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Yom Kippur 5773/2012 Rabbi Jill Perman  


Yom Kippur 5773/2012 Rabbi Jill Perman

It was a hard summer. A spate of violence seemed to overtake our nation. There was the deadly shooting and rampage in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado that left twelve dead and many more injured. A few days later, a man took a 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol and killed six at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

About a week passed and The Onion, the infamous satirical newspaper ran a story entitled Nation Celebrates Full Week Without Deadly Mass Shooting,[1] but then had to immediately pull it when news came across the wire about the deadly shooting at the Empire State Building that same morning.

Of course, these are only the events that rose to national consciousness. There were, of course, more. Many more. Here in the United States and a long list from across the globe.

As I sat here in Massachusetts digesting horrific act after horrific act with even more horrific consequences, I wondered what my part had been in all the events that had occurred.

This comes not from a place of overblown self-significance, but rather from the belief that we are all responsible for the culture that we create and therefore all of us, you and me, we all had our parts to play in the bloody dramas that unfolded this summer and continue to unfold.

I derive this in part from my understanding of our tradition and specifically from the vidui, our prayer of confession.

There is the private vidui, which we say for ourselves, our own personal confession; and there is the public vidui, which we say as a communal confession. I derive my sense and understanding of our communal responsibility specifically from the public and communal vidui we say on Yom Kippur.

It’s a text and a tune and a rhythm we know so well.

Ashamnu bagadnu gazalnu – We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen… The list goes on and on in the first person plural.

Al chet shechatanu l’faneicha For the sin we have committed against you…

Embedded in this ‘we’ is an essential notion: it is the notion that we are all responsible, the notion that each of our actions and our acquiescence to each other’s actions have contributed to the culture that feeds these actions or these non-actions, if you will.

So… even though I sat in Massachusetts during this summer’s deadly shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin, and New York… I still hold myself, in part, accountable.

And what about more global events? What about the events of these past few weeks, the events prompted by the video of Mohammed that led to the deaths of four Americans, that led to the deaths of a spiraling upwards number in cities across the globe? How far does our sense of responsibility extend, especially in a world where geographic distance is meaning less and less?

Our tradition teaches us to not stand idly by.[2] It teaches us that we are indeed our brother’s keeper.[3] But even more than that, it teaches us: “When the community is in trouble, a person should not say, ‘I will go into my house and eat and drink and be at peace with myself.’”[4]

We are not to say thank God that is happening to someone else, thank God that is happening somewhere else. Or thank God I raised my children right or I chose this school district or this town… We are not to shut our doors, shut our ears, or shut our hearts.

In fact, merely knowing about an injustice and not acting to right it may be enough to warrant guilt by association:

“Rav, Rabbi Hanina, and Rabbi Yohanan taught… Whoever can protest to his household and does not, is accountable [for the sins] of his household; if he could protest to his townspeople [and does not], he is accountable for the [sins of his townspeople]; if he could protest to the whole world [and does not, then] he is accountable for the whole world.”[5]

We’ve internalized this notion of communal culpability as a part of the Jewish narrative and story. When the sages were asked: “Why was Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans?,” they told this story:

There was a man in Jerusalem who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar-Kamtza. (You hear the similar names?) He made a feast and, by mistake because their names were so similar, his servant invited Bar-Kamtza, the man’s enemy instead of Kamtza, the man’s friend.

When Bar-Kamtza came to the man’s feast, the man tried to eject him. Bar-Kamtza was so embarrassed that he offered to pay for the entire feast if the man would just let him stay and save face. The man refused and threw him out anyway.

The city’s great sages and rabbis witnessed the encounter prompting Bar-Kamtza to say: “Since the Sages sat here and did not protest… I will go slander the Jews to [Caesar]…” [6]

In other words, according to this story, which we tell to ourselves about ourselves, Jerusalem was destroyed because the Sages witnessed an injustice and did not stand up. We find over and again in Jewish text and tradition, in story and symbol the message that doing nothing is on par with the guilty action.

To give a very, very different example: it’s like the Seinfeld finale. You know the one. While on a layover, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer wander through a quaint Massachusetts town where they witness an overweight man being carjacked at gunpoint, but instead of intervening to help the man, they simply stand around and mock him for his weight.

They’re arrested for violating the newly passed Good Samaritan law, which requires bystanders to help victims in grave situations. The four get arrested, convicted, and serve prison sentences for doing what these loveable, but oh-so-faulty characters always do, which is nothing.

