.

I’ll end with a selection of sins I edited down from the very long litany of the Vidui. I need not tell you the criterion I chose to make my selection or to whom my thoughts were inspired by. These are what brought the mess out there into the sanctuary. Rather amazing, isn’t it?

And for the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips, with hard-heartedness, with immorality, with deceit, through speech, by deceiving a fellowman, by improper thoughts, by a gathering of lewdness, by verbal [insincere] confession, by impurity of speech, by foolish talk, with the evil inclination, false denial and lying, by a bribe-taking or a bribe-giving hand, by scoffing, by evil talk [about another], in business dealings, by a haughty demeanor, by the prattle of our lips, with proud looks, by scheming against a fellowman, by obduracy, by tale-bearing, by causeless hatred, by embezzlement…

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