Yom Kippur: Corporate Complicity and Collective Confession

Yom Kippur: Corporate Complicity and Collective Confession

Over the past few weeks, the sounds and prayers of the season summoned us to prepare our hearts and actions for the New Year (Rosh HaShana) as we heard the shofar blown across the country, which we witnessed with our presence or heard drifting through our windows from nearby synagogues. This period between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is called the Days of Awe and it is a time to remember our individual and collective callings and failings. [1] 

While the liturgy is rich and evocative, some of the most beautiful texts calling us to remember our personal and communal faults can be found in the writings of the Hebrew prophets whose poetic presence penetrates through time and speaks to us today. “You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies” (Hosea 10:13) and “Like a cage full of birds, so their houses are full of deceit; therefore they have become great and rich. They are fat, they are sleek, they also excel in deeds of wickedness; they do not plead the cause of the orphan, that they may prosper; and they do not defend the rights of the poor” (Jeremiah 5:27-28). The sharpness of the language pierces the civility of our discourse, speaking of evil we prefer to ignore, sometimes pretending it does not even exist. 

Just one of many passages summarizes the sentiment, “Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies -- I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood” (Isaiah 1:13-15). 

Reflecting on his understanding of the Hebrew prophets, Rabbi Abraham Heschel declared “Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself.“ He spoke of our “incapacity to sense the depth of misery caused by our own failures...While our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience. There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.” Continuing, he wrote that the message of the Prophets is that “morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings” and “in regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.” [2] He emphasized this again, “We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.[3]

Yom Kippur is a holiday that reminds us of this very point: While we may not be the ones actively transgressing against the sanctity of another individual or group, we have borne silent or supportive witness to acts of destruction. Some of us have gone so far as to refuse the pangs in our conscience, to ignore them, indifferent to evil. Our private confessions are important, yet Yom Kippur reminds us that we are not only accountable for ourselves, but each other. 

One of Yom Kippur’s confessional prayers, which we also recite on Rosh HaShana, is Ashamnu, an alphabetic acrostic that reminds us of our corporate complicity in wrongdoing. 

“We have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed, we have spoken slander, we have acted perversely, and we have done wrong; we have acted presumptuously, we have done violence, we have practiced deceit, we have counseled evil, and we have spoken falsehood, we have scoffed, we have revolted, we have blasphemed, we have rebelled, we have committed iniquity, we have transgressed, and we have oppressed, we have been stiff-necked, we have acted wickedly, we have dealt corruptly, we have committed abomination, we have gone astray, we have led others astray.”

For me, the most moving corporate prayers and hymns of the year are said and sung on the evening of Yom Kippur. As I let the melancholic and melodic prayers wash over me, the releasing of vows, recalling lists of sins we corporately bear due to active or inactive complicity, as we collectively confess, I invite you to join me. 

Whether or not you celebrate Yom Kippur, it is important for all of us to find time to stop and consider how we -- how you -- are guilty and responsible for injustices committed by others in our community. Are there acts of injustice that no longer provoke guilt, or are there acts of evil that bother you, yet you disregard them? Through confession and heartfelt, empathic soul searching and grieving at indifference to evil, we can recognize our responsibility in these actions, and resolve to do more to right wrongs in which we are corporately complicit, and it can begin with collective confession. 


Notes: 

[1] For another reflection on Yom Kippur from last year, see blogger Y’s post, “The Yom Kippur We All Need and the Guilt We All Share.”

[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel in “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. 

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel in “A Prayer for Peace,” Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.

 
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