"Al Chet shechatanu lifanecha; for the sin which we have sinned before you . . ." Those familiar words begin the second section of the vidui, the confession, which if we include Mincha on erev Yom Kippur, we recite a total of 9 times during this day. Nine times! What does reciting this long litany of sins really mean to each of us? And especially what does it mean by the fourth, or fifth time, let alone the ninth time.
I have to confess that I don't think I do a very good job of confessing my sins. My preparation for Yom Kippur is more a scratching the surface than penetrating soul searching. What thoughts go through my head as I recite the list? What pain do I feel in my heart as I beat my chest? For all my years of attending Yom Kippur services, I don't recall ever hearing a drash on the vidui. So when I was asked to present the drash for today, I decided to tackle this subject, to see what I could learn that would enrich the spiritual experience of this the holiest day of the Jewish year. I pray that my search and my words will be meaningful to you. If I say something that seems trite or inaccurate or hurtful, please forgive me on this Day of Atonement. I only proceed as a fellow searcher.
As an aside, I want to announce that this afternoon, during the break between Musaf and Mincha, there will be a study session led by Stephen Tobias, about aspects of the vidui. Some of the topics that I will touch upon can be pursued in more depth at that time. I also want to thank Stephen for the time we spent studying together and his detailed, thoughtful critique of my draft.
The vidui consists of two parts, the "ashamnu" and the Al Chet. Both parts date back to at least the 5th century and are based on the verse in the Torah: 'They shall confess the sins that they have committed.' (Numbers 5:7) I'm going to focus on the second part, the 44 verses each starting with "Al Chet Shechatanu L'fanecha". This section was originally only 8 lines and eventually expanded into a full Hebrew double alphabetic acrostic of 44 lines.
In our Harlow Mahzor, the editors split the double acrostic. One half is in the silent Amidah and the other half in the repetition. And, if you want to read the full English translation of each half, you need to go back to the Kol Nidre service.
The apparent purpose of the alphabetical order is for us to acknowledge that we as a community have sinned from Aleph to Tav, or A to Z. In all aspects of life we have sinned. According to Talmud Yoma, only "sins between man and man" need to be detailed and therefore the Al Chet itemizes these sins and not sins that entail violation of Jewish ritual.
One difficulty I have in reciting the vidui is that even though the list is not abstract and the language is quite specific, I have trouble relating to some of the sins listed. What do I remember doing, or not doing, regarding a particular sin? And then there is the apparent redundancy. Didn't I just say that? Is there a real difference between ". . knowingly and deceitfully" and "openly and in secret"? Are there deep nuances between "speaking recklessly", "foolish talk", and "idle chatter"? Or were those just the words that the authors used to complete the alphabetic acrostic? Isn't personal confession frustrated when it is turned into a purely mechanical act of reciting a formula? Maybe the acrostic was useful as a mnemonic before prayer books were printed, but now it seems to be an obstacle.
As I wrestled with these issues, I realized that it's important to not think of the list as the end-all. Rather, it's a tool to stimulate our thinking about our actions, to broaden our thinking rather than to box it in. The list serves as a checklist for our cheshbon hanefesh, the process of searching our souls and reviewing our past actions, which we should have been doing since the beginning of Elul, and particularly during the Aseret Yimay Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance since Rosh Hashanah. It seems that it would be more effective to have the list as a handout on Rosh Hashanah, as an aid to prepare us for Yom Kippur. The ideal process is that through cheshbon hanefesh, we are led to searching of where we've gone astray. We are ashamed and truly repent and ask those we've wronged to forgive us. We resolve to not repeat our sinful behavior. Then on Yom Kippur we are prepared to confess those sins to God, and to ask for God's forgiveness.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (Between God and Man) that "the burden of sins is light to those who are oblivious. It was not light to him who said, 'Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord.'" By deep, fervent concentration on the vidui we express our remorse and ask forgiveness for acts that we knew were wrong, but which we committed anyway. It's the time to feel ashamed; to feel deeply sorry.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg sums up our shame by asking the 64 million-dollar question, "What shall we do about the persistent failure of all our attempts at self-improvement?"
