The communal confession of sin, known in Hebrew as the vidui, is at the heart of the Yom Kippur liturgy. Ashamnu takes us through a litany of sins via an acrostic poem that follows the Hebrew alphabet (thus giving us, in the English equivalent, awkward terms like Xenophobia). Then, for the longer Al Chayt prayer, we confess transgressions linked to parts of our bodies: speaking maliciously, being stiff-necked, running (literally “lifting our feet”) to do evil.
As we declare these faults and failings, it is customary to tap our chests with our fists. The most common explanation for this custom is to view it as a sign of self-affliction. On Yom Kippur, Torah teaches, “ V’eeneetem et nafshotaychem—You shall afflict your souls.” Thus, as we recite our sins, we beat our breasts as a kind of self-imposed punishment for our misdeeds.
But I have never much liked this interpretation, because beating ourselves up over our past sins does not seem like a good way to stop committing them in the future. I have always thought of Yom Kippur as a time for acknowledging mistakes, changing course, and making amends in a more constructive manner.
I prefer Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s neo-hasidic understanding of this tradition. Rabbi Kushner describes the process of confession and teshuvah as “sweetening the evil in ourselves.” He writes, “We go down into ourselves with a flashlight looking for the evil we have intended or done—not to excise it as some alien growth but rather to discover the holy spark within it. We begin not by rejecting the evil but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do. If we can recognize the holy sparks within our sins, and we can have a clear vision of the world and of those around us, we can raise these sparks and redeem them.” Rabbi Kushner therefore sees the act of tapping our chests as a kind of hug. We are not beating our breasts at all; we are, instead, embracing ourselves, reclaiming the same energy that drives our transgressions as a force for the good. With our confession of sins, we re-focus the intention behind them towards the sacred task of repairing ourselves and our world.
As the Days of Awe approach, think of just one behavior of the past year that you would like to change. Then consider: what is the holy spark that underlies this failure? Think about ways to put the same energy that lead you into transgression toward a good and sacred purpose.
And for a nice musical rendition of Ashamnu, with words and transliteration included, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TOC0kuZ6D8