Once, when sitting with a woman who was near to the end of her life, she asked if she could confess something about her son. He had had a difficult life, she said, in childhood and in adolescence and now, as a young man, he had ended up in prison.
She wanted to confess openly her sense of responsibility for what had happened to him; she was full of regret and remorse and felt that this last expression of contrition and sadness might allow her to die, if not in peace then, at least, having expressed what she felt was a truth about her accountability.
Confessions such as these are private moments and not only confined to the end of life. Each night before he went to bed, the Chasidic master Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev would list on a piece of paper all the misdeeds he had done during the day and then would read them aloud until the paper was soaked with his tears, washing away the ink.
On Yom Kippur, the act of confession is a communal act couched in the first person plural, with a fairly comprehensive script for communal expressions of remorse. Over a quarter of these confessions have something to do with how we have used words: “foolish speech”, “denying or lying”, “telling tales”, words that might well cover the sending of unthinking emails and the anonymous abuse of social media.
Contemporary prayer books have introduced a number of new confessions. They cover a multitude of sins reflecting our inability to address the growing extremes of wealth and poverty, pollution and the inexorable destruction of the environment, violence and war and the pursuit of fleeting pleasures.
One modern meditation on the Vidui Zuta (the short confession) confesses the extent of our power and knowledge and yet our inability to be able to find food for a starving child, or a home for a refugee.
Machzor Ruach Chadashah (2003), the Liberal prayer book for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, includes a moving confession by the late Rabbi Chaim Stern on the sins of “condemning our children for the faults we tolerate in ourselves; for nurturing prejudice and denying its existence, for treating with condescension those whom we suppose to be inferior to us and for the cynicism that eats away our faith in the possibility of unselfish love.”
It is that scepticism of faith that worries me most in our community; not that I want to see a fanatical certainty in a God who reward and punishes, the puppet-master who manipulates our every move. What do we offer young people beginning to articulate their own thoughts about religion and God? What do we put in place of their childhood certainties? Without the possibility of faith, it seems easy to make their guide in life a personal preference rather than their moral compass — the voice of conscience, the obligation to protest injustice or cruelty, to express gratitude for community and friendship, to accept responsibility, to acknowledge the beauty of the natural world or give voice to their hope for the future.
The root of the word for “confession” and “gratitude/acknowledgement” is the same in Hebrew and perhaps, as we approach Yom Kippur, we can find forgiveness and strength by beginning to acknowledge those things that burden and oppress us: the doubts we may have about God’s justice, being bystanders to the shocking suffering of innocent people in the world; our own self-indulgence and the suppression of the voice of conscience, the eclipse of duty or preoccupation with material cares.
More than any other time in the year, the ritual of Yom Kippur with its fasting, confession and supplications for forgiveness, lift us to another dimension of existence. We stand alone before God, accountable and dependent not on our own strength, but on God’s gracious loving-kindness and forgiveness.
As the woman nearing the end of her life reminded me, the regrets and bitterness of the past can be corrosive: “Anger is an acid that can damage the receptacle it is kept in more than anything it is poured upon,” says Seneca. We may not be able to change those things external to us, but we can change ourselves; confess our own failures in truth and apologise for those things that have hurt and maimed others.
It isn’t easy to let go and make our peace with others, but the brevity and fragility of our days makes the task urgent. The task of reconciliation with others, with ourselves and with God is the task prescribed at Yom Kippur — may we find the words to confess our failures and renew our lives in the service of God.