For My Sins, A to Z

Prepared for Yom Kippur, 5771.

Often I speak with people who are just returning to Judaism. Many of them say that they are trying to come to terms with their early experience of Judaism as a religion of guilt, where a harsh rabbi and a harsh God constantly remind you of your shortcomings.

So I welcome them back to the joyous adult exploration of Judaism. And privately, I wonder: beyond bad teachers, and awkward family dynamics around religion, is there any aspect of Jewish theology that hammers home the guilt?

And finally, I figured it out! Many people come to schule only on Yom Kippur. And the only prayer they remember is the vidui, the confessional al cheyt prayer, the prayer about collective guilt: For the sin we have committed before you that starts with letter Aleph, the sin we have committed that starts with letterBet…and so on.

If people came to schule on Shabbat morning, they’d know the service is all about light, and love, and freedom, and nature, and such beautiful things!

So do come back on Shabbos. Anytime. I promise we will not say the al cheyt prayer.

But we will say it today, and I would like to speak about it.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to visit Boulder Colorado, and have a cup of coffee on Pearl Street, the pedestrian mall. Pearl Street is lined with cafes, restaurants, ice cream shops, and street performers. On summer evenings, locals and tourists of all ages gather there.

Somewhere in the grey area between locals and tourists are the transient young adults. They’re too old to legally be runaways. But they are all running from something: a dysfunctional family situation, the pressures of undiagnosed mental illness, a failed romance, learning differences that make them feel like failures at college. They live on the outskirts of town in a tent city, they scrape together a few cents a day, and they spend summer evenings on Pearl Street.

On this particular evening, I sat at a sidewalk café on Pearl Street. At the table to my left sat a group of youngish adults celebrating a fortieth birthday.  At the table to my right sat two older parents in their fifties with their two teenage children.

Some kind of commotion started, and soon most of the patrons were crowded up at edge of the café’s patio, watching. And they were commenting: “A fight!” “That’s the third time today he’s done this!” “He can’t get away with it!”

The older father said, “Someone has to take responsibility and call the police!” His wife got on her cell phone.

Within minutes, the police arrived: two officers on bicycles. They dismounted, and within seconds they assessed the situation. They wrestled the fighter to the ground and handcuffed him.  Then they helped him up to a comfortable sitting position. They brought over his backpack from half a block away. The fighter sat quietly and smiled awkwardly.

The café manager came out to yell at the fighter. The fighter spit at the manager, and the manager ridiculed him.

The group celebrating the birthday laughed, and took photos of the handcuffed fighter.  They high-fived each other and said, “Best birthday ever!” They even asked the police officers to pose for a picture. But the officers just looked at them with disgust and pity.

The mother who had called the police said to her teens, “Pray for the world.” She told her husband she wished she hadn’t followed his advice to call the police. He stomped off angrily to the washroom.

I moved to the mother’s table and said, “You did the right thing in calling the police. The people who laughed were wrong.”

But I didn’t say anything directly to the people who were laughing.

Even though it hurt me terribly to see people entertained by someone else’s misfortune.

I thought of people jeering at Jews simply for being Jews, and I saw myself in the position of the young handcuffed fighter.

And then I thought of all of the rude jokes I myself made in the last year about Bernie Madoff’s shame, and I saw myself in the position of the laughing birthday partiers.

I have been born into a society where people enjoy one another’s shame, where people strengthen their own identity by humiliating others, where there isn’t enough money for social services, where confusion begets violence and more violence.

Worse, I’m at the giving end and the receiving end of these crimes.

So, on Yom Kippur, when I say the al cheyt prayer, for the sin we have committed before you, I don’t even know if I’m confessing or accusing. Honestly, for most of the sins on the list I think, “Well, I guess maybe I committed this one in a small or metaphorical way, but I know some other people who committed it in a big way! Maybe I should feel responsible because I didn’t try to stop them, but mostly I just feel frustrated!”

