Last year I sat in my synagogue on Yom Kippur. All of us together, women, men and children, wore white clothes and were excited for the big day: the Day of Judgement had arrived. I knew that soon we would sing all the beautiful prayers and piyutim (liturgical poems) which we wait for all year long. We looked introspectively into our lives over the past year and hoped to get a verdict that would write us for life. In anticipation toward the Viduy (confession) prayer, which reviews all the sins that we have sinned over and over again, our deeds have come to us and we were prepared to shout the long list starting with the words “For the sin that we have committed against You …”
One of the members of my congregation came up to the front to say a few words after the Kol Nidrei service. She chose to speak about the concept of “Judgement”, about the trial we are going through on Judgement day. She referred to the need to look at our actions and see what must be corrected. Her message was that the Judgement should be softened. She had one message for us as a community and as individuals. She said – do not be tough with yourself. Do not overly judge yourself. She explained that we are so hard on ourselves, always; we expect to meet such difficult standards all the time. This year, on Yom Kippur, she said to all those sitting in the synagogue: make it easy for yourself, gives yourselves a break – accept yourself without too much Judgement.
I moved uneasily in my chair. This is not the message I was expecting to hear on Yom Kippur. On the contrary. I do not need encouragement to cut corners, to behave less than 100% with God and humans, not as a private person and not as a community. This message is particularly true given that this essay is read by people on the other side of the globe. We do not know each other personally and therefore our confessions are public statements. This is not a time for personal confessions. We will take care of our most private confessions in our personal prayers. In the Viduy of Yom Kippur that we recite five times we will ask ourselves how WE were and how we would like to be as human beings.
Yom Kippur invites us to move between our need to improve our ways as individuals and as a community. This journey is in the heart of the Yom Kippur liturgy. Kol Nidrei begins with undoing the vows of the individual, and concludes with reference to the vows of the whole community. In the verse immediately after Kol Nidrei “And we shall be forgiven” This statement pertains to the whole congregation of Am Israel, including the stranger who lives among them.”
So let’s do our search and confession together as a public. Let’s not make it easy for ourselves. Let us ask ourselves as a community: did we act to fix what is wrong?
Perhaps Yom Kippur is perceived in our consciousness a day of private reckoning, despite the collective manifestation of the day. On the other end of the calendar, there is Tisha B’Av as a day of national accountability. If so, in the space between them, I feel that the great sin that threatens us as a public is the sin of apathy. The sin of apathy is the one we must not fall into. It is apathy that allows hunger to grow, the gaps to deepen, the fabric to disintegrate.
You do not have to be crazy warriors of justice. You do not have to leave your workplaces or your family. Nor should we leave repairing the world (Tikkun Olam) to our youth. Each and every one will find the issue that bothers them the most. There are plenty. On top of all our privileges, there is one privilege we must not adopt – we must not be indifferent. We must take responsibility. Pick one thing, pick three, four things, pick two. Make a Jewish New Year’s resolution that will not let you slip into indifference. Fight against the occupation, for gender equality, against sexual abuse, for workers’ rights, against racism, for pluralistic Judaism – you name it.
For the sin that we have sinned against You with indifference … No more. Let’s stand together as a community next year and say: Avinu Malkeinu, Our father, our king, bless us ki yesh banu ma’asim, there are deeds within us.
A version of this article originally appeared in Plus61J, an Australian-Jewish publication.