A familiar part of synagogue ritual on Yom Kippur is when, standing side by side each one of us tapping our hands over our hearts as a sign of contrition, we recite the litany of sins listed in the Mahzor, our High Holy Day prayer book. We confess our collective regret for the wrongs individuals among us may have committed. We don’t admit aloud to our personal misdeeds. We take collective responsibility for all of our sins so that personal responsibility for our particular errors may remain private.
“Al Het, for the sin we have committed.” We repeat this ritual act ten times during the hours of Yom Kippur, five quietly by ourselves, five publicly all together. Ten symbolizes a quorum for Jewish communal prayer, a Minyan. Repenting and seeking forgiveness we are in this alone together.
We focus on what we’ve done to hurt one another, how we fall short as human beings. Some of the forty-four statements we recite acknowledge our religious sins, our weaknesses before God. Listed as an alphabetic acrostic, two verses for each Hebrew letter, most of these verses we confess reflect our ethical lapses, our weaknesses in relating to other people or failures we admit about ourselves.
This Al Het was written in different communities through the ages and passed along from one generation to the next. Back in the 7th century, when we think it began, there were six lines of confession. In the 8th century it grew to eight and then when the first formal Hebrew prayer book was published in 860 CE it contained twelve verses.
In the 12th century the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides writes in his laws of repentance that there should be twenty-four sins described in the Al Het. During the 13th century this confessional grew to thirty-six statements in some prayer books. Now it’s the forty-four we recite.
I guess we sin more through the years. I wonder how long the list will grow to be in the future. Once asked why our confessions are listed alphabetically, a Hasidic rabbi answered: “There is no end to human sin, but there is an end to the alphabet!”
I’m describing this to you for a simple reason. I don’t think this inherited list of sins is sufficient. I think it does need to grow. I don’t want to make services longer on Yom Kippur. Nor do I want to feel worse than I already do when I reflect on my bad behaviors. I do want the list of sins we sincerely enumerate to reflect this moment in which we live in addition to the flaws of human nature that we’ll always recognize.
Ever heard of crowdsourcing? It’s a term coined to describe the process of collecting ideas, or other needs, by soliciting contributions from a large group of people. I think that if our confession is supposed to be a collective statement then our words ought to come from us, not only from the editors of our Mahzor.
Here’s my request. Let’s keep evolving and claim as our own this tradition of Jewish prayer. Please write and submit a verse or two of sins or misdeeds to add when we recite Al Het on Yom Kippur. Use the traditional style. “For the sin we have committed by…” Here are some of examples submitted by participants who attended our Selihot Service.
For the sin we have committed by spreading untruths. For the sin we have committed by spreading false rumors. For the sin we have committed by gossip. For the sin we have committed by intolerance. For the sin we have committed by not greeting people whom we do not know, even at shul.
For the sin we have committed by ignoring the refugee crisis in many parts of the world. For the sin we have committed by judging those who ask for help. For the sin we have committed by being disrespectful to our people in our everyday encounters. For the sin we have committed by being impatient. For the sin we have committed by being quick to criticize. For the sin we have committed by spending too much time looking at screens and not enough time appreciating the beauty in the world, taking walks, talking to people instead of texting, and not playing with children outside.
For the sin we have committed by not attending synagogue as often as we could. For the sin we have committed because our Jewish practice does not match our Jewish spirit. For the sin we have committed being guided more by loyalty to other Jews than by loyalty to Jewish values. For the sin we have committed damming each other if we don’t think the same way on a controversial issue. For the sin we have committed by hardening our hearts to the suffering of historic enemies.
For the sin we have committed by not being fully present in the world and in our relationships. For the sin we have committed by not doing this year what we promised ourselves last year. For the sin we have committed by not remembering. For the sin we have committed by failing to take care of our health.
For the sin we have committed by not speaking out in the face of injustice. For the sin we have committed by not recognizing the inequities in our neighborhood. For the sin we have committed by not getting out of ourselves to help heal the wounds of racism. For the sin we have committed by hiding behind closed doors when demonstrating in support of justice is required. For the sin we have committed by not speaking out against prejudice and bias.
For the sin we have committed by failing to listen to voices different than our own. For the sin we have committed for allowing inequality to instill indignity. For the sin we have committed by restricting access to mental health rather than guns. For the sin we have committed by forgetting that we are immigrants. For the sin we have committed by false assumptions. For the sin we have committed by not venturing beyond our community. For the sin we have committed by not honoring all human beings as created in God’s image.
In the 9th century Rav Amram Gaon compiled the first formal prayer book in Jewish tradition. In his instructions for using the book he states, “If a person wants to say a confession after completing the daily Amidah, it is permissible to do so.”
Every day, not only on Yom Kippur, we are able to think about our behaviors and offer our own words of contrition when necessary. Though we can always refer back to the words we receive from others we can also add our words and our regrets. Crowdsourcing confession we take responsibility for ourselves and for the community in which we live.
Please send me your contributions so we can all reflect on them during Yom Kippur. Thank you. G’mar Hatimah Tovah!