Yom Kippur 5781: What to do when “the entire people has erred”

Yom Kippur 5781:  What to do when “the entire people has erred”

I know I have already commented about how unusual it is that our service is upstairs, we have readers zooming in from around the country, we have participants zooming in from literally around the world, and now we just said:  “Now let’s go live to President Jeremy Morley 

standing by in his home!”  And then -- “Let’s go live to Rabbi Scheinberg in his office!”

Then again, I realize that even in a normal year, our High Holy Day services may have the feel of a TV studio, as we switch from location to location and time period to time period.  You know that any good book is an exercise in time travel - and I definitely think that’s true about the Mahzor, which sends us back to biblical times, sends us back to review our year, sends us to our childhoods and the lives of people who have influenced us.   

And so -- considering this, Let’s -- go live to our correspondent at the Temple in Jerusalem, 2500 years ago, where the High Priest is about to begin the Yom Kippur service in the Temple. 

“I’m standing here in Jerusalem where the High Priest is preparing for his role today.  Looking over the vast crowd, there must be tens of thousands of people packed in here today - pilgrims from all over Israel and all over the world.  As you can see, he has two goats in front of him  -- in a moment he will draw lots and randomly designate one of them as the Se’ir ladonai, the goat to be dedicated to God, and the other will be the Se’ir La’azazel, the goat that will be sent into the wilderness.  

Three times today the High Priest intones nearly identical words of confession.  First he offers a personal confession on behalf of himself and his family.  Second, he recites the same words but confessing on behalf of the leadership class, the Kohanim - the priests. And now he is about to recite the confession a third time, on behalf of all of Israel.  Each time he pronounces God’s otherwise unpronounceable name - on this holiest day of the year in this holiest space.  So listen closely to the words of the Kohen Gadol in Hebrew --  if you listen closely I think you can hear him now…. 

I’m sorry everyone - I think we’ve just lost the Zoom transmission from our correspondent from Jerusalem. But I hope you heard the words of the High Priest, who proclaimed:   Please, God, I and my community and the whole house of Israel have failed you, we have done evil, we have evaded responsibility.  Please, by your Name, grant atonement for the failures and evils and evasions we have committed in your presence. 


My little fantasy about having an actual Zoom correspondent at the Temple in Jerusalem ends here.  But I invite you to consider some of the ways that such a gathering at the Temple in Jerusalem would be hard for us to imagine and different from our current experience.  

First -- it would be hard for us to imagine being in the midst of a large crowd right now.  Second, it would be hard for us to imagine our people worshipping using animal sacrifice which is so remote to our experience. 

But you know what may be the single most unusual thing about the Temple Yom Kippur scene for us?  It’s that that ritual involves a leader, the High Priest, publicly admitting having personally made mistakes and requesting forgiveness for them, and then requesting forgiveness on behalf of the entire leadership class, the Kohanim, and then requesting forgiveness on behalf of the entire nation.  Suffice it to say, it’s been a while since we have seen such a thing. 

It’s appropriate for us to wonder: Why does this three-part confession constitute the core of the Yom Kippur ritual?  

Perhaps hearing the leader confess is a technique to train us, ourselves, to admit our own defeats and mistakes. Because deservedly or not, leaders set the tone for the community or for the nation. A leader who is willing to admit errors is likely to have followers who are similarly willing to admit that they are imperfect.  And it is well known that good decisions and good governance depend in part on a willingness to admit having made mistakes, and to change course when necessary. 

We read about this theme in the Book of Leviticus, In a passage that begins with the words אשר נשיא יחטא asher nasi yeheta - if a leader sins. And it goes on to describe what offerings the leader is supposed to bring when the leader sins. 

The Talmud notes something unusual about the language of this phrase.  Asher is a strange Hebrew word that usually doesn’t get translated.  Here it means ‘when’ -- ‘when a leader sins.’

But Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai noticed - ‘asher’ sounds a lot like another Hebrew word which is ‘Ashrei’ - which means ‘happy.’ Rabbi Yohanan said: instead of reading the verse as ‘asher nasi yeheta’ - ‘when the leader makes a mistake,’ read it as ‘ashrei nasi yeheta.’  Happy is the generation whose leaders have made a mistake -- if the leaders are willing to admit it and go through this process of contrition described in the torah.  Because it’s good for leaders to recognize that they’re not all-powerful.  And the converse is even more important:  it’s disastrous when leaders think they’re all-powerful, when they assume they will never make mistakes. They then convey to those who follow them that apologies are for the weak, that real strength is conveyed in bluster and overconfidence.  And hopefully it’s obvious how destructive that could be.  And Rabbi Yohanan continues:  if the leader expresses contrition, all the more so you would expect that that would be  a generation in which non-leaders express contrition too. (Sifra ad loc., also BT Horayot 10b)

After confessing for his own sins, the High Priest recites a nearly identical confession on behalf of all the Kohanim, all the priests, and then he recites a third confession on behalf of all of Israel.

Which raises a question addressed by our sages:  This confession on behalf of all of Israel - is it for sins that are individual, or collective?  Is the High Priest atoning generally for all the individual sins that the people of Israel may have done over the course of their lives, or is this prayer about sins that the entire people committed together?   Truly, it could be either.   Immediately after Kol Nidrei last night, we chanted a verse from Numbers 15 that acknowledges that it sometimes happens that the entire community could be collectively guilty, as we chanted,   כי לכל העם בשגגה -- ki le-khol ha-am bishgagah -- the entire people has committed a collective sin, inadvertently. 

We ought to spend much of our Yom Kippur day thinking about and expressing contrition for our own highly personal misdeeds and the effect that they have on our circle of influence in our lives- on our families, coworkers, and community.  But classically speaking, the core of the Yom Kippur ritual in ancient times that we read about today in the torah, was this highly public confession of sins committed by leaders and by the entire community.  Sometimes these are sins that are harder to talk about.   But it’s our responsibility on Yom Kippur and is part of what Yom Kippur has always been about.  Contemplating how our entire society could have done better is our special responsibility. 

Think for a moment:  under what conditions does an ENTIRE SOCIETY all together commit the same sin?  My sense is that it’s often a situation where the community behaves in a particular way that seems normal and appropriate, until they eventually come to realize that actually they have been making a grievous error.  This may be why the torah specifies that such a sin is likely to be בשגגה bishgagah - not done maliciously but inadvertently, maybe systemically.  Not necessarily with ill intent, but with ill effect. 

Of the wide variety of collective sins of this type that I could have chosen to talk about, I want to focus on just one category of them.  And I want to start by telling you something that happened to a dear friend of friends of mine. She’s an observant Jewish woman living in the Boston area, a remarkably dynamic Jewish educator and parent of four children who attend Jewish day schools.

A few years ago, she pulled into a gas station and got out of her car to pump the gas -- this being a non-New Jersey story -- and suddenly a police officer yelled at her:  “Get back in your car!!”

And she says “ “Why? Is there something wrong?” 

“I said get back in your vehicle!”  


As she tells the story, she realized that because she was driving in an unfamiliar area, she had been driving slowly before pulling into the gas station - she had actually missed the turn she was trying to make.  And she said:  “Officer, did I miss a sign or something when making my turn, I’m actually trying to get to Costco around the corner to buy …”

This time, with a drawn gun in her direction, he screams, “I said get back in your vehicle NOW!”

By the way - you might have guessed that the woman in this story, Yavilah McCoy, is Black, and that seems to be relevant to the story.   (And yes, I started telling the story without that detail, and playing up the ways that she is at the very center of the Jewish community, knowing that for some of us in the Jewish community, that makes us more ready to hear the story, to really hear it.)

Yavilah goes on to describe the rest of this harrowing encounter which she wrote about in an article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency earlier this year  - how two more police cars arrive and surround her minivan, how she tries to get her husband on the phone but he doesn’t pick up; she says:  “I start to cry. All sorts of images pop into my head as fear sets in…” 


She continues:  “Within a few minutes, another car with a white man inside comes to the scene and the officers begin pointing at me and my vehicle as they converse with him. Scenes of every movie I’ve seen where a person of color is framed for a crime they did not commit flash through my mind.”


She decided to call the police - and explained:  “I am a black woman being surrounded at a gas station by police officers and told to stay in my car without any explanation of what I’ve done wrong, and I’m calling because I want a record to be made of the fact that I’m scared and feel like my rights are being violated.” 


