A Jewish girl goes to synagogue with her father for the first time on Yom Kippur. She’s eight or nine years old, and takes it all in with great curiosity. Much of it moves her. She’s enthralled by the white vestments, the large, elegantly-dressed crowd, the haunting music. And mostly she loves being there with her father, sitting by his side, his soft tallit draped over her shoulder.
Then the congregation crises for vidui, the communal confession of their past year’s failings. They rap on their chests and chant the litany: Ashamnu. Bagadnu. Dibarnu dofi. . . . Al cheyt, al cheyt, al cheyt. . . We are arrogant, bigoted, cynical. We’re robbed, lied, cheated, and stolen. . . on and on and on.
The girl is shocked. With a deeply worried look, she turns to her father and cries, “Daddy, we’d better get out of here. Everyone around us has done a lot of really bad stuff!”
The father smiles and reassures her: “My love, they’re not all guilty of everything they’re admitting. This is just something we do together on Yom Kippur.”
“But why?” she persists, as only an eight year old can. “Why do we beat ourselves up over mean things we didn’t even do?”
It’s a good question, and not just for children. Conservative Rabbi Mark Greenspan composed a meditation on the subject that opens:
I have a problem with the Vidui,
the confessional prayer that we recite
several times during Yom Kippur.
It seems to me that for a confession to be honest
It has to be sincere, heartfelt, and personal.
I can’t sincerely confess someone else’s sins
Nor can I simply read a generic list of sins.
Yet this is what we seem to do in the Yom Kippur liturgy.
My transgressions may or may not appear on that list
And there is something disingenuous about confessing
Sins that I did not commit, just because
They are “on the list” and written in the plural. . .
Why do we read this list of confessions?
Why, indeed? Why do we still recite that litany of transgressions, from aleph to tav,
from “A” to “Z”, repeatedly over the course of this long and solemn day?
This morning I’d like to offer three answers, three approaches I have learned from diverse and unexpected sources: a non-Jewish journalist from Connecticut, a local Christian clergy colleague, and a deceased longtime CABI member who I find myself missing a great deal this season.
I’ll start with the Colin McEnroe, columnist for the Hartford Courant and host of a daily public radio show. I heard him on one of my favorite Jewish podcasts, “Unorthodox”, where he appeared as the tongue-in-cheek “Gentile of the Week.” After schmoozing about a variety of topics, the moderator, Mark Oppenheimer, asked Mr. McEnroe for his take on Donald Trump’s rise to political stardom. McEnroe replied:
His persona was sculpted in the world of reality television—and reality TV is completely based on the idea of getting rid of somebody. At the end, whether it’s “American Idol” or “Survivor” or “The Apprentice”—what happens at the end is you get rid of somebody. And that’s a kind of tempting view, because in life, you can almost never get rid of anybody, right? The people in your life—they’re not going anywhere. The folks in your workplace, the people you like the least—they’re just not going anywhere. They will be there tomorrow when you come to work. The folks who most get on your nerves—they’re here to stay. So that’s why these shows are incredibly popular, because there’s this incredible fantasy—you can actually get rid of someone who’s a pain in the butt. That’s the world that Trump comes out of, this fantasy world, in which he’s the guy who can make this happen
This illusion perpetuated by reality television is, of course, the antithesis of Jewish tradition. We are inextricably bound in covenantal community with friends and foes and everything in between. As Yom Kippur begins, before we chant Kol Nidre, we ask God for permission to pray with the Avaryanim—the sinners—which is to say, all of us. If you can’t tolerate being in the presence of those who irritate you, you won’t thrive in the Jewish world. As one of Boise’s former student rabbis, Mordecai Finley wrote in an insightful article:
One must start any conflict resolution with the commitment to the community, to emphasize the many benefits one receives and not focus on winning the conflict. Conflicts and tensions are inevitable and even productive aspects of communities. Conflicts mean that the participants are active, dedicated and have a stake; and the willingness to be reasonably unhappy means that one takes a more expansive view of these things.