And while this episode and the entire series is a comedy, there is, of course, some biting truth underneath it all about human nature, about our values, about the culture we create, and about what is expected of us as human beings.

There are many reasons we say ‘we’ as a part of our communal confessional, the vidui. We’ve talked about communal culpability, but perhaps it extends further. By listing our shortcomings in the way that we do, we are, in fact, creating guidelines for our community and highlighting the values that we choose to live by.

If we look at our list, what do we find? What values do we champion? Al chet shechatanu l’faneicha … For the sin we have committed against you by not thinking… In essence, we are saying that we strive to be a community that is thoughtful and intentional.

Al chet shechatanu l’faneicha … for the sin we have committed against you with gossip and negative speech… In essence, we are saying that we strive to be a community that honors each other through the words that we share about one another.

Al chet shechatanu l’faneicha … for the sin we have committed against you with denial and false promises… In essence, we are saying that we strive to be a community that is honest and self-reflective.

By laying out our collective sins, we are also laying out our communal values.

By framing our communal confessional in the first person plural, it urges us to erase the us-them mentality that often occurs in an atmosphere of rule-making and breaking where I’m right and you’re wrong and vice versa.

We say ‘we’ not because we don’t think that individuals shouldn’t own up to our own behavior, but because we know that this process is hard enough without shining a public spotlight over our personal flaws.

We may personally be working on our own arrogance or adultery or kleptomania or unkindness, but we need not say it alone and aloud.

Rather, by joining together as one, we not only share in the responsibility for our mistakes, we also show compassion for ourselves and for each other.

Each year, we approach the list of our shortcomings anew, yet we can’t help notice that it’s the same list every year. There’s a message for us in that truth, a message about human nature and the process of teshuvah.

Rather than feel deflated to find that we may yet again be confronting the same major flaw that we confronted last year and the year before and the year before that, our vidui that never changes reminds us that our difficulties are often not solved in one reflective holiday or one reflective season.

Change in any area is a multi-year process that we need to return to again and again; it’s often a process that stretches across a lifetime. This season is when we check our compass to make certain that we are traveling in the right direction.

This can be a hard pill to swallow in our goal-oriented culture where we get a thrill out of crossing items off of our to-do lists. Imagine doing just that with the work of this season.

Gossip? Check. Got rid of that.

Gluttony? Done. Never again.

Unkind and improper thoughts? Crossing that one off riiiiight now. I prayed and therefore I am absolved.

We know that that is not how this works – and God does not expect that of us either. God does not expect perfection. That’s why Yom Kippur rolls around each and every year. God expects merely that we try… Even if we have to try again and again and again.

Our vidui is no magic bullet. It, along with all our prayers and our liturgy, are tools to help us navigate this journey that we are on.

Our toolbox has evolved over time. In ancient days, we used to bring sacrifices to make up for our individual and our communal wrongs. We would bring an offering of ourselves, a part of our flock or a portion of our crop.

We literally made sacrifices to atone for our wrong actions from that which could have sustained ourselves and our families. With the destruction of the temple and the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem, this notion of physical sacrifice transformed into “the offering of our lips.”

Though we may at times frame this enterprise otherwise, these offerings are not present to try to change God’s mind about us. Sacrifice was never ultimately about pleasing God either. They – the animals, the words, all of it – they’re all there to change us.

Words are powerful, but we know that they can’t operate in a vacuum.

As a mom of two-year-olds, I could easily let my boys simply shout out ‘I’m sorry’ whenever they do something that they shouldn’t. But I don’t. When one of our boys steals a toy from the other (they’re two and they like toys; it happens), we don’t insist on an easy “I’m sorry” to get them out of the mess. No insincere Al Chet.

No, they give the truck or the ball or the hammer back and they ask the other “Are you okay?” and if the answer is no, they stay behind and try to help until the answer is an approximate yes.

Actions must accompany words. Our words, the offerings of our lips, must inspire us to create the change for which we pray.

And I pray for words and actions to make sense of this seemingly senseless summer.

If I truly believe in this notion of interconnectedness and shared responsibility, then what had I done or not done to allow the events of this past summer to take place?

I did not speak up enough about hate speech and hate crime. I did not cry out enough against this senseless hatred and violence. I did not use the power that I did have to try to make a difference on gun control.

And what of the violent protests and demonstrations in response to the anti-Islamic video?

