What responsibility do we share?

What I love about our crowd-sourced sermons is that it doesn’t matter what I wanted to write about or say in relation to the text I presented, what interested you about this week’s question is now what I have to write about.

This situation actually sums up pretty well a certain tension in our High Holy Day liturgy; in our new machzor (our High Holy Day prayerbook) Mishkan HaNefesh; and in the process of repentance that we undertake during the Holy Days. Who, what, is primary? Is it the individual, me, writing this sermon with things I want to say, or is it the community, and the individual thoughts and experiences that can turn the discussion in ways an individual may not have intended?

I posed the following question on our RS blog and on facebook, “Our new High Holy Day machzor challenges us to consider the same prayers as speaking to both the individual and the community. How does the High Holy Day liturgy speak to you and your individual experience, and how does it speak to you as a member of the Jewish community?” This question was inspired by a text found in a footnote in the Yom Kippur volume of the machzor (and which you can find in your service program):

“Why do we confess to wrongs we have not personally committed? The 16th-century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria teaches that the people of Israel may be likened to a body of which every Jew is a living part. The vitality of the whole depends upon the health of every organ and limb. That is how deeply we are connected to one another. Therefore, each individual sin inflicts damage on the whole organism, and all of us share responsibility for healing the body of Israel.” (p. 83 Yom Kippur volume)

Tradition emphasizes that when it comes to our confession, it is not the individual who is primary. Yes, we confess our sins. But we confess to sins that we have not personally committed. In this text, Rabbi Luria chooses to focus on how connected we are to each other, how our individual actions are like limbs of the body of the Jewish community. That is how the traditional liturgy structures the confession: “Al Cheit ShechataNU L’fanecha…The ways WE have wronged you…”

But how do you feel as part of the “we” when individuals, and governments, considered a part of the Jewish community do things you yourself condemn? This is where much of the discussion on our blog this week focused: You wrote: ”One can only be responsible for what one does oneself, that’s hard enough;” “We are all individuals , and I find it difficult to be responsible for the shortcomings and/or misdeeds of another Jew ;“ “We need to be responsible for our own actions, atone for our own misdeeds, and vow to do better as individuals.”

How, these crowd members are asking, can you feel connected and dependent like limbs on the same body, to the people whose actions your condemn? How do you see yourself in the actions, mistakes, and shortcomings of others?

I think we should consider the contemporization of the High Holy Day liturgy in our new machzor, specifically in this instance in the vidui, the confession, as an attempt to help the modern individual see her/himself in the liturgy, in order to create the sense as Rabbi Luria saw it that we are all a part of the same whole.

Confessing as a community that says “we” can be powerful. Knowing that I am not the only one gives me the strength to atone and to ask forgiveness from my loved ones. The confession, in a new, more active translation, lists many wrongs: “Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu, Dibarnu Dofi…We betray, we steal, we scorn, we act perversely, we are cruel, we scheme, we are violent, we slander, we devise evil, we lie, we ridicule, we disobey, we abuse, we defy, we corrupt, we commit crimes, we are hostile, we are stubborn, we are immoral, we kill, we spoil, we go astray, we lead others astray.”(p.296)

But in order to operate as one body, one community that understands the behavior of others in the community is important, we need to know more than what “we” all do. We need to understand why we do it. And our new machzor encourages us to consider our collective whys. A brand new text in the Yom Kippur confession reads: “Because I was angry, because I didn’t think, because I was exhausted and on edge, because I’d been drinking, because I can be mean, because I was reckless and selfish, because I was worried about money, because my marriage was dead, because other people were doing it, because I thought I could get away with it…”(p.293)

It’s important that we see ourselves in the “we,” that we not merely recite “Al Cheit Shechatanu L’fanecha, The ways we have wronged you” without considering each act and how someone might have been in the place to commit it. We are not responsible for another individual’s sin, but we are responsible to the community to speak out against grievous acts, patterns of behavior, and destructive trends. And the world keeps teaching us that lesson. How many examples can we think of from the past year alone, a year of great unrest in our Jewish community and in our nation, that have begged of us our compassion to see the humanity in others? On the High Holy Days we focus on our Jewish community, but in our contemporary world that is practice for navigating our relationship with the wider world.

Compassion is what we must practice and teach. Part of compassion is the ability to see another human being and see the why, see the because, and honor where she is on her life’s journey, how she was brought to this place, and what her future may look like. Only then can we condemn behavior or praise it. We don’t share responsibility for the sin, Rabbi Luria taught, we share responsibility for the healing.

Our world is more interconnected and more dependent like the limbs of the body than ever before. In many places, not just in the vidui, the confession, the new machzor reflects this reality, juxtaposing a consideration of the individual’s personal connection to some of the most important moments in the liturgy with the traditional liturgical formulation of communal plea and confession.

One is not complete without the other. But one must inform the other. Being responsible for the healing is a powerful force for good in the world and we must be connected, we must be more than individuals, for that work, during the Ten Days of Repentance and throughout the year.
Shabbat Shalom.