On Yom Kippur, a significant part of the liturgy will be confession. There is a section for short confession that forms an alphabetical acrostic in Hebrew as well as a longer confession in which we recite a litany of sins, each committed before God. The message is clear — the blame rests on us: “We are guilty, we betray, we steal…”
The Torah portion for this Shabbat, Ha’azinu, presents the same concept of accepting responsibility. Here it comes directly from Moses, who knows that his time leading Israel will soon be ending. He offers an oration — it could be a poem or a song — in front of the whole community. His message can be summarized as a contrast between God and the people. God is described as “The Rock! — His deeds are perfect, Yea, all His ways are just; A faithful God, never false, true and upright is He.” (Deuteronomy 32:4) The Israelites, on the other hand, are “Children unworthy of Him — That crooked, perverse generation — Their baseness has played Him false.” (32:5)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his 2015 book “Lesson in Leadership,” puts it this way: “God is straight; it is we who are complex and self-deceiving. God is not there to relieve us of responsibility. It is God who is calling us to responsibility.”
One of the common frailties of human nature is our tendency to avoid accountability for our actions. In Genesis 3 Adam is confronted with the fact that he has just eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and he blames Eve for handing him the fruit. The sin of the Golden Calf occurs on Aaron’s watch while Moses is away, and when forced to give an explanation, Aaron says, “I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32:24) And in the Yom Kippur afternoon haftarah portion, Jonah flees from his responsibility to declare God’s word to the city of Nineveh.
Today the list of those we can blame for our actions is long. Rabbi Sacks writes: “The culprits change. Only the sense of victimhood remains. It wasn’t us. It was the politicians. Or the media. Or the bankers. Or our genes. Or our parents. Or the system — be it capitalism, communism, or anything in between. Most of all, it is the fault of others, the ones not like us ….”
We have entered the time of year when such evasions serve no purpose. Whether we choose to admit it or not, God knows the truth.
In this way, Ha’azinu is the perfect portion to introduce Yom Kippur. Moses recounts their sins, reminds them that they sacrificed to false gods, grew complacent and forgot about God.
In listing our sins, the Yom Kippur liturgy does something similar. It takes a little of the sting away by phrasing it in the plural —”We have sinned. We have betrayed.”— rather than the singular. But the message is clear. When we stand before the Ark, our transgressions exposed, our bodies are weak from fasting, we must accept accountability. Only when we do this can we work toward the true goal of the day — atonement.
At the end of his oration, in Deuteronomy 32: 47, Moses concludes with a statement that summarizes the importance and the reward of the mandate he has just laid out: “For this [Torah] is not a trifling thing for you: It is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan.”
At a time when we are faced by interwoven crises of health, economics and politics, it is clear that there is much beyond our control. But the message of this season is that Judaism holds us accountable for our own actions. Our problems can be addressed only when we recognize the significance of our actions, hold ourselves accountable and resolve to use our power for good.