Pegging your sins
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Pegging your sins

Closter synagogue's Slichot board offers semi-public apologies

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The Slichot board at Temple Beth El of Northern Valley contains pegs with “sin cards” listing a variety of missteps.

Most of the time, asking for forgiveness is an abstract thing.

What if it were more tactile? What if there were a visual representation that could both jump-start and demystify it? What if there were some way to create community around it, by showing the similarities of most of our sins, as well as the peculiarities that make each of us a singular person?

Anonymously, of course…

Slichot, the act of asking for forgiveness from those whom we have wronged or otherwise hurt, is something in which we would do well to engage all year long, but we are urged to do so on the High Holidays. There are special penitential prayers that Sephardim sing during all of Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, and Ashkenazim begin the Saturday night before the new year. Traditionally, we ask forgiveness from God and from each other, and at times even from ourselves, up until Yom Kippur, when the gates of forgiveness close.

Asking forgiveness doesn’t come particularly naturally to us, though. That’s why Rabbi David Widzer of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter decided to goose the process a bit – to make it more physical and therefore more real – with a Slichot board.

The board is a big rectangular piece of wood, lined with the sort of wooden pegs schoolchildren use for their winter coats. A stack of thin cardboard cards and a locked box with a slit to receive them are nearby. More cards, with words scrawled on them, dangle from rubber bands slung over the pegs.

Rabbi Widzer first saw a board at the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which was held in Chicago this spring. It was the brainchild of Carmi Y. Plaut, who runs an organization called the Whole Megillah. (It’s at www.wholemegillah.com.)

Although not many of the rabbis and other conference-goers were thinking about the fall holidays very much then, the display was getting attention. People were filling out cards, confiding in the cardboard, writing down the things they wished they had not done, the things for which they asked forgiveness, and putting them in a locked box.

“Carmi curated the collection,” Rabbi Widzer said. “He would go through them, and attach them to the pegboard.”

Rabbi Widzer was intrigued, and so was his shul’s ritual committee. “It seemed like such a wonderful opportunity to enhance the sense of what this season is all about,” he said. “So I signed up with him, and he sent me a couple of blueprints and posters.” It was also free: the Whole Megillah offers it as a kind of tzedakah.

The concept of semi-public anonymous Slichot was not new to Beth El, board member and ritual committee chair Martin Kasdan said. For the last six or so years, the shul had distributed blank cards in envelopes to people in the shul for Kol Nidre; that practice began before Rabbi Widzer’s arrival at Beth El. “We called them ‘sin cards,'” Mr. Kasdan said. “People would write down the sins they wanted to deal with in the coming year.” They would not add their names; by design, the sin cards were anonymous. Then people would hand the envelopes in. If the envelopes were sealed, they would remain closed, with the sin inside nobody’s business except the sinner’s. But if they were not sealed, the rabbi would open the cards and read them, and then incorporate some of those sins into the Al Chet prayer, which usually is a list of more traditional ways to go wrong.

The Slichot board seemed like a way to move forward from that practice, retaining the confession and anonymity but making the process more transparent and more likely to create community.

Over the summer, ritual committee members assembled the materials and created the board, and at the beginning of Elul, the week before Labor Day, the board was put up in the lobby. The box and the cards were nearby.

“Over the course of the month, folks coming through our lobby, whether they are religious school students or nursery school parents or members coming to enquire about holiday tickets or coming to board meeting or classes – everyone who came through had a chance to reflect about the process, and to take part in it,” Rabbi Widzer said. There have been two bar or bat mitzvah celebrations at the shul since the board has been in place, and guests also have added cards.

Cards started to dangle from the pegs slowly at first, but then the pace picked up. By now, “I have been curating them, taking some down and putting others up,” Rabbi Widzer said. “It is an evolving display.

“I think it has been cathartic for folks to write out things that they are asking forgiveness for,” he continued. “They also have been looking at the board and seeing what other people have written. Some of that is a little bit of curiosity, but it’s also the recognition that ‘Oh, I’ve done that too!’ or ‘I’m so glad I’m not the only one to have done that.’ It has been another way of enhancing people’s feeling of connection to the community and to each other.”

The sins to which people confess “have been everything that you’d expect – and then some,” he said. “People have said, ‘I wasn’t patient enough with my children,’ ‘I didn’t respect my parents,’ ‘I was mean to my brother.’

“We get a lot of ‘I was mean to my sibling,'” Rabbi Widzer continued. “Some of our teachers have incorporated this into their classes.

“People also have been asking forgiveness for not taking care of themselves physically, for wasting money, for getting too uptight about things, for not speaking up, for jumping to conclusions without knowing the facts, for not helping with chores around the house. It’s everything from the most mundane to the most esoteric and soul-serious things, and people feel good about having an opportunity to make amends.”

And it has changed the flavor of our preparations for the holidays a little bit, in getting people to take them a little more seriously a little earlier in the year,” he said. “And it is a wonderful way of reminding people that Temple Beth El is their spiritual home. Part of our mission is to encourage people and to engage them in all seasons of the Jewish year. This is how we do it for the High Holidays.”

As he had with the sin cards, Rabbi Widzer plans to incorporate some of what he finds on the cards into the service. “To include things that real live members of our congregation are confessing – that’s very powerful,” he said.

Mr. Kasdan said that one of the reasons the Slichot board is so potent is “because people know that there is nothing so bad that they can’t share it, and do it semi-publicly.

“I have found some stuff on the board by children who obviously wrote about things that they have hidden from their parents, that they’re afraid to tell them or don’t want to tell them. It’s about things they’ve done at school, on tests, typical kid stuff, that they want to get into the open.”

When the holidays are over, there will be a pegboard full of dangling confessed sins. What next? How should those sins be disposed of?

That’s still an open question, Rabbi Widzer said. “We talked a little with the ritual committee about something like tashlich for dispensing of the cards, but we haven’t come to a final conclusion yet.

“This is still an experiment.”

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