The prayers of Yom Kippur alternate between confession of sin and pleas for forgiveness. All this intense breast-beating and grovelling surely has its limits. In what way do we feel better at the end of it? What greater awareness have we come to? Certainly there is satisfaction at having committed our time and suppressed all our usual desires for a whole 25 hours and having done so in the company of our community.
Personally I am more moved and motivated by the slogan, written over the Ark in so many shuls, “Know before whom you stand”.
That simple phrase gives us total responsibility; we become – both observer and observed, judged and judge. Before whom do we stand? We know – or at least we are prompted to imagine. And if we keep that thought in mind why ever would we want to offend ourselves by hurtful or destructive behaviour against our friend or neighbour.
When we say “Ashamnu, bagadnu….” I have to think of A A Milne’s poem “Have you been a good girl”, concerning the adult obsession with children being “Good”:
Well, what did they think that I went there to do?
And why should I want to be bad at the Zoo?
music and poetry
“Know before whom you stand” is a message for the individual. Yom Kippur is very much about collective responsibility while not forgetting the tendency of the individual (Jonah) to run away from personal responsibility. Not for nothing do we say Ashamnu, sometimes silently and sometimes aloud; sometimes as an individual and sometimes as a group to remind ourselves that it is the same person who mumbles by himself as when he sings with community. But we need some help to make that connection – it is the music and the poetry and the rhythm and the repetition…. Selach lanu, M’chal lanu, Kaper lanu which bring us together, merge ourselves in the sea of kehillah and reaffirm what we never really forgot “All Israel Are Responsible One for Another” (Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh).
“This article first appeared in the Rosh Hashanah edition of the Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue magazine”
Cover and recordings: Gilead Limor (illustrator) from Daniel Borin’s Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue, with gratitude.