The Yom Kippur vidui—a collective, liturgical confession of our failings—has an important role to play in this sacred season. As Rabbi David Jaffe notes, its two communal admissions of general wrongdoing from aleph to tav communicate that we are not alone in our foibles and mistakes; we are part of a community of imperfect people trying to do better.
Yet the fixed, plural language can be problematic, too. Confessing together following the words in the prayer book can all too easily turn into a rote, ritualistic exercise with little relation to our individual realities.
For this reason, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov urged his followers to compose and voice a personal, verbal confession of their own failings before every Rosh Hashanah. I invite you to engage in this practice this week, before returning to CABI for Yom Kippur on Friday night and Saturday.
Here is some guidance from Rabbi Jaffe:
Take a good look at your life in the past year, and acknowledge one or two things that went very well, and one or two things you need to change. . . . Then identify one or two soul traits that go along with each item. For example, if you acknowledge that you speak disrespectfully to your adolescent children and your goal is to speak with them like you would speak with an adult, the soul trait might be savlanut/patience or kavod/respect. Then think of one concrete action you could take on a regular basis to strengthen your patience or respect. Continue this with all the items you acknowledged. You now have a personal spiritual action plan for the year!
I write all this down on an index card and bring it with me to Yom Kippur prayers. After reciting the set vidui in the prayer book, I take out my index card and say my own personal vidui. I pray to God for forgiveness for where I missed the mark and for help in growing the soul qualities I need in order to make my vision a reality in the next year.
I encourage you to try this for Yom Kippur. Bring your index card, tuck it into your prayer book, and contemplate it during the communal confessions—and any other times when your mind wanders during the long day. It will help make the holiday a richer opportunity for personal transformation.
And one more suggestion for Yom Kippur: Wear white.
What underlies this ancient custom? Rabbi Rachel Barenblat offers two possibilities:
Some say that we wear white on Yom Kippur to be like the angels. We yearn to ascend, to be lighter, more clear and transparent. Another interpretation is that we wear white on Yom Kippur as an approximation of the white garments in which we will be buried. Wearing white is a reminder of our mortality. As we face death, we become more honest with ourselves, with others, and with God. On Yom Kippur, wearing the garments we will wear when we die is a stark reminder that we stand every day on the edge of life and death.
I’ll add one more possibility. White light is, in fact, composed of all the colors of the rainbow. In that sense, white is not so much the absence of color as its full complement. On Yom Kippur, we embrace all of humankind, and acknowledge that each of us, in Whitman’s memorable phrase, contains multitudes. This is a time to celebrate human diversity at large and the diverse and often contradictory nature of each of our own, unique internal lives.
May we all be sealed for blessing in this sacred season.