For each line I read, I run through three possible interpretations of the al cheyt. I’m searching my heart to see if I committed these sins. I’m taking responsibility for the failings of the community. I’m crying out to God about the state of the world.

And none of these interpretations really expresses the original intent of the prayer.

Our sages understood Rosh Hashanah as the Day of Judgment, the day on which we need to take stock of ourselves and begin to repair our mistakes of the past year.

They understood Yom Kippur as the next step in the process. On Yom Kippur God forgives us, so that we know, in our heart of hearts, that we really can enter the New Year free of the baggage of guilt. Because guilt, the feeling, has an insidious way of reminding us of who we used to be, rather than who we have the potential to become. In Hassidic thought, guilt feelings become part of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, the voice that says: “you might as well mess up again, because you’re not good enough to be able to improve.”

So our sages created a very simple, low-budget ritual of release from this voice. Each of us articulates, in words, what we need to let go of in order to enter the New Year with a clear conscience. That’s the confessional, the vidui.

Then, as now, skilled wordsmiths leapt forward with beautiful confessional poems. And avid readers resonated, saying, “Yes! What she said! That’s what I want to say, too.” Some of us still write new poems, and many of us resonate with them.

But most of us don’t know where to begin. We feel like the boy in the Hassidic story who wants to talk to God, but doesn’t know any prayers. So he recites the aleph-bet. And he says, “God knows the prayers, and God will string the letters together.”

The al cheyt prayer is the prayer of this little child who lives inside us.

The child who prays, aleph to tav, A to Z:

A, I’ve been arrogant

B, I botched things

C, I was careless

and so on…

W, I was weird

X, I was ex-citable

Y, I was yucky, and

Z, the world was zoomin’ too fast.

When you say it out loud, it sounds silly, like when we’re having fun at Tashlich, entertaining each other by shouting out names of sins as we toss them away with theatrical gestures.

It sounds silly, because it doesn’t touch the moral complexity of real life – even the complexity of one summer evening on Pearl Street.

All at the same time:

I can be like the manager, quite angry.

And I can be like the fighter, overtaken in my body by an uncontrollable urge to attack.

And like the birthday partiers, an amused spectator of my own inner fighter and manager.

And like the police, setting boundaries with compassion.

And like the mother, so morally sensitive, I see all sides and can’t choose the right action.

This is the inner confusion we’re dealing with when we try to change. No wonder the yetzer hara says, “you can’t do it!”

Some Yom Kippur prayers express this inner confusion.

Like the prayer that says el mi, migo’alei dam, etzak: Whom can I accuse, of whom revenge demand, when I have borne deep suffering at my own hand?

Or the prayer that says Atah yode’a sitrei olam: God, you know our hidden secrets better than we do.

These two prayers cry out with the perspective of depth psychology: We’re conscious and unconscious about ourselves. Even our simplest actions are complicated by archetypes, symbols, complexes, memories of our infancy, fragments of what the human race used to be, and God knows what.

But the alphabetical al cheyt prayer suggests a cognitive-behavioral perspective: A systematic, goal-oriented procedure for changing behavior works!

Of course, we need both of these approaches.

We need the al cheyt to help us name the deeds that trip us up. So we can begin to notice what we do, as we are doing it, not just afterwards when we’re cleaning up a mess. So that we can intervene at the right moment with new habits of behavior.

And we need the prayers of confusion to help us recognize that our mistakes may be tied up with emotional memories and patterns that are hidden from our consciousness. This may help us resolve to begin, perhaps with help, a slow process of untangling.

Both kinds of prayers, the simple alphabetical list and the deep cry of despair, work together. They work on our behaviors and in the depths of our psyches. Not to make us feel guilty, but to free us.

And as these Yom Kippur prayers work on us, and we work with them, we become more and more able to appreciate the uplifting words of the Shabbat morning prayers:

You create the world anew every day.

Shine a new light on us.

You love us with a great love.

We thank you for the freedoms we have.

Gimru chatimah tovah – may you be inscribed in the books of renewal, light, love, freedom, and life.

— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2010


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *