On Yom Kippur

On Yom Kippur

07 Oct 2016

Rabbi Howard Cooper

For the religious, the meaning (and weight) of Yom Kippur are clear. Our Rabbi-in-Residence offers a perspective on Yom Kippur that might prove meaningful - and useful - to all.

How do you feel about Yom Kippur?

Do you see it as an opportunity to do some personal work on yourself, to reflect on how over the last year you have fallen short of your ideals? To think about what changes you want to make in your life? Or do you approach it reluctantly, hesitantly, or resentfully – a day you have to survive, rather than a day you can use?

Do you welcome the synagogue services with their traditional images and melodies? Or do you find yourself lost in the midst of the words and the archaic language...

...the endless repetitions, the long lists of sins and the pious hopefulness of asking for forgiveness from a God you no longer believe in? Or do you just avoid the whole thing altogether? Yom Kippur then becomes a relic of the Jewish past, a day that other Jews connect to, but that leaves you feeling an outsider, or alienated, or just uninterested?

I have sympathy for all these positions.

There are parts of me that feel connected to a powerful mythic tradition of Jewish moral seriousness; parts of me that are sceptical about much of the traditional theology; and parts of me that stand outside it all and wonder what on earth we think we are doing.

Walt Whitman famously wrote:

‘I am large; I contain multitudes.’ (Song of Myself)

That’s me on the night of Kol Nidrei and the long day of Yom Kippur.

Some of these lists of sins - all of which are ethical lapses, not failures to keep ritual commandments like kashrut or Shabbat - are written in alphabetical order: Aleph to Taf, A-Z as it were. This was a common literary convention in the Middle Ages, when these lists were composed.

Those of us who have a link to traditional liturgy will be familiar with the long lists of sins that are recited aloud during the day. They are all phrased in the plural - ‘We have sinned...’ – because on this day we recognise that even if I as an individual haven’t committed that particular sin, we are part of a larger ‘community of Israel’ and we are responsible for each other. Also, as we confess together, we can hide our own personal failings in the collective self-examination. Paradoxically, this ‘we’ formula allows some private space within the community setting, it saves us from anyone pointing the finger at us, it saves us from humiliation, it allows us to reflect on our own lives in the safety of a group all of whom are recognising that failures to live out our better selves are a shared experience.

In recent years I have been involved in writing new liturgy for the British Reform Movement prayer books. I have been trying to find a language to talk about religious and spiritual themes that is respectful of past ways of thinking but also acknowledges that we live in a completely different world from that of the writers of our traditional liturgy.

Our world view is completely different – even if the human dilemmas we face bridge the centuries.

Our way of thinking about the human psyche is radically different (particularly after Freud), even though the struggle to be compassionate, generous and kind, the struggle to love and be loved, the struggle to face the pain of loss – these struggles are those of every generation.

When we come to confess our ‘sins’ – our failures to live more fully from the best parts of ourselves – I found that I wanted to compose liturgy that talks about these human struggles in a contemporary language. So what follows is an alternative Al Chet (‘For our sins’) prayer.

Whether you are a traditionalist, a sceptic or somewhere in between (or have both inside you), please feel free to use it on Yom Kippur, and share it with friends, family, or whoever you feel might appreciate it.

The work of teshuvah – of reflecting on the changes we want to make in our lives – is work for believers and nonbelievers alike. Because it is about action, rather than belief.

I wish you well over this special day in our Jewish calendar.

‘Al Chet’ - ‘For Our Sins’

For the sin of Abandoning our values and Aiming too low
And Assuming we can’t do more – ‘because we are, after all, only human’;
For the sin of Belittling the blessings we do bestow
And Believing the worst of ourselves - when we are, after all, only human;
For the sin of Creating dramas out of minor irritations
And our Destructive behaviour - towards ourselves, and our planet –
And then Denying the consequences...
V’al kulam, elohai selichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu

For the sin of Entering relationships that are doomed to fail
And Failing in relationships that are full of potential;
For the sin of Grasping in greed for what glitters, then fades
And the Hating of others for the things that they do,
and Hating yourself for what you don’t do,
and then for the things that you do...
V’al kulam, elohai selichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu

For the sin of Indulging ourselves when there’s work to be done
And Judging ourselves as lacking in judgement;
For the sin of Killing off hopes, and Kissing our dreams goodbye,
Of Loving ourselves too much, or Loving ourselves not enough...
V’al kulam, elohai selichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu

For the sin of Moonlighting as experts when we know nothing about it, and Mocking at others who’re ‘too clever by half’;
For the Nasty comments behind people’s backs
And Offering compliments we don’t really mean, that flatter and deceive but secretly scorn;
For the sin of Polluting the sea and Poisoning the air and Plundering the earth
And Quietly ignoring the death of our world, for we know it will happen ‘but what can we do?’;
V’al kulam, elohai selichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu

For the sin of Relying on others to save the day, and Rubbishing those who offer us hope;
For Surrendering to complacency and Suspecting the new, and Shying away from the needs of the soul;
For Searching for sex when it’s love that we want
And the sin of Trusting in tradition, but not in ourselves;
And for all that’s Ungracious, Unkind and Unjust in our hearts
V’al kulam, elohai selichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu

For the sin of Vanity about what matters least
And Waxing lyrical at the weight we have lost, or feeling our Woe at the weight we have gained
when half the world is hungry;
For the sin of Watching our backs and to hell with the rest, of Waiting for others to get it all wrong, or Willing them harm so it won’t happen to us
For our Xenophobia (what else?), that suspects the outsiders and wants them away;
And for dissatisfied Yearning that ignores what we have, and Yielding to despair when there’s grandeur at hand
And for the sin of our Zionism when it lacks justice or care, and when Zeal for the land makes us blind to the image of God in those others who also love that land - for then we stand condemned, for the rabbis say ‘all Jews are sureties for each other today’.
So the fate of us all is in balance this day, and our deaths are but a hair’s breadth away
V’al kulam, elohai selichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu
And for all these things, forgiving God, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.

Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a writer. He is the author of The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life and he blogs on Jewish issues and current affairs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.com

Image credit: Jake Melara

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