Come Tuesday evening, the strains of Kol Nidre will usher in Yom Kippur 5783. For much of the next 25 hours, we will read prayers asking God for mercy, compassion, and forgiveness—but not just for ourselves, or our families and friends, or for all the Jewish people. On this holiest day of our year, we pray as well for the world at large. To believe otherwise is a Yom Kippur myth.
As the U-netaneh Tokef (We acclaim this day), arguably the most important prayer in the High Holy Days liturgy, says, on this “day of judgment…, all who walk the earth pass before [God] as a flock of sheep,” as God “determine[s] the life and decree[s] the destiny of every creature.”
On Yom Kippur, we ask God to have “mercy for Your creatures,” to “acquit Your flock on this day of judgment…,” and to “bring an end to pestilence and plundering, fighting and famine, captivity, destruction, plague and affliction, every illness and misfortune, calamity and quarrel, every evil decree and causeless hatred…. May every living creature thank You and praise You….”
It cannot be any clearer. Our prayers are universally intended. More on this aspect below.
All of our prayers—and especially the two confessional litanies—the Ashamnu (We have sinned) and the Ahl Chet (For the sin of)—are in the plural, not in the singular, but only because it makes it easier to confess sins we may not think we ourselves committed.
The Ashamnu litany, the so-called Lesser Confessional, begins with “We have become guilty,” but how many of us would willingly acknowledge the sins that follow? “We have betrayed,… robbed…, slandered…, caused perversion…, [and] wickedness. We have sinned willfully…, been violent, falsely accused [others]…, counseled evil…, been unfaithful…, scorned…, rebelled…, provoked…, turned away…, acted perversely… [and] wantonly. We have persecuted, we have been obstinate. We have been wicked, we have corrupted, we have been abominable, we have strayed, we have led others astray.”
Perhaps the most important sins in the Great Confessional, the Ahl Chet, are the sins we have committed “by the utterance of the lips…, in speech…., by impure lips…, by foolish speech…, by levity…, by deliberate lying…, by slander…, by the idle conversation of our lips…, by gossip.”
That is nine “sins” right there—better than one out of every five on the list. To these, we can add some of the others on the list, such as “insincere confession,” “vain oaths” and “hasty condemnation,” each of which also involves speech and each of which has a very specific focus.
There are other sins on this list we also may not want to acknowledge for ourselves, such as “baseless hatred” and “envy.” All of these involve thoughts, the substitute for speech, which means sins can involve our minds, not just our mouths.
By saying “we” instead of “I,” we in theory are including ourselves, of course, but in a much more palatable form.
Yet that may be the biggest problem on Yom Kippur. By hiding behind “We,” we may not be taking these litanies seriously enough when it comes to our own actions and behavior.
Going through the motions of Yom Kippur, however, no matter how zealously we do so, achieves nothing. This is another “myth,” at least one held by most people. It is only how we act from the end of Yom Kippur to the beginning of the next year that matters. We must prove by how we live our lives in 5783 that we meant all those words we recited on Yom Kippur. Our words are just words. Only our actions count.
Our Sages of Blessed Memory said that to recite these confessionals year after year is a worthless exercise because “Yom Kippur does not atone” based on our words, but only by our deeds. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate 85b.)
Another myth is that we atone for on Yom Kippur are ritual sins. Those are automatically forgiven as Yom Kippur begins, regardless of “whether one has repented or did not repent,” as Rabbi Yehudah Ha’nasi, the editor of the Mishnah, explained. The exception, he said, was refusing to accept “the yoke” of God’s commandments—the Torah’s code of morality and ethics.
That Yom Kippur atones for any sins is also somewhat of a myth. Any sin we commit against another person—or against anything animal, vegetable, or mineral, for that matter—cannot be forgiven unless we have appeased the one sinned against. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Yoma 85b for these statements.) This, of course, is not always possible because we do not always realize that we had sinned against another person, and asking the flora and the fauna of the world to forgive us for our sins against the environment is, of course, like talking to a tree.
We also cannot ask the world at large to forgive us, assuming we even realize that we have sinned against the world.
That inability to obtain forgiveness from many whom we sinned against would seem to make Yom Kippur a waste of time, but Yom Kippur is really about doing our best not to “miss the mark” as we move forward into the new year. Although we translate the word cheyt as “a sin,” it actually means to miss the mark. Making the effort to hit the mark is truly what matters.
Yom Kippur is about improving the world—the one closest to us and the worlds outside our own—by improving ourselves. We will never be perfect, but we can always be better.
As for why we pray for the welfare of the world at large on Yom Kippur, it is because we have responsibilities to the world. “It’s not my problem” is a decidedly un-Jewish refrain. The Torah demands that we see the world’s problems as our own and that we do our part to resolve them, whether they relate to the environment, to the many injustices in our world, and to everything in between.
One area in which we can make a significant difference involves our responsibilities towards society’s poor and disadvantaged.
The Torah is very clear that we have those responsibilities (see for example, Leviticus 23:22 and Deuteronomy 16:14), and that even includes the strangers among us (see Deuteronomy 10:19). We may not oppress the stranger in any way (see Exodus 22:20 and Exodus 23:9). We must treat the stranger “as one born among you, and you shall love him [or her] as yourself….” (See Leviticus 19:34.)
That includes our responsibilities to the migrants on our southern border—one out of every three are children under 18. The Torah commands this: “You shall not return to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you…; you must not ill-treat him [or her].” (See Deuteronomy 23:16.) Someone fleeing from oppression and persecution is a slave in every sense of the word. (For those who do not understand why this is of specific relevance for us today, I suggest watching the Ken Burns documentary on PBS, “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” Check local PBS listings for airdates. You can also stream all three episodes via the PBS app on Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android, or Samsung Smart TV, and on any iOS device.)
Most important when it comes to our responsibilities to the poor and disadvantaged is this: We are obligated to emulate God. Four times in Deuteronomy (see 10:12, 26:17, 28:9 and 30:16) the Torah specifically insists that we must walk “in all God’s ways.”
Because God “upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing [them with] food and clothing” (see Deuteronomy 10:18), so must we, walking in God’s ways—and also acting as God’s agents—do that for them and all the disadvantaged, including the migrants who have now become political pawns. Said our Sages: “Just as God is compassionate and merciful, so too should we be compassionate and merciful.” (See BT Shabbat 133b and BT Sotah 14a.)
The plight of the poor and disadvantaged is not something we may ignore. Nearly 37.9 million people here—one in nearly every nine Americans—lived below the poverty line last year. An estimated 34 million people went hungry here in 2021, including 5.5 million children.
In Israel, over 2.5 million people currently live in poverty, including over 1.1 million children. Nearly 630,000 households suffer from food insecurity, including close to 800,000 children.
The number of poor people in the world at large is estimated at between 659,000,000 and 674,000,000.
Their problem is our problem. We cannot solve it alone, of course, but we can make a dent through our donations of food and money.
Reciting the two confessional litanies on Yom Kippur is meaningless if we do not act on their words. Only our actions matter. When we say “We,” that must include “I.”
To those whom I offended during the past year, I ask your forgiveness.
May we all have easy fasts and may we and our world be inscribed for a truly wonderful, healthy, and peaceful 5783.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.