Friday, September 24, 2004


Impoverished of deeds. So begins a small but deeply emotional component of the Yom Kippur liturgy: Hineni, the prayer of the Shaliach Tzibur at the beginning of the Musaf service.

And who, or what, is the Shaliach Tzibur? This is the person who, as representative of the congregation, leads the prayer service. Sometimes this role is filled by a Chazan (cantor), sometimes by a rabbi, sometimes by a layperson. No special training is required, other than a deep familiarity with the prayers. A reasonably pleasant voice helps, but it's not mandatory.

OK, thanks, great - now, what's Musaf? Observant Jews pray three times a day: morning (Shacharit), afternoon (Minchah), and evening (Arvit, or Ma-ariv). On Sabbaths, festivals, and the High Holy Days, an additional service - Musaf - is tacked on after the morning service as a commemoration of the additional sacrifices that were made at the Temple in Jerusalem "back in the day." And on the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Musaf service is fairly lengthy, filled with emotional touchstones.

One such touchstone is the U-netaneh Tokef prayer, which envisions God as both Judge and a sort of cosmic shepherd. One by one, as a shepherd's flock passes under his staff, we pass under the judgmental eyes of God, who decides our future: who shall live, who shall die. It's a sobering metaphorical image, one that resonates in our hearts more and more as we grow older. But lest we use the metaphor to justify becoming fatalistic, we're taught that sincere repentance, prayer, and charity can mitigate the severity of the decree. In other words, don't give up - there's always room for improvement.

Another is the Vidui, the communal confession of sin. As Jews, we know that all of us fall short of the mark from time to time - it's a part of being human, after all. And that, indeed, is the Jewish conception of sin: falling short of the mark. Not living up to expectations. What I like about this definition is that it leaves open the possibility that you can do better next time. But since we, both as individuals and as a community, have not met God's expectations, we owe an apology to Him. And that's what Vidui is all about. We enumerate our sins, one by one, and beat our breasts in rueful acknowledgement that we can always do better next time. Room for improvement.

But you can klop your chest all day, and it's not enough by itself. For the wrongs we do to our fellow human beings, asking God for forgiveness just won't cut it. Not His problem. For those, we must ask forgiveness of the people we hurt or offended.

This, to me, is one of the most intellectually attractive aspects of the Jewish belief system. Even if I were not born a Jew, I would (I hope) feel drawn to a way of thinking that teaches that you atone for sins by asking forgiveness of those whom you have wronged - God or man. Nobody else can do it for you...but it is not something that is beyond anybody's capabilities. To say you're sorry - and to mean it - requires that you accept that you are not perfect. That you are human.

And that you can do better.

Here I stand, in deep humility. Hineni he-ani mim'as. As Shaliach Tzibur, tomorrow I will stand in front of two thousand people and ask that, despite my faults and weaknesses, my prayers as emissary of my congregation be considered acceptable - that my shortcomings not fall on anyone else's shoulders.

Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, whatever - we're all humans. May we all live in a world where we act like it.

Gemar chatima tovah - a favorable decree, signed and sealed, to all. And now, off to shul for Kol Nidre.

No comments: