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