Accentuating the Positive
Yom Kippur Day
By Rabbi Pamela Frydman
(This talk is also linked to the website of Congregation P’nai Tikvah.)
As Jews, we like to think of ourselves as unique. No one else has suffered as much as we have suffered. No one else is expected to follow as many mitzvoth – commandments – as we are expected to follow. No one else has as many opinions as we do. And no one has as much capacity for subtlety and innuendo as we do. The Jewish ability to understand subtlety and innuendo is embodied in the followed joke:
Three men are sitting on a park bench. They are all good friends. They have just been to the synagogue to pray. They are on their way home and they have taken a shortcut through the park. It is a lovely day and they have decided to sit on a bench and schmooze for a while before continuing to their respective homes. The conversation starts slowly. One man says, “Nu?” And the second answers, “Nu? Nu?” Whereupon the third man says, “Look, if you don’t stop talking politics, I’m leaving.”
There is also something else that is unique about our religion. We are expected to apologize for everyone else’s mistakes in addition to apologizing for our own mistakes. When we miss the mark and cause harm, or hurt someone’s feelings, we are expected to apologize personally, and to make amends. And on Yom Kippur, we also expected to engage in group confessionals where we admit to crimes that we have never committed.
Yom Kippur is a day when we are asked to gently fold our hand into what we call a fist. But it is not meant to be a fist of harm. Rather, it is a fist of love to knock gently-gently-gently on the door of our own hearts to awaken our conscience. We awaken our conscience in order to remember that we need to do better, to feel better, to be better. We use our love-tap on our own heart to awaken our conscience to take responsibility for mistakes, misdeeds and missing the mark.
Judaism requires that we begin the process of teshuvah – repentance – by apologizing directly to the person we have hurt or offended. Now, if the person to whom we apologize forgives us, then we can proceed to “klop” on our heart to ask forgiveness from G-o-d and to also engage in forgiving ourselves. However, if the person to whom we apologize does not forgive us, then Jewish tradition requires that we apologize two more times, for a total three apologies. After we have apologized three times to the same person for the same set of mistakes, even if that person does not forgive us, we are nevertheless free from needing to apologize any further for that particular mistake. As we say here in America, three times is a charm.
However, if for any reason, there is a danger in our apologizing to a person whom we have hurt or harmed, we actually should not apologize to that person – not even once. Here are a few examples. Let’s we did something to defend ourselves from someone who caused us harm, or someone who abused us or cheated us or maligned us. In those situations, it is not safe for us to apologize, because by apologizing to a person who has harmed us, we run the risk of opening ourselves to the possibility of being harmed once again.
In such a situation, if apologizing to a person would put us in danger of being harmed, then it is a mitzvah to not apologize to that person and to, instead, go straight to the step of apologizing to G-o-d and working on forgiving ourselves. The mitzvah of not causing harm to ourselves, or to another, is called piku’ach nefesh. If you have been harmed by others, and you caused harm while defending yourself from harm, then I want to encourage you to find a time to pray privately and to ask the Holy One for forgiveness, and to also talk about it with a licensed professional whom you are sure you can trust.
Now I want to turn to the question of why we engage in group confessionals on Yom Kippur. Group confessionals provide an opportunity for spiritual, religious, and psychological healing and renewal. Group confessionals help us to realize that our mistakes that are weighing on us are not really so bad in comparison with the faults listed in the group confessionals.
Reciting the group confessionals also helps us to realize that our mistakes are common. Others are making similar mistakes or else those things would not be listed in the group confessionals. Sometimes reciting the group confessionals can also help us realize just the opposite, namely that what we are grappling with is not so common, or it is taboo. Perhaps there are not many others who have made the same mistakes we have made; or perhaps our mistakes are common, but no one is talking about them, at least not in the synagogue.
Either way, whether the group confessionals help us to feel more burdened or less burdened, those confessionals help us move through the space of our doubts and pangs of guilt, hopefully to a place of feeling clean so we can start over.
There is also another reason that we engage in group confessionals and that is to stand together before G-o-d, and to say, as it were, I am a Jew. I stand with all Jews. I stand with the Jewish people even when it is not convenient, even when it does not feel good, and even, heaven forbid, when I can be subjected to anti-Semitism by being identified as a Jew.
Beginning this year, I believe the time has come for us to also stand together in remembering the things we have done right. The mitzvot – the commandments – that we have kept. The ways that we have helped to make the world a better place through our thoughts and deeds.
One thing we may have done right is that we may have already apologized for past mistakes. Another thing we may have done right is that we may have already forgiven someone who hurt our feelings or caused us harm. There is a ritual in which we engaged last night just before Kol Nidre, and that is the ritual of reciting the individual vidui – the confessional – of forgiveness, which is considered an appropriate prayer for a person to recite each night before bedtime.
There is also a new vidui that was presented this by the Modern Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss. Rabbi Avi has presented a brand new group vidui – group confessional – confessing to the mitzvot – the good deeds — that we have collectively performed.
Please click here for the Vidui – Confession – of Mitzvot.
 “Ahavnu, beirachnu: Yom Kippur is also a time to confess our good,” by Rabbi Avi Weiss, The Times of Israel, October 6, 2016, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ahavnu-beirachnu-yom-kippur-is-also-a-time-to-confess-our-good/