V’al chet she-hatanu l’fanekha bil’shon ha-ra, “And for the sin we have committed before You through slander” — over the course of Yom Kippur we say these words over and over again as we recite the Viddui (Confessional) quietly to ourselves and then aloud communally. As we say them, we beat our breasts to physically hammer home the meaning of the words we say.
Few prayers are as well known to Jews as Ashamnu (“We have sinned ...”) and Al Chet (“For the sin ...”), the twin confessions of Yom Kippur. Belief in human sinfulness is more central to Judaism than we think. Sin may not be “original,” as it is in Christianity — inherited from Adam, that is, as a sort of genetic endowment ever after. But it is at least primal: It is there, patent, indelible and unavoidable. We may not be utterly depraved — the teaching with which American Protestantism grew up — but we are indeed sinners.
In a tent on an ashen desert plain, seven Jews take refuge against the beating sun.
Despite the High Holidays arriving late this year, many Jews are still scrambling to prepare. The practical and spiritual work is demanding: cooking, traveling, repenting, forgiving -- it all takes time and energy.
In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, Jews judge themselves this month, conducting a cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). Some people resist this not just because it is daunting, but because the process seems negative. They don't want to be mired in self-criticism.
But accounting means looking at both sides of the ledger -- deposits and withdrawals, mitzvot and sins. One way to balance the ledger is to reduce withdrawals; the other is to increase deposits. The latter method may be even more effective, because our assets (good deeds) can be leveraged to eliminate bad debt (sins that seem so enticing at the time, for which we pay later).
This week's Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, offers many laws that can increase rachamim (compassion, mercy). Rachamim is a particularly valuable asset, because it offsets anger and augments patience. We can deliberately grow midat harachamim in ourselves. The goal is to make compassion greater and more important than being right. Thus, we imitate God, who is said to pray: "May My mercy overcome My anger" (Berachot 7a).
Without question, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) is the greatest Torah personality -- bar none. No human ever reached his prophetic level. No single person understood God more than he. No mortal ever communicated with God to the same degree of intimacy.
The message is a universal one and it is directed to all mankind. How much better would the world be if we looked at people and thought first of what we have in common with us instead of analyzing how they differ from and are therefore inferior to us?
The writers of the machzor were pretty comprehensive in listing the multitude of sins we commit as a community over the course of the year.
David Milch's HBO Western series, "Deadwood," tells of a grimy mining town where drinking, whoring, killing, cussing and cheating are de rigeur.
By the time you read this, it's probably too late for me. To repent, I mean.
Talmudic sages wondered how King Achav of Israel could have reigned for decades, considering his practice and encouragement of idolatry and every type of sin. They arrived at the answer that at least during his reign there was, if nothing else, unity among the Jewish people. Today we find deep divisions among our people, perhaps nowhere more so than in our attitudes toward Israel and the peace process. It almost makes you wish for the good old days of King Achav.
A few years ago, two of my colleagues took their families on vacation to Mammoth Lake. While there, the families spent Shabbat with one another, eating their meals together, singing zmirot (Shabbat songs) and enjoying each other's company.
It is wonderful to volunteer more, do more, commit more. But our tradition, with love and practicality, offers this caution: Check first that your basic obligations are met.
Who is greater: a person who is obligated to perform a certain act and does, or a person who is not obligated to perform the act but does it anyway? According to modern sensibilities, the second person is a hero, whereas the first may just be a drone. According to the Talmud, however, the first person is the hero. It is often easy and fun to volunteer. Whatever you do is appreciated, and when you get bored, you can stop. It is difficult and rare, however, to fulfill one's own obligations constantly.
Because of our sins were we exiled from our land, and displaced far from our soil."