Crafting a Moral Compass

| Yom Kippur By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 6, 2003 / 5764 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

If the liturgy of Yom Kippur is a symphony in five movements, then the leitmotif that unites them is the public confession. From Minhah prior to Kol Nedrei till the Ne’ilah service at the end of Yom Kippur, every Amidah (silent devotion) has at least one confessional prayer. Indeed, five of the six (excluding Ne’ilah) have two: the short version beginning with Ashamnu (we have acted with malice), which lists twenty-four generic types of reprehensible behavior and the long version of Al Het Shehatanu (for the sin that we have committed.), which doubles the number to forty-four generic types. Yom Kippur is utterly distinctive in the annual cycle of Jewish holy days for many reasons; not the least of which is that it is the only time that Jews confess publicly. Far more private is the traditional deathbed prayer of confession whose poignancy is underlined by the fact that it is cast in the first person singular, rather than in the plural like Yom Kippur.

The association of confessing our transgressions with Yom Kippur has deep biblical roots. In the purgation of the Tabernacle and its Holy of Holies of all impurities on Yom Kippur (the Torah reading for the morning of Yom Kippur), Aaron, the high priest, would “confess.all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins” (Leviticus 16:16), as he transferred them to the scapegoat for removal to the wilderness. The medieval Italian poet whose poetic rendition of the Yom Kippur Temple ritual (Amitz Koah) we recite in the Musaf service has the high priest intoning three separate public confessions, first for himself and his household, then for the priests of the Temple and, finally, for the entire nation of Israel.

With the destruction of the Second Temple, its awesome Yom Kippur ritual became a liturgical memory preserved by the synagogue. The theme of owning up to our misdeeds remained central to the tenor of the day as shaped by the synagogue, but it now fell upon Jews to confess their sins themselves. The synagogue eliminated the priestly intermediary. Individual responsibility replaced vicarious atonement. The silence of heartfelt intention supplanted the drama of external ritual.

As we recite the litany of our iniquities, we gently beat our breasts. The heart within has led us astray. The choices we made were our own. The gesture affirms the reality of free will. To confess is to acknowledge that we can lay the blame for our frailties on no one but ourselves. We possess the power to do better in the year to come.

While contrition and confession are the order of the day, it is worth remembering that this exercise in spiritual cleansing is restricted to Yom Kippur. The breast-beating on Yom Kippur is the capstone of a penitential period that began forty days earlier with the first of Elul. But, at no other time of the year do we return to the confessional mode. Its intensity on Yom Kippur reflects its confinement to a single corner of the calendar. Neither our daily nor weekly nor festival liturgies require of us to confess our sins. Our desire to feel God’s presence does not open the floodgate to self-indictment. In its quest for balance, Judaism admits daily the depth of human depravity

(“Humans have no edge over animals, for all is vanity”), without stripping us of the dignity that comes with being God’s partners in sustaining creation.

What is striking about the confessions of Yom Kippur is that they are all formulated in the plural. By reciting them in unison as a faith community, we are spared individual humiliation. Yet for each of us, the words are highly personalized. In our private space, we confess to God alone. And what of the sins we did not commit? We assume a share of the guilt, “for all Jews are responsible for each other.” As bystanders we are accomplices; our apathy and silence facilitated the malevolence of others. In a world awash with human evil, some are guilty, but all are implicated.

The sins for which we atone attest to the gravity of the moment. It is true that they are ordered alphabetically to make them easier to remember. But the artifice bears greater significance. According to one medieval source, the prominence of the alphabet symbolized that in our culpability we destroy the world created by God through the letters of the Torah (Agnon, Yamim Noraim, 303). Ultimately, the matter of the universe is spiritual. Language, the very instrument used by God to create grandeur out of chaos, can be misused by us to revert the world back to chaos.

In this vein, the sins listed are those which we have committed against fellow humans. Conspicuously missing are ritual infractions, such as failing to pray daily or to rest on Shabbat or to keep kosher. The latter are more readily forgiven on Yom Kippur. The estrangement they effect from God can be restored by us in private with the help of Yom Kippur. Not so with the violent acts or dispositions, running the gamut from alef to tav (from A to Z), that have brought harm, often grievously, to our neighbors and the world. Here, the efficacy of Yom Kippur is limited. Without seeking forgiveness from those we have hurt and without public confession, Yom Kippur offers us little relief or comfort. The ritual of fasting and praying on its own is not sufficient to remove the stain.

Hence, the deeds and dispositions for which we atone are those that are antithetical to tikkun olam, to repairing the world. The liturgy of Yom Kippur leaves little doubt that in Judaism, the moral takes precedence over the ritual. Meticulous performance of ritual can never offset the malaise born of moral deficiency. Yet, our moral compass is an acquired virtue that benefits enormously from a ritual matrix. The habits of the heart are not the product of abstract instruction, but of sensitive and value-laden patterning. On Yom Kippur, as throughout the year, ritual and morality combine to enhance the sum total of human decency in the world.

May you have an easy fast, gemar tov,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Yom Kippur are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.