If you’re Jewish—or really, as Colin McEnroe notes, if you’re human—you don’t always get your way, because in our communal lives, we’re not getting rid of anyone. When we confess publicly, we remind ourselves of our obligation to learn to live together.
My favorite teaching on this topic comes from Rabbi Harold Kushner’s marvelous book, When All You’ve Wanted Isn’t Enough. Kushner recounts how, just before Yom Kippur, he runs into an unaffiliated Jew who insists on sharing why he won’t be coming to services: “I tried to get involved in your synagogue but I found it to be full of hypocrites.”
To which Rabbi Kushner is tempted to respond: “True. But there’s always room for one more.”
Instead, he notes: “A synagogue that only admitted saints would be like a hospital that admitted only healthy people. It would be a lot easier to run, and a more pleasant place to be, but I’m not sure we’d be doing job we’re here to do.”
Jointly confessing our transgressions reminds us that there’s always room for one more—that, like it or not, we’re not getting rid of anyone, that we’re in it for the long haul, together.
It also encourages us to open our hearts to one another. My colleague, Rev. Andrew Kukla, senior pastor at Boise’s First Presbyterian Church, shared this in a post to my Facebook page. He wrote:
I think the current state of political and social discourse affirms why public and communal confession is so important. It’s owning that none of us has “arrived”; that we are all struggling to find the “better angels of our nature”. Such communal ownership has the power to make the discourse less about
finger-pointing at them and more about looking at ourselves.
A unified prayer of confession is our mutual task of accountability and responsibility, and yes—of mercy and forgiveness. Because somehow and some way, we have to make it okay for people to be less than perfect, so we can stop investing so much energy in armor.
How might we take the energy we waste on emotional armor, pitting ourselves against the world, and, instead, invest it in our common humanity? Rev. Kukla suggests we start by acknowledging our shared vulnerability. Communally confessing our shortcomings is a step in that direction—even if, at first, we’re merely following a formulaic script without much real feeling. As our Sages noted centuries ago, Lo lishma ba lishma—If we practice doing the right thing, even if our initial motivation is insincere, eventually we will do it with proper intention. Even a rote public confession can help us start to stretch our atrophied “forgiveness muscles.” The Yom Kippur vidui may, over time, inspire us to examine our own choices, take responsibility for our failings, and make amends to those we’ve hurt.
It can also nurture gratitude. I’ve already quoted Rabbi Mark Greenspan’s challenge to the notion of communal confession but he ultimately affirms the practice as a path to gratefulness. He reminds us:
We do not shrink from taking advantage of rewards for the efforts of others. The same person who sits in a building he did not build, cooled by air conditioning he neither created nor paid for, reading words he did not write, will protest indignantly at discomforts visited upon him by someone else's mistake. We see our blessings as birthrights and our troubles as undeserved.
Perhaps we confess in the plural to bring home to us that interconnectedness is true in all ways: in sin, in punishment--and in virtue and reward. We seek to be good not only for our own soul, but to help those around us. You may beat your own chest, but the vibrations echo through the breast of everyone whom you know, and many whom you will never meet. Swift and sure are the currents that tie us to one another.
Swift and sure are the currents that tie us to one another.
This affirmation of our interconnectedness is at the heart of my third and final argument in defense of our Yom Kippur vidui. It involves a scientific breakthrough I learned about in detail this past summer in the podcast Radiolab—but which I first encountered in its infancy through my dear friend Bob Parenti.