Maybe we can begin by thinking more about our approach to the Al Chet. Here are some suggestions: Take time to reflect on particular lines. It's important that we try to be specific and confess once-in-a-while violations, not only whole behavior patterns. Confession is more than an intellectual activity. We must plead for God's forgiveness. Be present to God. Don't be concerned about the pace. If the congregation moves on and you find yourself reflecting on a particular "Al Chet", don't worry, stick with it. Prayer is between you and God. You don't have to keep up with the shaliach tzibur or the congregation. If your mind starts to dwell on a particular sin, fine - that may be more important than reciting all the others at that moment. You're confessing to God not just reading the words.
If that advice seems questionable, consider this anecdote relayed by none other than Rabbi Jack Reimer:
"A professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary, returned after officiating at Yamim Noraim services and confronted his teacher, Rabbi Simon Greenberg: 'Professor Greenberg, I simply can't take the Al Chet anymore! Forty-four sins, repeated nine times - it's just too much!' And Dr. Greenberg said to him, 'Of course it is. I haven't said them all for years.
The professor was taken aback. Could it be that his teacher, who was such a genuinely pious person, hadn't recited the Al Chet in years? 'What do you mean?' he asked.
'It's very simple', said Dr. Greenberg. 'What I do each time is I choose one of the sins on the list, one that applies to me. And I think about its implications and meditate on how and why I committed it, and by the time I am finished thinking about that one sin, the rest of the congregation has finished reciting the whole list.'"
Perhaps we should all learn to approach the Al Chet the way that Dr. Greenberg did.
To develop a better understanding of the list, I grouped the traditional 44 lines into categories. The category of "sins of speech" had the most lines - 15 or 1/3 of the total. These include among others, "utterance of lips, impure speech, offensive talk, empty confessions, unclean lips, scoffing, contentiousness, tale bearing, vain oaths, idle gossip, and slander.
I suppose it's not too surprising that "sins of speech" has the highest number of lines, especially when we think how easily our tongue slips into sinful behavior. Here again I thank Jack Reimer for noting
"most of us have hurt few people with our fists or our feet, but we have hurt many with our words. The tongue is a dangerous weapon. The sages say it is guarded by a fence of teeth and two lips, yet it gets out and does damage. How often have we cut down a person with a quip? How often have we carried tales and sullied a reputation? How often have we boasted or demeaned someone?"
It's understandable why the prayer "Elohai, nitzor l'shoni mayrah; O Lord, guard my tongue from evil" was inserted at the conclusion of the amidah for each daily and Shabbat service. As we recite the Al Chet during the upcoming Musaf service, let us keep these failings of our tongue in mind as we beat our breasts.
Paradoxically, speech has an important role in the recitation of the Al Chet. A key aspect of the confession that the sages emphasized is verbalization. They taught that it is only when we verbally confess our sins can we ask God for forgiveness. Maimonides asserted that verbal confession is what counts as the mitzvah, not repentance itself. Indeed, verbalization of one's shortcomings is like a slap to the face, like the sound of the shofar piercing our soul. It's shocking, it awakens us and connects our inner thoughts to our external world. That's why the rabbis taught that as you go through the "Al Chet" and suddenly a sin that you committed, different than the one which is mentioned, comes to your mind, it is necessary to verbalize that sin in a whisper loud enough so you can hear it. And what do we say? Rambam notes that it is acceptable to just say, "Oh, God, I have sinned before you, and I've done this and this and I am embarrassed by my actions, and I will not return to them again." The key is to audibly describe one's own sins. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin comments that, "A thought in one's mind is hardly a confession of one's lips."
The sin "empty confessions", "Al Chet shechatanu lifanecha bividui peh," directly addresses how we confess. The literal translation is "for the sin which we have sinned before you by confessing with our mouth." Can we sin even as we confess our sins? We sin when we confess with "just our mouth instead of meaning what we say", according to Jack Reimer. He notes that "we need to not only confess outwardly, but inwardly as well. If we go out of Yom Kippur services the way we came in, unchanged by the experience, our empty words are an act of self-deception and a sin."
