We don't need to bear the weight of our sins alone

By Raphael Zarum, September 16, 2010
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The Yom Kippur Machzor is so long that as we turn page after page, our minds can easily wander away from essence of the day. But there is one little prayer that really gets to me and is a reminder of what Yom Kippur is all about. I am referring to the Thirteen Attributes of God, Yud Gimmel Middot. For many of us, just the first few words of this prayer evoke the traditional tune: Adonai, Adonai, El, rachum, v'chanun, erech apayim...

We recite this short text of just 18 words over and over again at the beginning and end of Yom Kippur. Like the chorus of a song, it is the constant refrain of the Selichot prayers in the Maariv and Neilah services. Why do we repeat it so much?

In the paragraph that introduces the Thirteen Attributes we read as follows: "God, You taught us to say the thirteen, so remember the covenant of the thirteen for us today." It was at Mount Sinai, after the sin of the golden calf, that Moses first heard God tell him about the Thirteen (Exodus 34:6-7). According to Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud, "God said to Moses: Whenever Israel sin let them say this prayer before me and I will forgive them" (Rosh Hashanah 17b). This sounds fancifully magical - just recite the Thirteen, says God, and I promise everything will be OK.

What is the magic contained within these words? At first glance they seem to be a straightforward listing of God's forgiving traits - merciful, gracious, slow to anger, full of kindness etc. As a child I never understood how cataloguing God's niceness could actually make a difference. Did we just have to schmooze the Almighty? It seemed almost banal.

My mistake was relying on the translation of the tenth attribute. The Hertz Chumash, Jerusalem Bible and JPS all render noseh avon as "forgiving iniquity". Similarly, the Artscroll translates the phrase as 'forgiver of iniquity". But, respectfully, I think they are all wrong.

Noseh avon literally means to "carry iniquity". In its various forms, the Hebrew word noseh (from the grammatical root nun-shin-aleph) occurs hundreds of times in the Torah and generally means to carry, raise up or take account of. So, for example, in the sidrah called Naso the heads of the Levites are raised (naso) in order to count (se'oo) them; and their job was to carry (se'et) the portable Tabernacle in the wilderness.

Translating noseh avon as "carry iniquity" transforms the entire meaning of the prayer. Instead of a list, it becomes a request. I would paraphrase it like this: "God, O Lord who is merciful, gracious, slow to anger etc, please carry our iniquity, sin and error". We are asking God to carry our mistakes on our behalf. The weight of a person's sins are hard to bear.

We tend to hide our mistakes, even from ourselves, and try not to think about them. Facing up to them is painful and shameful and most of us are not ready. So, for a while, we ask God to literally take the weight off our shoulders.

This reading of noseh avon reminds me of that famous poem, "Footprints", about a dreamer who sees two sets of footprints all along the sandy pathway of their life, "one belonging to me and the other to the Lord". Looking back, the dreamer asks God why there is only one set of footprints during the most difficult, lowest and saddest times in their life. God replies "it was then that I carried you".

There is a concept in psychology called "emotional containment". For example, a parent offers their child the experience not only of having their distress relieved but, more importantly, of being understood. The parent contains, or carries, the worries and fears expressed by the child, in order to help them come to terms with their feelings and gradually face up to them. When containment is deprived, emotional growth can be distorted. As adults we learn to "contain" ourselves.

God, then, is our parent who contains the distress we express over our mistakes. In this way God allows us the space to move on and learn to stand up to our inner fears.

My approach is in line with the great medieval biblical commentator Rashi's explanation of the Thirteen Attributes episode. He writes that "God is not altogether indulgent of sin, but little by little, makes an accounting of the sinner" (see his commentary on Exodus 34:7 and 32:34). In other words, as we grow, we are ready and able to gradually take on more responsibility for what we have done and what we have become. So God obliges.

In the last century we have seen governments and authorities - such as the Vatican, the USA, Britain and Germany - admit responsibility, apologise and begin to make amends for the specific historic injustices they have wrought on certain groups of people within and beyond their own borders. It can take years before we are ready to noseh avon.

In truth, our sins can never really be wiped out, but we can change our attitude towards them. Over time we can learn to carry them for ourselves, face up to the effect they have had on our lives and then learn to change. The true lesson of constantly reciting the Thirteen is that we can ask God to carry and contain our sins until we are ready to address them. This makes it much easier for us to make the first move.

That is why this little prayer means so much to me. It is both reassuring and challenging at the same time. Reassuring in that I feel relief as the weight of mistakes is temporarily lifted, but challenging in that I know my task is to learn to be more responsible and honest about myself.

The beautiful and emotional words of the prophet Isaiah also teach us this truth (Isaiah 46:3-4). God says:

Listen to Me, O House of Jacob,
All that are left of the House of Israel,
Who have been supported since birth,
Carried since leaving the womb:
Till you grow old, I will still be the same;
Until you turn grey, I will tolerate;
I was the Maker, and I will be the Carrier;
I will tolerate and rescue you."

Dr Zarum is the head of the London School of Jewish Studies

    Last updated: 11:27am, September 16 2010