After a short hold, she gets a police captain on the line and tells her story -- the captain puts her on hold again and returns to say: although it might appear she is involved in a racial incident, he would like to assure her that this is not the case.   She continues:  “It seems a person driving a vehicle with my description had been called in earlier that evening for a hit-and-run. The officers had pulled me over and sequestered me in my car because I had been driving slowly and they thought I might have been driving drunk. 


She continues:  “As I hear this, more tears come and I find myself saying through sobs to the officer, ‘And what about my person, outside of my skin color… do you feel validated your officers in making this assumption? Why have I not been asked any questions? There is another white man here talking to your officers and they have not said a word to me outside of ordering me to stay in my car. Do you realize that had I not returned to my car, I could be dead right now around a false assumption?’ 


“The captain continues to assure me that I’m not experiencing a racial incident and he is sending over a car to ensure this incident is handled well. Having spoken to the captain and assuming that he had spoken to his officers, I summon up the courage to get out of my car again and take some pictures. 


“I get out and say to the officers loudly, ‘I just spoke to your captain and I need to take a record of what is going on here.’ As I go over to the police car behind my vehicle and snap a photo of the license plate, the officer that told me to get in my car repeats that I need to return to my vehicle. While shaking from head to toe, and with tears streaming, I say to him, ‘I spoke to your captain, and I will go back to my vehicle after I have pictures of my and your cars.’ Despite more yelling from the officer, I proceed to go to the vehicle of the gentleman that had arrived on the scene and take pictures of his car and then pictures of my own. While I am doing this, I notice that the police have also started yelling at another white man who has been parked getting gas at the opposite side of the pumps since I arrived at the gas station.


“Although I didn’t see him initially, I realize that he has been standing off to the side watching the entire episode. The police were vociferously asking him to leave and he seemed to be saying to them that he was not willing to comply. At some point this man left the officers and came over to ask me if I was all right. I looked at him through tears and said I was OK. He handed me his business card and said, ‘I’ve been here the whole time and when I saw that the police wouldn’t listen to you, I stayed to see that you were all right. They are asking me to go now, but if you need me to be a witness for you to say what happened here, just call and I’d be happy to help.’


“As I looked into the eyes of this stranger, the events of the evening shifted significantly for me. I realized that despite the grief I felt over the presence and ongoing threat of racism in the new millennium, there was also hope in the presence of this white ally that seemed willing to stand with me and even put himself at risk to ensure that justice was really for all and not just for himself…. 


“Over the past year, as issues of race and racism have exploded and taken center stage in our national discourse, many of my white colleagues have asked me: ‘What can white people do in this moment?’ Given my own experiences, what I find myself saying most often is that it is essential for white people to find ways to stand with people of color in their vulnerability and be a witness to racial injustices that are often going on around them every day.”

Yavilah McCoy’s story ended, so to speak, without incident (though also without apology).  And most of these stories end without physical injury.   But they leave a profound psychological impact.  And Black Americans (including members of our community and their families) report that they experience such stories at unacceptable frequency - overwhelmingly reporting that they experience interactions with law enforcement that give them the sense that their lives and rights are being treated in a cavalier manner.  As if -- if they are put in a level of danger that most of us would be unwilling to tolerate --  well, it would matter less.


And sometimes those interactions are catastrophic. That earlier this year an officer had his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while he begged for mercy with his final breaths - and people were horrified but no one was particularly surprised -- does lead many of us to believe that in this country too often Black lives are treated as more expendable, as if the commandment to preserve life does not apply to all.


That earlier this year it took months for the killers of Ahmaud Arberry in Georgia to be charged with a crime --  does lead many of us to believe that as a country we would not measure up very well to the criteria articulated in the Talmud by the ancient Babylonian sage known as Rabbah:  מי יימר דדמא דידך סומק טפי --   “Don’t assume that your blood is redder than anyone else’s.”  Don’t assume that some lives matter more than others.  (Sanhedrin 74a)


Yes, there are some people who assert that the majority of Black Americans are misunderstanding their own story and their own experience, that they are mistaken, that they live in a country where their rights and safety are prioritized just as everyone else’s is -that they are given every opportunity to succeed and that we have achieved racial equality in the United States. There are people willing to say all these things.  But I know I would want to have a whole lot of excellent evidence before I accused a group of millions of people of misrepresenting their own story. 