I did not engage enough with the interfaith community, specifically with the Muslim community to work together to promote peace and understanding. I did not contribute enough to the conversation and concern about the rise of radical Islam. I did not publicly condemn the media for, in essence, committing a blood libel by not researching the background of the movie and spreading the lie that the movie was created and financed by Jews.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wisely noted, “In a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible.”[7] I am not guilty, but I am implicated and therefore I, too, am responsible.

We can choose to say in response, this is ridiculous, I am not connected …or… we can take to heart the following story from VaYikra Rabbah:

Some people were sitting in a ship when one of them took a drill and began to bore a hole under his seat. The other passengers protested "What are you doing?" He said to them, "What has it got to do with you? Am I not boring the hole under my own seat?" They answered him, "But the water will come in and drown us all."[8]

If we’re not careful, we’ll drown in a culture of bigotry and hatred for the other.

We’re taught in Leviticus: “Hokhe’ach tokhi’ach et amitekha,” “You shall surely reprove your neighbor.”[9] In our non-judgmental culture, this can feel wrong, but there are times – the key, of course, is figuring out when and how and on what issues – there are times when we must cry out, when we must point out the holes being drilled all around us for if we stay quiet, if we stay put, if we simply let others keep drilling, there’s a very good chance that our ship will soon sink.

From communal confession springs the notion of communal responsibility. Or perhaps it is the other way around… but it doesn’t matter; they are intricately tied to one another.

We’re taught not to separate ourselves from the community.[10] It is through our actions in our communities that we honor our sacred connections to one another. We must be active, take responsibility and work together to solve the problems of our society - for if we do not, then we are a part of those problems.

At Isaiah, there are numerous ways that folks are standing up and refusing to be bystanders to the crises that surround us and I’d like to highlight a few of those ways.

We have just launched our new Isaiah Feeds campaign, which highlights the sacred work we are doing to feed the hungry, including, but not limited to our work with Bristol Lodge, Project Ezra and the Interfaith Garden. Our Brotherhood with the support of LEFTY and Social Action recently brought Catherine D’Amato, President and CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank to Isaiah to raise awareness of the crushing problem of hunger in our midst. We have a communal responsibility to help alleviate and God-willing eventually eradicate this problem. Among numerous other ways, you can take part in Isaiah Feeds by bringing in your bag of food staples tomorrow for LEFTY’s high holy day food drive.

If you were not already aware, we are in the middle of a house meeting campaign right now on the issue of de-stigmatizing mental illness and supporting those who deal with it along with their families. Too often, folks have felt alienated in communities, in Jewish communities, in this community, but we say ‘No more.’ We are publicly examining the ways in which we can hold one another and be the inclusive community for all that we strive to be. We share our hurt together and therefore we cannot stand idly by as someone feels disaffected.

We have a large number of folks who work together as a part of Hineini, our Temple Isaiah Caring Community who help members of our community when we are in times of need by bringing food when one is dealing with a trauma and find they cannot cook, by visiting after a surgery or illness, by providing rides to those who need them. We do this not because God forbid, when something happens to me, I hope someone is there. We do this because this is what community and shared responsibility mean.

There are a plethora of examples from which I could have chosen. There is a lot of good work happening in our midst. But it is that time of year when we engage not only in personal reflection, but also in communal reflection.

We know that we are far from perfect and have many a ways to go to fully create the culture that we dream of and the culture that we deserve. We must continue to push ourselves further if we are ever to fully realize that dream.

We read in our machzor that God does not seek our death as sinners but rather that we should turn from our ways and live.[11]

So let us do just that: let us turn and let us live.

God does not seek to judge, but instead is full of compassion and mercy. A model for all of us to emulate.

And so as we do the digging that this season demands, may we, too, be kind and compassionate to ourselves and to those around us.

Our vidui concludes with these words – as I do now.

V’al kulam eloha slichot salach lanu machal lanu caper lanu.

For all of our shortcomings… O God of forgiveness and God of mercy… may you forgive us, may you pardon us, and may you grant us atonement.

And to this we say: Amen.


[2] Leviticus 19:16

[3] From Genesis 4:9 and surrounding story

[4] Ta'anit 11a

[5] Shabbat 54b

[6] Gittin 55b-56a

[7] Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (ed. by Susannah Heschel; Farrar Straus & Giroux).

[8] Vayikra Raba 4:6

[9] Leviticus 19:17

[10] Pirkei Avot 2:4

[11] Paraphrased from Shaarei Teshuvah, Gates of Repentance.