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August 31, 2015 / 16 Elul, 5775
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Yom Kippur Thoughts


Hear our voice, Lord our God,
Have pity and compassion on us,
And with compassion and favor accept our prayer.

* * * * *

At the core of the day’s prayers is vidui, confession. Through all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, we enumerate, admit and apologize for our sins. But it is at this point that we encounter one of Judaism’s most striking phenomena. Instinct would suggest that confession and repentance are best done alone. It is painful to undergo self-criticism in the privacy of our souls, doubly so in the company of others. But on Yom Kippur we confess together, publicly and aloud. We say not “I have sinned” but “We have sinned.”

The practice clearly recalls the time when the high priest atoned collectively for all Israel. But the problem is obvious – then and now. If I have sinned, only I can make it right. If I have wronged, lied, cheated or humiliated, it does not help if you make amends and apologize. The wrongs we do, we do alone. You cannot atone for my sins and I cannot atone for yours. How then could the high priest atone for the sins of all Israel, sins he did not commit? How can we in our prayers turn the singular into the plural and atone not as individuals but as a community?

Judaism has a strong sense of individual dignity and responsibility. But it has an equally strong sense of collective responsibility. “All of Israel,” says the Talmud, “are sureties for one another.” The great sage Hillel used to say, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” The “lonely man of faith” is a figure almost unknown to Judaism. Ours is not a religion of hermits or monks or ascetics, living apart from society and communing solely with God. The heroes and heroines of the Hebrew Bible are fathers and mothers, people set in the context of their families and societies. In the second chapter of Genesis the Bible states its view of the human condition: “It is not good for man to be alone.”

So the faith of Israel is constructed in the first person plural. Indeed the very basis of the covenant – of Judaism as a religion of divine law – rests on this assumption. Every commandment in Judaism, every “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not,” is a way of putting the “we” before the “I.” When we rest on the Sabbath, for example, we do not engage in private relaxation. If we did, we would spend the seventh day playing golf or listening to records or whatever else we choose to do. The Sabbath is instead a day of public rest. It is a day of “we,” not “I.” Judaism is a faith less of individual salvation than of collective redemption.

Correspondingly, every transgression in Judaism is a way of putting the “I” before the “we.” Whenever we put personal advantage over collective interest, or private inclination before the laws of the community, sooner or later we sin. That is why the severest punishment in Judaism is karet, literally being “cut off” from the community. Atonement consists in reconnecting ourselves with the community, and that is why Yom Kippur is of its essence a shared, collective day.

When the Temple stood, the Jewish people were embodied in its supreme religious representative, the high priest. When he atoned, all Israel shared in his act. Now that we have no high priest, we share in one another’s atonement, each gaining moral strength from one another.

There is a moving prayer that we say at the climax of Yom Kippur, in the concluding service called Neilah. It speaks of the fragility of human achievement, the smallness of humanity in the face of the Infinite:

What are we?
What is our life?
What is our piety, our righteousness, our helpfulness?…
What shall we say before You,
O Lord our God and God of our fathers?
Are not all the mighty ones as nothing before You,
The men of renown as if they had never existed,
The wise as if devoid of knowledge,
The intelligent as if without discernment?

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


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