The protests that we have seen this summer in support of racial equity, constituting one of the largest social protest movements in American history, are overwhelmingly peaceful - and any moments of violence in these protests is reprehensible.  But these protests do express an uncomfortable idea:  that the story that this country has been telling about itself is an idealized picture that reflects the dream but does not yet reflect the reality.  We tell the story that we’ve basically conquered racism, but the effects of racism continue to run deeply in American society.  Maybe Jews can especially relate to this because we have seen how antisemitism has continued to run deeply in European society even after hundreds of years of struggling against it. 

It’s amazing to me how little I understood before this year about the episodes of violence and terrorism that led millions of Black Americans to migrate from the South to the North in the last 80 years.  I have a friend who notes how enraging it is to hear people say that 9/11 constitutes the first arrival of terrorism to these shores, saying, “Why are you not using the word “terrorism” to refer to what happened to Black Americans?” 

And it is also amazing - and embarrassing - to me to realize how little I truly understood about how redlining and unfair lending practices, unfairness in hiring, and inequity in schooling -- taking place today, but even when it took place in the past -- help to ensure that two people of different races but the same level of ability might still not have the same life outcomes today. And how these historic patterns can EVEN explain the racial disparity in covid deaths between people of different races and different economic levels. 

As  you may know, the Ashamnu - short form of the confessional prayer - is preceded by the words aval anahnu va-avoteinu hatanu, “...but we and our ancestors have sinned.”  There are other versions of this prayer that lack the word va’avoteinu, and it is peculiar to have a reference to the sins of our ancestors.  The Mahzor Lev Shalem editorial committee that I was privileged to be on had a vibrant debate about which version of this prayer to use.  I think this year I have a better understanding of why it is a good idea that we included the word va’avoteinu in this prayer.  Sometimes the sins of “our ancestors” are not our own sins, and yet they remain part of our teshuvah agenda until we have fully rectified their enduring effects. 


People of different political perspectives may differ about the best strategies for rectifying these historic inequities, but no one can claim that we’re achieving the dream, and no one can claim that we don’t have serious work to do to rectify inequity in this country.  This country is still a ways away from affirming the vision that the 18th century Jewish scholar Pinhas Eliyahu Horowitz wrote about in his Sefer Habrit:  ““The parameters of the commandment to love your neighbor mean that one should love every human being, of whatever origin, whatever language, simply because that person is a human being, created in God’s image as oneself is, and participates in the betterment of the world…’  And I don’t think Rabbi Horowitz  thought he was being controversial or speaking politically when he said that.  I think he was simply explaining the commandment in the Torah as he understood it.  


Now sometimes people who identify the ways in which the United States’ racist past continues to endure in the present שre caricatured as people who hate the United States - or who are claiming that the United States is irredeemably racist.  Truly that’s not what I see.  What I see is people of all races and creeds and backgrounds who are grateful to live in the United States -- but want it to live up to its commitments. 

Earlier this summer our world lost Representative John Lewis, often regarded as the last of the greatest generation of civil rights leaders.  There’s a story from his childhood that he tells that reminds me, in a way, of the way the High Priest would request atonement on Yom Kippur for the entire people, restoring the balance of the nation to set the stage for a new year of healing and striving. He wrote this story in his memoir:  

“About fifteen of us children were outside my aunt Seneva’s house, playing in her dirt yard. The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore; I was terrified… 

Aunt Seneva was the only adult around, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside.

Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside. Small and surprisingly quiet. All of the shouting and laughter that had been going on earlier, outside, had stopped. The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared.

And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then, a corner of the room started lifting up.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.

That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.

And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.

More than half a century has passed since that day, and it has struck me more than once over those many years that our society is not unlike the children in that house, rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart.

It seemed that way in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, when America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams—so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.

And then another corner would lift, and we would go there.

And eventually, inevitably, the storm would settle, and the house would still stand.

But we knew another storm would come, and we would have to do it all over again.

And we did.

And we still do, all of us. You and I.

Children holding hands, walking with the wind. . . . "

The Yom Kippur prayers send us back in time to the Temple in Jerusalem, enabling us to hear the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, intoning a confession on behalf of the leaders and the entire nation. 

As individuals and as a community - we pray for a year of healing, and of forgiveness and reconciliation.  A year when we can be quick to acknowledge our errors, and a year when we can be quick to forgive those who take honest steps towards teshuvah - repentance, return and renewal.  May this be a year when again we can hold hands and walk with the wind.


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