Yom Kippur is a day rich in prayer, fasting, study and reflection for Jews around the world, and especially for us in Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. In addition to the personal prayers - for health, prosperity and peace - it is a time for collective soul-searching as a community and as a people in an intense and profound manner.
One of the most striking aspects of the prayers of these 10 Days of Repentance, which culminate in Yom Kippur, is the fact that so many of the prayers are in the plural: "We have sinned, we have transgressed..." This is especially evident in the main confessional prayer of this day known as the Al Het, which contains a long list of personal and communal sins in which we all engage during the year.
This prayer is the essence of our atonement. Through it, we become mindful of the mistakes we have committed during the past year; we resolve to correct them; and then we actually go out and do something about this.
In contemporary High Holy Day prayer books for Yom Kippur, one can find many new additions to this list of sins. For example, in the Conservative mahzor, we find highly relevant translations, such as "We have sinned against you by using violence... We have sinned against you by rejecting responsibility." Or in the Reform mahzor known as Gates of Repentance, one comes across the following meaningful translations: "For the sin that we have sinned against You by the abuse of power... for the sin that we have sinned against You by hardening our hearts..."
And I would add: "For the sin that we have sinned against You by failing to seek peace and pursue it with all our strength, determination and will, and for the sin that we have sinned against You by caring only for ourselves and not caring for other members of the human family who are not part of our people but are nevertheless created in the image of God."
According to a source I found in Joseph Telushkin's Jewish Literacy: The Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People and History, Rabbi Jonah Gerondi of the 13th century captured the essence of atonement when he said: "The repentant sinner should strive to do good with the same faculties with which he sinned... With whatever part of the body he sinned, he should now engage in good deeds. If his feet had run to sin, let them now run to the performance of the good. If his mouth had spoken falsehood, let it now be opened in wisdom. Violent hands should now open in charity... The trouble-maker should now become a peacemaker."
This passage is central to our understanding of atonement. We cannot leave it up to God; rather, it is up to us to reflect seriously about our wrongdoings and to take positive concrete steps to mend our ways.
In the Yom Kippur Amida (silent prayer), we read: "The Holy God is sanctified in righteousness." Only by our righteous actions will we actually atone for our mistakes of the past year during the year ahead.â€¢
The writer, a rabbi and educator, serves as the director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (www.icci.org.il). firstname.lastname@example.org