Just as we confess aloud to physically demonstrate that we take responsibility for our sins, so we also beat our breasts, to acknowledge personal responsibility. We're saying, "You - you, the one I'm hitting are the cause of my sins. We don't want to emulate Adam by saying, "She made me do it". Shakespeare was certainly aware of this tendency as evidenced by Angelo, who in "Measure for Measure" (Act II, Scene ii), reflects upon his behavior by asking, "Is this her fault, or mine? The tempter or the tempted, who sins most? Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I." We too need to say, "I did it, I take responsibility and I'm truly sorry." That's why the first Al Chet is "for the sin that we have sinned "u'viratzon", by our own free will. If you can't admit this sin, the rabbis taught that you cannot go on to the rest of the list.
After the category of "speech", the next largest category is sins "of thought" with 7 lines including "impure thoughts, evil inclination, wanton looks, haughty eyes, envy, causeless hatred, and confusion of the mind." These two categories, speech and thoughts, account for one-half of all the sins tabulated.
But, why are sins of thought included in these sins 'between man and man'? Do we harm someone with our thoughts alone? Is a fleeting thought really a sin, or does it become a sin only if we dwell upon it and let it affect our behavior? Sins of thought are as serious as other sins, the rabbis taught, because they lead to sins of speech or action. According to Heschel, "Evil in the heart is the source of evil in deeds". This relationship between thoughts and action is well known and is the basis for the self-improvement techniques of visualization and self-affirmations. "Thought" sins are even considered worse than the act", according to authors of the Art Scroll Mahzor, "because fantasizing is the root of transgression and our imagination becomes preoccupied with sin." This subject is actually very complex and could lead to a whole separate drash. For now, I just want to plant that seed for future darshanim.
The traditional explanation for "chet" is "gone astray". Like shooting an arrow that misses its mark. As we quickly recite the list, it's sometimes difficult to see how we've gone astray. We read the words, but we can't relate them to our own actions. Maybe that's because we really haven't committed that sin. But there is another possibility. The ArtScroll authors emphasize that we fail to be sensitive about what we say and do. They comment, "People can misjudge situations due to lack of insight or information, but self-imposed ignorance is no excuse."
That brings us to the "Al Chet shechatanu lifanecha biyodim u'vilo yodim; for the sin which we have sinned before You knowingly and unknowingly. Jack Reimer comments that "perhaps the real sin is knowing and not really knowing, seeing and not really seeing. We see and don't realize what we see. We see a human being with a hand outstretched for help and we turn away, not realizing that that person is an Image of God. We see a sunrise or a sunset (or a beautiful flower) not seeing what a wonder it is." In other words, we frequently act unconsciously, negligently. We need to use the list to ask ourselves, "How do I match-up to the ideals and ethical expectations of our tradition?" When we thoughtfully reflect on those ideals, maybe then we will recognize where we've gone astray.
As I thought about how far mankind has gone astray, I was attracted to the fact that each line starts with "Al Chet shechatanu lifanecha . . ." For the sin we sinned BEFORE You. Why "before You"? Why not just "Al Chet shechatanu ", for the sin which we committed? I believe that the authors realized that we are not here on earth to just do our own thing, even though we certainly like to think and act that way. Every line is a reminder that this is NOT our world. Adonoy created this world, Adonoy created us, Adonoy gave us Torah. Sin is not just a relativistic concept. We violate the laws Adonoy has placed before us and we sin not in hiding or by clever deception; we sin right before God.
We spend this whole day praying to God, pleading with God, confessing to God. But in reality, what is our relationship with God? Do we truly feel that we the Jewish people have a living covenant with God? Have we accepted God's commandments? Have we accepted the commandment "you shall be holy, because I, Adonoy, your God am holy"? As we recite the Al Chet, let the "lifanecha" catch our attention and remind us to "Da lifney me atah omed", "Know before whom you stand".