Many of you were lucky enough to know Bob, may his memory be for a blessing. He was a stalwart CABI member, a past president, and original chairperson of the rabbinic search committee that hired me. He was also an eminent botanist who did trailblazing work in the field of plant communication. To walk in the woods with Bob—to see the world through his eyes—was to enter into a beloved secret kingdom. He patiently taught me, in layman’s language, what he’d learned through rigorous scientific research: that plants communicate with one another. Bob showed me that what we see is, as it were, the tip of the iceberg—a tiny fraction of an intricate, interconnected ecosystem. When he began his academic career, this hypothesis was mostly met with scorn. Plants talking? Nonsense. But by the time he retired, the scientific community had begun to come around.
Bob would have reveled in the findings documented in the Radiolab episode. It features the work of Professors Suzanne Simard and Teresa Ryan at the University of British Columbia. They have mapped out the mechanics of what Bob intuited, a forest beneath the forest, in which plants converse in the language of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water. Simard and Ryan discovered the medium for this communication: a web of tiny white tubes, barely visible to the eye, called mycorrhizal networks—essentially, mini-mushrooms.
When they plug their roots into these networks, trees become capable of amazing range of behaviors that stun even the most cynical biologists. When life is good, and trees have extra sugar, they store it in these fungal cells. When times are hard, the mycelium release this sugar to the trees so they have food amidst the famine. If rising temperatures are stressing certain trees, they will send a warning signal through this web. Dying trees dump their carbon into fungi in order to redistribute it to their healthier neighbors. The nutrients don’t just get reapportioned, as one might expect, to the offspring of the dying tree, or even to other members of the same species. Instead, they go to the forest’s strongest young trees of all varieties, which have a better chance of surviving global warming.
Rabbi Adam Lavitt views this new botanical model through the lens of Jewish tradition. He writes:
Torah teaches: “The human being is a tree of the field.” As we learn more about them, the trees of the field invite us to cultivate aware participation in the web of interconnectedness in which we are naturally embedded. All of our actions have consequences. We, too, can plug into the micro-universe, the web of intricate connections, both out in the world and within our own lives.
And so we gather here, bound by the brit, by covenantal community, on this sacred Day of At-one-ment. We confess our failings together, because it is our holy obligation to learn to live with one another in all our imperfection, to stop investing so much energy in armor, to recognize that our interconnection echoes the sometimes hidden oneness underlying all of God’s creation.
We recite the vidui, the lengthy list of shortcomings, large and small, because our choice to acknowledge our mutual responsibility determines the difference between heaven and hell.
The story is told of an old woman who wished, more than anything, to see for herself the difference between heaven and hell. All her life she prayed for this, until God finally agreed and sent a messenger to grant her request. The angel put a blindfold around her eyes, and said, "First you shall see hell."
When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was standing at the entrance to a great dining hall. The room was full of round tables, each piled high with the most delicious foods — main dishes, vegetables, fruits, breads, and desserts of all kinds! The smells that reached her nose were wonderful.
The old woman noticed that, in hell, there were people seated around those round tables. She saw that their bodies were thin, and their gaunt faces creased with frustration. Each person had an enormous, three foot-long spoon strapped to his or her arm. As a result, the people in hell could reach the food on those platters, but they could not get it into their mouths. As the old woman watched, she heard their desperate, hungry moaning. "I've seen enough," she cried. "Please let me see heaven."
And so the angel reapplied the blindfold and declared, "Now you shall see heaven." When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was confused. For there she stood again, at the entrance to a great dining hall, with countless round tables piled high with the same lavish feast. And again, she saw that the people sitting just out of arm's reach of the food with those three-foot long spoons.
But as the old woman looked closer, she noticed that the people in heaven were beautifully healthy, with smiling, happy faces. As she watched, a joyous sound of laughter filled the air.
And soon the old woman was laughing too, for now she understood the difference between heaven and hell: the people in heaven were using those long spoons to feed one another.
The choice is ours. Confess together—live with one another, as the frail, flawed, and deeply vulnerable creatures that we are—or wither away, spiritually-dead, isolated and alone.
This morning God tells us: I set before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse.
Let us choose community, which despite—and even because of—our endless imperfections, is the only path toward life.