In Judaism, confession (Hebrew וידוי, Viddui) is a step in the process of atonement during which a Jew admits to committing a sin before God. In sins between a Jew and God, our confession occurs without others present (The Talmud teaches that confession in front of another is a show of disrespect). However, confession pertaining to sins done TO ANOTHER JEW is permitted publicly, and we make this confession on the morning of Yom Kippur (in fact, we make this confession several times on Yom Kippur – and when we do so mindfully, it’s a profound experience. Stay with me, here!)
The confession of a sin marks a point in time after which our demonstration of the recognition and avoidance of similar FUTURE transgressions show whether we have truly recovered from the sin and therefore whether we deserve forgiveness for it. Forgiveness does not come with the immediate acknowledgement of the sin.
We say the Vidui in plural, confessing transgressions that we clearly know we have not committed (see below!), a firm reminder that our moral responsibilities go beyond our personal realms. Judaism teaches that if we see a friend acting wrongly we are commanded by the Torah to privately and politely rebuke him or her, and when we don't, it is considered as if we share their wrongdoings.
The Yom Kippur confessional consists of two parts: a short confession beginning with the word Ashamnu (אשמנו, "we have sinned"), which is a series of words describing sin arranged according to the aleph-bet, and a long confession, beginning with the words Al Cheyt (על חטא, "for the sin"), which is a set of 22 double acrostics, also arranged according to the aleph-bet, enumerating a range of sins. The humbling thing about this is that even if we can absolve ourselves of some of these wrongdoings, we have ALL fallen in SOMETHING on this list. Darn it. Just when I thought I was being a better Jew… Yom Kippur reminds me (as if I needed it) that there is always room for improvement!)…
Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibbarnu dofi;
He-evinu, vhirshanu, zadnu, hamasnu, tafalnu sheker;
Ya-atznu ra; kizzavnu, latznu, maradnu, ni-atznu;
Sararnu, avinu, pashanu, tzarnu, kishinu oref ;
Rashanu, shihatnu, ti-avnu, ta-inu, titanu.
We abuse, we betray, we are cruel, we destroy, we embitter, we falsify, we gossip, we hate, we insult, we jeer, we kill, we like, we mock, we neglect, we oppress, we perfert ,we quarrel, we rebel, we steal, we transgress, we are unkind, we are violent, we are wicked, we are extremists, we yearn to do evil, we are zealous for bad causes.
And we say,
We have done wrong and transgressed, and so we have not triumphed. Inspire our hearts to abandon the path of evil, and hasten our redemption. And so Your prophet Isaiah declared: “Let the wicked forsake their path, and the sinful their design. Let them return to Adonai, who will show them compassion. Let them return to our God, who will surely forgive them.”
The High Holidays are about return in both literal and figurative ways – children return home from university to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with their families; often, adult children return to their parents with their own children in tow to mark this beginning of our new year. The biggest return, though, happens with Yom Kippur, when we are enjoyed to return to God.
Beginning with the Kol Nidre service on the evening before (this year, that will be this Friday, October 3rd), we work to prepare ourselves for a spiritual and often emotional marathon. If you’ve never attended a Kol Nidre service, I recommend it – it’s beautiful, moving, powerful, and profound. When sun sets on Kol Nidre, we begin a fast from all food and liquid until after the sun sets – and the shofar sounds for the last time – on Yom Kippur. We abstain from all food and liquid so that we can concentrate only on what is important: relationship. Relationship with one another, and relationship with God.
This is the time of year at which Jews – even those who might not be so observant during the rest of the year – are conscious of making amends with those they feel they’ve wronged. We are mindful of t’shuvah, or in English, return. This is a time of reconciliation, return, making things right if we can, because this is the time in which we are written in the Book of Life. Be Rosh Hashanah, yika tevu, u’v’Yom Kippur yika tehmu: On Rosh Hashanah, it is written; on Yom Kippur, it is sealed. May you be inscribed into the Book of Life this year. May your new year be a time of remembering the importance of the prayers we say on Yom Kippur, and may you have the kavanah – the mindful intention – of being the person you were created to be.