By Rabbi Kliel Rose
Shalom Uvracha! As you know the High Holiday period is filled with beautiful and stirring Piyyutim or liturgical poems. Many of these are expressed in the singular or first person. However, some of these pieces also acknowledge our collective responsibility for the moral targets that get missed in life and therefore we recite these prayers in the plural. We admit the personal as well as collective ownership for many of the misdeeds which have been committed.
One such prayer is the Ashamnu. In it we express our communal guilt and consider how we might prevent spiritual desolation, and the possibility of distancing ourselves from who we ultimately would like to be. The Ashamnu is part of a unit known as the Viduii or confessional prayer.
Confessing has long been part of Judaism. The Viduii is not stated as a denotation of our errors, but rather as a Chet. This is a term which is commonly used in the sport of archery –“a missed mark.” Ours is a tradition which recognizes that each of us is on a path; it is the hope that along this road we will make small steps toward improvement not only for ourselves as individuals but for that which affects others as well.
Each one of us has the capacity to change. And on these sacred days of the Yamim Noraim/Days of Awe there is a sense of urgency. Of course this is something we internalize and construct in our minds as I would like to think that change is not limited to this time of year alone, but rather, that this particular period serves as a paradigm reminding us that we are continually working at this process throughout the entire year.
Returning to the Ashamnu prayer, why is it said in the plural? Why should we who have not committed these errors be made to take responsibility for that which we clearly had not been involved with? Perhaps this statement by Rabbi/Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel will provide a perspective which is a strongly held value within Judaism, “In a democratic society, not all are guilty, but indeed all are responsible.”
Rabbi Goldie Milgrom offers this idea to further elaborate Rabbi Heschel’s statement:
“Everywhere a Jew is praying, we are re-remembering together the human obligation to be custodians of the earth, of ethics and of peace. Yes, we are culpable if we stand by idly and don’t intervene when we see someone fall off their mark. And, you don’t have to do it all on your own, we have each other on the team. Judaism views humans as team members in the great research and development project known as creation.”
The refrain in the Ashmanu reads, v’al kulam, Elohai s’li-hot, slah lah-nu, m’hal lah-nu, kah-pehr lah-nu — For all of these, G*d of forgiveness, excuse us, pardon us, atone towards us.It would be wholly unfair of us to think that we can be accountable for all the mishaps committed by others in our community. At the same time it is a grave misunderstanding of our collective responsibility if as individuals we absolve ourselves from attempting to change this reality in some significant manner.
The goal of teshuvah (often translated as “atonement” or as some prefer “realignment”) is to create a healthy shift in the negative energy between you and an experience, a person or the Source of Life. Any hurt you have distributed in the direction of another human being can only be forgiven through working it through with that person. The same is true on the communal level, in a way even if the majority of us have had no involvement in the transgressions of another human being, we must be accountable for the errors they have committed because as a community we missed the mark—we did not help or guide that individual from taking a path of error.
Of course none of us ever forced these individuals to violate our societal norms but did we do enough to support them or offer guidance before they perpetrated these wrongdoings? Part of our collective teshuvah must involve making sure to the best of our abilities in the coming year we reach out to all those we are at least aware of who are in a state of fragility before it is too late and they react from a place of weakness devoid of seeing their reality with any optimism and with logical and healthy reasoning.
In this New Year of 5776 may we all be blessed by the companionship of our fellow community members and may we together reach the highest levels of insight and spiritual fulfillment.
Dorit and the younger Kosmin-Roses (our children–Toviel, Kolya, Aziza, Yedidya (Dia) & Anaya) join me in blessing each of you with a New Year filled with love, good health, and prosperity.
Shanah Tovah U’M’tukah, a happy and sweet year to all.