Since my husband and I began packing in August, my weekly post has consisted of a reflection on the current step in our journey, and a link to one of my past posts on the Torah portion of the week. But this week is different.
Today we saw the Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague, a breathtakingly beautiful Neo-Moorish and Art Nouveau building completed in 1906 to replace synagogues demolished when the city built a new boulevard through the old Jewish quarter. During World War II the Nazi occupiers used the building as a warehouse for confiscated Jewish property, instead of destroying it. After the war a small group of Jews resumed prayer services there, despite Soviet discouragement, and since the Velvet Revolution the congregation has grown.
Tomorrow we will visit Terezin, a fortified village near Prague which Hitler’s government turned into a concentration camp. The Nazis imprisoned 144,000 Jews there from 1941 to 1945; only around 23,000 survived. About 33,000 died of malnutrition and disease inside Terezin; 88,000 were sent on to extermination camps.
Four days later we will observe Yom Kippur with a congregation in Prague, and I will repeat the fundamental liturgy in Hebrew, the confessions and pleas that Jews all around the world will recite.
And tonight I find I must write a new post.
Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi.
We are guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have spoken slander.
On the day of Yom Kippur, the day for seeking atonement with God, Jews chant the vidui, a confession of the whole community’s sins.1
Our religion asks each of us to do a personal atonement during the weeks before Yom Kippur. We consider who we might have harmed during the past year, repent as much as we can, and ask each person for forgiveness (when it is possible, and when it does no further harm). We also consider how we have fallen short in our service to God, or perhaps to the still, small voice within. This work is different for each individual.
But on Yom Kippur we all chant out loud a list of sins that we as individuals may not have committed. And every offense is in the first person plural, “we”, indicated by the verb ending וּ (u) = we.
Ha-evinu vehirshanu, zadnu, chamasnu, tafalnu sheker.
We have been perverse and we have been wicked, we have acted with malice, we have done violence, we have made false claims.
In the story of Noah, God decided to destroy the world and start over because “the earth was full chamas”, the violence that humans committed.2 To this day, humans have not overcome the habit of violence.
Ya-atznu ra, kizavnu, latznu, maradnu, niatznu.
We have given harmful advice, we have lied, we have mocked, we have rebelled, we have been unrespectful.
Who are “we”? This part of the communal confession could refer to any congregation, to any relatively small group of human beings. Nearly everyone has tossed off advice without considering whether it might be harmful to the advisee. We all tell “white lies” out of what we think is kindness to the other person, or because explaining the truth seems too complicated and unnecessary. And it is so easy to mock someone who is far away, different from you, and taking actions you resent—a president, perhaps, or someone interviewed on television. Everyone rebels at some time against an authority figure or what we have learned is our duty. It takes constant attention to be respectful to every human being and to the Creator.
Sararnu, avinu, pashanu, tzararnu, kishinu oref.
We have disobeyed (God), we have been immoral, we have been negligent, we have oppressed, we have been stiff-necked (refusing to change).
Who are “we”? Sure, everyone is negligent at times, there are too many families in which one person has oppressed another, and change is difficult. But this part of the list implies a more serious level of wrongdoing. What happens when a whole segment of society oppresses another segment, using religion or politics or even a dress code as an excuse? What happens when a large number of people reinforce each other in refusing to change to meet new challenges that have arisen in the world?
Rashanu, shichatnu, ti-avnu, ta-inu, titanu.
We have been wicked, we have been corrupt, we have committed atrocities, we have gone astray, we have led others astray.
Who are “we”? What if “we” means all human beings, including Nazis and others who do evil deliberately? Including people who do bad deeds out of peer pressure or the fear of punishment? Including people who merely witness atrocities, and do not know how to stop them?
Ashamnu. We are guilty. That is the nature of humankind. But we can pray, this Yom Kippur and all year round, for atonement and realignment, for change—for us and for all human beings.
- Each time the service reaches another vidui, there are two confessions of communal wrongdoing. The first, called the Ashamnu after the first word, lists offenses in alphabetical order (according to the Hebrew aleph-bet), with each entry being a verb in the form “we have ____”. One tradition is to beat one’s breast when chanting each offense. After the Ashamnu list, the congregation switches to a different melody and chants sentences asking forgiveness “for the sin we have committed before you”, using another list of communal sins, with the chorus “And for all these, God of pardons, pardon us, forgive us, grant us atonement.”
- Genesis 6:11.