Jewish Calendar - TISHREI - Yom Kippur

There is no machinery in Judaism for confession to a human being or for release from sin through an agency on earth. Confession in Judaism is a whisper of the entire congregation at once. It is confession in formal unison, not an outpouring of one's own misdeeds. An alphabetical table of offenses, two for each letter, with a summary by categories of all religious failures, is a central prayer of the Atonement liturgy, recurring many times. This is all the confessing anybody does. The confession table seems almost to be a mask to keep a man's wrongdoings a final secret between himself and his Maker.

That the confession is drawn up as a prayer en masse is unmistakable. The wording throughout is plural: we... us...our... Such usage in a piece of liturgy at the heart of a holy day cannot be an accident of rhetoric. It means something. A man can acknowledge his own past sins in his heart when he speaks the words that do describe things he has done; but he utters no testimony against himself to any ear on earth. The whole autonomy rests with the individual conscience.

"We have offended, we have strayed, we have robbed...."
Read the full text of this confession, in acrostic format.
in Hebrew and English

But in a sweeping paradox, this same confession that seals the individual in his privacy with God draws him into an ancient communal bond. All the prophecy of Israel turns on one simple but extremely difficult idea: namely, that all Israel, living and dead, from Sinai to the present hour, stands in its relation to God as a single immortal individual. The mass confession stamps that idea at the heart of Yom Kippur....

The Torah laws establish "corporate" Israel across space and time. In this they resemble other national legislation, uniting many people under a legal system. But the national idea undergoes a startling extension at the outset, at Sinai. Parallels break down.

The reader remembers the story. Moses ascends and descends the mountain several times, acting as an intermediary between the Lord and the elders of the people, renewing God's old covenant (or testament) with Abraham... The elders, speaking for themselves and their posterity >— as founding fathers do — solemnly declare themselves ready to undertake observance of the Torah. The compact thus sealed, God reveals the Ten Commandments and proceeds to unfold the rest of the Law....

"For the sin we have committed before you...."

We Americans pay debts that dead congressmen contracted. We honor treaties that dead presidents signed, sometimes at the cost of our lives. We submit ourselves to a Constitution written by long-dead hands. It is the way of the world. But it is startling, for one not used to the color of Hebrew thought, to accept morality and worship of God as commitments of the same force.

What happened at Sinai was in its nature indescribable. Something happened there that the world has been unable either to fathom or to forget. The covenant that was proclaimed with blasts of the shofar still exists. The immortal individual who entered the covenant still lives. On days of annual judgment and atonement, this individual strikes the balance of his performance under the covenant and confesses his failures to blasts of the shofar. And so the compact between God and Israel carries forward into a new year, as it has already done several thousand times.

excerpted From: Herman Wouk, This is my God, Doubleday & Co. (Garden City, NY, 1959)



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