As we reflect upon that covenant, consider the verse "Al Chet shechatanu lifanecha bifrikat ol; for the sin which we have committed before you by casting off the yoke of your commandments". The word "yoke" (Ol in Hebrew) is so descriptive and it ties us back to the agricultural origins of our people. The image of an ox in its yoke pulling a heavy burden is probably not one we find attractive or pertinent to us today. Certainly we like to think of ourselves with different imagery. Yet, the Torah teaches that we are to look upon ourselves as if we were at Sinai when God established a covenant with our ancestors who said "Naaseh v'nishmah. We will do and we will listen". We are partners in the covenant to pull the burden. We may feel free to cast off the yoke and go any which way, yet let us be aware that by doing so we are rejecting our heritage. We break the chain of thousands of years. To me, the imagery is powerful and meaningful, we are in a yoke, whether we like it or not.
As we recite the vidui we need to come to realize that the "collective we" haven't just missed the mark, but quite possibly we are missing the whole target. God has given us life and what have we done with it? Our lives are futile without realizing we are servants of God. All these years when I recite the vidui, I've had a very egocentric approach. I've focused on myself, what have I done wrong and what can I do to correct my ways? Have I really thought about what God expects of me and how vain my efforts are to meet those expectations?
Will Herberg in Judaism and Modern Man explains this very clearly by stating, (quote) "The essential law of our being is to live in true love of God as the source and center of life. But our actual existence, is it not permeated through and through with self-love, is it not lived out as if we ourselves and not God were the center of our universe? Is not our actual existence and existence without God, an alienation from God? Is it any wonder that thus isolated from what is real within and without, our existence loses its foundation?" (end quote)
Tears should be flowing from our eyes, and sobs of anguish pulsating through our body. How far we've gone astray. The mahzor says it clearly: "We are neither so arrogant nor so hardened as to say before You, Adonoy our God, 'we are righteous and have not sinned'; verily, we have sinned". "We have ignored Your commandments and statutes. What can we say to You; what can we tell You?"
The Opening Prayer for Kol Nidre in the Silverman Mahzor says it more powerfully than any words I could put together: (quote) "We aim toward lofty heights, but temptation overcomes us. Greed and vanity blind our eyes, envy and arrogance eat into the marrow of our bones, false ambitions bring us bitter remorse and selfishness dwarfs our souls. We are creatures of haphazard living. O Lord, speak to our hearts with the still small voice of Your spirit, so that we may search our ways and return unto You. Cause us to be forgiving even as we ask to be forgiven. Cause us to discover the faults of our ways and the errors into which we have fallen." (end quote)
And yet we need to remember that this is the Day of Atonement. If we truly confess and ask for forgiveness, God will forgive. Heschel asks, "Should we despair because we are unable to attain perfect purity?" He comments that (quote) "We are not obliged to be perfect once and for all, but only to rise again and again beyond the level of the self. Perfection is divine. All we can do is try to wring our hearts clean in contrition. To be contrite at our failures is holier than to be complacent in perfection." (end quote)
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook in his book The Lights of Penitence sums up the process of the day in this way, (quote) "A person who conjures up the memory of past sins, feels terribly depressed. The person is ashamed. A person's whole being is as though in a torture chamber. The soul cries out for total perfection, for an ideal form of existence, and the person feels the pain. (Then) when those feelings are the most intense, (suddenly) the feeling of penitence comes with all its might and streams into the soul and it purges (the soul). That is the feeling of teshuvah, the being reunited with God," (endquote)
In conclusion let me say that whatever path you travel today, I pray that it is a path that elevates your soul. May we all emerge with a sense of atonement - "at-one-ment" with Adonoy, a sense of being cleansed. May we feel God's love shining on us and may we all be blessed by being sealed in the Book-of-Life for a year of goodness, of good health, of peace, and of personal growth. A year when our maasim tovim, our deeds of righteousness out-weigh our sins, a year when "tzelem elohim", the image of Adonoy shines within us with a brilliant radiance illuminating our way and the world around us.
Kayn yehi Ratzon - May it be God's will
G'mar chatimah tovah